It was near midnight; the moon, lessened by its decline, and reddened by th_ast traces of the storm, arose behind the little town of Armentieres, whic_howed against its pale light the dark outline of its houses, and the skeleto_f its high belfry. In front of them the Lys rolled its waters like a river o_olten tin; while on the other side was a black mass of trees, profiled on _tormy sky, invaded by large coppery clouds which created a sort of twiligh_mid the night. On the left was an old abandoned mill, with its motionles_ings, from the ruins of which an owl threw out its shrill, periodical, an_onotonous cry. On the right and on the left of the road, which the disma_rocession pursued, appeared a few low, stunted trees, which looked lik_eformed dwarfs crouching down to watch men traveling at this sinister hour.
From time to time a broad sheet of lightning opened the horizon in its whol_idth, darted like a serpent over the black mass of trees, and like a terribl_cimitar divided the heavens and the waters into two parts. Not a breath o_ind now disturbed the heavy atmosphere. A deathlike silence oppressed al_ature. The soil was humid and glittering with the rain which had recentl_allen, and the refreshed herbs sent forth their perfume with additiona_nergy.
Two lackeys dragged Milady, whom each held by one arm. The executioner walke_ehind them, and Lord de Winter, d'Artagnan, Porthos, and Aramis walked behin_he executioner. Planchet and Bazin came last.
The two lackeys conducted Milady to the bank of the river. Her mouth was mute; but her eyes spoke with their inexpressible eloquence, supplicating by turn_ach of those on whom she looked.
Being a few paces in advance she whispered to the lackeys, "A thousan_istoles to each of you, if you will assist my escape; but if you deliver m_p to your masters, I have near at hand avengers who will make you pay dearl_or my death."
Grimaud hesitated. Mousqueton trembled in all his members.
Athos, who heard Milady's voice, came sharply up. Lord de Winter did the same.
"Change these lackeys," said he; "she has spoken to them. They are no longe_ure."
Planchet and Bazin were called, and took the places of Grimaud and Mousqueton.
On the bank of the river the executioner approached Milady, and bound he_ands and feet.
Then she broke the silence to cry out, "You are cowards, miserabl_ssassins—ten men combined to murder one woman. Beware! If I am not saved _hall be avenged."
"You are not a woman," said Athos, coldly and sternly. "You do not belong t_he human species; you are a demon escaped from hell, whither we send you bac_gain."
"Ah, you virtuous men!" said Milady; "please to remember that he who shal_ouch a hair of my head is himself an assassin."
"The executioner may kill, without being on that account an assassin," sai_he man in the red cloak, rapping upon his immense sword. "This is the las_udge; that is all. NACHRICHTER, as say our neighbors, the Germans."
And as he bound her while saying these words, Milady uttered two or thre_avage cries, which produced a strange and melancholy effect in flying awa_nto the night, and losing themselves in the depths of the woods.
"If I am guilty, if I have committed the crimes you accuse me of," shrieke_ilady, "take me before a tribunal. You are not judges! You cannot condem_e!"
"I offered you Tyburn," said Lord de Winter. "Why did you not accept it?"
"Because I am not willing to die!" cried Milady, struggling. "Because I am to_oung to die!"
"The woman you poisoned at Bethune was still younger than you, madame, and ye_he is dead," said d'Artagnan.
"I will enter a cloister; I will become a nun," said Milady.
"You were in a cloister," said the executioner, "and you left it to ruin m_rother."
Milady uttered a cry of terror and sank upon her knees. The executioner too_er up in his arms and was carrying her toward the boat.
"Oh, my God!" cried she, "my God! are you going to drown me?"
These cries had something so heartrending in them that M. d'Artagnan, who ha_een at first the most eager in pursuit of Milady, sat down on the stump of _ree and hung his head, covering his ears with the palms of his hands; an_et, notwithstanding, he could still hear her cry and threaten.
D'Artagnan was the youngest of all these men. His heart failed him.
"Oh, I cannot behold this frightful spectacle!" said he. "I cannot consen_hat this woman should die thus!"
Milady heard these few words and caught at a shadow of hope.
"d'Artagnan, d'Artagnan!" cried she; "remember that I loved you!"
The young man rose and took a step toward her.
But Athos rose likewise, drew his sword, and placed himself in the way.
"If you take one step farther, d'Artagnan," said he, "we shall cross sword_ogether."
D'Artagnan sank on his knees and prayed.
"Come," continued Athos, "executioner, do your duty."
"Willingly, monseigneur," said the executioner; "for as I am a good Catholic, I firmly believe I am acting justly in performing my functions on this woman."
Athos made a step toward Milady.
"I pardon you," said he, "the ill you have done me. I pardon you for m_lasted future, my lost honor, my defiled love, and my salvation foreve_ompromised by the despair into which you have cast me. Die in peace!"
Lord de Winter advanced in his turn.
"I pardon you," said he, "for the poisoning of my brother, and th_ssassination of his Grace, Lord Buckingham. I pardon you for the death o_oor Felton; I pardon you for the attempts upon my own person. Die in peace!"
"And I," said M. d'Artagnan. "Pardon me, madame, for having by a tric_nworthy of a gentleman provoked your anger; and I, in exchange, pardon yo_he murder of my poor love and your cruel vengeance against me. I pardon you, and I weep for you. Die in peace!"
"I am lost!" murmured Milady in English. "I must die!"
Then she arose of herself, and cast around her one of those piercing look_hich seemed to dart from an eye of flame.
She saw nothing; she listened, and she heard nothing.
"Where am I to die?" said she.
"On the other bank," replied the executioner.
Then he placed her in the boat, and as he was going to set foot in it himself, Athos handed him a sum of silver.
"Here," said he, "is the price of the execution, that it may be plain we ac_s judges."
"That is correct," said the executioner; "and now in her turn, let this woma_ee that I am not fulfilling my trade, but my debt."
And he threw the money into the river.
The boat moved off toward the left-hand shore of the Lys, bearing the guilt_oman and the executioner; all the others remained on the right-hand bank, where they fell on their knees.
The boat glided along the ferry rope under the shadow of a pale cloud whic_ung over the water at that moment.
The troop of friends saw it gain the opposite bank; the figures were define_ike black shadows on the red-tinted horizon.
Milady, during the passage had contrived to untie the cord which fastened he_eet. On coming near the bank, she jumped lightly on shore and took to flight.
But the soil was moist; on reaching the top of the bank, she slipped and fel_pon her knees.
She was struck, no doubt, with a superstitious idea; she conceived that heave_enied its aid, and she remained in the attitude in which she had fallen, he_ead drooping and her hands clasped.
Then they saw from the other bank the executioner raise both his arms slowly; a moonbeam fell upon the blade of the large sword. The two arms fell with _udden force; they heard the hissing of the scimitar and the cry of th_ictim, then a truncated mass sank beneath the blow.
The executioner then took off his red cloak, spread it upon the ground, lai_he body in it, threw in the head, tied all up by the four corners, lifted i_n his back, and entered the boat again.
In the middle of the stream he stopped the boat, and suspending his burde_ver the water cried in a loud voice, "Let the justice of God be done!" and h_et the corpse drop into the depths of the waters, which closed over it.
Three days afterward the four Musketeers were in Paris; they had not exceede_heir leave of absence, and that same evening they went to pay their customar_isit to M. de Treville.
"Well, gentlemen," said the brave captain, "I hope you have been well amuse_uring your excursion."
"Prodigiously," replied Athos in the name of himself and his comrades.