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sabres, still sheathed, in their hands, to prevent the noise which they would have made rattling against their saddles; but still their journey through the country was anything but quiet. They only rode two abreast, as the roads were too narrow to admit of more. Westerman himself and one of the guides headed the column, and the young cornet and veteran sergeant closed the rear. They went at a fast trot, and the noise of their horses' hoofs sounded loudly on the hard parched ground. In spite of their precautions, their sabres rattled, and the curbs on their bridles jingled; and the absence of all other noises made Westerman fear that their approach must be audible, even through the soundness of a peasant's sleep.
On they rode, and as they drew near to the château, Westerman put spurs to his horse, and changed his trot into a gallop; his troop of course followed his example, and as they.. came to the end of their journey they abandoned all precautions; each man dropped his scabbard to his side, and drew the blade; each man put his hand to his holster, and transferred his pistol to his belt, for he did not know how soon he might have to leave his saddle; each man drew the brazen clasps of his helmet tight beneath his chin, and prepared himself for action.
"These are the Clisson woods," said the guide, almost out of breath with the quickness of his motion.
"How infernally dark they make it," said Westerman, speaking to himself. "We had light enough till we got here"
"And there are the gates," said the guide. "That first entrance which is open, goes to the back of the house; a little beyond, there is another, which leads to the front; there you will find a gate, but it is merely closed with a latch."
"Craucher," said Westerman, speaking to the second sergeant, who was riding immediately behind him, "stand at the corner, and bid the men follow me at a quick trot--all of them, mind; tell Cornet Leroy that I have changed my mind," and Westerman, followed by his troop, dashed up the narrow avenue which led through the wood to the back of the house.
The château of Clisson was surrounded by large woods, through which countless paths and little roads were made in every direction for the convenience of the woodmen, and the small tumbrils which were used for bringing out the timber and faggots. These woods came close up to the farm-yard of the château, which was again divided from the house by large walled gardens, into which the back windows opened. The road up which Westerman had ridden led under the garden-wall to the farm-yard, but another road from the front, running along the gable-end of the house, communicated with it. The door used by the servants was at the side of the château, and consequently the readiest way from the public road to the servants' door, was that by which Westerman had, at the last moment, determined to force an entrance into the château.
He trotted up till he faced the garden-wall, and then turned short round to the house, and as he rode close up under the gable-end, he gave Sergeant Craucher directions to take three men and force the door; but he and the sergeant soon saw that this trouble was spared them, for the door stood wide open before them.
We will now go back to the inhabitants of the château. De Lescure and Henri had returned thither about eleven o'clock, and although their safe return, and account of the evening's victorious engagement for a while quieted the anxious fears of Marie and Madame de Lescure, those ladies by no means felt inclined to rest quietly as though all danger were removed from their pillows. They were in a dreadful alarm at the nearness of the republicans; they knew well that their ruthless enemies spared none that fell into their hands. I should belie these heroines if I said that they feared more for themselves than for those they loved so dearly, but they were not accustomed yet to the close vicinity of danger; and when they learned that a battle had been lost and won that evening, within a mile or two, in the very next parish to that in which they lived, they looked at each other, and trembling asked what next was to be done.
"You must not leave us, Charles, you must not leave us again," said Madame de Lescure to her husband; "indeed you must not leave us here." She paused a moment, and then added, with an accent of horror which she could not control, "What would become of us if these men came upon us when you were away?"
"Wherever you go, let us go with you," said Marie, forgetting in her excitement her usual maidenly reserve, and laying her little hand as she spoke upon her lover's arm; then blushing, she withdrew it, and turned to her brother.
"Do not turn from him, Marie," said her sister-in-law. "You will soon want his strong arm, and his kind, loving heart."
"Charles will not desert me, Victorine," said Marie, blushing now more beautifully than ever, for though she knew that Henri loved her, he had never absolutely told her so. "Though you are his dearest care, he will always have a hand to stretch to his poor Marie."
Before she had finished speaking, Henri held her close in his embrace. It was perhaps hardly a fitting time for him to make an avowal of his love; but lovers cannot always choose the most proper season for their confessions. He was still hot from the battle which he had fought; his hands were still black with powder; the well-known red scarf was still twisted round his belt, and held within its folds his armament of pistols. His fair, long hair was uncombed, and even entangled with his exertions. His large boots were covered with dust, and all his clothes were stained and soiled with the grass and weeds through which he had that night dragged himself more than once, in order to place himself within pistol-shot of his enemies; and yet, soiled and hot as he was, fatigued with one battle, and meditating preparations for another, there, in the presence of de Lescure and his wife, he clasped Marie to his manly heart, and swore to her that his chief anxiety as long as the war lasted, should be to screen her from all harm, and that his fondest care through his whole life should be to protect her and make her happy.
