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66. EXECUTION

It was near midnight; the moon, lessened by its decline, and reddened by
the last traces of the storm, arose behind the little town of
Armentieres, which showed against its pale light the dark outline of its
houses, and the skeleton of its high belfry. In front of them the Lys
rolled its waters like a river of molten tin; while on the other side
was a black mass of trees, profiled on a stormy sky, invaded by large
coppery clouds which created a sort of twilight amid the night. On the
left was an old abandoned mill, with its motionless wings, from the
ruins of which an owl threw out its shrill, periodical, and monotonous
cry. On the right and on the left of the road, which the dismal
procession pursued, appeared a few low, stunted trees, which looked like
deformed 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
whole width, darted like a serpent over the black mass of trees, and
like a terrible scimitar divided the heavens and the waters into two
parts. Not a breath of wind now disturbed the heavy atmosphere. A
deathlike silence oppressed all nature. The soil was humid and
glittering with the rain which had recently fallen, and the refreshed
herbs sent forth their perfume with additional energy.

Two lackeys dragged Milady, whom each held by one arm. The executioner
walked behind them, and Lord de Winter, d'Artagnan, Porthos, and Aramis
walked behind the 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 turns each of those on whom she looked.

Being a few paces in advance she whispered to the lackeys, "A thousand
pistoles to each of you, if you will assist my escape; but if you
deliver me up to your masters, I have near at hand avengers who will
make you pay dearly for 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
longer sure."

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
her hands and feet.

Then she broke the silence to cry out, "You are cowards, miserable
assassins--ten men combined to murder one woman. Beware! If I am not
saved I shall be avenged."

"You are not a woman," said Athos, coldly and sternly. "You do not
belong to the human species; you are a demon escaped from hell, whither
we send you back again."

"Ah, you virtuous men!" said Milady; "please to remember that he who
shall touch a hair of my head is himself an assassin."

"The executioner may kill, without being on that account an assassin,"
said the man in the red cloak, rapping upon his immense sword. "This is
the last judge; that is all. NACHRICHTER, as say our neighbors, the
Germans."

And as he bound her while saying these words, Milady uttered two or
three savage cries, which produced a strange and melancholy effect in
flying away into 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,"
shrieked Milady, "take me before a tribunal. You are not judges! You
cannot condemn me!"

"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 too young to die!"

"The woman you poisoned at Bethune was still younger than you, madame,
and yet she 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
my brother."

Milady uttered a cry of terror and sank upon her knees. The executioner
took her 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 had been at first the most eager in pursuit of Milady, sat down on
the stump of a tree and hung his head, covering his ears with the palms
of his hands; and yet, 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
consent that 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
swords together."

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."

"That's well."

Athos made a step toward Milady.

"I pardon you," said he, "the ill you have done me. I pardon you for my
blasted future, my lost honor, my defiled love, and my salvation forever
compromised 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 the
assassination of his Grace, Lord Buckingham. I pardon you for the death
of poor 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 trick
unworthy of a gentleman provoked your anger; and I, in exchange, pardon
you the 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
looks which 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
act as judges."

"That is correct," said the executioner; "and now in her turn, let this
woman see 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
guilty woman 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
which hung over the water at that moment.

The troop of friends saw it gain the opposite bank; the figures were
defined like black shadows on the red-tinted horizon.

Milady, during the passage had contrived to untie the cord which
fastened her feet. 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 fell upon her knees.

She was struck, no doubt, with a superstitious idea; she conceived that
heaven denied its aid, and she remained in the attitude in which she had
fallen, her head 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 a sudden force; they heard the hissing of the scimitar
and the cry of the victim, then a truncated mass sank beneath the blow.

The executioner then took off his red cloak, spread it upon the ground,
laid the body in it, threw in the head, tied all up by the four corners,
lifted it on his back, and entered the boat again.

In the middle of the stream he stopped the boat, and suspending his
burden over the water cried in a loud voice, "Let the justice of God be
done!" and he let 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
exceeded their leave of absence, and that same evening they went to pay
their customary visit to M. de Treville.

"Well, gentlemen," said the brave captain, "I hope you have been well
amused during your excursion."

"Prodigiously," replied Athos in the name of himself and his comrades.





The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Category:
General Fiction

Romance Literatures
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