Read CHAPTER XXIII - PURSUIT of The Lily and the Cross A Tale of Acadia , free online book, by James De Mille, on ReadCentral.com.

As they hurried on, it grew gradually lighter, so that they were able to advance more rapidly.  The path remained about the same, winding as before, and with the same alternations of roots, stones, and swamp; but the daylight made all the difference in the world, and they were now able to urge their horses at the top of their speed.  The Indian who was at their head was able to keep there without much apparent effort, never holding back or falling behind, though if the ground had been smoother he could scarcely have done so.  With every step the dawn advanced, until at last the sun rose, and all the forest grew bright in the beams of day.  A feeling of hope and joy succeeded to the late despondency which had been creeping over them; but this only stimulated them to redoubled exertions, so that they might not, after all, find themselves at last cheated out of these bright hopes.

That they were now pursued they all felt confident.  At three o’clock the absence of the sentry must have been discovered, and, of course, the flight of Claude.  Thereupon the alarm would at once be given.  Cazeneau would probably be aroused, and would proceed to take action immediately.  Even under what might be the most favorable circumstances to them, it was not likely that there would be a delay of more than an hour.

Besides, the pursuer had an advantage over them.  They had a start of three hours; but those three hours were spent in darkness, when they were able to go over but little ground.  All that they had toiled so long in order to traverse, their pursuers could pass over in one quarter the time, and one quarter the labor.  They were virtually not more than one hour in advance of the enemy, who would have fresher horses, with which to lessen even this small advantage.  And by the most favorable calculation, there remained yet before them at least thirty miles, over a rough and toilsome country.  Could they hope to escape?

Such were the thoughts that came to Claude’s mind, and such the question that came to him.  That question he did not care to discuss with himself.  He could only resolve to keep up the flight till the last moment, and then resist to the bitter end.

But now there arose a new danger, which brought fresh difficulties with it, and filled Claude with new despondency.  This danger arose from a quarter in which he was most assailable to fear and anxiety ­from Mimi.

He had never ceased, since they first left, to watch over his bride with the most anxious solicitude, sometimes riding by her side and holding her hand, when the path admitted it, at other times riding behind her, so as to keep her in view, and all the time never ceasing to address to her words of comfort and good cheer.  To all his questions Mimi had never failed to respond in a voice which was full of cheerfulness and sprightliness, and no misgivings on her account entered his mind until the light grew bright enough for him to see her face.  Then he was struck by her appearance.  She seemed so feeble, so worn, so fatigued, that a great fear came over him.

“O, Mimi, darling!” he cried, “this is too much for you.”

“O, no,” she replied, in the same tone; “I can keep up as long as you wish me to.”

“But you look so completely worn out!”

“O, that’s because I’ve been fretting about you ­you bad boy; it’s not this ride at all.”

“Are you sure that you can keep up?”

“Why, of course I am; and I must, for there’s nothing else to be done.”

“O, Mimi, I’m afraid ­I’m very much afraid that you will break down.”

At this Mimi gave a little laugh, but said nothing, and Claude found himself compelled to trust to hope.  Thus they went on for some time longer.

But at length Claude was no longer able to conceal the truth from himself, nor was Mimi able any longer to maintain her loving deception.  She was exceedingly weak; she was utterly worn out; and in pain Claude saw her form sway to and fro and tremble.  He asked her imploringly to stop and rest.  But at the sound of his voice, Mimi roused herself once more, by a great effort.

“O, no,” she said, with a strong attempt to speak unconcernedly; “O, no.  I acknowledge I am a little tired; and if we come to any place where we may rest, I think I shall do so; but not here, not here; let us go farther.”

Claude drew a long breath.  Deep anxiety overwhelmed him.  Mimi was, in truth, right.  How could they dare to pause just here?  The pursuer was on their track!  No; they must keep on; and if Mimi did sink, what then?  But he would not think of it; he would hope that Mimi would be able, after all, to hold out.

But at length what Claude had feared came to pass.  He had been riding behind Mimi for some time, so as to watch her better, when suddenly he saw her slender frame reel to one side.  A low cry came from her.  In an instant Claude was at her side, and caught her in his arms in time to save her from a fall.

Mimi had not fainted, but was simply prostrated from sheer fatigue.  No strength was left, and it was impossible for her to sit up any longer.  She had struggled to bear up as long as possible, and finally had given way altogether.

“I cannot help it,” she murmured.

“O, my darling!” cried Claude, in a voice of anguish.

“Forgive me, dear Claude.  I cannot help it!”

“O, don’t talk so,” said Claude.  “I ought to have seen your weakness before, and given you assistance.  But come now; I will hold you in my arms, and we will still be able to go on.”

“I wish you would leave me; only leave me, and then you can be saved.  There is no danger for me; but if you are captured, your life will be taken.  O, Claude, dearest Claude, leave me and fly.”

“You distress me, Mimi, darling, by all this.  I cannot leave you; I would rather die than do so.  And so, if you love me, don’t talk so.”

At this, with a little sob, Mimi relapsed into silence.

“Courage, darling,” said Claude, in soothing tones.  “Who knows but that they are still in Louisbourg, and have not yet left?  We may get away, after all; or we may find some place of hiding.”

The additional burden which he had been forced to assume overweighted very seriously Claude’s horse, and signs of this began to appear before long.  No sooner, however, had Claude perceived that it was difficult to keep with the rest of the party, than he concluded to shift himself, with Mimi, to the horse which Mimi had left.  This was one of the best and freshest of the whole party, and but a slight delay was occasioned by the change.

