Chapter IX. Titans against giants
It was indeed a fearful scene.
This hand-to-hand struggle surpassed all conception.
To find its parallel one must have recourse to the great duels of Æschylus, or to the butcheries of old feudal times; to those “attacks with short arms” that continued in vogue until the seventeenth century, when men penetrated into fortified places by way of concealed breaches; tragic assaults, where, says an old sergeant of the province of Alentejo, “the mines having done their work, the besiegers will now advance, carrying boards covered with sheets of tin, armed with round shields and bucklers, and supplied with an abundance of grenades; and as they force those who hold the intrenchments and retirades to give way, they will take possession of them, vigorously expelling the besieged.”
The scene of the attack was terrible; it was one of those breaches technically termed “a covered breach,” and was, it must be remembered, not a wide breach opened to daylight, but a mere crack, traversing the wall from side to side. The powder had worked like an auger. The effect of the explosion had been so tremendous that the tower was cracked for more than forty feet above the chamber of the mine; but it was only a fissure, and the practicable rent that served as a breach and afforded an entrance into the lower hall, had the effect of having been pierced by the thrust of a lance rather than cleft by a blow from an axe.
It was a puncture in the side of the tower, a long, deep cut, not unlike a well, horizontal with the ground, a narrow passage twisting and turning like an intestine through a wall fifteen feet thick, a shapeless cylinder, abounding in obstacles, pitfalls, and all the débris of past explosions, where a man, blinded by the darkness and stumbling over the rubbish beneath his feet, would surely dash his head against the granite rock.
Before the assailants yawned this black portal, like a cavernous mouth, whose upper and lower jaws, closely set with jagged rocks, rivalled a shark’s mouth in the number of its teeth. This cavity was the only means of entrance or exit, and while the grape-shot was raining within, on the other side – that is to say, in the lower hall of the ground-floor – rose the retirade.
The ferocity of the encounter can only be compared with the encounters of sappers in underground passages when a counter-mine has just cut across a mine, or with the cutlass butcheries that take place when in a naval battle a man-of-war is boarded. Fighting in the depths of a grave reaches the very climax of all that is dreadful. The fact that a ceiling is overhead seems to increase the horror of human slaughter. Just as the first of the assailants came surging in, the retirade was wrapped in a sheet of lightning, and it seemed like the bursting of a subterranean thunder-clap, report answering report as the besiegers returned the thunder of the ambuscade. Above the uproar rose the voice of Gauvain, shouting, “Break them in!” then Lantenac’s cry, “Stand firm against the enemy!” then the cry of the Imânus, “Stand by me, men of Maine!” then the clang of sabres clashing one against the other, and terrible discharges following in swift succession, dealing death on every hand. The torch fastened to the wall but dimly lighted this scene of horror. A lurid glare enveloped all objects, amid which nothing could be clearly distinguished; and those who entered were straightway struck deaf and blind, – deafened by the uproar, blinded by the smoke. The disabled lay here and there among the rubbish; while the combatants trampled upon the corpses, crushing the wounds and bruising the broken limbs of the injured men, who groaned aloud in their wild agony, and sometimes set their teeth in the feet of those who were torturing them. Now and then a silence more appalling than sound would settle over all. Men seized each other by the throat, and then were heard fierce pantings, followed by gnashings of teeth, death-rattles and imprecations, and directly all the din returned again. A stream of blood flowed through the breach in the tower, and spreading in the gloom, formed a dark, smoking pool outside upon the grass.
One might have said that the tower herself was bleeding like a wounded giantess.
Surprising to relate, all this tumult was hardly audible on the outside. The night was very dark, and around the besieged fortress an almost funereal sense of peace rested on forest and plain. Hell was within, a sepulchre without. This life-and-death struggle in the darkness, these volleys of musketry, this clamor and fury, – all this tumult and confusion was subdued by the massive walls and arches. There was not air enough for reverberation, and a sense of suffocation was added to the carnage. Outside the tower the noise was scarcely audible; and meanwhile the three little children still slumbered.
The fury of the combat deepened; the retirade held its own.
There is nothing more difficult to force than this kind of barricade, with a re-entering angle. If the besieged were at a disadvantage in numbers, their position was in their favor. The attacking column had suffered serious loss of men. Formed in a long line outside the tower, it gradually worked its way through the breach, shortening as it disappeared, like a snake twisting itself into its hole.
Gauvain, with the rashness peculiar to a youthful leader, was in the lower hall, in the thickest of the mêlée, with the bullets flying in all directions. Let us add, however, that he felt all the confidence of a man who had never been wounded.
As he turned to give an order, the flash from a volley of musketry lighted up a face close beside him.
“Cimourdain!” he-cried, “why are you here?”
“I came to be near you,” replied the man, who was indeed Cimourdain.
“But you will be killed.”
“What of that? Are you not in the same danger?”
“But I am needed here, and you are not.”
“Since you are here, my place is by your side.”
“No, my master.”
“Yes, my child.”
And Cimourdain remained near Gauvain.
The dead lay in heaps on the pavement of the lower hall. Although the retirade had not as yet been carried, the majority would sooner or later gain the day. The assailants, it is true, were not protected, while the assailed were under cover; and ten of the besiegers fell to one of the besieged; but the latter were constantly replaced.
In proportion as the besieged diminished the besiegers increased.
The nineteen besieged were collected behind the retirade, since that was the centre of attack; and among them were their dead and wounded; not more than fifteen of them were in fighting condition. One of the fiercest, Chante-en-hiver, had been fright-fully mutilated. He was a thick-set Breton, with curling hair, and short of stature, but full of life and energy. Although his jaw was broken and one of his eyes blown out, he could still walk, and he dragged himself up the winding staircase into the room on the first story, hoping there to be able to say his prayers and die.
He leaned against the wall near the loop-hole trying to get a breath of air.
The butchery down below in front of the retirade had grown more and more horrible. Once when there was a pause between two volleys Cimourdain raised his voice.
“Besieged,” he cried, “why continue this bloodshed? You are conquered. Surrender! Remember we are four thousand five hundred against nineteen, which is over two hundred to one. Surrender!”
“Let us put an end to that idle babble,” replied the Marquis de Lantenac.
And twenty balls responded to Cimourdain’s appeal.
The retirade did not reach as high as the vaulted ceiling, thus the besieged were enabled to fire over it; but at the same time it presented to the besiegers an opportunity for an escalade.
“An assault on the retirade!” cried Gauvain. “Is there a man among you who will volunteer to scale it?”
“I,” replied Sergeant Radoub.