“Let us stop, Monsieur, I conjure you!” replied the faithful servant; “how pale you are becoming!”
“That will not prevent my pursuing my route, now I have once started,” replied the count; and he gave his horse his head again. But suddenly the animal, instead of obeying the thought of his master, stopped. A movement of which Athos was unconscious had checked the bit.
“Something,” said Athos, “wills that I should go no farther. Support me,” added he, stretching out his arms; “quick! come closer! I feel all my muscles relax, and I shall fall from my horse.”
The valet had seen the movement made by his master at the moment he received the order. He went up to him quickly, and received the count in his arms; and as they were still sufficiently near the house for the servants, who had remained at the door to watch their master’s departure, to perceive the disorder in the usually regular proceeding of the count, the valet called his comrades by gesture and voice, and all hastened to his assistance. Athos had gone but a few steps on his return when he felt himself better again. His strength seemed to revive, and with it the desire to go to Blois. He made his horse turn round; but at the animal’s first steps, he sank again into a state of torpor and anguish.
“Well, decidedly,” said he, ”It is willed that I should stay at home.” His people flocked around him; they lifted him from his horse and carried him as quickly as possible into the house. Everything was soon prepared in his chamber, and they put him to bed.
“You will be sure to remember,” said he, disposing himself to sleep, “that I expect letters from Africa this very day.”
“Monsieur will no doubt hear with pleasure that Blaisois’s son is gone on horseback, to gain an hour over the courier of Blois,” replied his valet de chambre.
“Thank you,” replied Athos, with his kindly smile.
The count fell asleep, but his disturbed slumber resembled suffering more than repose. The servant who watched him saw several times the expression of interior torture imprinted upon his features. Perhaps Athos was dreaming.
The day passed away. Blaisois’s son returned; the courier had brought no news. The count reckoned the minutes with despair; he shuddered when those minutes had formed an hour. The idea that he was forgotten seized him once, and brought on a fearful pang of the heart. Everybody in the house had given up all hopes of the courier, his hour had long passed. Four times the express sent to Blois had repeated his journey, and there was nothing to the address of the count. Athos knew that the courier arrived only once a week. Here, then, was a delay of eight mortal days to be endured. He began the night in this painful persuasion. All that a sick man, irritated by suffering, can add of melancholy suppositions to probabilities always sad, Athos heaped up during the early hours of this dismal night. The fever rose; it invaded the chest, where the fire soon caught, according to the expression of the physician, who had been brought back from Blois by the son of Blaisois on his last journey. It soon reached the head. The physician made two successive bleedings, which unlodged it, but left the patient very weak, and without power of action except in his brain; and yet this redoubtable fever had ceased. It attacked with its last strokes the stiffened extremities; and as midnight struck it yielded.
The physician, seeing the incontestable improvement, returned to Blois, after having ordered some prescriptions, declaring that the count was saved. Then began for Athos a strange, indefinable state. Free to think, his mind turned towards Raoul, that beloved son. His imagination painted the fields of Africa in the environs of Djidgelli, where M. de Beaufort was to land his army. There were gray rocks, rendered green in certain parts by the waters of the sea when it lashed the shore in storms and tempests. Beyond the shore, strewed over with these rocks like tombs, ascended, in form of an amphitheatre among mastic-trees and cactus, a sort of village, full of smoke, confused noises, and terrified movements. Suddenly, from the bosom of this smoke arose a flame, which, gaining headway, presently covered the whole surface of this village, and increased by degrees, including in its red vortices tears, cries, arms extended towards heaven.
There was, for a moment, a frightful pele-mele of timbers falling, of swords broken, of stones calcined, of trees burned and disappearing. It was a strange thing that in this chaos, in which Athos distinguished raised arms, in which he heard cries, sobs, and groans, he did not see one human figure. The cannon thundered at a distance, musketry cracked, the sea moaned, flocks made their escape, bounding over the verdant slope; but not a soldier to apply the match to the batteries of cannon, not a sailor to assist in manoeuvering the fleet, not a shepherd for the flocks. After the ruin of the village and the destruction of the forts which commanded it,- a ruin and a destruction operated magically without the cooperation of a single human being,- the flame was extinguished, the smoke began to descend, then diminished in intensity, paled, and disappeared entirely. Night then came over the scene,- a night dark upon the earth, brilliant in the firmament. The large, blazing stars which sparkled in the African sky shone without lighting anything even around them.
