A COUPLE of wagons floundered on in the darkness. It was clear overhead now, with a rugged wrack of cloud trailing over a waning moon. There was mocking hope of thaw in the air, yet the sleet had stiffened on the wagons and the horses like a shining suit of armour.
Eustace beat his numbed hands together. Huddlestone, his subordinate, staggered on sleepily. Everywhere the white pall lay like a winding-sheet over the lost hope of France, save on the far right, where the pine forest of Marny rolled black and grim to the skyline. Away to the east lay a red zone of camp fires, and beyond them came the faint, crisp cackle of rifle shots. They were franc-tireurs firing on the vanguard of General von Zieden's column, holding up the lines between Soissons and Paris.
A coldness like the grip of Death held France. The snow pall lay everywhere. Europe had known no such bitter weather for many a year. The frost froze the raw wounds of the horses till the congealed blood glowed like carbuncles; hundreds of birds lay dead upon the snow, and through this white desolation Eustace and Huddlestone had pushed grimly with Red Cross stores for Paris for five weary weeks. They thrust forward now with that dogged determination that has gone so far to make our nation great.
They were half-frozen, dog-tired, and morbidly hungry. A blinding sleet-storm had swept the valley soon after nightfall, and when the air cleared, Eustace awoke to the fact that five out of his seven wagons had gone astray. They would turn up again on the morrow; meanwhile the two Englishmen were left with nothing but the wagons containing hospital stores, and, so far as they could see, no house was in sight.
They were bound to push on. To be out for the night under the tilt of a wagon, with no more protection from the bitter cold than a couple of blankets, was madness not to be dreamt of.
"Wake up, Huddlestone!" Eustace said sharply. "For Heaven's sake, pull yourself together! You can't sleep here!"
"Can't I?" Huddlestone said, not without a certain grim humour. "I could sleep on a hot gridiron comfortably. What a fool I was to come out here!"
Indeed, Eustace's thoughts ran in a somewhat similar groove. They were both voluntary agents, getting nothing for their hazardous undertaking, and both were men of considerable substance. Eustace looked out over the dreary white waste. A cold blast brought the tears to his eyes, and they froze on his cheek. Nothing could he see beyond the black splash made by a fallen bird or the more grotesque outline of a dead horse. Then suddenly a figure rose from behind the blown hideousness of a dead charger, there was a spit and a flash, and a revolver bullet struck the cover of the first wagon with a ring like steel on steel.
"Come out of that!" Eustace cried. "Would you fire on the Red Cross, man?"
The fugitive dropped his weapon and staggered to his feet. He was young, he had a skin of dazzling fairness, and as yet there was no down upon his lips. A ragged greatcoat reached to his knees; below them his legs were wrapped in hay-bands. Yet there was something strong and manly about the face, and the gaze turned upon Eustace held the look of one who is accustomed to be obeyed.
"Pardon!" the fugitive said hoarsely. "I had forgotten myself for a moment. I thought you were Germans. For two days I have tasted nothing. I lay down in the snow there and I grew delirious. Give me food, for the love of Heaven, give me food! A crust, a handful of oatmeal, anything."
Eustace explained the position of affairs. Beyond a sip of brandy from his own flask, his hospitality was necessarily restricted.
The young Frenchman gulped down the raw spirit, and a little life crept into his blue limbs. He pointed to a cleft in the distant woodlands.
"Safety lies there," he whispered. "It is a matter of three miles. Nothing to you, but to me as unattainable as Paradise. Listen to me, messieurs. Away yonder is the house of my father, Count Kobert Fleury. It was there I was working for when my strength failed me. Convey me yonder, and I promise you stabling for your horses and fire and food for yourselves. Yet, before you comply, I must warn you of your danger."
"No danger can be much worse than our present pass," Huddlestone muttered.
