CHAPTER I. AN OLD MONASTERY
"Come, deputy of the Centre, forward! Quick step! march! if we want to be in time to dine with the others. Jump, marquis! there, that's right! why, you can skip across a stubble-field like a deer!"
These words were said by a huntsman peacefully seated at the edge of the forest of Ile-Adam, who was finishing an Havana cigar while waiting for his companion, who had lost his way in the tangled underbrush of the wood. At his side four panting dogs were watching, as he did, the personage he addressed. To understand how sarcastic were these exhortations, repeated at intervals, we should state that the approaching huntsman was a stout little man whose protuberant stomach was the evidence of a truly ministerial "embonpoint." He was struggling painfully across the furrows of a vast wheat-field recently harvested, the stubble of which considerably impeded him; while to add to his other miseries the sun's rays, striking obliquely on his face, collected an abundance of drops of perspiration. Absorbed in the effort to maintain his equilibrium, he leaned, now forward, now back, in close imitation of the pitching of a carriage when violently jolted. The weather looked threatening. Though several spaces of blue sky still parted the thick black clouds toward the horizon, a flock of fleecy vapors were advancing with great rapidity and drawing a light gray curtain from east to west. As the wind was acting only on the upper region of the air, the atmosphere below it pressed down the hot vapors of the earth. Surrounded by masses of tall trees, the valley through which the hunter struggled felt like a furnace. Parched and silent, the forest seemed thirsty. The birds, even the insects, were voiceless; the tree-tops scarcely waved. Those persons who may still remember the summer of 1819 can imagine the woes of the poor deputy, who was struggling along, drenched in sweat, to regain his mocking friend. The latter, while smoking his cigar, had calculated from the position of the sun that it must be about five in the afternoon.
"Where the devil are we?" said the stout huntsman, mopping his forehead and leaning against the trunk of a tree nearly opposite to his companion, for he felt unequal to the effort of leaping the ditch between them.
"That's for me to ask you," said the other, laughing, as he lay among the tall brown brake which crowned the bank. Then, throwing the end of his cigar into the ditch, he cried out vehemently: "I swear by Saint Hubert that never again will I trust myself in unknown territory with a statesman, though he be, like you, my dear d'Albon, a college mate."
"But, Philippe, have you forgotten your French? Or have you left your wits in Siberia?" replied the stout man, casting a sorrowfully comic look at a sign-post about a hundred feet away.
"True, true," cried Philippe, seizing his gun and springing with a bound into the field and thence to the post. "This way, d'Albon, this way," he called back to his friend, pointing to a broad paved path and reading aloud the sign: "'From Baillet to Ile-Adam.' We shall certainly find the path to Cassan, which must branch from this one between here and Ile-Adam."
"You are right, colonel," said Monsieur d'Albon, replacing upon his head the cap with which he had been fanning himself....