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minute."

"Very good. Good-night, and a pleasant ride."

"Is he a trusty man, our friend the major?" asked Amos Green, glancing
back.

"True as steel."

"Then I would have a word with him." The American hurried back along
the way they had come, while De Catinat stood chafing at this
unnecessary delay. It was a full five minutes before his companion
joined him, and the fiery blood of the French soldier was hot with
impatience and anger.

"I think that perhaps you had best ride into Paris at your leisure, my
friend," said he. "If I go upon the king's service I cannot be delayed
whenever the whim takes you."

"I am sorry," answered the other quietly. "I had something to say to
your major, and I thought that maybe I might not see him again."

"Well, here are the horses," said the guardsman as he pushed open the
postern-gate. "Have you fed an watered them, Jacques?"

"Yes, my captain," answered the man who stood at their head.

"Boot and saddle, then, friend Green, and we shall not draw rein again
until we see the lights of Paris in front of us."

The soldier-groom peered through the darkness after them with a sardonic
smile upon his face. "You won't draw rein, won't you?" he muttered as
he turned away. "Well, we shall see about that, my captain; we shall
see about that."

For a mile or more the comrades galloped along, neck to neck and knee to
knee. A wind had sprung up from the westward, and the heavens were
covered with heavy gray clouds, which drifted swiftly across, a crescent
moon peeping fitfully from time to time between the rifts. Even during
these moments of brightness the road, shadowed as it was by heavy trees,
was very dark, but when the light was shut off it was hard, but for the
loom upon either side, to tell where it lay. De Catinat at least found
it so, and he peered anxiously over his horse's ears, and stooped his
face to the mane in his efforts to see his way.

"What do you make of the road?" he asked at last.

"It looks as if a good many carriage wheels had passed over it to-day."

"What! _Mon Dieu!_ Do you mean to say that you can see carriage wheels
there?"

"Certainly. Why not?"

"Why, man, I cannot see the road at all."

Amos Green laughed heartily. "When you have travelled in the woods by
night as often as I have," said he, "when to show a light may mean to
lose your hair, one comes to learn to use one's eyes."

"Then you had best ride on, and I shall keep just behind you.
So! _Hola!_ What is the matter now?"

There had been the sudden sharp snap of something breaking, and the
American had reeled for an instant in the saddle.

"It's one of my stirrup leathers. It has fallen."

"Can you find it?"

"Yes; but I can ride as well without it. Let us push on."

"Very good. I can just see you now."

They had galloped for about five minutes in this fashion, De Catinat's
horse's head within a few feet of the other's tail, when there was a
second snap, and the guardsman rolled out of the saddle on to the
ground. He kept his grip of the reins, however, and was up in an
instant at his horse's head, sputtering out oaths as only an angry
Frenchman can.

"A thousand thunders of heaven!" he cried. "What was it that happened
then?"

"Your leather has gone too."

"Two stirrup leathers in five minutes? It is not possible."

"It is not possible that it should be chance," said the American
gravely, swinging himself off his horse. "Why, what is this? My other
leather is cut, and hangs only by a thread."

"And so does mine. I can feel it when I pass my hand along. Have you a
tinder-box? Let us strike a light."

"No, no; the man who is in the dark is in safety. I let the other folk
strike lights. We can see all that is needful to us."

"My rein is cut also."

"And so is mine."

"And the girth of my saddle."

"It is a wonder that we came so far with whole bones. Now, who has
played us this little trick?"

"Who could it be but that rogue Jacques! He has had the horses in his
charge. By my faith, he shall know what the strappado means when I see
Versailles again."

"But why should he do it?"

"Ah, he has been set on to it. He has been a tool in the hands of those
who wished to hinder our journey."

"Very like. But they must have had some reason behind. They knew well
that to cut our straps would not prevent us from reaching Paris, since
we could ride bareback, or, for that matter, could run it if need be."

"They hoped to break our necks."

"One neck they might break, but scarce those of two, since the fate of
the one would warn the other."

"Well, then, what do you think that they meant?" cried De Catinat
impatiently. "For heaven's sake, let us come to some conclusion, for
every minute is of importance."

But the other was not to be hurried out of his cool, methodical fashion
of speech and of thought.

