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Chapter 51

Chapter LI
The Epitaph of Porthos
Aramis, silent, icy, trembling like a timid child, arose shivering from the stone. A Christian does not walk upon tombs. But though capable of standing, he was not capable of walking. It might be said that something of Porthos, dead, had just died within him. His Bretons surrounded him; Aramis yielded to their kind exertions, and the three sailors, lifting him up, carried him into the canoe. Then, having laid him down upon the bench near the tiller, they took to their oars, preferring to get off by rowing rather than to hoist a sail, which might betray them.

Of all that levelled surface of the ancient grotto of Locmaria, of all that flattened shore, one single little hillock attracted their eyes. Aramis never removed his from it; and at a distance out in the sea, in proportion as the shore receded, the menacing and proud mass of rock seemed to draw itself up, as formerly Porthos used to do, and raise a smiling and invincible head towards heaven,- like that of the honest and valiant friend, the strongest of the four, and yet the first dead. Strange destiny of these men of brass! The most simple of heart allied to the most crafty; strength of body guided by subtlety of mind; and in the decisive moment, when strength alone could save mind and body, a stone, a rock, a vile and material weight, triumphed over strength, and falling upon the body, drove out the mind.

Worthy Porthos! born to help other men, always ready to sacrifice himself for the safety of the weak, as if God had given him strength only for that purpose. In dying he thought he was only carrying out the conditions of his compact with Aramis,- a compact, however, which Aramis alone had drawn up, and which Porthos had known only to suffer by its terrible solidarity.

Noble Porthos! of what good are the châteaux filled with sumptuous furniture, the forests abounding in game, the lakes teeming with fish, the cellars gorged with wealth? Of what good are the lackeys in brilliant liveries, and in the midst of them Mousqueton, proud of the power delegated by thee? Oh noble Porthos! careful heaper up of treasures, was it worth while to labor to sweeten and gild life, to come upon a desert shore to the cries of sea-birds, and lay thyself with broken bones beneath a cold stone? Was it worth while, in short, noble Porthos, to heap so much gold, and not have even the distich of a poor poet engraven upon thy monument?

Valiant Porthos! He still, without doubt, sleeps, lost, forgotten, beneath the rock which the shepherds of the heath take for the gigantic abode of a dolmen. And so many twining branches, so many mosses, caressed by the bitter wind of the ocean, so many lichens have soldered the sepulchre to the earth, that the passer-by will never imagine that such a block of granite can ever have been supported by the shoulders of one man.

Aramis, still pale, still icy, his heart upon his lips, continued his fixed gaze even till, with the last ray of daylight, the shore faded on the horizon. Not a word escaped his lips; not a sigh rose from his deep breast. The superstitious Bretons looked at him trembling. The silence was not of a man, it was of a statue. In the mean time, with the first gray lines that descended from the heavens, the canoe had hoisted its little sail, which swelling with the kisses of the breeze, and carrying them rapidly from the coast, made brave way with its head towards Spain across the terrible gulf of Gascony, so rife with tempests. But scarcely half an hour after the sail had been hoisted, the rowers became inactive, reclined upon their benches, and making an eye-shade with their hands, pointed out to one another a white spot which appeared on the horizon, as motionless in appearance as is a gull rocked by the insensible respiration of the waves; But that which might have appeared motionless to the ordinary eyes was moving at a quick rate to the experienced eye of the sailor; that which appeared stationary on the ocean was cutting a rapid way through it. For some time, seeing the profound torpor in which their master was plunged, the sailors did not dare to rouse him, and satisfied themselves with exchanging their conjectures in low and anxious tones. Aramis, in fact, so vigilant, so active- Aramis, whose eye, like that of a lynx, watched without ceasing, and saw better by night than by day,- Aramis seemed to sleep in the despair of his soul. An hour passed thus during which daylight gradually disappeared, but during which also the sail in view gained so swiftly on the boat that Goennec, one of the three sailors, ventured to say aloud, “Monseigneur, we are chased!”

