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Twenty Years After

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Chapter 67. The Man in the Mask.


The snow was falling thick and icy. Aramis was the next to come in and to discover Athos almost insensible. But at the first words he uttered the comte roused himself from the kind of lethargy in which he had sunk.

“Well,” said Aramis, “beaten by fate!”

“Beaten!” said Athos. “Noble and unhappy king!”

“Are you wounded?” cried Aramis.

“No, this is his blood.”

“Where were you, then?”

“Where you left me--under the scaffold.”

“Did you see it all?”

“No, but I heard all. God preserve me from another such hour as I have just passed.”

“Then you know that I did not leave him?”

“I heard your voice up to the last moment.”

“Here is the order he gave me and the cross I took from his hand; he desired they should be returned to the queen.”

“Then here is a handkerchief to wrap them in,” replied Athos, drawing from his pocket the one he had steeped in the king’s blood.

“And what,” he continued, “has been done with the poor body?”

“By order of Cromwell royal honors will be accorded to it. The doctors are embalming the corpse, and when it is ready it will be placed in a lighted chapel.”

“Mockery,” muttered Athos, savagely; “royal honors to one whom they have murdered!”

“Well, cheer up!” said a loud voice from the staircase, which Porthos had just mounted. “We are all mortal, my poor friends.”

“You are late, my dear Porthos.”

“Yes, there were some people on the way who delayed me. The wretches were dancing. I took one of them by the throat and three-quarters throttled him. Just then a patrol rode up. Luckily the man I had had most to do with was some minutes before he could speak, so I took advantage of his silence to walk off.”

“Have you seen D’Artagnan?”

“We got separated in the crowd and I could not find him again.”

“Oh!” said Athos, satirically, “I saw him. He was in the front row of the crowd, admirably placed for seeing; and as on the whole the sight was curious, he probably wished to stay to the end.”

“Ah Comte de la Fere,” said a calm voice, though hoarse with running, “is it your habit to calumniate the absent?”

This reproof stung Athos to the heart, but as the impression produced by seeing D’Artagnan foremost in a coarse, ferocious crowd had been very strong, he contented himself with replying:

“I am not calumniating you, my friend. They were anxious about you here; I simply told them where you were. You didn’t know King Charles; to you he was only a foreigner and you were not obliged to love him.”

So saying, he stretched out his hand, but the other pretended not to see it and he let it drop again slowly by his side.

“Ugh! I am tired,” cried D’Artagnan, sitting down.

“Drink a glass of port,” said Aramis; “it will refresh you.”

“Yes, let us drink,” said Athos, anxious to make it up by hobnobbing with D’Artagnan, “let us drink and get away from this hateful country. The felucca is waiting for us, you know; let us leave to-night, we have nothing more to do here.”

“You are in a hurry, sir count,” said D’Artagnan.

“But what would you have us to do here, now that the king is dead?”

“Go, sir count,” replied D’Artagnan, carelessly; “you see nothing to keep you a little longer in England? Well, for my part, I, a bloodthirsty ruffian, who can go and stand close to a scaffold, in order to have a better view of the king’s execution--I remain.”

Athos turned pale. Every reproach his friend uttered struck deeply in his heart.

“Ah! you remain in London?” said Porthos.

“Yes. And you?”

“Hang it!” said Porthos, a little perplexed between the two, “I suppose, as I came with you, I must go away with you. I can’t leave you alone in this abominable country.”

“Thanks, my worthy friend. So I have a little adventure to propose to you when the count is gone. I want to find out who was the man in the mask, who so obligingly offered to cut the king’s throat.”

“A man in a mask?” cried Athos. “You did not let the executioner escape, then?”

“The executioner is still in the cellar, where, I presume, he has had an interview with mine host’s bottles. But you remind me. Mousqueton!”

“Sir,” answered a voice from the depths of the earth.

“Let out your prisoner. All is over.”

“But,” said Athos, “who is the wretch that has dared to raise his hand against his king?”

“An amateur headsman,” replied Aramis, “who however, does not handle the axe amiss.”

“Did you not see his face?” asked Athos.

“He wore a mask.”

