Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 24

THE EXECUTOR


Benedict had jumped into the Main on the left side of the bridge; the current carried him towards the arches. When he came to the surface he looked round him and saw a boat moored to one of them. A man was lying in the boat. Benedict swam towards him with one hand, holding his rifle above the water with the other. The boatman seeing him coming raised his oar.

"Prussian or Austrian?" asked he.

"French," answered Benedict. The boatman held out his hand.

Benedict, dripping as he was, jumped into the boat.

"Twenty florins," he said, "if we are in Dettingen in an hour. We have the current with us and I will row with you."

"That will be easy," said the boatman, "if you are sure you will keep your word."

"Wait a minute," said Benedict; throwing down his Styrian tunic and cap, and feeling in his pocket, "here are ten."

"Then, come on," said the boatman.

He took one oar, Benedict took the other: the boat impelled by four vigorous arms went rapidly down the river.

The struggle was still continuing; men and horses fell from the bridge into the stream. Benedict would have liked to stop and watch the spectacle, but time did not allow.

No one paid any attention to the little boat flying down stream. In five minutes the oarsmen were out of range and out of danger.

While passing a little wood on the edge of the river, called Joli-Buisson, he thought he saw Karl fighting desperately in the middle of a group of Prussians. But as the uniform of all the Styrians was alike, it might have been one of the infantry. Then Benedict fancied he saw a dog like Frisk in the throng, and he remembered that Frisk had followed Karl.

At the first bend of the river, they ceased to see anything of the battle. Further on, they saw the smoke of the burning houses in Aschaffenburg. Then at the little village of Lieder, everything disappeared. The boat flew down the river and quickly they passed Menaschoft, Stockstadt, Kleim, and Ostheim. After that the banks of the Main were deserted down to Mainflig. On the other bank, almost opposite, stood Dettingen.

It was a quarter-past six, the boatman had earned his twenty florins. Benedict gave them to him; but before parting from him he considered for a moment.

"Would you like to earn twenty florins more?" he asked.

"I should just think so!" replied the boatman. Benedict looked at his watch.

"The train does not go until a quarter-past seven, we have more than an hour before us."

"Besides which the trouble at Aschaffenburg will make the train another quarter of an hour late, if it does not stop it altogether."

"The deuce it will!"

"Will what I tell you fly away with my twenty florins?"

"No; but go into Dettingen first of all. You are just my height, go and buy me a boatman's dress like yours. Complete, you know. Then come back, and I will tell you what remains to be done."

The boatman jumped out of the boat and ran down the road to Dettingen. A quarter-of-an-hour later, he came back with the complete costume, which had cost ten florins. Benedict gave him that amount.

"And now," asked the boatman, "what is to be done?"

"Can you wait for me here three days with my uniform, my rifle, and my pistols? I will give you twenty florins."

"Yes; but if at the end of three days you do not come back?"

"The rifle, the pistols, and the uniform will be yours."

"I will wait here eight days. Gentlemen must have time to settle their affairs."

"You are a good fellow. What is your name?"

"Fritz."

"Very well, Fritz, goodbye!"

In a few moments Benedict had put on the coat and trousers and covered his head with the boatman's cap. He walked a few steps and then stopped suddenly:

"By the way, where will you stay at Dettingen?" he asked.

"A boatman is like a snail, he carries his house on his back. You will find me in my boat."

"Night and day?"

"Night and day."

"All is well then."

And in his turn Benedict went towards Dettingen.

Fritz had prophesied truly, the train was half an hour late. Indeed it was the last train which went through; hussars were sent to take up the rails; lest troops should be sent to Frankfort to help the allies.

Benedict took a third-class ticket, as befitted his humble costume. The train only stopped at Manau for a few minutes, and arrived at Frankfort at a quarter to nine, scarcely ten minutes late.

The station was full of people who had come to get news. Benedict passed through the crowd as quickly as possible, recognized M. Fellner, whispered in his ear "beaten," and went off in the direction of the Chandroz' house.

He knocked at the door. Hans opened it. Helen was not in the house, but he went and asked for Emma. Helen was at the Church of Notre Dame de la Croix. Benedict asked the way there, and Hans, who thought he brought news of Karl, offered to show him. In five minutes they were there: Hans wished to go back, but Benedict kept him, in case there might be some order to be given. He left him in the porch and went in. One chapel was hit by the trembling light of a lamp. A woman was kneeling before the altar, or rather, crouching on the steps. This woman was Helen.

The eleven o'clock train had brought the news that a battle would take place that day. At twelve o'clock Helen and her maid had taken a carriage, and driven by Hans had gone down the Aschaffenburg road as far as the Dornighem wood. There, in the country silence they had heard the sound of cannon. It is unnecessary to say that each shot had had an echo in her heart. Soon she could listen no longer to the sound which grew louder and louder. She went back to Frankfort, and got down at the Church of Notre Dame de la Croix, sending back Hans to ease the minds of her mother and sister. Hans had not dared to say where Helen was without the permission of the baroness.

