With the indifference of experience and long usage he had been riding carelessly along an old pre-historic trail through the cañon, probably made and forgotten long before the Spaniards spied out the land. Engrossed in his thoughts, he had been heedless alike of the wall above and of the wall below. Prior to that moment neither the over-hanging rock that curved above his head nor the almost sheer fall to the river a thousand feet beneath the narrow ledge of the trail had influenced him at all. He might have been riding a country road so indifferent had been his progress. That momentary shriek dying thinly away into a strange silence changed everything.
The man was riding a sure-footed mule, which perhaps somewhat accounted for his lack of care, and it seemed as if the animal must also have heard and understood the meaning of the woman's scream, for with no bridle signal and no spoken word the mule stopped suddenly as if petrified. Rider and ridden stood as if carved from stone.
The man's comprehending, realizing fear almost paralyzed him. At first he could scarcely force himself to do that toward which his whole being tended—look around. Divining instantly the full meaning of that sudden cry, it seemed hours before he could turn his head; really her cry and his movement were practically simultaneous. He threw an agonized glance backward on the narrow trail and saw—nothing! Where there had been life, companionship, comradeship, a woman, there was now vacancy.
The trail made a little bend behind him, he could see its surface for some distance, but not what lay beneath. He did not need the testimony of his eyes for that. He knew what was down there.
It seemed to his distorted perceptions that he moved slowly, his limbs were like lead, every joint was as stiff as a rusty hinge. Actually he dropped from the mule's back with reckless and life-defying haste and fairly leaped backward on his path. Had there been any to note his progress, they would have said he risked his own life over every foot of the way. He ran down the narrow shelf, rock strewn and rough, swaying upon the unfathomable brink until he reached the place where she had been a moment since. There he dropped on one knee and looked downward.
From time to time officers, orderlies and couriers came into the room, bearing dispatches. These were handed to the young officer and by him passed over to the Emperor. Never since the days of Job had any man perhaps been compelled to welcome such a succession of bearers of evil tidings as Napoleon on that winter night.
The Emperor's face was pale always, but there was an ashy grayness about his pallor in that hour that marked a difference. His face was lined and seamed, not to say haggard. The mask of imperturbability he usually wore was down. He looked old, tired, discouraged. His usual iron self-control and calm had given place to an overwhelming nervousness and incertitude. He waved his hands, he muttered to himself, his mouth twitched awry from time to time as he walked.
"Well, messieurs," he began at last, in sharp, rather high-pitched notes—even his voice sounded differently—as he lifted his eyes from perusing the latest dispatch and faced the uneasy group by the fireplace, "you are doubtless anxious to know the news." The Emperor stepped over to the table as he spoke, and gathered up a handful of dispatches and ran over them with his hands. "It is all set forth here: The Germans and the English have shut up Carnot in Antwerp," he continued rapidly, throwing one paper down. "The Bourbons have entered Brussels,"—he threw another letter upon the table—"Belgium, you see, is lost. Bernadotte has taken Denmark. Macdonald is falling back on Épernay, his weak force growing weaker every hour. Yorck, who failed us once before, is hard on his heels with twice, thrice, the number of his men. Sacken is trying to head him off. The King of Naples seeks to save the throne on which I established him by withdrawing from me now—the poor fool! The way to Paris along the Marne is open, and Blücher is marching on the capital with eighty thousand Russians, Prussians and Bavarians. Schwarzenburg with many more is close at hand."