"You fancy so. Ah! you are wrong, because I am a spy. It was I who got into Von Zieden's lines, and my information that brought about the German disaster at Laon. But for the gross blundering of General Massau—blind frog that he was—the line to Paris—But I dream dreams. I escaped from St. Dinaud two days ago, and they are looking for me everywhere. There is a price upon my head. If I am discovered in your company, m'sieurs—"
"I'll risk it," said Eustace. "We are not supposed to know. I'm quite certain that my friend shares my opinion."
"I am open to any conviction that leads up to warmth and food," said Huddlestone grimly. "What do you say, Eustace?"
A minute or two later young Armand Fleury sat under the tilt of the foremost wagon, directing the way as well as his weak, spent condition would permit. In grim silence the Red Cross agents dragged their weary limbs along. It was growing colder now, and the touch of the wind was like the blow of a thong. They staggered and stumbled on over the white waste, until at length they came to the semblance of a road terminating in a grove of trees amongst which arose the ghostly outline of an ancient château.
Into a ruined courtyard, the gates of which had been blown away, the jaded cavalcade turned at length. No lights could be seen; the place seemed utterly deserted and forlorn. Presently, in response to a peculiar whistle from Fleury, two peasants crept from out the darkness, bearing lanterns. They commenced to dance and chatter with extravagant gesture as they beheld Fleury.
"Enough of this!" the latter cried. "See to those horses at once. Two of you must go down to the old chapel, and wait there till daylight. At the slightest sign of a Prussian helmet, I am to be warned at once—mind, at once. You nave heard what will happen to me, if I am taken again."
"Ah! yes, young master," one of the peasants murmured. "Jean and myself shall go. Captain Marchelle and a regiment of francs-tireurs are behind the woods at Lorelle, five miles away. If you could join them—"
"In the morning, when I am rested—yes. To move further at present would be simply to court my death. You understand?"
The peasant bowed low. His eyes were full of tears. His simple features betrayed a joy to which they had long been a stranger. Fleury held out his hand to the faithful servitor, who carried it to his lips.
"Sleep well, little master," he whispered. "No harm shall come to you to-night."
Armand Fleury staggered forward. He smote upon a door before him, and then, as it opened, he fell exhausted into the arms of an old man, who caught him as he fell.
THE Englishmen were conscious of a grateful glare of warm, white light. They sniffed an air filled with the subtle suggestion of violets. They saw a large square hall, the polished floor of which was covered with skins; a portrait or so decorated the walls. How grateful it was! how soothing and refreshing after the cruel white hardness of the outside world, the struggle for life under the fading red moon!
"Gentlemen, you are thrice welcome. My boy—you have brought my boy back to me."
Eustace pulled himself together. Polished man of the world as he was, he could only gaze with vain and fatuous vacancy at the speaker.
"Pardon," he murmured; "the sudden light nearly blinded me."
He saw more clearly now. He saw a tall man who should, in the ordinary course, have been bent with the weight of passing years. He saw instead an old, old man upright as a bulrush. His white hair streamed over his shoulders and was caught with a knot of riband behind. His delicate, high-bred face was clear as wax, and yet was graven with hundreds of wrinkles, like the delicate marking of a melon. His blue eyes were lustrous as those of a child. A pair of long, slim hands were covered with flashing rings.
A velvet, peach-coloured coat with wide skirts, and fastened with a jewelled button, enveloped him. At the throat and wrists were ruffles of old point lace. Knee breeches, silk stockings, and patent shoes completed the attire. A rapier was buckled upon the left hip.
An innate sense of the proprieties alone saved Eustace from rubbing his eyes with amazement. Count Robert Fleury was less a real man than a picture of the last century come to life again. Eustace was in the snow again, dreaming of some brilliant eighteenth century comedy.
No, it was real enough, a pleasant note in the tragedy of war. The old, old man had turned from the strangers to his son. He held Armand in his arms and looked down into his face with tender affection.
"I am afraid he has fainted," he said calmly, though his lips trembled. "The boy is brave to rashness—ever a failing with our family."
Armand opened his eyes and staggered to his feet again.
"I am all right now," he said with an effort. "Food—food is what I require!"
