In the meantime, the following had been taking place that same morning before daybreak, in the gloomy depths of the forest, on the section of road leading from Javené to Lécousse.
All the roads in le Bocage are sunken, but the highway from Javené to Parigné, through Lécousse, is one of the most completely embanked. Moreover, it is winding. It is a ravine rather than a road. It starts from Vitré, and once had the distinction of jolting Madame de Sevigné's coach. It is walled in, as it were, by hedges on right and left. No better place for an ambuscade.
This very morning, an hour before Michelle Fléchard, from another part of the forest, reached the village where she had seen the sepulchral vision of the cart escorted by mounted men, the thickets through which the Javené highway runs, after crossing the bridge over the Couesnou, were full of invisible men. All were hidden by interlacing branches.
These men were all peasants, dressed in the grigo, that sheepskin jacket worn by the Breton kings in the sixth century, and the peasants in the eighteenth. These men were armed; some with guns, others with axes. Those who had the axes had just made, in a clearing, a sort of funeral pyre of dry sticks and logs, all ready for the fire. Those who had guns were grouped on both sides of the road, in expectant attitudes. Any one who could have peered through the foliage would have seen everywhere fingers on triggers, and muzzles of carbines pointed through the embrasures made by the interlacing boughs. These men were lying in wait. All their guns were focussed on the road, which began to gleam white in the morning dawn.
In the twilight, muffled voices were conversing.
"Are you sure of this?"
"Surely; that is what they say."
"Will it pass by here?"
"They say it's in these parts."
"It must not leave."
"We must burn it."
"Here are three villages met for that,"
"Yes, but the escort?"
"The escort must be killed."
"But is it coming this way?"
"That's what they say."
"It'll come from Vitré, then?"
"Why, they said it was coming from Fougéres."
"Whether from Fougéres or Yitré, it comes from the devil."
"And must go back to him."
"Was it going to Parigné?"
"So it seems."
"It won't get there."
"No, no, no."
Indeed, prudence was now becoming imperative, for day was breaking.
Suddenly, the men in ambush held their breath. A noise of wheels and horses was heard. They peered through the branches and could indistinctly see a long wagon, an escort on horseback, something on the wagon; it was coming toward them.
"There it is!" said the one who appeared to be the chief.
"Yes," said one of the men on the watch, "with the escort."
"How many men in the escort?"
"They said there were twenty."
"Twelve or twenty, let us kill them all."
"Wait till they are in full range."
Soon after, at a turn in the road, the wagon and escort appeared.
"Long live the king!" cried the chief peasant.
A hundred guns fired at once.
When the smoke disappeared, the escort had disappeared too. Seven of the horsemen had fallen, five had fled. The peasants ran to the wagon.
"Hold on," cried the chief; "it is not the guillotine. It is a ladder."
The wagon, indeed, had for its sole burden a long ladder.
The two horses had fallen, wounded; the driver had been killed, but not purposely.
"It's all the same," said the chief, "a ladder with an escort is suspicious. It was going toward Parigné. It was for scaling la Tourgue, most certainly."
"Let us burn the ladder," cried the peasants.
As for the funereal wagon, which they were looking for, It took another road and was already two leagues away, in the village where Michelle Fléchard saw it passing along at sunrise.