Before him stretched indeed the gloom of the masses of pine, the upward slopes of tree-stocked hills, the vastness of the Black Forest; but they were like the mirage to a man who dies in a desert; he knew, at the pace he went, he could not live to reach them. The blood was beating in his brain and pumping from his heart; a tightness like an iron band seemed girt about his loins, his lips began to draw his breath in with loud gasping spasms; he knew that in a little space his speed must slacken—he knew it by the roar, like the noise of water, that was rushing on his ear, and the oppression, like a hand’s hard grip, that seemed above his heart.
But he would go till he died; go till they fired on him; go, though the skies felt swirling round like a sea of fire, and the hard, hot earth beneath his feet jarred his whole frame as his feet struck it flying.
The angle of an old wood house, with towering roof and high-peaked gables, threw a depth of shadow at last across his road; a shadow black and rayless, darker for the white glisten of the moon around. Built more in the Swiss than the German style, a massive balcony of wood ran round it, upon and beneath which in its heavy shade was an impenetrable gloom, while the twisted wooden pillars ran upward to the gallery, loggia-like. With rapid perception and intuition he divined rather than saw these things, and, swinging himself up with noiseless lightness, he threw himself full-length down on the rough flooring of the balcony. If they passed he was safe, for a brief time more at least; if they found him—his teeth clinched like a mastiff’s where he lay—he had the strength in him still to sell his life dearly.
The pursuers came closer and closer, and by the clamors that floated up in indistinct and broken fragments, he knew that they had tracked him. He heard the tramp of their feet as they came under the loggia; he heard the click of the pistols—they were close upon him at last in the blackness of night.
The King’s last service.
“Is he up there?” asked a voice in the darkness.
“Not likely. A cat couldn’t scramble up that woodwork,” answered a second.
“Send a shot, and try,” suggested a third.
There he lay, stretched motionless on the flat roof of the veranda. He heard the words as the thronging mob surged, and trampled, and swore, and quarreled, beneath him, in the blackness of the gloom; balked of their prey, and savage for some amends. There was a moment’s pause—a hurried, eager consultation; then he heard the well-known sound of a charge being rammed down, and the sharp drawing out of a ramrod; there was a flash, a report, a line of light flamed a second in his sight; a ball hissed past him with a loud, singing rush, and bedded itself in the timber, a few inches above his uncovered hair. A dead silence followed; then the muttering of many voices broke out afresh.