At a call from the Count two menservants came forward and led Armand away. He returned presently in more suitable garb, whilst a room had been placed at the disposal of the strangers. A gong sounded, and one of the menservants conducted Eustace and his companion to the dining-room.
The apartment was a large one, and apparently had escaped the attention of the predatory Prussian; indeed, the forest of Marny was the last spent wave of the tide of war. Still, the fine old château had suffered from the force of an erratic shell or two, for, beyond the hall and dining-room, no apartment suitable for occupation remained save on the ground floor.
A great wood fire roared in the fireplace; two lamps glowed upon a table covered with a fair white cloth; there were violets arranged in great silver vases. On the sideboard stood a pleasing array of bottles.
Count Fleury stood there to welcome his guests. He might have been an emperor awaiting the arrival of the ambassadors of Europe. Despite the weight of years, his voice was clear and strong—the voice of one who had commanded men.
You are hungry," he said. "My daughter will be here presently, and then we will begin."
Some cold chicken, flanked by a ham and a piece of beef, stood on the table. There were eggs also, and potatoes nicely fried. It was hard work for the famished visitors to keep both eyes for their host.
Then a door leading out of the big dining-hall opened, and a girl entered. She was tall and slim and fair like a lily. She had the same delicate features as her brother, with the same fearless look in her eyes; indeed, the resemblance between them was astonishing.
"My daughter Louise," Count Fleury said, with gentle pride. "Major Eustace and his friend, Mr. Huddestone."
Louise placed a hand light as the laughter of a child in that of the two Englishmen.
"I have to thank you for saving my brother's life," she said simply.
"So far," said Armand. "There is danger yet, Louise."
The girl's face grew still more pale.
"How can that be since you are here?" she asked. "Ah! the Prussians would kill you if they knew; but they cannot know."
"Dear Louise, they know everything. Nothing seems to be concealed from them. In yonder German camp beyond Soissons I might mention some friend between Brest and Dijon, and some German there would tell me all about him, down to the number of sous he had left in his pockets. Deceive not yourself, Louise. They may not come here to-night, but they will come. To-morrow I join Marchelle; meanwhile Jean and his brother are keeping a watch for the first sign of danger."
A gentle sigh fluttered from the lips of the girl. She sat throughout the meal with her eyes fixed on her brother; she watched the languor fade from his eyes, and the slim frame gather strength as supper proceeded. Of the depth and sincerity of her affection for Armand there was no question.
"You will permit me to stay here," she said simply, as the meal was finished. "Indeed, I shall like the smell of your tobacco. And there is no other apartment fit for use in the château save my bedroom. And that is really the drawing-room."
Count Fleury's eyes flashed as he lay back in his chair.
"Times are changed for France since I was a boy," he said. "Then, indeed, we had generals and a man to command them. Now we have puppets—aye, and puppets who have not scrupled to sell their own country. Bazaine in Metz with a hundred and fifty thousand men, M'Mahon at Sedan with more. Heavens! that I should have lived to see the day when nearly half a million Frenchmen should fall without a blow! And I live to remember the man who gave me that!"
There were tears of mingled pride and grief in the eyes of the old man as he laid his slim fingers on a cross on his breast.
"The great Napoleon pinned that there," he said simply; but his voice thrilled like the humming of a broken fiddle-string. "Ah! with his own hand."
Eustace and Huddlestone were impressed, as well they might be. To find themselves face to face wdth the survivor of the Old Guard was thrilling. Nearly sixty years had elapsed since the power of Bonaparte had been finally throttled by Wellington on the field of Waterloo, and yet here stood perhaps the last of the Old Guard, alert and vigorous as he might have been on that decisive day.
"You were at Waterloo?" Eustace asked.
"I was, sir," the Count replied. "I counted that no disgrace, for we were fighting fearful odds after a campaign that will be remembered as long as there remains a nation on earth. And when I think of those glorious ten years, 1805 to 1815, I wish that I had fallen on the field you call Waterloo."
