“Above all, make haste!” Maurice had said to the messenger charged with bearing a letter to the baroness.
Nevertheless, the man did not reach Escorval until nightfall.
Beset by a thousand fears, he had taken the unfrequented roads and had made long circuits to avoid all the people he saw approaching in the distance.
Mme. d’Escorval tore the letter rather than took it from his hands. She opened it, read it aloud to Marie-Anne, and merely said:
“Let us go—at once.”
But this was easier said than done.
They kept but three horses at Escorval. One was nearly dead from its terrible journey of the previous night; the other two were in Montaignac.
What were the ladies to do? To trust to the kindness of their neighbors was the only resource open to them.
But these neighbors having heard of the baron’s arrest, firmly refused to lend their horses. They believed they would gravely compromise themselves by rendering any service to the wife of a man upon whom the burden of the most terrible of accusations was resting.
Mme. d’Escorval and Marie-Anne were talking of pursuing their journey on foot, when Corporal Bavois, enraged at such cowardice, swore by the sacred name of thunder that this should not be.
“One moment!” said he. “I will arrange the matter.”
He went away, but reappeared about a quarter of an hour afterward, leading an old plough-horse by the mane. This clumsy and heavy steed he harnessed into the cabriolet as best he could.
But even this did not satisfy the old trooper’s complaisance.
His duties at the chateau were over, as M. d’Escorval had been arrested, and nothing remained for Corporal Bavois but to rejoin his regiment.
He declared that he would not allow these ladies to travel at night, and unattended, on the road where they might be exposed to many disagreeable encounters, and that he, in company with two grenadiers, would escort them to their journey’s end.
“And it will go hard with soldier or civilian who ventures to molest them, will it not, comrades?” he exclaimed.
As usual, the two men assented with an oath.
So, as they pursued their journey, Mme. d’Escorval and Marie-Anne saw the three men preceding or following the carriage, or oftener walking beside it.
Not until they reached the gates of Montaignac did the old soldier forsake his protegees, and then, not without bidding them a respectful farewell, in the name of his companions as well as himself; not without telling them, if they had need of him, to call upon Bavois, corporal of grenadiers, company first, stationed at the citadel.
The clocks were striking ten when Mme. d’Escorval and Marie-Anne alighted at the Hotel de France.
They found Maurice in despair, and even the abbe disheartened. Since Maurice had written to them, events had progressed with fearful rapidity.