Book IV. The mother
The Marquis de Lantenac was not so far away as they supposed, although he was in perfect safety, and beyond their reach.
He had followed Halmalo.
The staircase by which they had descended, following the other fugitives, ended in a narrow passage quite near the ravine and the arches of the bridge. This passage led into a deep natural fissure in the ground which formed a connecting link between the ravine and the forest. In this fissure, twisting and turning as it did through impenetrable thickets and utterly hidden from the human eye, no man could ever have been captured; he had but to follow the example of a snake, and his safety was assured. The entrance to this secret passage was so overgrown with brambles, that its constructors had deemed it unnecessary to provide it with any other screen.
The Marquis had now no further need even to consider the matter of disguise. Since his arrival in Brittany he had continued to wear the peasant dress, feeling himself to be more truly a grand seigneur when thus attired. He had contented himself with taking off his sword, unfastening and throwing aside the belt.
When Halmalo and the Marquis emerged from the passage into the fissure, nothing was to be seen of the five others, – Guinoiseau, Hoisnard Branche-d’Or, Brin d’Amour, Chatenay, and the Abbé Turmeau.
“They have lost no time,” said Halmalo.
“Follow their example,” replied the Marquis.
“Does Monseigneur wish me to leave him?”
“Of course; I have told you so already. A man who is trying to escape must remain alone if he would insure success; one man can often pass where two would find it impossible. Were we together, we should attract attention and imperil each other.”
“Does Monseigneur know the neighborhood?”
“And the rendez-vous is still to be the same, – at the Pierre-Gauvaine?”
“To-morrow at noon.”
“I will be there. We shall all be there.”
“Ah, Monseigneur, when I remember the time we were alone together on the open sea, when I wanted to kill you, you who were my lord and master and might have told me, but did not! What a man you are!”
The sole reply of the Marquis was, “England is our only resource. In fifteen days the English must be in France.”
“I have a great many things to tell Monseigneur. I have given all his messages.”
“We will attend to all that to-morrow.”
“Farewell till then, Monseigneur.”
“By the way, are you hungry?”
“Perhaps I am, Monseigneur. I was in such a hurry to get here, that I have forgotten whether I had anything to eat to-day or not.”
The Marquis drew from his pocket a cake of chocolate, broke it in two, and giving one half to Halmalo, he began to eat the other himself.
“Monseigneur,” said Halmalo, “you will find the ravine on your right, and the forest on your left.”
“Very well. Leave me now. Go your own way.”
Halmalo obeyed, and was at once lost in the darkness. At first there was a rustling of the underbrush soon followed by silence, and in a few moments every trace of his passage had disappeared. This land of the Bocage, bristling with forests and labyrinths, was the fugitives’ best ally. Men vanished before one’s very eyes. It was this facility for rapid disappearance that made our armies pause before this ever-retreating Vendée, and rendered its combatants so formidable in their flight.
The Marquis stood motionless. Although he was a man who kept his feelings under perfect control, he was not insensible to the joy of breathing the fresh air, after having lived so long in an atmosphere of blood and carnage. To be rescued at a moment when all seemed utterly lost, to find one’s self in safety after gazing into one’s own grave, to be snatched from death to life, is a severe shock even for such a man as Lantenac; and although this was by no means his only experience of the kind, he could not at once subdue his agitation. For a moment he admitted to himself his own satisfaction, but straightway suppressed an emotion that was akin to joy.
Drawing out his watch he struck the hour. He wondered what time it might be, and to his great surprise discovered that it was but ten o’clock.
When one has just passed through some terrible crisis wherein life and death have hung in the balance it is always astonishing to discover that those minutes so crowded with action were no longer than any others. The warning cannon had been fired shortly before sunset, and half an hour later, just at dusk, between seven and eight o’clock, the assault on the Tourgue began; hence this tremendous combat beginning at eight and ending at ten, this epic, as one might call it, had consumed just one hundred and twenty minutes. Catastrophes often descend like a flash of lightning, and events are marvellously fore-shortened, and when one pauses to reflect, it would be surprising were it otherwise; two hours’ resistance offered by so small a band against a force vastly superior to itself was extraordinary, and this struggle of nineteen against four thousand could not be called a brief one.
But it was time to go. Halmalo must by this time be far away, and the Marquis felt that prudence no longer required him to remain there. He put his watch back into his waistcoat pocket, but not into the one from which he had taken it, for he noticed that in that one it came in contact with the key of the iron door which the Imânus had brought him, and there was danger of breaking the crystal. Just as he was on the point of taking the left-hand turning towards the forest, he fancied he saw a feint ray of light.
He turned, and through the underbrush which all at once stood out against a red background, thus revealing its minutest details with absolute distinctness, he beheld a bright glare along the ravine very near the spot where he was standing. At first, he turned in that direction, then changed his mind as the folly of exposing himself to that light occurred to him; whatever it might be, it was really no affair of his in any event. Once more he started to follow Halmalo’s directions, and advanced several steps towards the forest.
All at once, buried and hidden by the brambles as he was, he heard above his head a terrible cry; it seemed to come from the very edge of the plateau, above the ravine. The Marquis raised his eyes and paused.