The Count paused, and something like a tear glistened in his eye. His arm went up and his hair bristled as if he were still wielding a sword for France. A flush was on his waxen face. Eustace watched him with frank admiration. He was so old in years and yet so young in spirit. And the gall had entered in his heart, the iron was in his proud soul.
Still, the zest and sweetness of life had not altogether deserted him. With an eye that flashed and a hand that quivered with a strange virility, he spoke of bygone campaigns, of the delirium of Moscow, of the breathless Peninsular struggle—in short, of all the lights and shadows of a great career.
As he spoke he seemed to grow younger. He stood up in all the strength of his manhood. One by one the wrinkles seemed to peel from his face, his voice vibrated in the carved rafters of the dining-hall. Young Armand followed him with eager eyes. All his lassitude seemed to have fallen from him. He saw France rise bleeding from the fray to a fresh vigour.
It seemed all so strange and unreal to the Englishmen. The old-world atmosphere, the white-haired figure in the full-bottomed coat, the air and environment of the First Empire surrounded them. And here was a man who had fought by Bonaparte at Waterloo, and had been with him when at length his tired fingers relaxed the sword.
"Not sixty years ago," the Count cried. His voice ran clear as a trumpet. "Not sixty years ago, and look at France now; the same people, and yet not the same people. Why has the glory departed? Is it because our overtaxed strength has not recovered from that glorious struggle?"
"I was at the Alma and Inkermann and the fall of Sebastopol," Eustace observed quietly, "and I saw no decadence of the arms of France then."
The Count flashed him a grateful look.
"We are not decayed!" he cried. "The heart of the people beats as stout and true as of yore. It is the corruption and cowardice and incompetence of our leaders. France has been betrayed by those who have sworn to die for her. Napoleon has ever been surrounded by knaves and adventurers. Ah! if I could only live to strike one more blow for France!"
The Count touched his rapier significantly. An almost painful silence followed. Outside were the stars and frosty solitude, beyond the plains the armies of France were melting away.
"One last blow for home and Empire!" Fleury cried again.
A step outside, a shout, the banging of a door, and then a peasant with white face and blazing eyes rushed into the room.
"The Prussians!" he gasped—"they are all round the house! They think to take you by surprise. Fly, my little master, fly!"
A STREAM of icy air cut into the room like a knife, a puff of smoke went up from the lamps. It seemed as if that frigid breath had taken all the sweetness and warmth out of life. The peasant was shivering, and his teeth chattered, but not with cold.
Armand Fleury started for the door, then paused irresolutely. He was pale, yet there was no fear in his blue eyes.
"It is useless for me to fly, my good Jean," he said. "If the château is surrounded, escape is impossible. As I feared, the Germans have traced me here. Fool that I was, to expose those I love to this danger!"
"It seems to me," Huddlestone said significantly, "that, had you done otherwise, you would have been past all earthly danger by this time."
Louise came forward; the white pallor of the lily was on her cheeks, her eyes gleamed with a strange, lurid light. Evidently some desperate plan had occurred to her. She motioned the trembling peasant to wait outside.
"There is no time to be lost," she said. "In half an hour at most those men will be here; when they come, you must be far away, dear Armand. There is just one desperate chance for you. Wait."
Louise darted into the inner apartment which she had reserved for her own bedroom, only to reappear presently with a bundle of clothing under her arm.
"You feel quite yourself again, Armand?" she asked.
"Thanks to the food and the warmth, I feel equal to most things now," Armand replied. "It was only the dire need of those things that drove me here."
"Ah! do not blame yourself thus. Once beyond the German cordon, you will be able to reach Captain Marchelle's force?"
"With Jean for a guide," Armand responded. "Once with Marchelle and his francs-tireurs, I should be safe."
Louise spread out her bundle on the floor.
"I have here the means of safety," she said. "You and I are marvellously alike, in height we are just the same. You will put these things on, and Jean will accompany you. You are going to the village to succour a lady who has been taken ill, and who requires nursing. Quickly, Armand. The plan may be a poor one, but there is no other."