"They could not have thought to stop us," said he.

"What did they mean, then? They could only have meant to delay us.
And why should they wish to delay us? What could it matter to them if
we gave our message an hour or two sooner or an hour or two later?
It could not matter."

"For heaven's sake - " broke in De Catinat impetuously.

But Amos Green went on hammering the matter slowly out.

"Why should they wish to delay us, then? There's only one reason that I
can see. In order to give other folk time to get in front of us and
stop us. That is it, captain. I'd lay you a beaver-skin to a
rabbit-pelt that I'm on the track. There's been a party of a dozen
horsemen along this ground since the dew began to fall. If they were
delayed, they would have time to form their plans before we came."

"By my faith, you may be right," said De Catinat thoughtfully. "What
would you propose?"

"That we ride back, and go by some less direct way."

"It is impossible. We should have to ride back to Meudon cross-roads,
and then it would add ten miles to our journey."

"It is better to get there an hour later than not to get there at all."

"Pshaw! we are surely not to be turned from our path by a mere guess.
There is the St. Germain cross-road about a mile below. When we reach
it we can strike to the right along the south side of the river, and so
change our course."

"But we may not reach it."

"If anyone bars our way we shall know how to treat with them."

"You would fight, then?"

"Yes."

"What! with a dozen of them?"

"A hundred, if we are on the king's errand."

Amos Green shrugged his shoulders.

"You are surely not afraid?"

"Yes, I am, mighty afraid. Fighting's good enough when there's no help
for it. But I call it a fool's plan to ride straight into a trap when
you might go round it."

"You may do what you like," said De Catinat angrily.

"My father was a gentleman, the owner of a thousand arpents of land, and
his son is not going to flinch in the king's service."

"My father," answered Amos Green, "was a merchant, the owner of a
thousand skunk-skins, and his son knows a fool when he sees one."

"You are insolent, sir," cried the guardsman. "We can settle this
matter at some more fitting opportunity. At present I continue my
mission, and you are very welcome to turn back to Versailles if you are
so inclined." He raised his hat with punctilious politeness, sprang on
to his horse, and rode on down the road.

Amos Green hesitated a little, and then mounting, he soon overtook his
companion. The latter, however, was still in no very sweet temper, and
rode with a rigid neck, without a glance or a word for his comrade.
Suddenly his eyes caught something in the gloom which brought a smile
back to his face. Away in front of them, between two dark tree clumps,
lay a vast number of shimmering, glittering yellow points, as thick as
flowers in a garden. They were the lights of Paris.

"See!" he cried, pointing. "There is the city, and close here must be
the St. Germain road. We shall take it, so as to avoid any danger."

"Very good! But you should not ride too fast, when your girth may break
at any moment."

"Nay, come on; we are close to our journey's end. The St. Germain road
opens just round this corner, and then we shall see our way, for the
lights will guide us."

He cut his horse with his whip, and they galloped together round the
curve. Next instant they were both down in one wild heap of tossing
heads and struggling hoofs, De Catinat partly covered by his horse, and
his comrade hurled twenty paces, where he lay silent and motionless in
the centre of the road.



CHAPTER XVI.


"WHEN THE DEVIL DRIVES."

Monsieur de Vivonne had laid his ambuscade with discretion. With a
closed carriage and a band of chosen ruffians he had left the palace a
good half-hour before the king's messengers, and by the aid of his
sister's gold he had managed that their journey should not be a very
rapid one. On reaching the branch road he had ordered the coachman to
drive some little distance along it, and had tethered all the horses to
a fence under his charge. He had then stationed one of the band as a
sentinel some distance up the main highway to flash a light when the two
courtiers were approaching. A stout cord had been fastened eighteen
inches from the ground to the trunk of a wayside sapling, and on
receiving the signal the other end was tied to a gate-post upon the
further side. The two cavaliers could not possibly see it, coming as it
did at the very curve of the road, and as a consequence their horses
fell heavily to the ground, and brought them down with them. In an
instant the dozen ruffians who had lurked in the shadow of the trees
sprang out upon them, sword in hand; but there was no movement from
either of their victims. De Catinat lay breathing heavily, one leg
under his horse's neck, and the blood trickling in a thin stream down
his pale face, and falling, drop by drop, on to his silver
shoulder-straps. Amos Green was unwounded, but his injured girth had
given way in the fall, and he had been hurled from his horse on to the
hard road with a violence which had driven every particle of breath from
his body.

