"Take care, Athos!" cried d'Artagnan; "don't you see they are aiming?"
"Yes, yes," said Athos; "but they are only civilians — very bad marksmen, who will be sure not to hit me."
In fact, at the same instant four shots were fired, and the balls were flattened against the wall around Athos, but not one touched him.
Four shots replied to them almost instantaneously, but much better aimed than those of the aggressors; three soldiers fell dead, and one of the pioneers was wounded.
"Grimaud," said Athos, still on the breach, "another musket!"
Grimaud immediately obeyed. On their part, the three friends had reloaded their arms; a second discharge followed the first. The brigadier and two pioneers fell dead; the rest of the troop took to flight.
"Now, gentlemen, a sortie!" cried Athos.
And the four friends rushed out of the fort, gained the field of battle, picked up the four muskets of the privates and the half-pike of the brigadier, and convinced that the fugitives would not stop till they reached the city, turned again toward the bastion, bearing with them the trophies of their victory.
"Reload the muskets, Grimaud," said Athos, "and we, gentlemen, will go on with our breakfast, and resume our conversation. Where were we?"
"I recollect you were saying," said d'Artagnan, "that after having demanded my head of the cardinal, Milady had quit the shores of France. Whither goes she?" added he, strongly interested in the route Milady followed.
"She goes into England," said Athos.
"With what view?"
"With the view of assassinating, or causing to be assassinated, the Duke of Buckingham."
D'Artagnan uttered an exclamation of surprise and indignation.
"But this is infamous!" cried he.
"As to that," said Athos, "I beg you to believe that I care very little about it. Now you have done, Grimaud, take our brigadier's half-pike, tie a napkin to it, and plant it on top of our bastion, that these rebels of Rochellais may see that they have to deal with brave and loyal soldiers of the king."
Grimaud obeyed without replying. An instant afterward, the white flag was floating over the heads of the four friends. A thunder of applause saluted its appearance; half the camp was at the barrier.
"How?" replied d'Artagnan, "you care little if she kills Buckingham or causes him to be killed? But the duke is our friend."
"The duke is English; the duke fights against us. Let her do what she likes with the duke; I care no more about him than an empty bottle." And Athos threw fifteen paces from him an empty bottle from which he had poured the last drop into his glass.
"A moment," said d'Artagnan. "I will not abandon Buckingham thus. He gave us some very fine horses."
"And moreover, very handsome saddles," said Porthos, who at the moment wore on his cloak the lace of his own.
"Besides," said Aramis, "God desires the conversion and not the death of a sinner."
"Amen!" said Athos, "and we will return to that subject later, if such be your pleasure; but what for the moment engaged my attention most earnestly, and I am sure you will understand me, d'Artagnan, was the getting from this woman a kind of carte blanche which she had extorted from the cardinal, and by means of which she could with impunity get rid of you and perhaps of us."
"But this creature must be a demon!" said Porthos, holding out his plate to Aramis, who was cutting up a fowl.
"And this carte blanche," said d'Artagnan, "this carte blanche, does it remain in her hands?"
"No, it passed into mine; I will not say without trouble, for if I did I should tell a lie."
"My dear Athos, I shall no longer count the number of times I am indebted to you for my life."
"Then it was to go to her that you left us?" said Aramis.
"And you have that letter of the cardinal?" said d'Artagnan.
"Here it is," said Athos; and he took the invaluable paper from the pocket of his uniform. D'Artagnan unfolded it with one hand, whose trembling he did not even attempt to conceal, to read:
Dec. 3, 1627
It is by my order and for the good of the state that the bearer of this has done what he has done.
"In fact," said Aramis, "it is an absolution according to rule."
"That paper must be torn to pieces," said d'Artagnan, who fancied he read in it his sentence of death.
"On the contrary," said Athos, "it must be preserved carefully. I would not give up this paper if covered with as many gold pieces."
"And what will she do now?" asked the young man.
"Why," replied Athos, carelessly, "she is probably going to write to the cardinal that a damned Musketeer, named Athos, has taken her safe-conduct from her by force; she will advise him in the same letter to get rid of his two friends, Aramis and Porthos, at the same time. The cardinal will remember that these are the same men who have often crossed his path; and then some fine morning he will arrest d'Artagnan, and for fear he should feel lonely, he will send us to keep him company in the Bastille."
"Go to! It appears to me you make dull jokes, my dear," said Porthos.
"I do not jest," said Athos.
"Do you know," said Porthos, "that to twist that damned Milady's neck would be a smaller sin than to twist those of these poor devils of Huguenots, who have committed no other crime than singing in French the psalms we sing in Latin?"
"What says the abbe?" asked Athos, quietly.
"I say I am entirely of Porthos's opinion," replied Aramis.
"And I, too," said d'Artagnan.
"Fortunately, she is far off," said Porthos, "for I confess she would worry me if she were here."
"She worries me in England as well as in France," said Athos.
"She worries me everywhere," said d'Artagnan.
"But when you held her in your power, why did you not drown her, strangle her, hang her?" said Porthos. "It is only the dead who do not return."
"You think so, Porthos?" replied the Musketeer, with a sad smile which d'Artagnan alone understood.
"I have an idea," said d'Artagnan.
"What is it?" said the Musketeers.
"To arms!" cried Grimaud.
The young men sprang up, and seized their muskets.
This time a small troop advanced, consisting of from twenty to twenty-five men; but they were not pioneers, they were soldiers of the garrison.
"Shall we return to the camp?" said Porthos. "I don't think the sides are equal."
"Impossible, for three reasons," replied Athos. "The first, that we have not finished breakfast; the second, that we still have some very important things to say; and the third, that it yet wants ten minutes before the lapse of the hour."
"Well, then," said Aramis, "we must form a plan of battle."