Count Robert Fleury smiled in grim approval. A slight flush came over the fair features of Armand. He allowed the deft fingers of Louise to do their work, and with incredible swiftness he was transformed into the semblance of an exceedingly pretty and attractive girl.
"No chance of being recognised now," he muttered, as he glanced into a mirror. "There, Louise, you cannot improve your handiwork."
Armand pushed his sister gently away. Her critical eye ranged over him. She shook her head, and a frown contracted her snowy forehead. She raised her hands to her head, and her luxuriant nut-brown hair fell gloriously about her waist. The gleam of the lamp shone on the glorious mass, turning it to a dull gold.
Eustace uttered a protesting cry as Louise snatched a pair of scissors from the table. The shining glory was roped in one dexterous twist, and an instant later it was severed from the head of the girl.
Nobody spoke. The rapier swiftness of action seemed to paralyse all tongues. Something like a groan burst from the Count's lips. Louise laughed gaily. She was deadly pale, but a bright red spot was stippled on either cheek.
"My hair will grow again," she said, "and I have but one brother. Open the box where the medical stores and bandages are kept. Quick! Now, give me some of those long strips of plaster. There, m'sieurs, what think you of that?"
Deftly she banded the hair across Armand's forehead, allowing the graceful red gold coils to hang over his shoulders. A hood lined with swansdown completed the disguise. Louise smiled unsteadily at her own handiwork.
"You will pass," she cried; "that long hair hanging over your shoulders is quite realistic. It is as if you had risen hastily to visit a sick friend. Now go!"
The girl threw her arms about Armand's shoulders and kissed him tenderly. The Count held out his hand. In the lamplight the jewels on his fingers streamed and shimmered. His lips moved, but no sound came from them.
Louise stamped her foot imperiously.
"Why don't you go?" she cried. "Every moment brings the Germans nearer. When they search the house they must find me here, and then they will know they have been fooled. And they have horses."
Outside in the hall the peasant stood waiting. In a few words Louise explained to him the part he was expected to play. Then she opened the great hall door and thrust the two out into the white cold night. She watched them until the tears blinded her and she could see no more.
The fugitives passed along in silence, Armand leaning on the arm of his companion. He desired to husband his new store of strength as long as possible. Ere long the Germans would discover the way they had been tricked, and pursuit would follow. At the angle of the road three Uhlans were waiting.
"Courage, Jean," Armand whispered. "This it the critical moment. We must try and pass those men as naturally as possible."
A curt, hoarse call brought the fugitives upstanding. A lieutenant of Uhlans demanded their business and where they were going.
"I am Louise Fleury," said Armand, in a voice that might have been a gift to any woman. "I go to see a sick friend in the village."
The lieutenant approached. The sickly gleam of a lantern flickered on Armand's face, and on the hair floating over his shoulders. The German saluted. There was admiration in his eyes as he cocked up his moustache.
"Mademoiselle's brother has reached the château?" he asked.
"I'm not here to answer questions," was the reply. "As you are on your way to the château doubtless your curiosity will soon be satisfied. May I remark, Herr Leutenant, that the night is very cold, and that you are detaining me."
There was nothing but chill indifference in Armand's voice, though he had work to repress a desire to fly. Jean's face was blue and his teeth were chattering with terror. A little more of this and he would certainly betray himself.
The lieutenant drew aside, saluting again.
"You may pass, mademoiselle," he said, "though I doubt not that I should provide you with some kind of escort. The sorry clown by your side is not fitted for so enviable an undertaking."
Armand curtsied somewhat mockingly.
"My honest Jean does not love the Prussians, he says, and he has cause to fear them. I wish you good-night, m'sieur."
A moment later and the pine woods closed in on the fugitives. Armand tore off the clinging skirts and the hood from his head. But the curling ropes of hair he placed tenderly in his pocket.
"Quick!" he whispered; "quick, Jean! Give me the cloak and the cap. We have no moment to spare. In half an hour they will be after us hot-foot. And God grant no harm may be done yonder!"
Then they hurried forward over the crisp, dry snow.