“But you, Aramis, who were close to him?”

“I could see nothing but a gray beard under the fringe of the mask.”

“Then it must be a man of a certain age.”

“Oh!” said D’Artagnan, “that matters little. When one puts on a mask, it is not difficult to wear a beard under it.”

“I am sorry I did not follow him,” said Porthos.

“Well, my dear Porthos,” said D’Artagnan, “that’s the very thing it came into my head to do.”

Athos understood all now.

“Pardon me, D’Artagnan,” he said. “I have distrusted God; I could the more easily distrust you. Pardon me, my friend.”

“We will see about that presently,” said D’Artagnan, with a slight smile.

“Well, then?” said Aramis.

“Well, while I was watching--not the king, as monsieur le comte thinks, for I know what it is to see a man led to death, and though I ought to be accustomed to the sight it always makes me ill--while I was watching the masked executioner, the idea came to me, as I said, to find out who he was. Now, as we are wont to complete ourselves each by all the rest and to depend on one another for assistance, as one calls his other hand to aid the first, I looked around instinctively to see if Porthos was there; for I had seen you, Aramis, with the king, and you, count, I knew would be under the scaffold, and for that reason I forgive you,” he added, offering Athos his hand, “for you must have suffered much. I was looking around for Porthos when I saw near me a head which had been broken, but which, for better or worse, had been patched with plaster and with black silk. ‘Humph!’ thought I, ‘that looks like my handiwork; I fancy I must have mended that skull somewhere or other.’ And, in fact, it was that unfortunate Scotchman, Parry’s brother, you know, on whom Groslow amused himself by trying his strength. Well, this man was making signs to another at my left, and turning around I recognized the honest Grimaud. ‘Oh!’ said I to him. Grimaud turned round with a jerk, recognized me, and pointed to the man in the mask. ‘Eh!’ said he, which meant, ‘Do you see him?’ ‘Parbleu!’ I answered, and we perfectly understood one another. Well, everything was finished as you know. The mob dispersed. I made a sign to Grimaud and the Scotchman, and we all three retired into a corner of the square. I saw the executioner return into the king’s room, change his clothes, put on a black hat and a large cloak and disappear. Five minutes later he came down the grand staircase.”

“You followed him?” cried Athos.

“I should think so, but not without difficulty. Every few minutes he turned around, and thus obliged us to conceal ourselves. I might have gone up to him and killed him. But I am not selfish, and I thought it might console you all a little to have a share in the matter. So we followed him through the lowest streets in the city, and in half an hour’s time he stopped before a little isolated house. Grimaud drew out a pistol. ‘Eh?’ said he, showing it. I held back his arm. The man in the mask stopped before a low door and drew out a key; but before he placed it in the lock he turned around to see if he was being followed. Grimaud and I got behind a tree, and the Scotchman having nowhere to hide himself, threw himself on his face in the road. Next moment the door opened and the man disappeared.”

“The scoundrel!” said Aramis. “While you have been returning hither he will have escaped and we shall never find him.”

“Come, now, Aramis,” said D’Artagnan, “you must be taking me for some one else.”

“Nevertheless,” said Athos, “in your absence----”

“Well, in my absence haven’t I put in my place Grimaud and the Scotchman? Before he had taken ten steps beyond the door I had examined the house on all sides. At one of the doors, that by which he had entered, I placed our Scotchman, making a sign to him to follow the man wherever he might go, if he came out again. Then going around the house I placed Grimaud at the other exit, and here I am. Our game is beaten up. Now for the tally-ho.”

Athos threw himself into D’Artagnan’s arms.

“Friend,” he said, “you have been too good in pardoning me; I was wrong, a hundred times wrong. I ought to have known you better by this time; but we are all possessed of a malignant spirit, which bids us doubt.”

“Humph!” said Porthos. “Don’t you think the executioner might be Master Cromwell, who, to make sure of this affair, undertook it himself?”

“Ah! just so. Cromwell is stout and short, and this man thin and lanky, rather tall than otherwise.”

“Some condemned soldier, perhaps,” suggested Athos, “whom they have pardoned at the price of regicide.”

