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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Man In The Iron Mask - Chapter XL - The White Horse and the Black
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The Man In The Iron Mask - Chapter XL - The White Horse and the Black Post by :Myrddin Category :Long Stories Author :Alexandre Dumas Date :February 2011 Read :1972

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The Man In The Iron Mask - Chapter XL - The White Horse and the Black

"That is rather surprising," said D'Artagnan; "Gourville running about
the streets so gayly, when he is almost certain that M. Fouquet is in
danger; when it is almost equally certain that it was Gourville who
warned M. Fouquet just now by the note which was torn into a thousand
pieces upon the terrace, and given to the winds by monsieur le
surintendant. Gourville is rubbing his hands; that is because he has
done something clever. Whence comes M. Gourville? Gourville is coming
from the Rue aux Herbes. Whither does the Rue aux Herbes lead?" And
D'Artagnan followed, along the tops of the houses of Nantes, dominated by
the castle, the line traced by the streets, as he would have done upon a
topographical plan; only, instead of the dead, flat paper, the living
chart rose in relief with the cries, the movements, and the shadows of
men and things. Beyond the inclosure of the city, the great verdant
plains stretched out, bordering the Loire, and appeared to run towards
the pink horizon, which was cut by the azure of the waters and the dark
green of the marshes. Immediately outside the gates of Nantes two white
roads were seen diverging like separate fingers of a gigantic hand.
D'Artagnan, who had taken in all the panorama at a glance by crossing the
terrace, was led by the line of the Rue aux Herbes to the mouth of one of
those roads which took its rise under the gates of Nantes. One step
more, and he was about to descend the stairs, take his trellised
carriage, and go towards the lodgings of M. Fouquet. But chance decreed,
at the moment of plunging into the staircase, that he was attracted by a
moving point then gaining ground upon that road.

"What is that?" said the musketeer to himself; "a horse galloping, - a
runaway horse, no doubt. What a rate he is going at!" The moving point
became detached from the road, and entered into the fields. "A white
horse," continued the captain, who had just observed the color thrown
luminously against the dark ground, "and he is mounted; it must be some
boy whose horse is thirsty and has run away with him."

These reflections, rapid as lightning, simultaneous with visual
perception, D'Artagnan had already forgotten when he descended the first
steps of the staircase. Some morsels of paper were spread over the
stairs, and shone out white against the dirty stones. "Eh! eh!" said
the captain to himself, "here are some of the fragments of the note torn
by M. Fouquet. Poor man! he has given his secret to the wind; the wind
will have no more to do with it, and brings it back to the king.
Decidedly, Fouquet, you play with misfortune! the game is not a fair one,
- fortune is against you. The star of Louis XIV. obscures yours; the
adder is stronger and more cunning than the squirrel." D'Artagnan picked
up one of these morsels of paper as he descended. "Gourville's pretty
little hand!" cried he, whilst examining one of the fragments of the
note; "I was not mistaken." And he read the word "horse." "Stop!" said
he; and he examined another, upon which there was not a letter traced.
Upon a third he read the word "white;" "white horse," repeated he, like a
child that is spelling. "Ah, _mordioux!_" cried the suspicious spirit,
"a white horse!" And, like that grain of powder which, burning, dilates
into ten thousand times its volume, D'Artagnan, enlightened by ideas and
suspicions, rapidly reascended the stairs towards the terrace. The white
horse was still galloping in the direction of the Loire, at the extremity
of which, melting into the vapors of the water, a little sail appeared,
wave-balanced like a water-butterfly. "Oh!" cried the musketeer, "only a
man who wants to fly would go at that pace across plowed lands; there is
but one Fouquet, a financier, to ride thus in open day upon a white
horse; there is no one but the lord of Belle-Isle who would make his
escape towards the sea, while there are such thick forests on land, and
there is but one D'Artagnan in the world to catch M. Fouquet, who has
half an hour's start, and who will have gained his boat within an hour."
This being said, the musketeer gave orders that the carriage with the
iron trellis should be taken immediately to a thicket situated just
outside the city. He selected his best horse, jumped upon his back,
galloped along the Rue aux Herbes, taking, not the road Fouquet had
taken, but the bank itself of the Loire, certain that he should gain ten
minutes upon the total distance, and, at the intersection of the two
lines, come up with the fugitive, who could have no suspicion of being
pursued in that direction. In the rapidity of the pursuit, and with the
impatience of the avenger, animating himself as in war, D'Artagnan, so
mild, so kind towards Fouquet, was surprised to find himself become
ferocious - almost sanguinary. For a long time he galloped without
catching sight of the white horse. His rage assumed fury, he doubted
himself, - he suspected that Fouquet had buried himself in some
subterranean road, or that he had changed the white horse for one of
those famous black ones, as swift as the wind, which D'Artagnan, at Saint-
Mande, had so frequently admired and envied for their vigor and their
fleetness.