Monsieur de Vivonne lit a lantern, and flashed it upon the faces of the
two unconscious men. "This is a bad business, Major Despard," said he
to the man next him. "I believe that they are both gone."

"Tut! tut! By my soul, men did not die like that when I was young!"
answered the other, leaning forward his fierce grizzled face into the
light of the lantern. "I've been cast from my horse as often as there
are tags to my doublet, but, save for the snap of a bone or two, I never
had any harm from it. Pass your rapier under the third rib of the
horses, De la Touche; they will never be fit to set hoof to ground
again." Two sobbing gasps and the thud of their straining necks falling
back to earth told that the two steeds had come to the end of their
troubles.

"Where is Latour?" asked Monsieur de Vivonne. "Achille Latour has
studied medicine at Montpellier. Where is he?"

"Here I am, your excellency. It is not for me to boast, but I am as
handy a man with a lancet as with a rapier, and it was an evil day for
some sick folk when I first took to buff and bandolier. Which would you
have me look to?"

"This one in the road."

The trooper bent over Amos Green. "He is not long for this world," said
he. "I can tell it by the catch of his breath."

"And what is his injury?"

"A subluxation of the epigastrium. Ah, the words of learning will still
come to my tongue, but it is hard to put into common terms. Methinks
that it were well for me to pass my dagger through his throat, for his
end is very near."

"Not for your life!" cried the leader. "If he die without wound, they
cannot lay it to our charge. Turn now to the other."

The man bent over De Catinat, and placed his hand upon his heart. As he
did so the soldier heaved a long sigh, opened his eyes, and gazed about
him with the face of one who knows neither where he is nor how he came
there. De Vivonne, who had drawn his hat down over his eyes, and
muffled the lower part of his face in his mantle, took out his flask,
and poured a little of the contents down the injured man's throat.
In an instant a dash of colour had come back into the guardsman's
bloodless cheeks, and the light of memory into his eyes. He struggled
up on to his feet, and strove furiously to push away those who held him.
But his head still swam, and he could scarce hold himself erect.

"I must to Paris!" he gasped; "I must to Paris! It is the king's
mission. You stop me at your peril!"

"He has no hurt save a scratch," said the ex-doctor.

"Then hold him fast. And first carry the dying man to the carriage."

The lantern threw but a small ring of yellow light, so that when it had
been carried over to De Catinat, Amos Green was left lying in the
shadow. Now they brought the light back to where the young man lay.
But there was no sign of him. He was gone.

For a moment the little group of ruffians stood staring, the light of
their lantern streaming up upon their plumed hats, their fierce eyes,
and savage faces. Then a burst of oaths broke from them, and De Vivonne
caught the false doctor by the throat, and hurling him down, would have
choked him upon the spot, had the others not dragged them apart.

"You lying dog!" he cried. "Is this your skill? The man has fled, and
we are ruined!"

"He has done it in his death-struggle," gasped the other hoarsely,
sitting up and rubbing his throat. "I tell you that he was
_in extremis_. He cannot be far off."

"That is true. He cannot be far off," cried De Vivonne. "He has
neither horse nor arms. You, Despard and Raymond de Carnac, guard the
other, that he play us no trick. Do you, Latour, and you, Turberville,
ride down the road, and wait by the south gate. If he enter Paris at
all, he must come in that way. If you get him, tie him before you on
your horse, and bring him to the rendezvous. In any case, it matters
little, for he is a stranger, this fellow, and only here by chance. Now
lead the other to the carriage, and we shall get away before an alarm is
given."

The two horsemen rode off in pursuit of the fugitive, and De Catinat,
still struggling desperately to escape, was dragged down the St. Germain
road and thrust into the carriage, which had waited at some distance
while these incidents were being enacted. Three of the horsemen rode
ahead, the coachman was curtly ordered to follow them, and De Vivonne,
having despatched one of the band with a note to his sister, followed
after the coach with the remainder of his desperadoes.