“No, no,” continued D’Artagnan, “it was not the measured step of a foot soldier, nor was it the gait of a horseman. If I am not mistaken we have to do with a gentleman.”

“A gentleman!” exclaimed Athos. “Impossible! It would be a dishonor to all the nobility.”

“Fine sport, by Jove!” cried Porthos, with a laugh that shook the windows. “Fine sport!”

“Are you still bent on departure, Athos?” asked D’Artagnan.

“No, I remain,” replied Athos, with a threatening gesture that promised no good to whomsoever it was addressed.

“Swords, then!” cried Aramis, “swords! let us not lose a moment.”

The four friends resumed their own clothes, girded on their swords, ordered Mousqueton and Blaisois to pay the bill and to arrange everything for immediate departure, and wrapped in their large cloaks left in search of their game.

The night was dark, snow was falling, the streets were silent and deserted. D’Artagnan led the way through the intricate windings and narrow alleys of the city and ere long they had reached the house in question. For a moment D’Artagnan thought that Parry’s brother had disappeared; but he was mistaken. The robust Scotchman, accustomed to the snows of his native hills, had stretched himself against a post, and like a fallen statue, insensible to the inclemency of the weather, had allowed the snow to cover him. He rose, however, as they approached.

“Come,” said Athos, “here’s another good servant. Really, honest men are not so scarce as I thought.”

“Don’t be in a hurry to weave crowns for our Scotchman. I believe the fellow is here on his own account, for I have heard that these gentlemen born beyond the Tweed are very vindictive. I should not like to be Groslow, if he meets him.”

“Well?” said Athos, to the man, in English.

“No one has come out,” he replied.

“Then, Porthos and Aramis, will you remain with this man while we go around to Grimaud?”

Grimaud had made himself a kind of sentry box out of a hollow willow, and as they drew near he put his head out and gave a low whistle.

“Soho!” cried Athos.

“Yes,” said Grimaud.

“Well, has anybody come out?”

“No, but somebody has gone in.”

“A man or a woman?”

“A man.”

“Ah! ah!” said D’Artagnan, “there are two of them, then!”

“I wish there were four,” said Athos; “the two parties would then be equal.”

“Perhaps there are four,” said D’Artagnan.

“What do you mean?”

“Other men may have entered before them and waited for them.”

“We can find out,” said Grimaud. At the same time he pointed to a window, through the shutters of which a faint light streamed.

“That is true,” said D’Artagnan, “let us call the others.”

They returned around the house to fetch Porthos and Aramis.

“Have you seen anything?” they asked.

“No, but we are going to,” replied D’Artagnan, pointing to Grimaud, who had already climbed some five or six feet from the ground.

All four came up together. Grimaud continued to climb like a cat and succeeded at last in catching hold of a hook, which served to keep one of the shutters back when opened. Then resting his foot on a small ledge he made a sign to show all was right.

“Well?” asked D’Artagnan.

Grimaud showed his closed hand, with two fingers spread out.

“Speak,” said Athos; “we cannot see your signs. How many are there?”

“Two. One opposite to me, the other with his back to me.”

“Good. And the man opposite to you is----

“The man I saw go in.”

“Do you know him?”

“I thought I recognized him, and was not mistaken. Short and stout.”

“Who is it?” they all asked together in a low tone.

“General Oliver Cromwell.”

The four friends looked at one another.

“And the other?” asked Athos.

“Thin and lanky.”

“The executioner,” said D’Artagnan and Aramis at the same time.

“I can see nothing but his back,” resumed Grimaud. “But wait. He is moving; and if he has taken off his mask I shall be able to see. Ah----”

And as if struck in the heart he let go the hook and dropped with a groan.

“Did you see him?” they all asked.

“Yes,” said Grimaud, with his hair standing on end.

“The thin, spare man?”

“Yes.”

“The executioner, in short?” asked Aramis.

“Yes.”

“And who is it?” said Porthos.

“He--he--is----” murmured Grimaud, pale as a ghost and seizing his master’s hand.

“Who? He?” asked Athos.

“Mordaunt,” replied Grimaud.

D’Artagnan, Porthos and Aramis uttered a cry of joy.

