How many men has she?"
"I counted but eighteen, but she may have had two or three pickets out."
"Is that all? It won't be a mouthful for my force. Is it true that she is only a girl?"
"Yes; she is not more than seventeen."
"It passes belief! Is she robust, or slender?"
The officer pondered a moment or two, then he said:
"Was she preparing to break camp?"
"Not when I had my last glimpse of her."
"What was she doing?"
"She was talking quietly with an officer."
"Quietly? Not giving orders?"
"No, talking as quietly as we are now."
"That is good. She is feeling a false security. She would have been restless and fussy else--it is the way of her sex when danger is about. As she was making no preparation to break camp--"
"She certainly was not when I saw her last."
"--and was chatting quietly and at her ease, it means that this weather is not to her taste. Night-marching in sleet and wind is not for chits of seventeen. No; she will stay where she is. She has my thanks. We will camp, ourselves; here is as good a place as any. Let us get about it."
"If you command it--certainly. But she has two knights with her. They might force her to march, particularly if the weather should improve."
I was scared, and impatient to be getting out of this peril, and it distressed and worried me to have Joan apparently set herself to work to make delay and increase the danger--still, I thought she probably knew better than I what to do. The officer said:
"Well, in that case we are here to block the way."
"Yes, if they come this way. But if they should send out spies, and find out enough to make them want to try for the bridge through the woods? Is it best to allow the bridge to stand?"
It made me shiver to hear her.
The officer considered awhile, then said:
"It might be well enough to send a force to destroy the bridge. I was intending to occupy it with the whole command, but that is not necessary now."
Joan said, tranquilly:
"With your permission, I will go and destroy it myself."
Ah, now I saw her idea, and was glad she had had the cleverness to invent it and the ability to keep her head cool and think of it in that tight place. The officer replied:
"You have it, Captain, and my thanks. With you to do it, it will be well done; I could send another in your place, but not a better."
They saluted, and we moved forward. I breathed freer. A dozen times I had imagined I heard the hoofbeats of the real Captain Raymond's troop arriving behind us, and had been sitting on pins and needles all the while that that conversation was dragging along. I breathed freer, but was still not comfortable, for Joan had given only the simple command, "Forward!" Consequently we moved in a walk. Moved in a dead walk past a dim and lengthening column of enemies at our side. The suspense was exhausting, yet it lasted but a short while, for when the enemy's bugles sang the "Dismount!" Joan gave the word to trot, and that was a great relief to me. She was always at herself, you see. Before the command to dismount had been given, somebody might have wanted the countersign somewhere along that line if we came flying by at speed, but now wee seemed to be on our way to our allotted camping position, so we were allowed to pass unchallenged. The further we went the more formidable was the strength revealed by the hostile force. Perhaps it was only a hundred or two, but to me it seemed a thousand. When we passed the last of these people I was thankful, and the deeper we plowed into the darkness beyond them the better I felt. I came nearer and nearer to feeling good, for an hour; then we found the bridge still standing, and I felt entirely good. We crossed it and destroyed it, and then I felt--but I cannot describe what I felt. One has to feel it himself in order to know what it is like.
We had expected to hear the rush of a pursuing force behind us, for we thought that the real Captain Raymond would arrive and suggest that perhaps the troop that had been mistaken for his belonged to the Virgin of Vaucouleurs; but he must have been delayed seriously, for when we resumed our march beyond the river there were no sounds behind us except those which the storm was furnishing.