After this they kept up a good rate of speed for more than two hours, when Claude once more changed to another horse.  This time it was to Margot’s horse, which had done less thus far than any of the others.  Margot then took the horse which Claude had at first, and thus they went on.  It was a good contrivance, for thus by changing about from one to another, and by allowing one horse to be led, the endurance of the whole was maintained longer than would otherwise have been possible.

But at length the long and fatiguing journey began to tell most seriously on all the horses, and all began to see that further progress would not be much longer possible.  For many hours they had kept on their path; and, though the distance which they had gone was not more than twenty-five miles, yet, so rough had been the road that the labor had been excessive, and all the horses needed rest.  By this time it was midday, and they all found themselves face to face with a question of fearful import, which none of them knew how to answer.  The question was, what to do.  Could they stop?  Dare they?  Yet they must.  For the present they continued on a little longer.

They now came to another open space, overgrown with shrubbery, similar to that which they had traversed in the night.  It was about two miles in extent, and at the other end arose a bare, rocky hill, beyond which was the forest.

“We must halt at the top of that hill,” said Claude.  “It’s the best place.  We can guard against a surprise, at any rate.  Some of the horses will drop if we go on much farther.”

“I suppose we’ll have to,” said the priest.

“We must rest for half an hour, at least,” said Claude.  “If they come up, we’ll have to scatter, and take to the woods.”

With these words they rode on, and at length reached the hill.  The path wound up it, and in due time they reached the top.

But scarcely had they done so, than a loud cry sounded out, which thrilled through all hearts.  Immediately after, a figure came bounding towards them.

“Hooray!  Hip, hip, hooray!” shouted the new comer.

“Heavens!  Zac!” cried Claude; “you here?”

“Nobody else,” replied Zac, wringing his hand.  “But what are you going to do?”

“Our horses are blown; we are pursued, but have to halt for a half hour or so.  If they come up, we’ll have to scatter, and take to the woods, and start the horses ahead on the path.  This is a good lookout place.”

With these words Claude began to dismount, bearing his beloved burden.  The priest assisted him.  Zac, after his first hurried greeting, had moved towards Margot, around whom he threw his arms, with an energetic clasp, and lifted her from the saddle to the ground.  Then he shook hands with her.

“I’m ver mooch glad to see you,” said Margot.  “Ees your sheep far off?”

“So, they’re after you ­air they?” said he.  “Wal, little one, when they come, you stick to me ­mind that; an’ I engage to get you off free.  Stick to me, though.  Be handy, an’ I’ll take you clar of them.”

Claude was now engaged in finding a comfortable place upon which Mimi might recline.  The Indian stood as lookout; the deserter busied himself with the horses; the priest stood near, watching Claude and Mimi, while Zac devoted himself to Margot.  In the midst of this, the Indian came and said something to the priest.  Claude noticed this, and started.

“What is it?” he asked.

“He hears them,” said the priest, significantly.

“So soon!” exclaimed Claude.  “Then we must scatter.  The horses will be of no use.  Our last chance is the woods.”

In a moment the alarm was made; hasty directions were given for each one to take care of himself, and if he eluded the pursuers, to follow the path to the place where the schooner lay.  Meanwhile the horses were to be driven ahead by the Indian as far as possible.  The Indian at once went off, together with the deserter, and these two drove the horses before them into the woods, along the path.  Then Zac followed.  Lifting Margot in his arms, he bore her lightly along, and soon disappeared in the woods.

Then Claude took Mimi in his arms, and hastened as fast as he could towards the shelter of the woods.  But Claude had not Zac’s strength, and besides, Mimi was more of a dead weight than Margot, so that he could not go nearly so fast.  Zac was in the woods, and out of sight, long before Claude had reached the place; and by that time the rest of the party, both horses and men, had all disappeared, with the exception of Pere Michel.  The good priest kept close by the young man, as though resolved to share his fate, whether in life or death.  If it was difficult while carrying Mimi over the path, Claude found it far more so on reaching the woods.  Here he dared not keep to the path, for the very object of going to the woods was to elude observation by plunging into its darkest and deepest recesses.  Zac had gone there at a headlong rate, like a fox to his covert.  Such a speed Claude could not rival, and no sooner did he take one step in the woods, than he perceived the full difficulty of his task.  The woods were of the wildest kind, filled with rocks and fallen trees, the surface of the ground being most irregular.  At every other step it was necessary to clamber over some obstacle, or crawl under it.

“We cannot hope to go far,” said the priest.  “Our only course now will be to find some convenient hiding-place.  Perhaps they will pass on ahead, and then we can go farther on.”

At this very moment the noise of horses and men sounded close behind.  One hurried look showed them all.  Their pursuers had reached their late halting-place, and were hurrying forward.  The place bore traces of their halt, which did not escape the keen eyes of their enemies.  At the sight, Claude threw himself down in a hollow behind a tree, with Mimi beside him, while the priest did the same.

The suspicions of the pursuers seemed to have been awakened by the signs which they had seen at the last halting-place.  They rode on more slowly.  At length they divided, half of them riding rapidly ahead, and the other half moving forward at a walk, and scanning every foot of ground in the open and in the woods.

At last a cry escaped one of them.  Claude heard it.  The next moment he heard footsteps.  The enemy were upon him; their cries rang in his ears.  In all the fury of despair, he started to his feet with only one thought, and that was, to sell his life as dearly as possible.  But Mimi flung herself in his arms, and the priest held his hands.

“Yield,” said the priest.  “You can do nothing.  There is yet hope.”

The next moment Claude was disarmed, and in the hands of his enemies.