The unfortunate guardsman had now entirely recovered his senses, and
found himself with a strap round his ankles, and another round his
wrists, a captive inside a moving prison which lumbered heavily along
the country road. He had been stunned by the shock of his fall, and his
leg was badly bruised by the weight of his horse; but the cut on his
forehead was a mere trifle, and the bleeding had already ceased.
His mind, however, pained him more than his body. He sank his head into
his pinioned hands, and stamped madly with his feet, rocking himself to
and fro in his despair. What a fool, a treble fool, he had been!
He, an old soldier, who had seen something of war, to walk with open
eyes into such a trap! The king had chosen him of all men, as a trusty
messenger, and yet he had failed him - and failed him so ignominiously,
without shot fired or sword drawn. He was warned, too, warned by a
young man who knew nothing of court intrigue, and who was guided only by
the wits which Nature had given him. De Catinat dashed himself down
upon the leather cushion in the agony of his thoughts.

But then came a return of that common-sense which lies so very closely
beneath the impetuosity of the Celt. The matter was done now, and he
must see if it could not be mended. Amos Green had escaped. That was
one grand point in his favour. And Amos Green had heard the king's
message, and realised its importance. It was true that he knew nothing
of Paris, but surely a man who could pick his way at night through the
forests of Maine would not be baulked in finding so well-known a house
as that of the Archbishop of Paris. But then there came a sudden
thought which turned De Catinat's heart to lead. The city gates were
locked at eight o'clock in the evening. It was now nearly nine. It
would have been easy for him, whose uniform was a voucher for his
message, to gain his way through. But how could Amos Green, a foreigner
and a civilian, hope to pass? It was impossible, clearly impossible.
And yet, somehow, in spite of the impossibility, he still clung to a
vague hope that a man so full of energy and resource might find some way
out of the difficulty.

And then the thought of escape occurred to his mind. Might he not even
now be in time, perhaps, to carry his own message? Who were these men
who had seized him? They had said nothing to give him a hint as to
whose tools they were. Monsieur and the dauphin occurred to his mind.
Probably one or the other. He had only recognised one of them, old
Major Despard, a man who frequented the low wine-shops of Versailles,
and whose sword was ever at the disposal of the longest purse.
And where were these people taking him to? It might be to his death.
But if they wished to do away with him, why should they have brought him
back to consciousness? and why this carriage and drive? Full of
curiosity, he peered out of the windows.

A horseman was riding close up on either side; but there was glass in
front of the carriage, and through this he could gain some idea as to
his whereabouts. The clouds had cleared now, and the moon was shining
brightly, bathing the whole wide landscape in its shimmering light.
To the right lay the open country, broad plains with clumps of woodland,
and the towers of castles pricking out from above the groves. A heavy
bell was ringing in some monastery, and its dull booming came and went
with the breeze. On the left, but far away, lay the glimmer of Paris.
They were leaving it rapidly behind. Whatever his destination, it was
neither the capital nor Versailles. Then he began to count the chances
of escape. His sword had been removed, and his pistols were still in the
holsters beside his unfortunate horse. He was unarmed, then, even if he
could free himself, and his captors were at least a dozen in number.
There were three on ahead, riding abreast along the white, moonlit road.
Then there was one on each side, and he should judge by the clatter of
hoofs that there could not be fewer than half a dozen behind. That would
make exactly twelve, including the coachman, too many, surely, for an
unarmed man to hope to baffle. At the thought of the coachman he had
glanced through the glass front at the broad back of the man, and he had
suddenly, in the glimmer of the carriage lamp, observed something which
struck him with horror.

The man was evidently desperately wounded. It was strange indeed that
he could still sit there and flick his whip with so terrible an injury.
In the back of his great red coat, just under the left shoulder-blade,
was a gash in the cloth, where some weapon had passed, and all round was
a wide patch of dark scarlet which told its own tale. Nor was this all.
As he raised his whip, the moonlight shone upon his hand, and De Catinat
saw with a shudder that it also was splashed and clogged with blood.
The guardsman craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the man's face; but
his broad-brimmed hat was drawn low, and the high collar of his
driving-coat was raised, so that his features were in the shadow.
This silent man in front of him, with the horrible marks upon his
person, sent a chill to De Catinat's valiant heart, and he muttered over
one of Marot's Huguenot psalms; for who but the foul fiend himself would
drive a coach with those crimsoned hands and with a sword driven through
his body?

