"Company of Treville."
"Advance, and give an account of what you are doing here at this hour."
The three companions advanced rather humbly — for all were now convinced that they had to do with someone more powerful than themselves — leaving Athos the post of speaker.
One of the two riders, he who had spoken second, was ten paces in front of his companion. Athos made a sign to Porthos and Aramis also to remain in the rear, and advanced alone.
"Your pardon, my officer," said Athos; "but we were ignorant with whom we had to do, and you may see that we were good guard."
"Your name?" said the officer, who covered a part of his face with his cloak.
"But yourself, monsieur," said Athos, who began to be annoyed by this inquisition, "give me, I beg you, the proof that you have the right to question me."
"Your name?" repeated the cavalier a second time, letting his cloak fall, and leaving his face uncovered.
"Monsieur the Cardinal!" cried the stupefied Musketeer.
"Your name?" cried his Eminence, for the third time.
"Athos," said the Musketeer.
The cardinal made a sign to his attendant, who drew near. "These three Musketeers shall follow us," said he, in an undertone. "I am not willing it should be known I have left the camp; and if they follow us we shall be certain they will tell nobody."
"We are gentlemen, monseigneur," said Athos; "require our parole, and give yourself no uneasiness. Thank God, we can keep a secret."
The cardinal fixed his piercing eyes on this courageous speaker.
"You have a quick ear, Monsieur Athos," said the cardinal; "but now listen to this. It is not from mistrust that I request you to follow me, but for my security. Your companions are no doubt Messieurs Porthos and Aramis."
"Yes, your Eminence," said Athos, while the two Musketeers who had remained behind advanced hat in hand.
"I know you, gentlemen," said the cardinal, "I know you. I know you are not quite my friends, and I am sorry you are not so; but I know you are brave and loyal gentlemen, and that confidence may be placed in you. Monsieur Athos, do me, then, the honor to accompany me; you and your two friends, and then I shall have an escort to excite envy in his Majesty, if we should meet him."
The three Musketeers bowed to the necks of their horses.
"Well, upon my honor," said Athos, "your Eminence is right in taking us with you; we have seen several ill-looking faces on the road, and we have even had a quarrel at the Red Dovecot with four of those faces."
"A quarrel, and what for, gentlemen?" said the cardinal; "you know I don't like quarrelers."
"And that is the reason why I have the honor to inform your Eminence of what has happened; for you might learn it from others, and upon a false account believe us to be in fault."
"What have been the results of your quarrel?" said the cardinal, knitting his brow.
"My friend, Aramis, here, has received a slight sword wound in the arm, but not enough to prevent him, as your Eminence may see, from mounting to the assault tomorrow, if your Eminence orders an escalade."
"But you are not the men to allow sword wounds to be inflicted upon you thus," said the cardinal. "Come, be frank, gentlemen, you have settled accounts with somebody! Confess; you know I have the right of giving absolution."
"I, monseigneur?" said Athos. "I did not even draw my sword, but I took him who offended me round the body, and threw him out of the window. It appears that in falling," continued Athos, with some hesitation, "he broke his thigh."
"Ah, ah!" said the cardinal; "and you, Monsieur Porthos?"
"I, monseigneur, knowing that dueling is prohibited — I seized a bench, and gave one of those brigands such a blow that I believe his shoulder is broken."
"Very well," said the cardinal; "and you, Monsieur Aramis?"
"Monseigneur, being of a very mild disposition, and being, likewise, of which Monseigneur perhaps is not aware, about to enter into orders, I endeavored to appease my comrades, when one of these wretches gave me a wound with a sword, treacherously, across my left arm. Then I admit my patience failed me; I drew my sword in my turn, and as he came back to the charge, I fancied I felt that in throwing himself upon me, he let it pass through his body. I only know for a certainty that he fell; and it seemed to me that he was borne away with his two companions."
"The devil, gentlemen!" said the cardinal, "three men placed hors de combat in a cabaret squabble! You don't do your work by halves. And pray what was this quarrel about?"
"These fellows were drunk," said Athos, "and knowing there was a lady who had arrived at the cabaret this evening, they wanted to force her door."
"Force her door!" said the cardinal, "and for what purpose?"
"To do her violence, without doubt," said Athos. "I have had the honor of informing your Eminence that these men were drunk."
"And was this lady young and handsome?" asked the cardinal, with a certain degree of anxiety.
"We did not see her, monseigneur," said Athos.
"You did not see her? Ah, very well," replied the cardinal, quickly. "You did well to defend the honor of a woman; and as I am going to the Red Dovecot myself, I shall know if you have told me the truth."
"Monseigneur," said Athos, haughtily, "we are gentlemen, and to save our heads we would not be guilty of a falsehood."
"Therefore I do not doubt what you say, Monsieur Athos, I do not doubt it for a single instant; but," added he, "to change the conversation, was this lady alone?"
"The lady had a cavalier shut up with her," said Athos, "but as notwithstanding the noise, this cavalier did not show himself, it is to be presumed that he is a coward."
"'Judge not rashly', says the Gospel," replied the cardinal.
"And now, gentlemen, that's well," continued the cardinal. "I know what I wish to know; follow me."
The three Musketeers passed behind his Eminence, who again enveloped his face in his cloak, and put his horse in motion, keeping from eight to ten paces in advance of his four companions.
They soon arrived at the silent, solitary inn. No doubt the host knew what illustrious visitor was expected, and had consequently sent intruders out of the way.
Ten paces from the door the cardinal made a sign to his esquire and the three Musketeers to halt. A saddled horse was fastened to the window shutter. The cardinal knocked three times, and in a peculiar manner.
A man, enveloped in a cloak, came out immediately, and exchanged some rapid words with the cardinal; after which he mounted his horse, and set off in the direction of Surgeres, which was likewise the way to Paris.
"Advance, gentlemen," said the cardinal.
"You have told me the truth, my gentlemen," said he, addressing the Musketeers, "and it will not be my fault if our encounter this evening be not advantageous to you. In the meantime, follow me."
The cardinal alighted; the three Musketeers did likewise. The cardinal threw the bridle of his horse to his esquire; the three Musketeers fastened the horses to the shutters.
The host stood at the door. For him, the cardinal was only an officer coming to visit a lady.
"Have you any chamber on the ground floor where these gentlemen can wait near a good fire?" said the cardinal.
The host opened the door of a large room, in which an old stove had just been replaced by a large and excellent chimney.
"I have this," said he.
"That will do," replied the cardinal. "Enter, gentlemen, and be kind enough to wait for me; I shall not be more than half an hour."
And while the three Musketeers entered the ground floor room, the cardinal, without asking further information, ascended the staircase like a man who has no need of having his road pointed out to him.