D'Artagnan rushed toward the refreshment room, the three Musketeers and the two Guards following him.
The first object that met the eyes of d'Artagnan on entering the room was Brisemont, stretched upon the ground and rolling in horrible convulsions.
Planchet and Fourreau, as pale as death, were trying to give him succor; but it was plain that all assistance was useless — all the features of the dying man were distorted with agony.
"Ah!" cried he, on perceiving d'Artagnan, "ah! this is frightful! You pretend to pardon me, and you poison me!"
"I!" cried d'Artagnan. "I, wretch? What do you say?"
"I say that it was you who gave me the wine; I say that it was you who desired me to drink it. I say you wished to avenge yourself on me, and I say that it is horrible!"
"Do not think so, Brisemont," said d'Artagnan; "do not think so. I swear to you, I protest — "
"Oh, but God is above! God will punish you! My God, grant that he may one day suffer what I suffer!"
"Upon the Gospel," said d'Artagnan, throwing himself down by the dying man, "I swear to you that the wine was poisoned and that I was going to drink of it as you did."
"I do not believe you," cried the soldier, and he expired amid horrible tortures.
"Frightful! frightful!" murmured Athos, while Porthos broke the bottles and Aramis gave orders, a little too late, that a confessor should be sent for.
"Oh, my friends," said d'Artagnan, "you come once more to save my life, not only mine but that of these gentlemen. Gentlemen," continued he, addressing the Guardsmen, "I request you will be silent with regard to this adventure. Great personages may have had a hand in what you have seen, and if talked about, the evil would only recoil upon us."
"Ah, monsieur!" stammered Planchet, more dead than alive, "ah, monsieur, what an escape I have had!"
"How, sirrah! you were going to drink my wine?"
"To the health of the king, monsieur; I was going to drink a small glass of it if Fourreau had not told me I was called."
"Alas!" said Fourreau, whose teeth chattered with terror, "I wanted to get him out of the way that I might drink myself."
"Gentlemen," said d'Artagnan, addressing the Guardsmen, "you may easily comprehend that such a feast can only be very dull after what has taken place; so accept my excuses, and put off the party till another day, I beg of you."
The two Guardsmen courteously accepted d'Artagnan's excuses, and perceiving that the four friends desired to be alone, retired.
When the young Guardsman and the three Musketeers were without witnesses, they looked at one another with an air which plainly expressed that each of them perceived the gravity of their situation.
"In the first place," said Athos, "let us leave this chamber; the dead are not agreeable company, particularly when they have died a violent death."
"Planchet," said d'Artagnan, "I commit the corpse of this poor devil to your care. Let him be interred in holy ground. He committed a crime, it is true; but he repented of it."
And the four friends quit the room, leaving to Planchet and Fourreau the duty of paying mortuary honors to Brisemont.
The host gave them another chamber, and served them with fresh eggs and some water, which Athos went himself to draw at the fountain. In a few words, Porthos and Aramis were posted as to the situation.
"Well," said d'Artagnan to Athos, "you see, my dear friend, that this is war to the death."
Athos shook his head.
"Yes, yes," replied he, "I perceive that plainly; but do you really believe it is she?"
"I am sure of it."
"Nevertheless, I confess I still doubt."
"But the fleur-de-lis on her shoulder?"
"She is some Englishwoman who has committed a crime in France, and has been branded in consequence."
"Athos, she is your wife, I tell you," repeated d'Artagnan; "only reflect how much the two descriptions resemble each other."
"Yes; but I should think the other must be dead, I hanged her so effectually."
It was d'Artagnan who now shook his head in his turn.
"But in either case, what is to be done?" said the young man.
"The fact is, one cannot remain thus, with a sword hanging eternally over his head," said Athos. "We must extricate ourselves from this position."
"Listen! You must try to see her, and have an explanation with her. Say to her: 'Peace or war! My word as a gentleman never to say anything of you, never to do anything against you; on your side, a solemn oath to remain neutral with respect to me. If not, I will apply to the chancellor, I will apply to the king, I will apply to the hangman, I will move the courts against you, I will denounce you as branded, I will bring you to trial; and if you are acquitted, well, by the faith of a gentleman, I will kill you at the corner of some wall, as I would a mad dog.'"
"I like the means well enough," said d'Artagnan, "but where and how to meet with her?"
"Time, dear friend, time brings round opportunity; opportunity is the martingale of man. The more we have ventured the more we gain, when we know how to wait."
"Yes; but to wait surrounded by assassins and poisoners."
"Bah!" said Athos. "God has preserved us hitherto, God will preserve us still."
"Yes, we. Besides, we are men; and everything considered, it is our lot to risk our lives; but she," asked he, in an undertone.
"What she?" asked Athos.
"Madame Bonacieux! Ah, that's true!" said Athos. "My poor friend, I had forgotten you were in love."
"Well, but," said Aramis, "have you not learned by the letter you found on the wretched corpse that she is in a convent? One may be very comfortable in a convent; and as soon as the siege of La Rochelle is terminated, I promise you on my part — "
"Good," cried Athos, "good! Yes, my dear Aramis, we all know that your views have a religious tendency."
"I am only temporarily a Musketeer," said Aramis, humbly.
"It is some time since we heard from his mistress," said Athos, in a low voice. "But take no notice; we know all about that."
"Well," said Porthos, "it appears to me that the means are very simple."
"What?" asked d'Artagnan.
"You say she is in a convent?" replied Porthos.
"Very well. As soon as the siege is over, we'll carry her off from that convent."
"But we must first learn what convent she is in."
"That's true," said Porthos.
"But I think I have it," said Athos. "Don't you say, dear d'Artagnan, that it is the queen who has made choice of the convent for her?"
"I believe so, at least."
"In that case Porthos will assist us."
"And how so, if you please?"
"Why, by your marchioness, your duchess, your princess. She must have a long arm."
"Hush!" said Porthos, placing a finger on his lips. "I believe her to be a cardinalist; she must know nothing of the matter."
"Then," said Aramis, "I take upon myself to obtain intelligence of her."
"You, Aramis?" cried the three friends. "You! And how?"
"By the queen's almoner, to whom I am very intimately allied," said Aramis, coloring.
And on this assurance, the four friends, who had finished their modest repast, separated, with the promise of meeting again that evening. D'Artagnan returned to less important affairs, and the three Musketeers repaired to the king's quarters, where they had to prepare their lodging.