'With horses and arms?'
They could see that I was not a man to jest with.
'All complete,' said the chasseur, sulkily.
'And the Countess of La Ronda as well?' said I.
But here I met with firmer opposition. No threats of mine could induce them to give up the Countess. We tightened the cord. We moved the horse. We did all but leave the Marshal suspended. If once I broke his neck the dragoons were dead men. It was as precious to me as to them.
'Allow me to remark,' said the Marshal, blandly, 'that you are exposing me to a risk of a quinsy. Do you not think, since there is a difference of opinion upon this point, that it would be an excellent idea to consult the lady herself? We would neither of us, I am sure, wish to override her own inclinations.'
Nothing could be more satisfactory. You can imagine how quickly I grasped at so simple a solution. In ten minutes she was before us, a most stately dame, with her grey curls peeping out from under her mantilla. Her face was as yellow as though it reflected the countless doubloons of her treasury.
'This gentleman,' said the Marshal, 'is exceedingly anxious to convey you to a place where you will never see us more. It is for you to decide whether you would wish to go with him, or whether you prefer to remain with me.'
She was at his horse's side in an instant. 'My own Alexis,' she cried, 'nothing can ever part us.'
He looked at me with a sneer upon his handsome face.
'By the way, you made a small slip of the tongue, my dear Colonel,' said he. 'Except by courtesy, no such person exists as the Dowager Countess of La Ronda. The lady whom I have the honour to present to you is my very dear wife, Mrs Alexis Morgan--or shall I say Madame la Marechale Millefleurs?'
It was at this moment that I came to the conclusion that I was dealing with the cleverest, and also the most unscrupulous, man whom I had ever met. As I looked upon this unfortunate old woman my soul was filled with wonder and disgust. As for her, her eyes were raised to his face with such a look as a young recruit might give to the Emperor.
'So be it,' said I at last; 'give me the dragoons and let me go.'
They were brought out with their horses and weapons, and the rope was taken from the Marshal's neck.
'Good-bye, my dear Colonel,' said he. 'I am afraid that you will have rather a lame account to give of your mission, when you find your way back to Massena, though, from all I hear, he will probably be too busy to think of you. I am free to confess that you have extricated yourself from your difficulties with greater ability than I had given you credit for. I presume that there is nothing which I can do for you before you go?'
'There is one thing.'
'And that is?'
'To give fitting burial to this young officer and his men.'
'I pledge my word to it.'
'And there is one other.'
'To give me five minutes in the open with a sword in your hand and a horse between your legs.'
'Tut, tut!' said he. 'I should either have to cut short your promising career, or else to bid adieu to my own bonny bride. It is unreasonable to ask such a request of a man in the first joys of matrimony.'
I gathered my horsemen together and wheeled them into column.
'Au revoir,' I cried, shaking my sword at him. 'The next time you may not escape so easily.'
'Au revoir,' he answered. 'When you are weary of the Emperor, you will always find a commission waiting for you in the service of the Marshal Millefleurs.'
6. HOW THE BRIGADIER PLAYED FOR A KINGDOM
It has sometimes struck me that some of you, when you have heard me tell these little adventures of mine, may have gone away with the impression that I was conceited. There could not be a greater mistake than this, for I have always observed that really fine soldiers are free from this failing. It is true that I have had to depict myself sometimes as brave, sometimes as full of resource, always as interesting; but, then, it really was so, and I had to take the facts as I found them.