NEVER PUT A WATCH AND A KEY IN THE SAME POCKET.
The Marquis de Lantenac was not so far away as they thought.
He was, nevertheless, perfectly safe, and beyond their reach.
He had followed Halmalo.
The stairway down which he had gone with Halmalo, after the other fugitives, ended very near the ravine and the arches of the bridge, by a narrow arched passageway. This passageway terminated in a deep natural fissure in the ground, opening into the ravine on one side, and on the other into the forest.
This fissure, entirely concealed from sight, wound under impenetrable vegetation. It would be impossible to capture a man there. A fugitive, having once reached this fissure had only to crawl away like an adder, and was safe from pursuit. The entrance to the secret passage from the stairway was so obstructed by brambles that those who had made this subterranean passage considered it useless to close it in any other way.
The marquis had nothing to do now but to go on. There was no need of troubling himself about a disguise. Since his arrival in Brittany, he had not taken off his peasant's costume, considering himself thus more of a great seigneur.
He merely took off his sword, the belt of which he unfastened and threw down.
When Halmalo and the marquis emerged from the passage into the fissure, the five others, Guinoiseau, Hoisnard Branche-d'Or, Brin-d' Amour, Chatenay, and the Abbé Turmeau had disappeared.
"They were not long in getting away," said Halmalo.
"Follow their example," said the marquis.
"Does monseigneur wish me to leave him?"
"Certainly. I have already told you so. One can only escape alone. One can pass when two cannot. Together, we should attract attention. You would be the cause of their capturing me, and I should be the cause of their capturing you."
"Does monseigneur know the country?"
"Will monseigneur go to the rendezvous at the Pierre-Gauvain?"
"To-morrow, at noon."
"I shall be there. We shall be there."
Halmalo interrupted himself.
"Ah! monseigneur, when I think that we were together on the open sea, that we were alone, that I wanted to kill you, that you were my seigneur, that you could have told me so, and that you did not tell me! what a man you are!"
The marquis went on to say,—
"England; there is no other resource. The English must be in France in two weeks."
"I shall have many accounts to give to monseigneur. I have fulfilled his commissions."
"We will talk about that to-morrow."
"Good-bye till to-morrow, monseigneur."
"By the way, are you hungry?"
"Possibly, monseigneur. I was in such haste to reach you that I do not know that I have eaten anything today."
The marquis took a cake of chocolate from his pocket, broke it in two, gave one half to Halmalo, and began to eat the other.
"Monseigneur," said Halmalo, "to your right is the ravine, to your left, the forest."
"Very good. Leave me. Go your way."
Halmalo obeyed. He plunged into the darkness. A sound of brambles crackling was heard, then nothing more. After a few seconds it would have been impossible to retrace his footsteps. This land of the Bocage, rough and inextricable, was the fugitive's aid. People did not disappear there; they vanished. It was this facility for swift passing out of sight which made our armies hesitate before this ever-retreating Vendée, and before its combatants—such formidable fugitives.
The marquis remained motionless. He was one of those men who tried to have no feelings; but he could not restrain the emotion of breathing free air after having breathed so much blood and carnage. To feel himself perfectly safe after having been completely lost; after seeing the tomb so near, to take possession of absolute security; to escape from death and come back to life, all this, even for a man like Lantenac, was a shock; and although he had passed through similar experience before, he could not restrain his imperturbable soul from violent emotion for some minutes. He acknowledged to himself, that he was happy. He quickly subdued this feeling which almost resembled joy.
He took out his watch and made it strike. What time was it?
To his great astonishment, it was only ten o'clock.
When one has gone through one of these sudden changes of fortune in human life, when everything has been questioned, one is always amazed to find that minutes so full are no longer than others.
The warning cannon had been fired a little before sunset, and La Tourgue had been approached by the attacking column a half-hour later, between seven and eight o'clock just at nightfall. So, this colossal struggle, begun at eight o'clock, was over at ten. This whole epopée had lasted one hundred and twenty minutes. Sometimes the rapidity of lightning is mingled with catastrophes. Events are so surprisingly short.
If we stop to reflect, it is the contrary which is really astonishing; a resistance of two hours with so small a number against a number so large was extraordinary, and surely it was not short or soon over, this battle of nineteen against four thousand.
But it was time to be on his way. Halmalo must be far distant, and the marquis decided that there was no need of staying there any longer. He put his watch back into his vest, not into the same pocket, for he had just noticed that it was in contact with the key of the iron door, which l'Imânus had brought to him, and that the crystal of his watch was liable to be broken against this key, and he prepared to reach the forest in his turn. As he was about to turn to the left, it seemed to him as if he saw a dim light.
He turned around and through the thicket, clearly defined against a red background, and suddenly made visible in its least details, he saw a great blaze in the ravine. Only a few strides separated him from the ravine. He went towards it, then changed his mind, finding that it was of no use to expose himself to this bright light; whatever it might be it did not concern him, after all; he took the direction which Halmalo had shown him, and went a few steps toward the forest.
Suddenly, deeply buried and hidden under the brambles as he was, he heard a terrible cry above his head; this cry seemed to come from the very edge of the plateau above the ravine. The marquis raised his eyes, and stopped.