The noise became louder; the horses could not be more than a hundred and fifty paces distant. If they were not yet to be seen, it was because the road made an elbow. The noise became so distinct that the horses might be counted by the rattle of their hoofs.
Milady gazed with all the power of her attention; it was just light enough for her to see who was coming.
All at once, at the turning of the road she saw the glitter of laced hats and the waving of feathers; she counted two, then five, then eight horsemen. One of them preceded the rest by double the length of his horse.
Milady uttered a stifled groan. In the first horseman she recognized d'Artagnan.
"Oh, my God, my God," cried Mme. Bonacieux, "what is it?"
"It is the uniform of the cardinal's Guards. Not an instant to be lost! Fly, fly!"
"Yes, yes, let us fly!" repeated Mme. Bonacieux, but without being able to make a step, glued as she was to the spot by terror.
They heard the horsemen pass under the windows.
"Come, then, come, then!" cried Milady, trying to drag the young woman along by the arm. "Thanks to the garden, we yet can flee; I have the key, but make haste! in five minutes it will be too late!"
Mme. Bonacieux tried to walk, made two steps, and sank upon her knees. Milady tried to raise and carry her, but could not do it.
At this moment they heard the rolling of the carriage, which at the approach of the Musketeers set off at a gallop. Then three or four shots were fired.
"For the last time, will you come?" cried Milady.
"Oh, my God, my God! you see my strength fails me; you see plainly I cannot walk. Flee alone!"
"Flee alone, and leave you here? No, no, never!" cried Milady.
All at once she paused, a livid flash darted from her eyes; she ran to the table, emptied into Mme. Bonacieux's glass the contents of a ring which she opened with singular quickness. It was a grain of a reddish color, which dissolved immediately.
Then, taking the glass with a firm hand, she said, "Drink. This wine will give you strength, drink!" And she put the glass to the lips of the young woman, who drank mechanically.
"This is not the way that I wished to avenge myself," said Milady, replacing the glass upon the table, with an infernal smile, "but, my faith! we do what we can!" And she rushed out of the room.
Mme. Bonacieux saw her go without being able to follow her; she was like people who dream they are pursued, and who in vain try to walk.
A few moments passed; a great noise was heard at the gate. Every instant Mme. Bonacieux expected to see Milady, but she did not return. Several times, with terror, no doubt, the cold sweat burst from her burning brow.
At length she heard the grating of the hinges of the opening gates; the noise of boots and spurs resounded on the stairs. There was a great murmur of voices which continued to draw near, amid which she seemed to hear her own name pronounced.
All at once she uttered a loud cry of joy, and darted toward the door; she had recognized the voice of d'Artagnan.
"d'Artagnan! D'Artagnan!" cried she, "is it you? This way! this way!"
"Constance? Constance?" replied the young man, "where are you? where are you? My God!"
At the same moment the door of the cell yielded to a shock, rather than opened; several men rushed into the chamber. Mme. Bonacieux had sunk into an armchair, without the power of moving.
D'Artagnan threw down a yet-smoking pistol which he held in his hand, and fell on his knees before his mistress. Athos replaced his in his belt; Porthos and Aramis, who held their drawn swords in their hands, returned them to their scabbards.
"Oh, d'Artagnan, my beloved d'Artagnan! You have come, then, at last! You have not deceived me! It is indeed thee!"
"Yes, yes, Constance. Reunited!"
"Oh, it was in vain she told me you would not come! I hoped in silence. I was not willing to fly. Oh, I have done well! How happy I am!"
At this word SHE, Athos, who had seated himself quietly, started up.
"SHE! What she?" asked d'Artagnan.
"Why, my companion. She who out of friendship for me wished to take me from my persecutors. She who, mistaking you for the cardinal's Guards, has just fled away."
"Your companion!" cried d'Artagnan, becoming more pale than the white veil of his mistress. "Of what companion are you speaking, dear Constance?"
"Of her whose carriage was at the gate; of a woman who calls herself your friend; of a woman to whom you have told everything."
"Her name, her name!" cried d'Artagnan. "My God, can you not remember her name?"
"Yes, it was pronounced in my hearing once. Stop — but — it is very strange — oh, my God, my head swims! I cannot see!"
"Help, help, my friends! her hands are icy cold," cried d'Artagnan. "She is ill! Great God, she is losing her senses!"
While Porthos was calling for help with all the power of his strong voice, Aramis ran to the table to get a glass of water; but he stopped at seeing the horrible alteration that had taken place in the countenance of Athos, who, standing before the table, his hair rising from his head, his eyes fixed in stupor, was looking at one of the glasses, and appeared a prey to the most horrible doubt.
"Oh!" said Athos, "oh, no, it is impossible! God would not permit such a crime!"
"Water, water!" cried d'Artagnan. "Water!"
"Oh, poor woman, poor woman!" murmured Athos, in a broken voice.
Mme. Bonacieux opened her eyes under the kisses of d'Artagnan.
"She revives!" cried the young man. "Oh, my God, my God, I thank thee!"
"Madame!" said Athos, "madame, in the name of heaven, whose empty glass is this?"
"Mine, monsieur," said the young woman, in a dying voice.
"But who poured the wine for you that was in this glass?"
"But who is SHE?"
"Oh, I remember!" said Mme. Bonacieux, "the Comtesse de Winter."
The four friends uttered one and the same cry, but that of Athos dominated all the rest.
At that moment the countenance of Mme. Bonacieux became livid; a fearful agony pervaded her frame, and she sank panting into the arms of Porthos and Aramis.
D'Artagnan seized the hands of Athos with an anguish difficult to be described.
"And what do you believe?' His voice was stifled by sobs.
"I believe everything," said Athos biting his lips till the blood sprang to avoid sighing.
"d'Artagnan, d'Artagnan!" cried Mme. Bonacieux, "where art thou? Do not leave me! You see I am dying!"
D'Artagnan released the hands of Athos which he still held clasped in both his own, and hastened to her. Her beautiful face was distorted with agony; her glassy eyes had no longer their sight; a convulsive shuddering shook her whole body; the sweat rolled from her brow.
"In the name of heaven, run, call! Aramis! Porthos! Call for help!"
"Useless!" said Athos, "useless! For the poison which SHE pours there is no antidote."