Chapter III. The commander’s hood
The question had indeed resolved itself in a matter of duty.
Duty arose stem-visaged and immutable before the spirit of Cimourdain, and terrible before that of Gauvain.
Simple to the one; complex, many-sided, devious, to the other.
The hour of midnight sounded; then one o’clock.
Without realizing where he was going, Gauvain had unconsciously approached the entrance of the breach.
The light of the expiring fire cast now but a dim reflection. The plateau on the other side of the tower caught the light and became visible for an instant only, to vanish as the clouds of smoke obscured the flames. This light, with its unexpected flashes and sudden darkening shadows, exaggerated the surrounding objects and gave to the sentinels of the camp the effect of phantoms. Gauvain, lost in thought, unconsciously watched the alternations of smoke and flame. There seemed to him a strange analogy between these changes of light and shade and the varied phases of truth in his own mind.
Suddenly, between two clouds of smoke, a flame burst forth from the bed of dying coals, threw a brilliant light on the summit of the plateau, and revealed the red outlines of a wagon. Gauvain gazed upon it. It was surrounded by horsemen wearing the hats of gendarmes. He concluded that this must be the same one that he had seen through Guéchamp’s spy-glass against the horizon a few hours before, just as the sun was setting. There were men on the wagon who appeared to be unloading it. The object which they were removing seemed heavy, and at times the clanking of iron could be heard; it would have been difficult to say what it was. It seemed to be wood-work; two of the men lowered from the wagon and placed on the ground a case, which, judging from its shape, might contain some triangular object. The flame died out, and everything was dark again; Gauvain, wrapped in thought, gazed steadily before him upon that object now hidden by the darkness.
Lanterns were lighted, and men could be seen moving to and fro on the plateau; but the outlines were indistinct, and moreover, Gauvain, standing as he did, and on the opposite side of the ravine, could only discern those objects which were close to the edge.
He could hear the voices, but not the words. Now and then he caught the echo of hammering upon the wood. He could also hear a grinding, metallic sound, like the sharpening of a scythe.
It struck two.
Slowly, and like one who would from choice take two steps forward and three back, Gauvain advanced towards the breach. On his approach, the sentinel, recognizing in the dusk the commander’s cloak and braided hood, presented arms. Gauvain entered the hall on the lower floor, which had been transformed into a guard-room. A lantern hung from the ceiling, and cast just light enough so that one could cross the hall without treading on the men, most of whom lay upon the straw, sound asleep.
There they lay, on the spot where but a few hours since they had been fighting. The grape-shot, from the careless sweeping, still lay scattered about beneath them, and was not very comfortable to sleep on; but weary as they were, they could sleep in spite of it This hall had been the terrible spot: here the assault had been made; yonder men had roared, howled, gnashed their teeth, given blow for blow, struck down the enemy, and in their turn expired; many of their men had fallen dead upon this floor where they were now slumbering; the same straw on which they slept had been drenched with the blood of their comrades. Now all was ended; all the blood was stanched and the sabres dried, the dead were dead, peacefully slumbering. Such is war; and it may be no longer than to-morrow before every man among them will sleep the same sleep. On Gauvain’s entrance some of the sleepers rose, among them the officer in command. Pointing to the door of the dungeon, Gauvain said to him, –
The bolts were drawn, and the door opened.
Gauvain entered the dungeon.
The door closed behind him.