It was a stormy and dark night; vast clouds covered the heavens, concealing the stars; the moon would not rise till midnight.
Occasionally, by the light of a flash of lightning which gleamed along the horizon, the road stretched itself before them, white and solitary; the flash extinct, all remained in darkness.
Every minute Athos was forced to restrain d'Artagnan, constantly in advance of the little troop, and to beg him to keep in the line, which in an instant he again departed from. He had but one thought — to go forward; and he went.
They passed in silence through the little village of Festubert, where the wounded servant was, and then skirted the wood of Richebourg. At Herlier, Planchet, who led the column, turned to the left.
Several times Lord de Winter, Porthos, or Aramis, tried to talk with the man in the red cloak; but to every interrogation which they put to him he bowed, without response. The travelers then comprehended that there must be some reason why the unknown preserved such a silence, and ceased to address themselves to him.
The storm increased, the flashes succeeded one another more rapidly, the thunder began to growl, and the wind, the precursor of a hurricane, whistled in the plumes and the hair of the horsemen.
The cavalcade trotted on more sharply.
A little before they came to Fromelles the storm burst. They spread their cloaks. There remained three leagues to travel, and they did it amid torrents of rain.
D'Artagnan took off his hat, and could not be persuaded to make use of his cloak. He found pleasure in feeling the water trickle over his burning brow and over his body, agitated by feverish shudders.
The moment the little troop passed Goskal and were approaching the Port, a man sheltered beneath a tree detached himself from the trunk with which he had been confounded in the darkness, and advanced into the middle of the road, putting his finger on his lips.
Athos recognized Grimaud.
"What's the manner?" cried Athos. "Has she left Armentieres?"
Grimaud made a sign in the affirmative. D'Artagnan groaned his teeth.
"Silence, d'Artagnan!" said Athos. "I have charged myself with this affair. It is for me, then, to interrogate Grimaud."
"Where is she?" asked Athos.
Grimaud extended his hands in the direction of the Lys. "Far from here?" asked Athos.
Grimaud showed his master his forefinger bent.
"Alone?" asked Athos.
Grimaud made the sign yes.
"Gentlemen," said Athos, "she is alone within half a league of us, in the direction of the river."
"That's well," said d'Artagnan. "Lead us, Grimaud."
Grimaud took his course across the country, and acted as guide to the cavalcade.
At the end of five hundred paces, more or less, they came to a rivulet, which they forded.
By the aid of the lightning they perceived the village of Erquinheim.
"Is she there, Grimaud?" asked Athos.
Grimaud shook his head negatively.
"Silence, then!" cried Athos.
And the troop continued their route.
Another flash illuminated all around them. Grimaud extended his arm, and by the bluish splendor of the fiery serpent they distinguished a little isolated house on the banks of the river, within a hundred paces of a ferry.
One window was lighted.
"Here we are!" said Athos.
At this moment a man who had been crouching in a ditch jumped up and came towards them. It was Mousqueton. He pointed his finger to the lighted window.
"She is there," said he.
"And Bazin?" asked Athos.
"While I watched the window, he guarded the door."
"Good!" said Athos. "You are good and faithful servants."
Athos sprang from his horse, gave the bridle to Grimaud, and advanced toward the window, after having made a sign to the rest of the troop to go toward the door.
The little house was surrounded by a low, quickset hedge, two or three feet high. Athos sprang over the hedge and went up to the window, which was without shutters, but had the half-curtains closely drawn.
He mounted the skirting stone that his eyes might look over the curtain.
By the light of a lamp he saw a woman, wrapped in a dark mantle, seated upon a stool near a dying fire. Her elbows were placed upon a mean table, and she leaned her head upon her two hands, which were white as ivory.
He could not distinguish her countenance, but a sinister smile passed over the lips of Athos. He was not deceived; it was she whom he sought.
At this moment a horse neighed. Milady raised her head, saw close to the panes the pale face of Athos, and screamed.
Athos, perceiving that she knew him, pushed the window with his knee and hand. The window yielded. The squares were broken to shivers; and Athos, like the spectre of vengeance, leaped into the room.
Milady rushed to the door and opened it. More pale and menacing than Athos, d'Artagnan stood on the threshold.
Milady recoiled, uttering a cry. D'Artagnan, believing she might have means of flight and fearing she should escape, drew a pistol from his belt; but Athos raised his hand.
"Put back that weapon, d'Artagnan!" said he; "this woman must be tried, not assassinated. Wait an instant, my friend, and you shall be satisfied. Come in, gentlemen."
D'Artagnan obeyed; for Athos had the solemn voice and the powerful gesture of a judge sent by the Lord himself. Behind d'Artagnan entered Porthos, Aramis, Lord de Winter, and the man in the red cloak.
The four lackeys guarded the door and the window.
Milady had sunk into a chair, with her hands extended, as if to conjure this terrible apparition. Perceiving her brother-in-law, she uttered a terrible cry.
"What do you want?" screamed Milady.
"We want," said Athos, "Charlotte Backson, who first was called Comtesse de la Fere, and afterwards Milady de Winter, Baroness of Sheffield."
"That is I! that is I!" murmured Milady, in extreme terror; "what do you want?"
"We wish to judge you according to your crime," said Athos; "you shall be free to defend yourself. Justify yourself if you can. M. d'Artagnan, it is for you to accuse her first."
"Before God and before men," said he, "I accuse this woman of having poisoned Constance Bonacieux, who died yesterday evening."
He turned towards Porthos and Aramis.
"We bear witness to this," said the two Musketeers, with one voice.
D'Artagnan continued: "Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having attempted to poison me, in wine which she sent me from Villeroy, with a forged letter, as if that wine came from my friends. God preserved me, but a man named Brisemont died in my place."