“We must ride as hard and as fast as we can, and as silently,” were the only words he exchanged with Rake, as he loosened his gray to a gallop.
“All right, sir,” answered the trooper, whose warm blood was dancing, and whose blue eyes were alive like fire with delight. That he had been absent on a far-away foraging raid on the day of Zaraila had been nothing short of agony to Rake, and the choice made of him for this duty was to him a gift of paradise. He loved fighting for fighting’s sake; and to be beside Cecil was the greatest happiness life held for him.
They had two hundred miles to traverse, and had received only the command he had passed to Rake, to ride “hard, fast, and silently.” To the hero of Zaraila the general had felt too much soldierly sympathy to add the superfluous injunction to do his uttermost to carry safely and successfully to their destination the papers that were placed in his care. He knew well that the errand would be done, or the Chasseur would be dead.
It was just nightfall; the after-glow had faded only a few moments before. Giving their horses, which they were to change once, ten hours for the distance, and two for bait and for rest, he reckoned that they would reach the camp before the noon of the coming day, as the beasts, fresh and fast in the camp, flew like greyhounds beneath them.
Another night ride that they had ridden together came to the minds of both; but they spoke not a word as they swept on, their sabers shaken loose in their sheaths, their lances well gripped, and the pistols with which they had been supplied sprung in their belts, ready for instant action if a call should come for it. Every rood of the way was as full of unseen danger as if laid over mines. They might pass in safety; they might any moment be cut down by ten score against two. From every hanging scarp of rugged rock a storm of musket-balls might pour; from every screen of wild-fig foliage a shower of lances might whistle through the air; from every darkling grove of fir trees an Arab band might spring and swoop on them; but the knowledge scarcely recurred to the one save to make him shake his sword more loose for quick disengagement, and only made the sunny blue eyes of the other sparkle with a vivid and longing zest.
The night grew very chill as it wore on; the north wind rose, rushing against them with a force and icy touch that seemed to freeze their bones to the marrow after the heat of the day and the sun that had scorched them so long. There was no regular road; they went across the country, their way sometimes leading over level land, over which they swept like lightning, great plains succeeding one another with wearisome monotony; sometimes on the contrary, lying through ravines, and defiles, and gloomy woods, and broken, hilly spaces, where rent, bare rocks were thrown on one another in gigantic confusion, and the fantastic shapes of the wild fig and the dwarf palm gathered a hideous grotesqueness in the darkness. For there was no moon, and the stars were often hidden by the storm-rack of leaden clouds that drifted over the sky; and the only sound they heard was the cry of the jackal, or the shriek of the night bird, and now and then the sound of shallow water-courses, where the parched beds of hidden brooks had been filled by the autumnal rain.