"I should like, however, to comprehend," said Porthos.
"That is useless."
"Yes, yes! Athos's idea!" cried Aramis and d'Artagnan, at the same time.
"This Milady, this woman, this creature, this demon, has a brother-in-law, as I think you told me, d'Artagnan?"
"Yes, I know him very well; and I also believe that he has not a very warm affection for his sister-in-law."
"There is no harm in that. If he detested her, it would be all the better," replied Athos.
"In that case we are as well off as we wish."
"And yet," said Porthos, "I would like to know what Grimaud is about."
"Silence, Porthos!" said Aramis.
"What is her brother-in-law's name?"
"Lord de Winter."
"Where is he now?"
"He returned to London at the first sound of war."
"Well, there's just the man we want," said Athos. "It is he whom we must warn. We will have him informed that his sister-in-law is on the point of having someone assassinated, and beg him not to lose sight of her. There is in London, I hope, some establishment like that of the Magdalens, or of the Repentant Daughters. He must place his sister in one of these, and we shall be in peace."
"Yes," said d'Artagnan, "till she comes out."
"Ah, my faith!" said Athos, "you require too much, d'Artagnan. I have given you all I have, and I beg leave to tell you that this is the bottom of my sack."
"But I think it would be still better," said Aramis, "to inform the queen and Lord de Winter at the same time."
"Yes; but who is to carry the letter to Tours, and who to London?"
"I answer for Bazin," said Aramis.
"And I for Planchet," said d'Artagnan.
"Ay," said Porthos, "if we cannot leave the camp, our lackeys may."
"To be sure they may; and this very day we will write the letters," said Aramis. "Give the lackeys money, and they will start."
"We will give them money?" replied Athos. "Have you any money?"
The four friends looked at one another, and a cloud came over the brows which but lately had been so cheerful.
"Look out!" cried d'Artagnan, "I see black points and red points moving yonder. Why did you talk of a regiment, Athos? It is a veritable army!"
"My faith, yes," said Athos; "there they are. See the sneaks come, without drum or trumpet. Ah, ah! have you finished, Grimaud?"
Grimaud made a sign in the affirmative, and pointed to a dozen bodies which he had set up in the most picturesque attitudes. Some carried arms, others seemed to be taking aim, and the remainder appeared merely to be sword in hand.
"Bravo!" said Athos; "that does honor to your imagination."
"All very well," said Porthos, "but I should like to understand."
"Let us decamp first, and you will understand afterward."
"A moment, gentlemen, a moment; give Grimaud time to clear away the breakfast."
"Ah, ah!" said Aramis, "the black points and the red points are visibly enlarging. I am of d'Artagnan's opinion; we have no time to lose in regaining our camp."
"My faith," said Athos, "I have nothing to say against a retreat. We bet upon one hour, and we have stayed an hour and a half. Nothing can be said; let us be off, gentlemen, let us be off!"
Grimaud was already ahead, with the basket and the dessert. The four friends followed, ten paces behind him.
"What the devil shall we do now, gentlemen?" cried Athos.
"Have you forgotten anything?" said Aramis.
"The white flag, morbleu! We must not leave a flag in the hands of the enemy, even if that flag be but a napkin."
And Athos ran back to the bastion, mounted the platform, and bore off the flag; but as the Rochellais had arrived within musket range, they opened a terrible fire upon this man, who appeared to expose himself for pleasure's sake.
But Athos might be said to bear a charmed life. The balls passed and whistled all around him; not one struck him.
Athos waved his flag, turning his back on the guards of the city, and saluting those of the camp. On both sides loud cries arose — on the one side cries of anger, on the other cries of enthusiasm.
A second discharge followed the first, and three balls, by passing through it, made the napkin really a flag. Cries were heard from the camp, "Come down! come down!"
Athos came down; his friends, who anxiously awaited him, saw him returned with joy.
"Come along, Athos, come along!" cried d'Artagnan; "now we have found everything except money, it would be stupid to be killed."
But Athos continued to march majestically, whatever remarks his companions made; and they, finding their remarks useless, regulated their pace by his.
Grimaud and his basket were far in advance, out of the range of the balls.
At the end of an instant they heard a furious fusillade.
"What's that?" asked Porthos, "what are they firing at now? I hear no balls whistle, and I see nobody!"
"They are firing at the corpses," replied Athos.
"But the dead cannot return their fire."
"Certainly not! They will then fancy it is an ambuscade, they will deliberate; and by the time they have found out the pleasantry, we shall be out of the range of their balls. That renders it useless to get a pleurisy by too much haste."
"Oh, I comprehend now," said the astonished Porthos.
"That's lucky," said Athos, shrugging his shoulders.
On their part, the French, on seeing the four friends return at such a step, uttered cries of enthusiasm.
At length a fresh discharge was heard, and this time the balls came rattling among the stones around the four friends, and whistling sharply in their ears. The Rochellais had at last taken possession of the bastion.
"These Rochellais are bungling fellows," said Athos; "how many have we killed of them — a dozen?"
"How many did we crush under the wall?"
"Eight or ten."
"And in exchange for all that not even a scratch! Ah, but what is the matter with your hand, d'Artagnan? It bleeds, seemingly."
"Oh, it's nothing," said d'Artagnan.
"A spent ball?"
"Not even that."
"What is it, then?"
We have said that Athos loved d'Artagnan like a child, and this somber and inflexible personage felt the anxiety of a parent for the young man.