Aramis made no reply; the ship still gained upon them. Then, of their own accord, two of the sailors, by the direction of the skipper Yves, lowered the sail, in order that that single point which appeared above the surface of the waters should cease to be a guide to the eye of the enemy who was pursuing them. On the part of the ship in sight, on the contrary, two more small sails were run up at the extremities of the masts. Unfortunately, it was the time of the finest and longest days of the year, and the moon, in all her brilliancy, succeeded to that inauspicious day. The vessel which was pursuing the little boat before the wind had then still half an hour of twilight, and a whole night almost as light as day.

“Monseigneur! Monseigneur! we are lost!” said the skipper. “Look! they see us although we have lowered our sail.”

“That is not to be wondered at,” murmured one of the sailors, “since they say that, by the aid of the devil, the people of the cities have made instruments with which they see as well at a distance as near, by night as well as by day.”

Aramis took a telescope from the bottom of the boat, arranged it silently, and passing it to the sailor, “Here,” said he, “look!” The sailor hesitated.

“Don’t be alarmed,” said the bishop, “there is no sin in it; and if there is any sin, I will take it upon myself.”

The sailor lifted the glass to his eye, and uttered a cry. He believed that the vessel, which appeared to be distant about cannon-shot, had suddenly and at a single bound cleared the distance. But on withdrawing the instrument from his eye, he saw that, except the way which the vessel had been able to make during that short instant, it was still at the same distance.

“So,” murmured the sailor, “they can see us as we see them?”

“They see us,” said Aramis, and sank again into his impassiveness.

“How,- they see us?” said the skipper Yves. “Impossible!”

“Well, Skipper, look for yourself,” said the sailor. And he passed to him the glass.

“Monseigneur assures me that the devil has nothing to do with this?” asked the skipper.

Aramis shrugged his shoulders.

The skipper lifted the glass to his eye. “Oh, Monseigneur,” said he, “it is a miracle. They are there; it seems as if I were going to touch them. Twenty-five men at least! Ah! I see the captain forward. He holds a glass like this, and is looking at us. Ah! he turns round and gives an order; they are rolling a piece of cannon forward- they are charging it- they are pointing it. Misericorde! they are firing at us!

And by a mechanical movement the skipper took the glass off, and the objects, sent back to the horizon, appeared again in their true aspect. The vessel was still at the distance of nearly a league, but the manoeuvre announced by the skipper was not less real. A light cloud of smoke appeared under the sails, more blue than they, and spreading like a flower opening; then, at about a mile from the little canoe, they saw the ball take the crown off two or three waves, dig a white furrow in the sea and disappear at the end of that furrow, as inoffensive as the stone with which, at play, a boy “makes ducks and drakes.” That was at once a menace and a warning.

“What is to be done?” asked the skipper.

“They will sink us!” said Goennec, give us absolution, Monseigneur!” And the sailors fell on their knees before him.

“You forget that they can see you,” said he.

“That is true!” said the sailors, ashamed of their weakness. “Give us your orders, Monseigneur; we are ready to die for you.”

“Let us wait,” said Aramis.

“How,- let us wait?”

“Yes; do you not see, as you just now said, that if we endeavor to fly, they will sink us?”

“But perhaps,” the skipper ventured to say,- “perhaps by the favor of the night we could escape them.”

“Oh!” said Aramis, “they probably have some Greek fire to light their own course and ours likewise.”

At the same moment, as if the little vessel wished to reply to the words of Aramis, a second cloud of smoke mounted slowly to the heavens, and from the bosom of that cloud sparkled an arrow of flame, which described its parabola like a rainbow, and fell into the sea, where it continued to burn, illuminating a space of a quarter of a league in diameter.

The Bretons looked at one another in terror. “You see plainly,” said Aramis, “it will be better to wait for them.”