Athos stepped back and passed his hand across his brow.

“Fatality!” he muttered.


Chapter 68. Cromwell’s House.


It was, in fact, Mordaunt whom D’Artagnan had followed, without knowing it. On entering the house he had taken off his mask and imitation beard, then, mounting a staircase, had opened a door, and in a room lighted by a single lamp found himself face to face with a man seated behind a desk.

This man was Cromwell.

Cromwell had two or three of these retreats in London, unknown except to the most intimate of his friends. Mordaunt was among these.

“It is you, Mordaunt,” he said. “You are late.”

“General, I wished to see the ceremony to the end, which delayed me.”

“Ah! I scarcely thought you were so curious as that.”

“I am always curious to see the downfall of your honor’s enemies, and he was not among the least of them. But you, general, were you not at Whitehall?”

“No,” said Cromwell.

There was a moment’s silence.

“Have you had any account of it?”

“None. I have been here since the morning. I only know that there was a conspiracy to rescue the king.”

“Ah, you knew that?” said Mordaunt.

“It matters little. Four men, disguised as workmen, were to get the king out of prison and take him to Greenwich, where a vessel was waiting.”

“And knowing all that, your honor remained here, far from the city, tranquil and inactive.”

“Tranquil, yes,” replied Cromwell. “But who told you I was inactive?”

“But--if the plot had succeeded?”

“I wished it to do so.”

“I thought your excellence considered the death of Charles I. as a misfortune necessary to the welfare of England.”

“Yes, his death; but it would have been more seemly not upon the scaffold.”

“Why so?” asked Mordaunt.

Cromwell smiled. “Because it could have been said that I had had him condemned for the sake of justice and had let him escape out of pity.”

“But if he had escaped?”

“Impossible; my precautions were taken.”

“And does your honor know the four men who undertook to rescue him?”

“The four Frenchmen, of whom two were sent by the queen to her husband and two by Mazarin to me.”

“And do you think Mazarin commissioned them to act as they have done?”

“It is possible. But he will not avow it.”

“How so?”

“Because they failed.”

“Your honor gave me two of these Frenchmen when they were only guilty of fighting for Charles I. Now that they are guilty of a conspiracy against England will your honor give me all four of them?”

“Take them,” said Cromwell.

Mordaunt bowed with a smile of triumphant ferocity.

“Did the people shout at all?” Cromwell asked.

“Very little, except ‘Long live Cromwell!’”

“Where were you placed?”

Mordaunt tried for a moment to read in the general’s face if this was simply a useless question, or whether he knew everything. But his piercing eyes could by no means penetrate the sombre depths of Cromwell’s.

“I was so situated as to hear and see everything,” he answered.

It was now Cromwell’s turn to look fixedly at Mordaunt, and Mordaunt to make himself impenetrable.

“It appears,” said Cromwell, “that this improvised executioner did his duty remarkably well. The blow, so they tell me at least, was struck with a master’s hand.”

Mordaunt remembered that Cromwell had told him he had had no detailed account, and he was now quite convinced that the general had been present at the execution, hidden behind some screen or curtain.

“In fact,” said Mordaunt, with a calm voice and immovable countenance, “a single blow sufficed.”

“Perhaps it was some one in that occupation,” said Cromwell.

“Do you think so, sir? He did not look like an executioner.”

“And who else save an executioner would have wished to fill that horrible office?”

“But,” said Mordaunt, “it might have been some personal enemy of the king, who had made a vow of vengeance and accomplished it in this way. Perhaps it was some man of rank who had grave reasons for hating the fallen king, and who, learning that the king was about to flee and escape him, threw himself in the way, with a mask on his face and an axe in his hand, not as substitute for the executioner, but as an ambassador of Fate.”

“Possibly.”

“And if that were the case would your honor condemn his action?”

“It is not for me to judge. It rests between his conscience and his God.”

“But if your honor knew this man?”

“I neither know nor wish to know him. Provided Charles is dead, it is the axe, not the man, we must thank.”

“And yet, without the man, the king would have been rescued.”

Cromwell smiled.