Helen had been praying since three o'clock. At the sound of Benedict's approach she turned. At first sight, and in his disguise, she did not recognize the young painter whom Frederic had wished her to marry, and took him for a Sachsenhausen fisherman.

"Are you looking for me, my good man?" she said.

"Yes," answered Benedict.

"Then you are bringing me news of Karl?"

"I was his companion in the fight."

"He is dead!" cried Helen, wringing her hands with a sob, and glancing reproachfully at the statue of the Madonna. "He is dead! he is dead!"

"I cannot tell you for certain that he is alive and not wounded. But I can tell you I do not know that he is dead."

"You don't know?"

"No, on my honour, I don't know."

"Did he give you a message for me before you left him?"

"Yes, these are his very words."

"Oh, speak, speak!" And Helen clasped her hands and sank on a chair in front of Benedict as though before a sacred messenger. A message from those whom we love is always sacred.

"Listen; he said to me: 'The day is lost. Fate has overtaken the house of Austria. I am going to kill myself because it is my duty.'"

Helen groaned.

"And I!" she murmured. "He did not think of me."

"Wait." He went on, "But you who are not tied to our fortune; you, who are fighting as an amateur; you, who are French when all is said, and done, it would be folly for you to kill yourself for a cause which is not your own. Fight to the last moment, then when you know that all resistance is vain, get back to Frankfort, go to Helen, tell her that I am dead, if you have seen me die, or that I am in retreat for Darmstadt or Wurtzburg with the remains of the army. If I live, I will write to her if I die, I die thinking of her. This is my heart's testament, I confide it to you.'"

"Dear Karl! and then...?"

"Twice we saw each other in the fray. On the bridge at Aschaffenburg, where he was slightly wounded in the forehead, then a quarter-of-an-hour later, between a little wood called Joli-Buisson and the village of Lieder."

"And there?"

"There he was surrounded by enemies, but he was still fighting."

"My God!"

"Then I thought of you.... The war is over. We were the last of Austria's vital powers, her last hope. Dead or alive, Karl is yours from this hour. Shall I go back to the battlefield? I will search until I get news of him. If he is dead, I will bring him back."

Helen let a sob escape her.

"If he is wounded, I will bring him back to you, recovered I assure you."

Helen had seized Benedict by the arm, and looked fixedly at him.

"You will go on to the battlefield?" she said.

"Yes."

"And you will seek for him among the dead?"

"Yes," said he, "until I find him."

"I will go with you," said Helen.

"You?" cried Benedict.

"It is my duty. I recognize you now. You are Benedict Turpin, the French painter who fought with Frederic, and who spared his life."

"Yes."

"Then you are a friend and a man of honour. I can trust in you. Let us go."

"Is that settled?"

"It is settled."

"Do you seriously wish it?"

"I do wish it."

"Very well, then, there is not an instant to lose."

"How shall we go?"

"The railways have been destroyed."

"Hans will take us."

"I have a better plan than that. Carriages can be broken, drivers can be forced. I have the right man, a man who would break all his carriages and lame all his horses for me."

Benedict called, and Hans appeared.

"Run to your brother Lenhart. Tell him to be here within ten minutes with his best carriage and horses, and wine and bread. As you pass the chemist's tell him to get bandages, lint, and strapping."

"Oh, sir," said Hans, "I must write that down."

"Very well, a carriage, two horses, bread and wine; you mustn't forget that. I will see to the rest. Go." Then, turning to Helen, "Will you tell your relatives?" asked Benedict.

"Oh no!" she cried. "They would wish to prevent me from going. I am under the protection of the Virgin."

"Pray then. I will come back here for you."

Helen threw herself on her knees. Benedict went quickly out of the church. Ten minutes later he came back with all the necessary things for the dressing of wounds, and four torches.

"Shall we take Hans?" asked Helen.

"No, it must not be known where you are. If we bring back Karl wounded, a room must be ready for him, and a surgeon ready. Also, his arrival would cause agitation to your sister, scarcely well again, or to your grandmother, whose age must be taken into consideration."

"What time shall we get back?"

"I don't know, but we may be expected at four in the morning. You hear, Hans? And if they fear for your young mistress—"

"You will answer," said Lenhart, "that they may be easy, because Benedict Turpin is with her."

"You hear, dear Helen. I am ready when you are."

"Let us go," she said, "and not lose a minute. My God! when I think that he may be there, perhaps lying on the earth under some tree or bush, bleeding from two or three wounds, and calling on me with his dying voice for help!" and in high agitation she went on: "I am coming, dear Karl, I am coming!"

Lenhart whipped up his horses, and the carriage went off as quickly as the wind and as noisily as thunder.

Alexandre Dumas pere