At such moments, when the wind cut his eyes so as to make the tears
spring from them, when the saddle had become burning hot, when the galled
and spurred horse reared with pain, and threw behind him a shower of dust
and stones, D'Artagnan, raising himself in his stirrups, and seeing
nothing on the waters, nothing beneath the trees, looked up into the air
like a madman. He was losing his senses. In the paroxysms of eagerness
he dreamt of aerial ways, - the discovery of following century; he called
to his mind Daedalus and the vast wings that had saved him from the
prisons of Crete. A hoarse sigh broke from his lips, as he repeated,
devoured by the fear of ridicule, "I! I! duped by a Gourville! I! They
will say that I am growing old, - they will say I have received a million
to allow Fouquet to escape!" And he again dug his spurs into the sides
of his horse: he had ridden astonishingly fast. Suddenly, at the
extremity of some open pasture-ground, behind the hedges, he saw a white
form which showed itself, disappeared, and at last remained distinctly
visible against the rising ground. D'Artagnan's heart leaped with joy.
He wiped the streaming sweat from his brow, relaxed the tension of his
knees, - by which the horse breathed more freely, - and, gathering up his
reins, moderated the speed of the vigorous animal, his active accomplice
on this man-hunt. He had then time to study the direction of the road,
and his position with regard to Fouquet. The superintendent had
completely winded his horse by crossing the soft ground. He felt the
necessity of gaining a firmer footing, and turned towards the road by the
shortest secant line. D'Artagnan, on his part, had nothing to do but to
ride straight on, concealed by the sloping shore; so that he would cut
his quarry off the road when he came up with him. Then the real race
would begin, - then the struggle would be in earnest.

D'Artagnan gave his horse good breathing-time. He observed that the
superintendent had relaxed into a trot, which was to say, he, too, was
favoring his horse. But both of them were too much pressed for time to
allow them to continue long at that pace. The white horse sprang off
like an arrow the moment his feet touched firm ground. D'Artagnan
dropped his head, and his black horse broke into a gallop. Both followed
the same route; the quadruple echoes of this new race-course were
confounded. Fouquet had not yet perceived D'Artagnan. But on issuing
from the slope, a single echo struck the air; it was that of the steps
of D'Artagnan's horse, which rolled along like thunder. Fouquet turned
round, and saw behind him, within a hundred paces, his enemy bent over
the neck of his horse. There could be no doubt - the shining baldrick,
the red cassock - it was a musketeer. Fouquet slackened his hand
likewise, and the white horse placed twenty feet more between his
adversary and himself.

"Oh, but," thought D'Artagnan, becoming very anxious, "that is not a
common horse M. Fouquet is upon - let us see!" And he attentively
examined with his infallible eye the shape and capabilities of the
courser. Round full quarters - a thin long tail - large hocks - thin
legs, as dry as bars of steel - hoofs hard as marble. He spurred his
own, but the distance between the two remained the same. D'Artagnan
listened attentively; not a breath of the horse reached him, and yet he
seemed to cut the air. The black horse, on the contrary, began to puff
like any blacksmith's bellows.

"I must overtake him, if I kill my horse," thought the musketeer; and he
began to saw the mouth of the poor animal, whilst he buried the rowels of
his merciless spurs into his sides. The maddened horse gained twenty
toises, and came up within pistol-shot of Fouquet.

"Courage!" said the musketeer to himself, "courage! the white horse will
perhaps grow weaker, and if the horse does not fall, the master must pull
up at last." But horse and rider remained upright together, gaining
ground by difficult degrees. D'Artagnan uttered a wild cry, which made
Fouquet turn round, and added speed to the white horse.

"A famous horse! a mad rider!" growled the captain. "Hola! _mordioux!_
Monsieur Fouquet! stop! in the king's name!" Fouquet made no reply.

"Do you hear me?" shouted D'Artagnan, whose horse had just stumbled.

"_Pardieu!_" replied Fouquet, laconically; and rode on faster.

D'Artagnan was nearly mad; the blood rushed boiling to his temples and
his eyes. "In the king's name!" cried he again, "stop, or I will bring
you down with a pistol-shot!"

"Do!" replied Fouquet, without relaxing his speed.

D'Artagnan seized a pistol and cocked it, hoping that the double click of
the spring would stop his enemy. "You have pistols likewise," said he,
"turn and defend yourself."

Fouquet did turn round at the noise, and looking D'Artagnan full in the
face, opened, with his right hand, the part of his dress which concealed
his body, but he did not even touch his holsters. There were not more
than twenty paces between the two.

"_Mordioux!_" said D'Artagnan, "I will not assassinate you; if you will
not fire upon me, surrender! what is a prison?"

"I would rather die!" replied Fouquet; "I shall suffer less."