“They would have carried him to Greenwich,” he said, “and put him on board a felucca with five barrels of powder in the hold. Once out to sea, you are too good a politician not to understand the rest, Mordaunt.”

“Yes, they would have all been blown up.”

“Just so. The explosion would have done what the axe had failed to do. Men would have said that the king had escaped human justice and been overtaken by God’s. You see now why I did not care to know your gentleman in the mask; for really, in spite of his excellent intentions, I could not thank him for what he has done.”

Mordaunt bowed humbly. “Sir,” he said, “you are a profound thinker and your plan was sublime.”

“Say absurd, since it has become useless. The only sublime ideas in politics are those which bear fruit. So to-night, Mordaunt, go to Greenwich and ask for the captain of the felucca Lightning. Show him a white handkerchief knotted at the four corners and tell the crew to disembark and carry the powder back to the arsenal, unless, indeed----”

“Unless?” said Mordaunt, whose face was lighted by a savage joy as Cromwell spoke:

“This skiff might be of use to you for personal projects.”

“Oh, my lord, my lord!”

“That title,” said Cromwell, laughing, “is all very well here, but take care a word like that does not escape your lips in public.”

“But your honor will soon be called so generally.”

“I hope so, at least,” said Cromwell, rising and putting on his cloak.

“You are going, sir?”

“Yes,” said Cromwell. “I slept here last night and the night before, and you know it is not my custom to sleep three times in the same bed.”

“Then,” said Mordaunt, “your honor gives me my liberty for to-night?”

“And even for all day to-morrow, if you want it. Since last evening,” he added, smiling, “you have done enough in my service, and if you have any personal matters to settle it is just that I should give you time.”

“Thank you, sir; it will be well employed, I hope.”

Cromwell turned as he was going.

“Are you armed?” he asked.

“I have my sword.”

“And no one waiting for you outside?”

“No.”

“Then you had better come with me.”

“Thank you, sir, but the way by the subterranean passage would take too much time and I have none to lose.”

Cromwell placed his hand on a hidden handle and opened a door so well concealed by the tapestry that the most practiced eye could not have discovered it. It closed after him with a spring. This door communicated with a subterranean passage, leading under the street to a grotto in the garden of a house about a hundred yards from that of the future Protector.

It was just before this that Grimaud had perceived the two men seated together.

D’Artagnan was the first to recover from his surprise.

“Mordaunt,” he cried. “Ah! by Heaven! it is God Himself who sent us here.”

“Yes,” said Porthos, “let us break the door in and fall upon him.”

“No,” replied D’Artagnan, “no noise. Now, Grimaud, you come here, climb up to the window again and tell us if Mordaunt is alone and whether he is preparing to go out or go to bed. If he comes out we shall catch him. If he stays in we will break in the window. It is easier and less noisy than the door.”

Grimaud began to scale the wall again.

“Keep guard at the other door, Athos and Aramis. Porthos and I will stay here.”

The friends obeyed.

“He is alone,” said Grimaud.

“We did not see his companion come out.”

“He may have gone by the other door.”

“What is he doing?”

“Putting on his cloak and gloves.”

“He’s ours,” muttered D’Artagnan.

Porthos mechanically drew his dagger from the scabbard.

“Put it up again, my friend,” said D’Artagnan. “We must proceed in an orderly manner.”

“Hush!” said Grimaud, “he is coming out. He has put out the lamp, I can see nothing now.”

“Get down then and quickly.”

Grimaud leaped down. The snow deadened the noise of his fall.

“Now go and tell Athos and Aramis to stand on each side of the door and clap their hands if they catch him. We will do the same.”

The next moment the door opened and Mordaunt appeared on the threshold, face to face with D’Artagnan. Porthos clapped his hands and the other two came running around. Mordaunt was livid, but he uttered no cry nor called for assistance. D’Artagnan quietly pushed him in again, and by the light of a lamp on the staircase made him ascend the steps backward one by one, keeping his eyes all the time on Mordaunt’s hands, who, however, knowing that it was useless, attempted no resistance. At last they stood face to face in the very room where ten minutes before Mordaunt had been talking to Cromwell.

