I looked on every side, but in the whole of that vast rocky valley there was no one save only the Bart and I--both of us armed, you understand, and both of us well mounted. I began to ask myself whether after all it was quite necessary that I should ride that mile which would bring me to the British outposts.
Now, I wish to be very clear with you on this point, my friends, for I would not have you think that I was acting dishonourably or ungratefully to the man who had helped me away from the brigands. You must remember that of all duties the strongest is that which a commanding officer owes to his men. You must also bear in mind that war is a game which is played under fixed rules, and when these rules are broken one must at once claim the forfeit. If, for example, I had given a parole, then I should have been an infamous wretch had I dreamed of escaping. But no parole had been asked of me. Out of over-confidence, and the chance of the lame horse dropping behind, the Bart had permitted me to get upon equal terms with him. Had it been I who had taken him, I should have used him as courteously as he had me, but, at the same time, I should have respected his enterprise so far as to have deprived him of his sword, and seen that I had at least one guard beside myself. I reined up my horse and explained this to him, asking him at the same time whether he saw any breach of honour in my leaving him.
He thought about it, and several times repeated that which the English say when they mean 'Mon Dieu.'
'You would give me the slip, would you?' said he.
'If you can give no reason against it.'
'The only reason that I can think of,' said the Bart, 'is that I should instantly cut your head off if you were to attempt it.'
'Two can play at that game, my dear Bart,' said I.
'Then we'll see who can play at it best,' he cried, pulling out his sword.
I had drawn mine also, but I was quite determined not to hurt this admirable young man who had been my benefactor.
'Consider,' said I, 'you say that I am your prisoner. I might with equal reason say that you are mine. We are alone here, and though I have no doubt that you are an excellent swordsman, you can hardly hope to hold your own against the best blade in the six light cavalry brigades.'
His answer was a cut at my head. I parried and shore off half of his white plume. He thrust at my breast. I turned his point and cut away the other half of his cockade.
'Curse your monkey-tricks!' he cried, as I wheeled my horse away from him.
'Why should you strike at me?' said I. 'You see that I will not strike back.'
'That's all very well,' said he; 'but you've got to come along with me to the camp.'
'I shall never see the camp,' said I.
'I'll lay you nine to four you do,' he cried, as he made at me, sword in hand.
But those words of his put something new into my head. Could we not decide the matter in some better way than fighting? The Bart was placing me in such a position that I should have to hurt him, or he would certainly hurt me. I avoided his rush, though his sword-point was within an inch of my neck.
'I have a proposal,' I cried. 'We shall throw dice as to which is the prisoner of the other.'
He smiled at this. It appealed to his love of sport.
'Where are your dice?' he cried.
'I have none.'
'Nor I. But I have cards.'
'Cards let it be,' said I.
'And the game?'
'I leave it to you.'
'Ecarte, then--the best of three.'
I could not help smiling as I agreed, for I do not suppose that there were three men in France who were my masters at the game. I told the Bart as much as we dismounted. He smiled also as he listened.
'I was counted the best player at Watier's,' said he. 'With even luck you deserve to get off if you beat me.'
So we tethered our two horses and sat down one on either side of a great flat rock. The Bart took a pack of cards out of his tunic, and I had only to see him shuffle to convince me that I had no novice to deal with. We cut, and the deal fell to him.
My faith, it was a stake worth playing for.