IT was a breathless half-hour for the little party in the château. As the minutes crept along, the strained anxiety in Louise's eyes gradually faded.
"He must be safe by this time," she said. "If I could only conceal myself somewhere till the search is over! But they must see me sooner or later, and then they will understand. Father, I am going to bed."
"But they will insist upon searching everywhere, my child."
"I know, I know! But they must not enter yonder room so long as you can keep them out. You understand. You must threaten, storm, prevaricate, delay. Not until actual violence is at hand shall I appear. Every second you can detain them is as another year added to Armand's life."
With a graceful bow and smile to the Englishmen, Louise vanished. Hardly had she shot the bolt of her room before there came a thundering blow on the door of the château and the sound of raucous voices demanding admission.
A frightened manservant answered to the call, and then without ceremony a captain of the Uhlans, accompanied by a lieutenant and his two troopers, entered the dining-hall. They stood there, gaunt and still, gloved and coated, with the white hoar-frost thick on their moustaches. Count Fleury stood erect, white as a statue, yet with eyes like frosty stars.
"Am I to understand that you seek my poor hospitality?" he asked.
"I seek your son, Armaud Fleury, the spy," was the brutally frank response. "He has been traced here to-night. I may tell you at once that any idea of escape is out of the question. Where is your son?"
The fighting light was rising in Count Fleury's eyes. For the moment he was no longer an old man heavy with the burden of years, but a soldier of the Empire, once more ready to strike a blow for France. His hand wandered mechanically to the rapier at his side, his breath came thick and fast.
"My son is not here," he said quietly.
The captain turned from Fleury to Eustace and his companion.
"Is this true?" he demanded.*
"We are the guests of Count Fleury, and we have partaken of a hospitality sorely needed," Eustace said pointedly. "As men serving under the Red Cross, we do not propose to take any part in the matter."
The captain tugged angrily at his beard. He was a man who did not appear to be burdened with an exaggerated amiability.
"I may find means to make you speak," he growled.
Eustace laughed contemptuously. He knew the full value of this bluster.
"Search the house!" the Uhlan cried. "Search every nook and cranny. Begin yonder."
He pointed to the door leading into Louise's room. Fleury crossed over and placed his back against it. He stood erect and defiant, his eyes gleaming bright as the rapier he had half drawn from the scabbard.
"Not there," he said. "My daughter is in there."
"Then you will be good enough to request your daughter's presence here whilst I satisfy myself that the apartment is not otherwise tenanted."
Fleury made no motion to comply. His breast was heaving now, and a fine pink colour had crept over his pallid cheeks.
"My word has never been doubted during the seventy-odd years I have understood the virtues of truth and honour," he said painfully, as one who finds difficulty in breathing. "I give you my word, gentlemen, that my daughter is in there alone."
"It is false!" the lieutenant cried. "I had speech with Mademoiselle Fleury not half an hour ago on the outskirts of the village. From her own lips I had it that she was on her way to see a sick friend."
Fleury's lips quivered in a faint smile.
"There must be some mistake here," he said. "I give you my word of honour that my daughter is in the room behind me."
A sonorous Saxon oath burst from the captain's lips.
"You have been tricked and fooled, then, Von Arlin," he said. "If this is so, the spy has escaped us disguised as a woman."
"Impossible, my captain. The one I spoke to was a lady, and a beautiful one at that. The lady's hair in itself was a dream. No, no; Von Arlin flatters himself that he knows a woman when he sees one."
"This, then, is trickery here," the captain muttered. "Open that door, sir!"
The Count's eyes flashed a negative. With a contempt for his white hairs the Uhlan bully advanced and thrust him rudely aside. In an instant the thin, blue blade flashed from Fleury's scabbard and whirled with a dazzling flash round the head of the burly Saxon.
"Have a care, old man," the lieutenant said grimly, "you are playing with the finest swordsman in the German army."
Half in jest, half in earnest, the captain drew his sword. He would give the old man a lesson to remember; he would humble this insane pride.