Porthos came up behind, and unhooking the lamp on the staircase relit that in the room. Athos and Aramis entered last and locked the door behind them.

“Oblige me by taking a seat,” said D’Artagnan, pushing a chair toward Mordaunt, who sat down, pale but calm. Aramis, Porthos and D’Artagnan drew their chairs near him. Athos alone kept away and sat in the furthest corner of the room, as if determined to be merely a spectator of the proceedings. He seemed to be quite overcome. Porthos rubbed his hands in feverish impatience. Aramis bit his lips till the blood came.

D’Artagnan alone was calm, at least in appearance.

“Monsieur Mordaunt,” he said, “since, after running after one another so long, chance has at last brought us together, let us have a little conversation, if you please.”


Chapter 69. Conversational.


Though Mordaunt had been so completely taken by surprise and had mounted the stairs in such utter confusion, when once seated he recovered himself, as it were, and prepared to seize any possible opportunity of escape. His eye wandered to a long stout sword on his flank and he instinctively slipped it around within reach of his right hand.

D’Artagnan was waiting for a reply to his remark and said nothing. Aramis muttered to himself, “We shall hear nothing but the usual commonplace things.”

Porthos sucked his mustache, muttering, “A good deal of ceremony to-night about crushing an adder.” Athos shrunk into his corner, pale and motionless as a bas-relief.

The silence, however, could not last forever. So D’Artagnan began:

“Sir,” he said, with desperate politeness, “it seems to me that you change your costume almost as rapidly as I have seen the Italian mummers do, whom the Cardinal Mazarin brought over from Bergamo and whom he doubtless took you to see during your travels in France.”

Mordaunt did not reply.

“Just now,” D’Artagnan continued, “you were disguised--I mean to say, attired--as a murderer, and now----”

“And now I look very much like a man who is going to be murdered.”

“Oh! sir,” said D’Artagnan, “how can you talk like that when you are in the company of gentlemen and have such an excellent sword at your side?”

“No sword is excellent enough to be of use against four swords and daggers.”

“Well, that is scarcely the question. I had the honor of asking you why you altered your costume. The mask and beard became you very well, and as to the axe, I do not think it would be out of keeping even at this moment. Why, then, have you laid it aside?”

“Because, remembering the scene at Armentieres, I thought I should find four axes for one, as I was to meet four executioners.”

“Sir,” replied D’Artagnan, in the calmest manner possible, “you are very young; I shall therefore overlook your frivolous remarks. What took place at Armentieres has no connection whatever with the present occasion. We could scarcely have requested your mother to take a sword and fight us.”

“Aha! It is a duel, then?” cried Mordaunt, as if disposed to reply at once to the provocation.

Porthos rose, always ready for this kind of adventure.

“Pardon me,” said D’Artagnan. “Do not let us do things in a hurry. We will arrange the matter rather better. Confess, Monsieur Mordaunt, that you are anxious to kill some of us.”

“All,” replied Mordaunt.

“Then, my dear sir; I am convinced that these gentlemen return your kind wishes and will be delighted to kill you also. Of course they will do so as honorable gentlemen, and the best proof I can furnish is this----”

So saying, he threw his hat on the ground, pushed back his chair to the wall and bowed to Mordaunt with true French grace.

“At your service, sir,” he continued. “My sword is shorter than yours, it’s true, but, bah! I think the arm will make up for the sword.”

“Halt!” cried Porthos coming forward. “I begin, and without any rhetoric.”

“Allow me, Porthos,” said Aramis.

Athos did not move. He might have been taken for a statue. Even his breathing seemed to be arrested.

“Gentlemen,” said D’Artagnan, “you shall have your turn. Monsieur Mordaunt dislikes you sufficiently not to refuse you afterward. You can see it in his eye. So pray keep your places, like Athos, whose calmness is entirely laudable. Besides, we will have no words about it. I have particular business to settle with this gentleman and I shall and will begin.”

Porthos and Aramis drew back, disappointed, and drawing his sword D’Artagnan turned to his adversary:

“Sir, I am waiting for you.”