D'Artagnan, drunk with despair, hurled his pistol to the ground. "I will
take you alive!" said he; and by a prodigy of skill which this
incomparable horseman alone was capable, he threw his horse forward to
within ten paces of the white horse; already his hand was stretched out
to seize his prey.

"Kill me! kill me!" cried Fouquet, "'twould be more humane!"

"No! alive - alive!" murmured the captain.

At this moment his horse made a false step for the second time, and
Fouquet's again took the lead. It was an unheard-of spectacle, this race
between two horses which now only kept alive by the will of their
riders. It might be said that D'Artagnan rode, carrying his horse along
between his knees. To the furious gallop had succeeded the fast trot,
and that had sunk to what might be scarcely called a trot at all. But
the chase appeared equally warm in the two fatigued _athletoe_.
D'Artagnan, quite in despair, seized his second pistol, and cocked it.

"At your horse! not at you!" cried he to Fouquet. And he fired. The
animal was hit in the quarters - he made a furious bound, and plunged
forward. At that moment D'Artagnan's horse fell dead.

"I am dishonored!" thought the musketeer; "I am a miserable wretch! for
pity's sake, M. Fouquet, throw me one of your pistols, that I may blow
out my brains!" But Fouquet rode away.

"For mercy's sake! for mercy's sake!" cried D'Artagnan; "that which you
will not do at this moment, I myself will do within an hour, but here,
upon this road, I should die bravely; I should die esteemed; do me that
service, M. Fouquet!"

M. Fouquet made no reply, but continued to trot on. D'Artagnan began to
run after his enemy. Successively he threw away his hat, his coat, which
embarrassed him, and then the sheath of his sword, which got between his
legs as he was running. The sword in his hand itself became too heavy,
and he threw it after the sheath. The white horse began to rattle in its
throat; D'Artagnan gained upon him. From a trot the exhausted animal
sunk to a staggering walk - the foam from his mouth was mixed with
blood. D'Artagnan made a desperate effort, sprang towards Fouquet, and
seized him by the leg, saying in a broken, breathless voice, "I arrest
you in the king's name! blow my brains out, if you like; we have both
done our duty."

Fouquet hurled far from him, into the river, the two pistols D'Artagnan
might have seized, and dismounting from his horse - "I am your prisoner,
monsieur," said he; "will you take my arm, for I see you are ready to
faint?"

"Thanks!" murmured D'Artagnan, who, in fact, felt the earth sliding from
under his feet, and the light of day turning to blackness around him;
then he rolled upon the sand, without breath or strength. Fouquet
hastened to the brink of the river, dipped some water in his hat, with
which he bathed the temples of the musketeer, and introduced a few drop
between his lips. D'Artagnan raised himself with difficulty, and looked
about him with a wandering eye. He beheld Fouquet on his knees, with his
wet hat in his hand, smiling upon him with ineffable sweetness. "You are
not off, then?" cried he. "Oh, monsieur! the true king of royalty, in
heart, in soul, is not Louis of the Louvre, or Philippe of Sainte-
Marguerite; it is you, proscribed, condemned!"

"I, who this day am ruined by a single error, M. d'Artagnan."

"What, in the name of Heaven, is that?"

"I should have had you for a friend! But how shall we return to Nantes?
We are a great way from it."

"That is true," said D'Artagnan, gloomily.

"The white horse will recover, perhaps; he is a good horse! Mount,
Monsieur d'Artagnan; I will walk till you have rested a little."

"Poor beast! and wounded, too?" said the musketeer.

"He will go, I tell you; I know him; but we can do better still, let us
both get up, and ride slowly."

"We can try," said the captain. But they had scarcely charged the animal
with this double load, when he began to stagger, and then with a great
effort walked a few minutes, then staggered again, and sank down dead by
the side of the black horse, which he had just managed to come up to.

"We will go on foot - destiny wills it so - the walk will be pleasant,"
said Fouquet, passing his arm through that of D'Artagnan.

"_Mordioux!_" cried the latter, with a fixed eye, a contracted brow, and
a swelling heart - "What a disgraceful day!"

They walked slowly the four leagues which separated them from the little
wood behind which the carriage and escort were in waiting. When Fouquet
perceived that sinister machine, he said to D'Artagnan, who cast down his
eyes, ashamed of Louis XIV., "There is an idea that did not emanate from
a brave man, Captain d'Artagnan; it is not yours. What are these
gratings for?" said he.

"To prevent your throwing letters out."

"Ingenious!"

"But you can speak, if you cannot write," said D'Artagnan.

"Can I speak to you?"

"Why, certainly, if you wish to do so."

Fouquet reflected for a moment, then looking the captain full in the
face, "One single word," said he; "will you remember it?"

"I will not forget it."

"Will you speak it to whom I wish?"

"I will."

"Saint-Mande," articulated Fouquet, in a low voice.

"Well! and for whom?"

"For Madame de Belliere or Pelisson."

"It shall be done."

The carriage rolled through Nantes, and took the route to Angers.

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