Unusual circumstances and extraordinary excitement often cause the customary rules and practices of life to be abandoned; and so it was now. Marie received the love that was offered her, frankly, affectionately, and with her whole heart. She owned to her lover how well and truly she had loved him, and there, before her brother and his wife, plighted to him her troth, and promised to him then the obedience and love, which she soon hoped to owe him as his wife. Such declarations are usually made in private, but the friends now assembled had no secrets from each other, and they all felt that strange times made strange scenes necessary.
They then arranged their plans for the morrow. The day had already been an eventful one, but they little dreamed how much more was to be done before the morrow's sun was in the heavens; and yet even then they did not separate for the night: luckily for them all, they determined that too much was to be done to allow them yet to retire to rest.
It was resolved that on the following day they should leave Clisson for Durbellière, and hand over the château and all it contained--the farm and all its well-filled granaries, the cattle and agricultural wealth of the estate, to the fire and plunder of the republicans. The plate, however, they thought they could save, as well as the ladies' jewels and clothes, and other precious things which might be quickly packed and easily moved. They went to work at once to fill their trunks and baskets; and as the means of conveyance were then slow, de Lescure went out into the stables, and had the waggon prepared at once, and ordered that the oxen which were to draw it should be ready to start at three o'clock, in order that the load, if possible, might reach Durbellière the same night.
Master and mistress, servants and guests, worked hard, and at about two o'clock, the hour at which Westerman and his troop were starting for their quick ride, they had completed their task.
"You have killed yourself, dearest love," said Henri, pressing his arm round Marie's waist.
"Oh, no!" said she, smiling, but still so weary that she could hardly have stood unless he had held her; "I have not fought and conquered ten thousand republicans; but I don't know how you must feel."
Henri, however, insisted that she should go to bed and she, delighted to show her first act of obedience to his will, did as he desired her. She was soon undressed; she offered her prayers to heaven for her brother and sister-in-law, but with a stronger fervour for the dear companion and protector to whom she had sworn to devote her life, and then she laid her head upon her pillow, intending to think over her happiness; a few moments, however, were sufficient to change her half fearful thoughts of love and danger into blessed dreams of love and happiness. Poor girl! she did not long enjoy her happy rest.
De Lescure and Henri determined to remain up till the departure of the waggon. Madame de Lescure went up to. her room, and the two gentlemen went down towards the farmyard. The waggon stood at the kitchen-door already packed, and the two servants were bringing the oxen down the road to yoke them to it.
"Go out at the front gate, François, and by the church at Terves; it is the better road. You will remain a couple of hours in Bressuire. We shall overtake you before you reach Beaulieu."
The servant acknowledged his master's commands, and fastened the last rope which bound the oxen to their burden. He spoke to his beasts, and accompanied his word with a goad from a pointed stick he held in his hand, when his farther progress was stopped by Henri's calling from a little distance down the road.
"Stop, François, stop!" said he. "Charles, come here; some one is coming hither at the top of his speed. Don't you hear the noise of hoofs upon the road?"
De Lescure ran to him, and kneeling down, put his ear to the ground. "It's a donkey or a mule," said he; "it is not a horse's foot."
"Come down the avenue," said Henri, "and let us see who it is. Whether mule or horse, the beast is going at his full speed."
"Better stay where we are," said de Lescure. "If he be coming to us, his news will reach the house quicker than by our going to meet him."
The rider grew nearer and nearer, and in a few moments turned up the road leading to the back of the house. The steps of the tired brute became slower as he trotted up the avenue, although the sound of a cudgel on his ribs were plainly audible. Henri and de Lescure were standing under the garden wall, and as the animal drew near them, they saw it was a jaded donkey, ridden by a peasant girl.
"Fly, for the sake of God!" said the girl, even before she dismounted from the donkey; "fly for the sake of the blessed Virgin. Take the ladies from the château, or they will be burnt--be burnt--be burnt!"
As she screamed the last words she slipped from the donkey, and almost
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