“And for my part, gentlemen, I admire you. You are disputing which shall fight me first, but you do not consult me who am most concerned in the matter. I hate you all, but not equally. I hope to kill all four of you, but I am more likely to kill the first than the second, the second than the third, and the third than the last. I claim, then, the right to choose my opponent. If you refuse this right you may kill me, but I shall not fight.”

“It is but fair,” said Porthos and Aramis, hoping he would choose one of them.

Athos and D’Artagnan said nothing, but their silence seemed to imply consent.

“Well, then,” said Mordaunt, “I choose for my adversary the man who, not thinking himself worthy to be called Comte de la Fere, calls himself Athos.”

Athos sprang up, but after an instant of motionless silence he said, to the astonishment of his friends, “Monsieur Mordaunt, a duel between us is impossible. Submit this honour to somebody else.” And he sat down.

“Ah!” said Mordaunt, with a sneer, “there’s one who is afraid.”

“Zounds!” exclaimed D’Artagnan, bounding toward him, “who says that Athos is afraid?”

“Let him have his say, D’Artagnan,” said Athos, with a smile of sadness and contempt.

“Is it your decision, Athos?” resumed the Gascon.

“Irrevocably.”

“You hear, sir,” said D’Artagnan, turning to Mordaunt. “The Comte de la Fere will not do you the honor of fighting with you. Choose one of us to replace the Comte de la Fere.”

“As long as I don’t fight with him it is the same to me with whom I fight. Put your names into a hat and draw lots.”

“A good idea,” said D’Artagnan.

“At least that will conciliate us all,” said Aramis.

“I should never have thought of that,” said Porthos, “and yet it is very simple.”

“Come, Aramis,” said D’Artagnan, “write this for us in those neat little characters in which you wrote to Marie Michon that the mother of this gentleman intended to assassinate the Duke of Buckingham.”

Mordaunt sustained this new attack without wincing. He stood with his arms folded, apparently as calm as any man could be in such circumstances. If he had not courage he had what is very like it, namely, pride.

Aramis went to Cromwell’s desk, tore off three bits of paper of equal size, wrote on the first his own name and on the others those of his two companions, and presented them open to Mordaunt, who by a movement of his head indicated that he left the matter entirely to Aramis. He then rolled them separately and put them in a hat, which he handed to Mordaunt.

Mordaunt put his hand into the hat, took out one of the three papers and disdainfully dropped it on the table without reading it.

“Ah! serpent,” muttered D’Artagnan, “I would give my chance of a captaincy in the mousquetaires for that to be my name.”

Aramis opened the paper, and in a voice trembling with hate and vengeance read “D’Artagnan.”

The Gascon uttered a cry of joy and turning to Mordaunt:

“I hope, sir,” said he, “you have no objection to make.”

“None, whatever,” replied the other, drawing his sword and resting the point on his boot.

The moment that D’Artagnan saw that his wish was accomplished and his man would not escape him, he recovered his usual tranquillity. He turned up his cuffs neatly and rubbed the sole of his right boot on the floor, but did not fail, however, to remark that Mordaunt was looking about him in a singular manner.

“Are you ready, sir?” he said at last.

“I was waiting for you, sir,” said Mordaunt, raising his head and casting at his opponent a look it would be impossible to describe.

“Well, then,” said the Gascon, “take care of yourself, for I am not a bad hand at the rapier.”

“Nor I either.”

“So much the better; that sets my mind at rest. Defend yourself.”

“One minute,” said the young man. “Give me your word, gentlemen, that you will not attack me otherwise than one after the other.”

“Is it to have the pleasure of insulting us that you say that, my little viper?”

“No, but to set my mind at rest, as you observed just now.”

“It is for something else than that, I imagine,” muttered D’Artagnan, shaking his head doubtfully.

“On the honor of gentlemen,” said Aramis and Porthos.

“In that case, gentlemen, have the kindness to retire into the corners, so as to give us ample room. We shall require it.”

“Yes, gentlemen,” said D’Artagnan, “we must not leave this person the slightest pretext for behaving badly, which, with all due respect, I fancy he is anxious still to do.”

This new attack made no impression on Mordaunt. The space was cleared, the two lamps placed on Cromwell’s desk, in order that the combatants might have as much light as possible; and the swords crossed.

