"That's very simple," replied Athos. "As soon as the enemy are within musket shot, we must fire upon them. If they continue to advance, we must fire again. We must fire as long as we have loaded guns. If those who remain of the troop persist in coming to the assault, we will allow the besiegers to get as far as the ditch, and then we will push down upon their heads that strip of wall which keeps its perpendicular by a miracle."
"Bravo!" cried Porthos. "Decidedly, Athos, you were born to be a general, and the cardinal, who fancies himself a great soldier, is nothing beside you."
"Gentlemen," said Athos, "no divided attention, I beg; let each one pick out his man."
"I cover mine," said d'Artagnan.
"And I mine," said Porthos.
"And I mine," said Aramis.
"Fire, then," said Athos.
The four muskets made but one report, but four men fell.
The drum immediately beat, and the little troop advanced at charging pace.
Then the shots were repeated without regularity, but always aimed with the same accuracy. Nevertheless, as if they had been aware of the numerical weakness of the friends, the Rochellais continued to advance in quick time.
With every three shots at least two men fell; but the march of those who remained was not slackened.
Arrived at the foot of the bastion, there were still more than a dozen of the enemy. A last discharge welcomed them, but did not stop them; they jumped into the ditch, and prepared to scale the breach.
"Now, my friends," said Athos, "finish them at a blow. To the wall; to the wall!"
And the four friends, seconded by Grimaud, pushed with the barrels of their muskets an enormous sheet of the wall, which bent as if pushed by the wind, and detaching itself from its base, fell with a horrible crash into the ditch. Then a fearful crash was heard; a cloud of dust mounted toward the sky — and all was over!
"Can we have destroyed them all, from the first to the last?" said Athos.
"My faith, it appears so!" said d'Artagnan.
"No," cried Porthos; "there go three or four, limping away."
In fact, three or four of these unfortunate men, covered with dirt and blood, fled along the hollow way, and at length regained the city. These were all who were left of the little troop.
Athos looked at his watch.
"Gentlemen," said he, "we have been here an hour, and our wager is won; but we will be fair players. Besides, d'Artagnan has not told us his idea yet."
And the Musketeer, with his usual coolness, reseated himself before the remains of the breakfast.
"My idea?" said d'Artagnan.
"Yes; you said you had an idea," said Athos.
"Oh, I remember," said d'Artagnan. "Well, I will go to England a second time; I will go and find Buckingham."
"You shall not do that, d'Artagnan," said Athos, coolly.
"And why not? Have I not been there once?"
"Yes; but at that period we were not at war. At that period Buckingham was an ally, and not an enemy. What you would now do amounts to treason."
D'Artagnan perceived the force of this reasoning, and was silent.
"But," said Porthos, "I think I have an idea, in my turn."
"Silence for Monsieur Porthos's idea!" said Aramis.
"I will ask leave of absence of Monsieur de Treville, on some pretext or other which you must invent; I am not very clever at pretexts. Milady does not know me; I will get access to her without her suspecting me, and when I catch my beauty, I will strangle her."
"Well," replied Athos, "I am not far from approving the idea of Monsieur Porthos."
"For shame!" said Aramis. "Kill a woman? No, listen to me; I have the true idea."
"Let us see your idea, Aramis," said Athos, who felt much deference for the young Musketeer.
"We must inform the queen."
"Ah, my faith, yes!" said Porthos and d'Artagnan, at the same time; "we are coming nearer to it now."
"Inform the queen!" said Athos; "and how? Have we relations with the court? Could we send anyone to Paris without its being known in the camp? From here to Paris it is a hundred and forty leagues; before our letter was at Angers we should be in a dungeon."
"As to remitting a letter with safety to her Majesty," said Aramis, coloring, "I will take that upon myself. I know a clever person at Tours — "
Aramis stopped on seeing Athos smile.
"Well, do you not adopt this means, Athos?" said d'Artagnan.
"I do not reject it altogether," said Athos; "but I wish to remind Aramis that he cannot quit the camp, and that nobody but one of ourselves is trustworthy; that two hours after the messenger has set out, all the Capuchins, all the police, all the black caps of the cardinal, will know your letter by heart, and you and your clever person will be arrested."
"Without reckoning," objected Porthos, "that the queen would save Monsieur de Buckingham, but would take no heed of us."
"Gentlemen," said d'Artagnan, "what Porthos says is full of sense."
"Ah, ah! but what's going on in the city yonder?" said Athos.
"They are beating the general alarm."
The four friends listened, and the sound of the drum plainly reached them.
"You see, they are going to send a whole regiment against us," said Athos.
"You don't think of holding out against a whole regiment, do you?" said Porthos.
"Why not?" said Musketeer. "I feel myself quite in a humor for it; and I would hold out before an army if we had taken the precaution to bring a dozen more bottles of wine."
"Upon my word, the drum draws near," said d'Artagnan.
"Let it come," said Athos. "It is a quarter of an hour's journey from here to the city, consequently a quarter of an hour's journey from the city to hither. That is more than time enough for us to devise a plan. If we go from this place we shall never find another so suitable. Ah, stop! I have it, gentlemen; the right idea has just occurred to me."
"Allow me to give Grimaud some indispensable orders."
Athos made a sign for his lackey to approach.
"Grimaud," said Athos, pointing to the bodies which lay under the wall of the bastion, "take those gentlemen, set them up against the wall, put their hats upon their heads, and their guns in their hands."
"Oh, the great man!" cried d'Artagnan. "I comprehend now."
"You comprehend?" said Porthos.
"And do you comprehend, Grimaud?" said Aramis.
Grimaud made a sign in the affirmative.
"That's all that is necessary," said Athos; "now for my idea."