The blades crossed and the Uhlan pressed to the attack. Then a slight annoyance came over him. Three compatriots were grinning there, and it behoved him to show his skill without loss of time. Instead of that, something alive seemed to be creeping all over him. The Count's rapier played in a sheet of lambent flame around him; fiercer and fiercer grew the attack, and still the Count stood there, with the same thin smile of contempt on his hps.
It was maddening. He was the champion of fence, cunning beyond his peers, and there was an old man staggering under the load of years, yet with a wrist like a silk rope for strength and pliancy.
"It's you or I now!" the Uhlan cried— "one of us must fall!"
A sudden madness seemed to possess Fleury. He seemed to see the light of the old days, to hear the yell of victory and triumph on many a hard-fought field; he seemed to be young again, when the heart of France beat true.
"A last blow for France!" he cried. "Vive l'Empereur! Vive la France!"
Sparks flew from the crossed blades, the white steel gleamed and twisted like the wild spume of the sea-wrack, there was a lunge forward, the quick flash and a turn of a ruffled wrist, and the big Uhlan threw up his arms and staggered to his fate, pierced to the heart.
No cry escaped him, no groan came from his lips. Just for an instant there was a faint pulsation of the eyelids, a twitch of the lips, and then all was still. With a cry of fury at the death of his captain, Von Arlin dashed forward. His sword flashed in the air as he fell upon the Count, full of passion and impetuosity. At the same moment the door of the bedroom was flung open and Louise stepped out.
White and trembling from head to foot she came. The clash of swords, the fall of the heavy body to the floor had been more than she could bear. For Armand's sake she had remained silent and undiscovered till reason began to totter under the strain. Whilst she remained there her father might be going on to his death. With a scream she burst open the door and stood there.
"Father!" she cried, "father! what does it mean?"
For one fatal instant Fleury glanced over his slioulder, his point fell, and Von Arlin thrust full for the chest of his adversary; the steel blade went home below the right breast, and Fleury sank slowly to the ground. Louise was quiet enough now; she raised the white, loved head upon her lap, she smoothed the long, white hair tenderly. A strange calm came over her. She looked up at the dazed lieutenant with mournful eyes.
"Had you taken the word of a gentleman," she said, "this would not have happened. Take your dead away and leave us to look to ours. You are fine soldiers, to war with old men and girls! Begone with you!"
The lips of the dazed lieutenant moved, but no sound came from them. He was slowly piecing the puzzle together until at length the whole truth dawned upon him; then he signed to the two Uhlan troopers, who raised the body of their captain from the floor and started out with it as stolidly as if they had been carrying fodder to their chargers.
The great hall-door drifted behind them with a bang, and then Louise rose to her feet.
"God be praised that they are gone!" she cried. "See, my father is not dead; you can feel that his heart is beating. Get me bandages and help me to stop the flow of blood. Only these people must never know that they have failed. And you will carry my father in and lay him on the bed. By this time Armand must be beyond pursuit. May Heaven defend him from another night like this!"
It was a little later that Fleury opened his eyes. He was faint from loss of blood, but no weakness seemed to quench the fire in the eyes of the soldier of the Old Guard; his lips trembled like red threads; his voice came hoarsely.
"I struck a blow for France to-night," he said. "The little Corporal told me once I was the finest swordsman in Europe. Ah! and that swaggering boor found to his cost that I had not forgotten. Vive—vive la France!"
His poor head fell back, his lips were parted, and he slept.
* * * * *
IT was many months afterwards that Eustace and Huddlestone saw their friends again. It was in Paris, after the conclusion of peace. An open carriage was proceeding at a foot-pace along the Bois de Boulogne. In it sat three people: an old man with a waxen face and hair like the eternal snows, a young man, and a girl of great beauty, which beauty was rendered none the less piquant by the fact that her hair was cut short like a boy's.
Huddlestone waved his cigar at the carriage.
"Do you recognise them?" he asked Eustace.
"Aye," Eustace replied. "If France had her proper share of men like that, we might have been in Berlin to-day, instead of Paris."