A long silence ensued, which gave, for a moment, repose to the troubled imagination of Athos; and as he felt that that which he saw was not terminated, he applied his observation more attentively to the strange spectacle which his imagination had presented. This spectacle was soon continued for him. A mild and pale moon arose behind the declivities of the coast, and streaking at first the undulating ripples of the sea, which appeared to have calmed after the roarings it had sent forth during the vision of Athos,- the moon, we say, shed its diamonds and opals upon the briers and bushes of the hill. The gray rocks, like so many silent and attentive phantoms, appeared to raise their verdant heads to examine likewise the field of battle by the light of the moon; and Athos perceived that that field, entirely empty during the combat, was now strewn with fallen bodies.
An inexpressible shudder of fear and horror seized the soul of Athos when he recognized the white and blue uniform of the soldiers of Picardy, with their long pikes and blue handles, and their muskets marked with the fleur-de-lis on the butts; when he saw all the gaping, cold wounds looking up to the azure heavens as if to demand back of them the souls to which they had opened a passage; when he saw the slaughtered horses, stiff, with their tongues hanging out at one side of their mouths, sleeping in the icy blood pooled around them, staining their furniture and their manes; when he saw the white horse of M. de Beaufort, with his head beaten to pieces, in the first ranks of the dead. Athos passed a cold hand over his brow, which he was astonished not to find burning. He was convinced by this touch that he was present as a spectator, without fever, on the day after a battle fought upon the shores of Djidgelli by the army of the expedition which he had seen leave the coasts of France and disappear in the horizon, and of which he had saluted with thought and gesture the last cannon-shot fired by the duke as a signal of farewell to his country.
Who can paint the mortal agony with which his soul followed, like a vigilant eye, the trace of those dead bodies, and examined them, one after the other, to see if Raoul slept among them? Who can express the intoxication of joy with which Athos bowed before God, and gave thanks for not having seen him he sought with so much fear among the dead? In fact, fallen dead in their ranks, stiff, icy, all these dead, easy to be recognized, seemed to turn with kindness and respect towards the Comte de la Fere, to be the better seen by him during his funereal inspection. But yet he was astonished while viewing all these bodies, not to perceive the survivors. To such a point did the illusion extend, that this vision was for the father a real voyage made by him into Africa, to obtain more exact information respecting his son.
Fatigued, therefore, with having traversed seas and continents, he sought repose under one of the tents sheltered behind a rock, on the top of which floated the white fleurdelise pennon. He looked for a soldier to conduct him to the tent of M. de Beaufort. Then, while his eye was wandering over the plain, turning in all directions, he saw a white form appear behind the resinous myrtles. This figure was clothed in the costume of an officer; it held in its hand a broken sword; it advanced slowly towards Athos, who, stopping short and fixing his eyes upon it, neither spoke nor moved, but wished to open his arms, because in this silent and pale officer he had just recognized Raoul. The count attempted to utter a cry; but it remained stifled in his throat. Raoul with a gesture directed him to be silent, placing his finger on his lips and drawing back by degrees, without Athos being able to see any motion of his legs. The count, more pale than Raoul, more trembling, followed his son, traversing painfully briers and bushes, stones and ditches, Raoul appearing not to touch the earth, and no obstacle impeding the lightness of his march. The count, whom the inequalities of the path fatigued, soon stopped exhausted. Raoul still continued to beckon him to follow him. The tender father, to whom love restored strength, made a last effort and climbed the mountain after the young man, who drew him onward by his gesture and his smile.
At length Athos gained the crest of the hill, and saw, thrown out in black upon the horizon whitened by the moon, the airy, visionary form of Raoul. Athos stretched out his hand to get closer to his beloved son upon the plateau, and the latter also stretched out his; but suddenly, as if the young man had been drawn away in spite of himself, still retreating, he left the earth; and Athos saw the clear blue sky shine between the feet of his child and the ground of the hill. Raoul rose insensibly into the void, still smiling, still inviting with a gesture; he departed towards heaven. Athos uttered a cry of terrified tenderness. He looked below again. He saw a camp destroyed, and all those white bodies of the royal army, like so many motionless atoms. And then, when raising his head, he saw still, still, his son beckoning him to ascend with him.
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