In profound silence the mournful procession crossed the two drawbridges of the fortress and the courtyard which leads to the chapel, through the windows of which a pale light colored the white faces of the red-robed priests.
Coconnas eagerly breathed the night air, although it was heavy with rain. He looked at the profound darkness and rejoiced that everything seemed propitious for the flight of himself and his companion. It required all his will-power, all his prudence, all his self-control to keep from springing from the litter when on entering the chapel he perceived near the choir, three feet from the altar, a figure wrapped in a great white cloak.
It was La Mole.
The two soldiers who accompanied the litter stopped outside of the door.
“Since they have done us the final favor of once more leaving us together,” said Coconnas in a drawling voice, “take me to my friend.”
The bearers had had no different order, and made no objection to assenting to Coconnas’s demand.
La Mole was gloomy and pale; his head rested against the marble wall; his black hair, bathed with profuse perspiration, gave to his face the dull pallor of ivory, and seemed still to stand on end.
At a sign from the turnkey the two attendants went to find the priest for whom Coconnas had asked.
This was the signal agreed on.
Coconnas followed them with anxious eyes; but he was not the only one whose glance was riveted on them.
Scarcely had they disappeared when two women rushed from behind the altar and hurried to the choir with cries of joy, rousing the air like a warm and restless breeze which precedes a storm.
Marguerite rushed towards La Mole, and caught him in her arms.
La Mole uttered a piercing shriek, like one of the cries Coconnas had heard in his dungeon and which had so terrified him.
“My God! What is the matter, La Mole?” cried Marguerite, springing back in fright.
La Mole uttered a deep moan and raised his hands to his eyes as though to hide Marguerite from his sight.
The queen was more terrified at the silence and this gesture than she had been at the shriek.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, “what is the matter? You are covered with blood.”
Coconnas, who had rushed to the altar for the dagger, and who was already holding Henriette in his arms, now came back.
“Rise,” said Marguerite, “rise, I beg you! You see the time has come.”
A hopelessly sad smile passed over the white lips of La Mole, who seemed almost unequal to the effort.
“Beloved queen!” said the young man, “you counted without Catharine, and consequently without a crime. I underwent the torture, my bones are broken, my whole body is nothing but a wound, and the effort I make now to press my lips to your forehead causes me pain worse than death.”
Pale and trembling, La Mole touched his lips to the queen’s brow.
“The rack!” cried Coconnas, “I, too, suffered it, but did not the executioner do for you what he did for me?”
Coconnas related everything.
“Ah!” said La Mole, “I see; you gave him your hand the day of our visit; I forgot that all men are brothers, and was proud. God has punished me for it!”
La Mole clasped his hands.
Coconnas and the women exchanged a glance of indescribable terror.
“Come,” said the jailer, who until then had stood at the door to keep watch, and had now returned, “do not waste time, dear Monsieur de Coconnas; give me my thrust of the dagger, and do it in a way worthy of a gentleman, for they are coming.”
Marguerite knelt down before La Mole, as if she were one of the marble figures on a tomb, near the image of the one buried in it.
“Come, my friend,” said Coconnas, “I am strong, I will carry you, I will put you on your horse, or even hold you in front of me, if you cannot sit in the saddle; but let us start. You hear what this good man says; it is a question of life and death.”
La Mole made a superhuman struggle, a final effort.
“Yes,” said he, “it is a question of life or death.”
And he strove to rise.
Annibal took him by the arm and raised him. During the process La Mole uttered dull moans, but when Coconnas let go of him to attend to the turnkey, and when he was supported only by the two women his legs gave way, and in spite of the effort of Marguerite, who was wildly sobbing, he fell back in a heap, and a piercing shriek which he could not restrain echoed pitifully throughout the vaults of the chapel, which vibrated long after.
“You see,” said La Mole, painfully, “you see, my queen! Leave me; give me one last kiss and go. I did not confess, Marguerite, and our secret is hidden in our love and will die with me. Good-by, my queen, my queen.”
Marguerite, herself almost lifeless, clasped the dear head in her arms, and pressed on it a kiss which was almost holy.
“You Annibal,” said La Mole, “who have been spared these agonies, who are still young and able to live, flee, flee; give me the supreme consolation, my dear friend, of knowing you have escaped.”
“Time flies,” said the jailer; “make haste.”
Henriette gently strove to lead Annibal to the door. Marguerite on her knees before La Mole, sobbing, and with dishevelled hair, looked like a Magdalene.
“Flee, Annibal,” said La Mole, “flee; do not give our enemies the joyful spectacle of the death of two innocent men.”
Coconnas quietly disengaged himself from Henriette, who was leading him to the door, and with a gesture so solemn that it seemed majestic said:
“Madame, first give the five hundred crowns we promised to this man.”
“Here they are,” said Henriette.
Then turning to La Mole, and shaking his head sadly:
“As for you, La Mole, you do me wrong to think for an instant that I could leave you. Have I not sworn to live and die with you? But you are suffering so, my poor friend, that I forgive you.”
And seating himself resolutely beside his friend Coconnas leaned forward and kissed his forehead.
Then gently, as gently as a mother would do to her child, he drew the dear head towards him, until it rested on his breast.
Marguerite was numb. She had picked up the dagger which Coconnas had just let fall.
“Oh, my queen,” said La Mole, extending his arms to her, and understanding her thought, “my beloved queen, do not forget that I die in order to destroy the slightest suspicion of our love!”
“But what can I do for you, then,” cried Marguerite, in despair, “if I cannot die with you?”
“You can make death sweet to me,” replied La Mole; “you can come to me with smiling lips.”
Marguerite advanced and clasped her hands as if asking him to speak.
“Do you remember that evening, Marguerite, when in exchange for the life I then offered you, and which today I lay down for you, you made me a sacred promise.”
Marguerite gave a start.
“Ah! you do remember,” said La Mole, “for you shudder.”
“Yes, yes, I remember, and on my soul, Hyacinthe, I will keep that promise.”
Marguerite raised her hand towards the altar, as if calling God a second time to witness her oath.
La Mole’s face lighted up as if the vaulted roof of the chapel had opened and a heavenly ray had fallen on him.
“They are coming!” said the jailer.
Marguerite uttered a cry, and rushed to La Mole, but the fear of increasing his agony made her pause trembling before him.
Henriette pressed her lips to Coconnas’s brow, and said to him:
“My Annibal, I understand, and I am proud of you. I well know that your heroism makes you die, and for that heroism I love you. Before God I will always love you more than all else, and what Marguerite has sworn to do for La Mole, although I know not what it is, I swear I will do for you also.”
And she held out her hand to Marguerite.
“Ah! thank you,” said Coconnas; “that is the way to speak.”
“Before you leave me, my queen,” said La Mole, “one last favor. Give me some last souvenir, that I may kiss it as I mount the scaffold.”
“Ah! yes, yes,” cried Marguerite; “here!”
And she unfastened from her neck a small gold reliquary suspended from a chain of the same metal.
“Here,” said she, “is a holy relic which I have worn from childhood. My mother put it around my neck when I was very little and she still loved me. It was given me by my uncle, Pope Clement and has never left me. Take it! take it!”
La Mole took it, and kissed it passionately.
“They are at the door,” said the jailer; “flee, ladies, flee!”
The two women rushed behind the altar and disappeared.
At the same moment the priest entered.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53