D’Artagnan was too good a swordsman to trifle with his opponent. He made a rapid and brilliant feint which Mordaunt parried.

“Aha!” he cried with a smile of satisfaction.

And without losing a minute, thinking he saw an opening, he thrust his right in and forced Mordaunt to parry a counter en quarte so fine that the point of the weapon might have turned within a wedding ring.

This time it was Mordaunt who smiled.

“Ah, sir,” said D’Artagnan, “you have a wicked smile. It must have been the devil who taught it you, was it not?”

Mordaunt replied by trying his opponent’s weapon with an amount of strength which the Gascon was astonished to find in a form apparently so feeble; but thanks to a parry no less clever than that which Mordaunt had just achieved, he succeeded in meeting his sword, which slid along his own without touching his chest.

Mordaunt rapidly sprang back a step.

“Ah! you lose ground, you are turning? Well, as you please, I even gain something by it, for I no longer see that wicked smile of yours. You have no idea what a false look you have, particularly when you are afraid. Look at my eyes and you will see what no looking-glass has ever shown you--a frank and honorable countenance.”

To this flow of words, not perhaps in the best taste, but characteristic of D’Artagnan, whose principal object was to divert his opponent’s attention, Mordaunt did not reply, but continuing to turn around he succeeded in changing places with D’Artagnan.

He smiled more and more sarcastically and his smile began to make the Gascon anxious.

“Come, come,” cried D’Artagnan, “we must finish with this,” and in his turn he pressed Mordaunt hard, who continued to lose ground, but evidently on purpose and without letting his sword leave the line for a moment. However, as they were fighting in a room and had not space to go on like that forever, Mordaunt’s foot at last touched the wall, against which he rested his left hand.

“Ah, this time you cannot lose ground, my fine friend!” exclaimed D’Artagnan. “Gentlemen, did you ever see a scorpion pinned to a wall? No. Well, then, you shall see it now.”

In a second D’Artagnan had made three terrible thrusts at Mordaunt, all of which touched, but only pricked him. The three friends looked on, panting and astonished. At last D’Artagnan, having got up too close, stepped back to prepare a fourth thrust, but the moment when, after a fine, quick feint, he was attacking as sharply as lightning, the wall seemed to give way, Mordaunt disappeared through the opening, and D’Artagnan’s blade, caught between the panels, shivered like a sword of glass. D’Artagnan sprang back; the wall had closed again.

Mordaunt, in fact, while defending himself, had manoeuvred so as to reach the secret door by which Cromwell had left, had felt for the knob with his left hand, pressed it and disappeared.

The Gascon uttered a furious imprecation, which was answered by a wild laugh on the other side of the iron panel.

“Help me, gentlemen,” cried D’Artagnan, “we must break in this door.”

“It is the devil in person!” said Aramis, hastening forward.

“He escapes us,” growled Porthos, pushing his huge shoulder against the hinges, but in vain. “‘Sblood! he escapes us.”

“So much the better,” muttered Athos.

“I thought as much,” said D’Artagnan, wasting his strength in useless efforts. “Zounds, I thought as much when the wretch kept moving around the room. I thought he was up to something.”

“It’s a misfortune, to which his friend, the devil, treats us,” said Aramis.

“It’s a piece of good fortune sent from Heaven,” said Athos, evidently much relieved.

“Really!” said D’Artagnan, abandoning the attempt to burst open the panel after several ineffectual attempts, “Athos, I cannot imagine how you can talk to us in that way. You cannot understand the position we are in. In this kind of game, not to kill is to let one’s self be killed. This fox of a fellow will be sending us a hundred iron-sided beasts who will pick us off like sparrows in this place. Come, come, we must be off. If we stay here five minutes more there’s an end of us.”

“Yes, you are right.”

“But where shall we go?” asked Porthos.

“To the hotel, to be sure, to get our baggage and horses; and from there, if it please God, to France, where, at least, I understand the architecture of the houses.”

So, suiting the action to the word, D’Artagnan thrust the remnant of his sword into its scabbard, picked up his hat and ran down the stairs, followed by the others.