The oars dropped from the hands of the sailors, and the boat ceasing to make way, rocked motionless on the summits of the waves. Night came on, but the vessel still approached nearer. It might be said it redoubled its speed with the darkness. From time to time, as a bloody-necked vulture rears its head out of its nest, the formidable Greek fire darted from its sides, and cast its flame into the ocean like an incandescent snow. At last it came within musket-shot. All the men were on deck, arms in hand; the cannoneers were at their guns, the matches were burning. It might be thought that they were about to board a frigate and to combat a crew superior in number to their own, and not to take a canoe manned by four persons.

“Surrender!” cried the commander of the vessel through his speaking-trumpet.

The sailors looked at Aramis. Aramis made a sign with his head. The skipper Yves waved a white cloth at the end of a gaff. This was a way of striking their flag. The vessel came on like a race-horse. It launched a fresh Greek fire which fell within twenty paces of the little canoe, and threw a stronger light upon them than the most ardent ray of the sun could have done.

“At the first sign of resistance,” cried the commander of the vessel, “fire!” And the soldiers brought their muskets to the shoulder.

“Did not we say we surrendered?” said the skipper Yves.

“Living! living, Captain!” cried some excited soldiers, “they must be taken living!”

“Well, yes,- living,” said the captain. Then turning towards the Bretons, “Your lives are all safe, my friends,” cried he, “except the Chevalier d’Herblay.”

Aramis started imperceptibly. For an instant his eye was fixed upon the depths of the ocean enlightened by the last flashes of the Greek fire,- flashes which ran along the sides of the waves, played upon their crests like plumes, and rendered still more dark, more mysterious, and more terrible the abysses they covered.

“Do you hear, Monseigneur?” said the sailors.

“Yes.”

“What are your orders?”

“Accept!”

“But you, Monseigneur?”

Aramis leaned still more forward, and played with the ends of his long white fingers with the green water of the sea, to which he turned smiling as to a friend.

“Accept!” repeated he.

“We accept,” repeated the sailors; “but what security have we?”

“The word of a gentleman,” said the officer. “By my rank and by my name I swear that all but M. le Chevalier d’Herblay shall have their lives spared. I am lieutenant of the King’s frigate the ‘Pomona,’ and my name is Louis Constant de Pressigny.”

With a rapid gesture Aramis,- already bent over the side of the boat towards the sea,- with a rapid gesture Aramis raised his head, drew himself up, and with a flashing eye and a smile upon his lips, “Throw out the ladder, Messieurs,” said he, as if the command had belonged to him. He was obeyed. Then Aramis, seizing the rope-ladder, ascended first; but instead of the terror which was expected to be displayed upon his countenance, the surprise of the sailors of the vessel was great when they saw him walk straight up to the commander with a firm step, look at him earnestly, make a sign to him with his hand, a mysterious and unknown sign, at the sight of which the officer turned pale, trembled, and bowed his head. Without saying a word, Aramis then raised his hand close to the eyes of the commander, and showed him the collet of a ring which he wore on the ring-finger of his left hand; and while making this sign, Aramis, draped in cold, silent, and haughty majesty, had the air of an emperor giving his hand to be kissed. The commandant, who for a moment had raised his head, bowed a second time with marks of the most profound respect. Then stretching his hand out in his turn towards the poop,- that is to say, towards his own cabin,- he drew back to allow Aramis to go first. The three Bretons, who had come on board after their bishop, looked at one another, stupefied. The crew were struck with silence. Five minutes after, the commander called the second lieutenant, who returned immediately, ordering the head to be put towards Corunna. While the given order was executed, Aramis reappeared upon the deck, and took a seat near the railing. The night had fallen, the moon had not yet risen; and yet Aramis looked incessantly towards Belle-Isle. Yves then approached the captain, who had returned to take his post in the stern, and said in a low and humble voice, “What course are we to follow, Captain?”

“We take what course Monseigneur pleases,” replied the officer.

Aramis passed the night leaning upon the railing. Yves, on approaching him the next morning, remarked that “the night must have been very humid, for the wood upon which the bishop’s head had rested was soaked with dew.” Who knows?- that dew was, perhaps, the first tears which had ever fallen from the eyes of Aramis!

What epitaph would have been equal to that, good Porthos?

Alexandre Dumas pere