And now they had come to a spot where the main road ran onwards, but a
smaller side track wound away down the steep slope of a hill, and so in
the direction of the Seine. The advance-guard had kept to the main
road, and the two horsemen on either side were trotting in the same
direction, when, to De Catinat's amazement, the carriage suddenly
swerved to one side, and in an instant plunged down the steep incline,
the two stout horses galloping at their topmost speed, the coachman
standing up and lashing furiously at them, and the clumsy old vehicle
bounding along in a way which threw him backwards and forwards from one
seat to the other. Behind him he could hear a shout of consternation
from the escort, and then the rush of galloping hoofs. Away they flew,
the roadside poplars dancing past at either window, the horses
thundering along with their stomachs to the earth, and that demon driver
still waving those horrible red hands in the moonlight and screaming out
to the maddened steeds. Sometimes the carriage jolted one way,
sometimes another, swaying furiously, and running on two side wheels as
though it must every instant go over. And yet, fast as they went, their
pursuers went faster still. The rattle of their hoofs was at their very
backs, and suddenly at one of the windows there came into view the red,
distended nostrils of a horse. Slowly it drew forward, the muzzle, the
eye, the ears, the mane, coming into sight as the rider still gained
upon them, and then above them the fierce face of Despard and the gleam
of a brass pistol barrel.

"At the horse, Despard, at the horse!" cried an authoritative voice from
behind.

The pistol flashed, and the coach lurched over as one of the horses gave
a convulsive spring. But the driver still shrieked and lashed with his
whip, while the carriage bounded onwards.

But now the road turned a sudden curve, and there, right in front of
them, not a hundred paces away, was the Seine, running cold and still in
the moonshine. The bank on either side of the highway ran straight down
without any break to the water's edge. There was no sign of a bridge,
and a black shadow in the centre of the stream showed where the
ferry-boat was returning after conveying some belated travellers across.
The driver never hesitated, but gathering up the reins, he urged the
frightened creatures into the river. They hesitated, however, when they
first felt the cold water about their hocks, and even as they did so one
of them, with a low moan, fell over upon her side. Despard's bullet had
found its mark. Like a flash the coachman hurled himself from the box
and plunged into the stream; but the pursuing horsemen were all round
him before this, and half-a-dozen hands had seized him ere he could
reach deep water, and had dragged him to the bank. His broad hat had
been struck off in the struggle, and De Catinat saw his face in the
moonshine. Great heavens! It was Amos Green.



CHAPTER XVII.


THE DUNGEON OF PORTILLAC.

The desperadoes were as much astonished as was De Catinat when they
found that they had recaptured in this extraordinary manner the
messenger whom they had given up for lost. A volley of oaths and
exclamations broke from them, as, on tearing off the huge red coat of
the coachman, they disclosed the sombre dress of the young American.

"A thousand thunders!" cried one. "And this is the man whom that
devil's brat Latour would make out to be dead!"

"And how came he here?"

"And where is Etienne Arnaud?"

"He has stabbed Etienne. See the great cut in the coat!"

"Ay; and see the colour of his hand! He has stabbed him, and taken his
coat and hat."

"What! while we were all within stone's cast!"

"Ay; there is no other way out of it."

"By my soul!" cried old Despard, "I had never much love for old Etienne,
but I have emptied a cup of wine with him before now, and I shall see
that he has justice. Let us cast these reins round the fellow's neck
and hang him upon this tree."

Several pairs of hands were already unbuckling the harness of the dead
horse, when De Vivonne pushed his way into the little group, and with a
few curt words checked their intended violence.

"It is as much as your lives are worth to touch him," said he.

"But he has slain Etienne Arnaud."

"That score may be settled afterwards. To-night he is the king's
messenger. Is the other all safe?"

"Yes, he is here."

"Tie this man, and put him in beside him. Unbuckle the traces of the
dead horse. So! Now, De Carnac, put your own into the harness.
You can mount the box and drive, for we have not very far to go."


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