When he awoke it was day.
The beggar was up, not in the hut, for there was not room to stand upright there, but outside near the entrance. He was leaning on his stick. The sun shone on his face.
"Monseigneur," said Tellmarch, "it has just struck four from the belfry of Tanis. I heard the four strokes. So the wind has changed, it is blowing off shore: I hear no other sound, so the tocsin has ceased. Everything is quiet at the farm and in the hamlet of Herbe-en-Pail. The Blues are either asleep, or have gone. The worst of the danger is over; it would be wise for us to separate. It is my time for going away."
He indicated a point on the horizon.
"I am going that way."
He pointed in the opposite direction.
"You must go this way."
The beggar saluted the marquis solemnly.
Pointing to what was left of the supper he added: "Carry the chestnuts with you, if you are hungry."
A moment later, he had disappeared among the trees.
The marquis rose and went in the direction Tellmarch had pointed out to him.
It was the charming morning hour called in the old Norman peasant tongue, the "piperette du jour,"—the song sparrow of the day. The finches and hedge sparrows were chirping. The marquis followed the path by which they had come the night before. He left the thicket and was again at the parting of the roads marked by the stone cross. The placard was still there, white and almost gay in the light of the rising sun. He remembered that there was something at the bottom of the placard which he could not read the evening before because the letters were so small, and there was so little light. He went up to the pedestal of the cross. The placard ended, just under the signature, "Preur de la Marne" with these two lines in small characters: "The identity of the former Marquis de Lantenac verified, he will be immediately executed. Signed: Chief of battalion, commanding the reconnoitring column, Gauvain."
"Gauvain!" said the Marquis.
He stopped in deep amazement, his eyes fastened on the placard.
"Gauvain!" he repeated.
He started off, turned back, looked at the cross, retraced his steps and read the placard once more.
Then he walked slowly away. If any one had been near him, they would have heard him murmur in an undertone: "Gauvain!"
At the foot of the cross road where he was stealing along, the roofs of the farm, which lay behind him to his left, could not be seen. He was skirting a steep height, all covered with furze in bloom, of the species called long-thorn. The summit of this height was one of those points of land called in the country a hure or head. At the foot of the height the view was abruptly lost in the trees. The foliage was, as it were, soaked in light. All nature rejoices deeply in the morning.
Suddenly, the landscape became terrible. It was like an ambuscade bursting forth. A strange deluge of wild cries and gunshots fell over the fields and woods full of sunlight, and in the direction of the farm a great smoke pierced by bright flames arose, as if the hamlet and the farm were nothing but a bundle of straw burning. It was sudden and fearful, an abrupt change from peace to madness, a burst of hell in the clear dawn, a horror with, out warning. They were fighting near Herbe-en-Pail. The marquis stopped.
There is no one, who, under similiar circumstances would not have felt that curiosity is stronger than danger; one must know, if he has to die in consequence. He climbed up the height, at the foot of which passed the hollow path. From there he might be seen, but he could see. In a few moments he was on the "hure." He looked about him.
To be sure there was firing and a fire. The noise could be heard, the fire could be seen. The farm was the centre of some strange calamity. What was it? Was the farm of Herbe-en-Pail attacked? And by whom? Was it a battle? Was it not rather a military execution? The Blues, as they had been ordered by a revolutionary decree, very often punished refactory farms and villages by setting them on fire; to make an example of them they burned every farm and every hamlet which had not felled the trees prescribed by law, and which had not opened passages through the thickets for the republican cavalry. This had been notably carried out, and very recently, in the parish of Bourgon, near Ernée. Was Herbe-en-Pail in the same condition? It was evident that none of the strategic openings ordered by the decree had been made in the thickets and hedges of Tanis and Herbe-en-Pail. Was this the punishment? Had the advance guard now occupying the farm received orders? Was not this advance-guard a part of one of those investigating columns called colonnes infernales, or columns of hell.
The height on the summit of which the marquis had taken up his place of observation, was surrounded on every side by a very wild, dense thicket. This thicket, called the grove of Herbe-en-Pail, but which had the proportions of a wood, extended as far as the farm, and hid in its depths, like all Breton thickets, a network of ravines, paths, and byways, labyrinths where the republican armies would lose themselves.
The execution, if it were an execution, must have been cruel, for it was short. Like all brutal things it was soon over. The atrocity of civil warfare admits of such cruelties. While the marquis, multiplying his conjectures, hesitating to go down, hesitating to remain, was listening and watching, this din of extermination ceased, or rather was dispersed. The marquis was aware of something in the thicket like the scattering of an infuriated and joyous troop. There was a frightful swarming under the trees. They were rushing from the farm into the woods. Drums were beating. No more firing was heard. It was now like a battue; they seemed to be hunting about, pursuing, tracking; it was evident that they were in search of some one: the noise was widespread and deep; it was a medley of words of anger and of triumph, a clamorous uproar; nothing could be distinguished; suddenly, as a feature stands out against smoke, something became articulate and certain in this tumult. It was a name,—a name repeated by a thousand voices, and the marquis heard clearly this cry,—
"Lantenac! Lantenac! the Marquis de Lantenac!"
He was the one for whom they were searching.