Chapter VI. The situation
The moment had finally come when Cimourdain held Lantenac in his grasp. The inexorable had conquered the pitiless. The old rebel Royalist was caught in his own lair, with no possible chance of escape; and Cimourdain had determined to behead the Marquis in the home of his ancestors, on his own estate, upon his very hearthstone, so to speak, that the feudal mansion might look upon the downfall of its feudal lord, and thus present an example not soon to be forgotten.
For this reason he sent to Fougères for the guillotine, which we saw on its way.
To kill Lantenac was to kill the Vendée; the death of the Vendée meant safety for France. Cimourdain was a man utterly calm in the performance of duty, however ferocious it might be, and not for a moment did he hesitate.
In regard to the ruin of the Marquis he felt quite at ease; but he had another cause for anxiety. The struggle would no doubt be a fearful one; Gauvain would direct the assault, and perhaps take part in it. This young chief had all the fire of a soldier; he was the very man to throw himself headlong into this hand-to-hand encounter. And what if he were killed, – Gauvain, his child, the only being on earth whom he loved! Gauvain had been fortunate thus far; but fortune sometimes grows weary. Cimourdain trembled. Strange enough was his destiny, thus placed between these two Gauvains, longing for the death of the one, and praying for the life of the other.
The cannon that had started Georgette in her cradle and summoned the mother from the depths of the woods, did more than that. Whether by accident or intentionally on the part of the man who pointed the gun, the ball, though intended only as a warning, struck, broke, and partly wrenched away the iron bars that defended and closed the great loop-hole on the first floor of the tower, and the besieged had had no time to repair this damage.
The truth was that, in spite of their loud boasting, their ammunition was nearly exhausted; and their situation, let it be remembered, was more critical than the besiegers suspected. Their dream had been to blow up the Tourgue when the enemy was once fairly within the walls; but their store of powder was running low, – not more than thirty rounds left for each man. They had plenty of muskets, blunderbusses, and pistols, but few cartridges. All the guns were loaded, that they might keep up a steady fire. But how long could this last? To keep up the firing and economize their resources at one and the same time would be a somewhat difficult combination. Fortunately (a gloomy kind of fortune) it would be for the most part a hand-to-hand encounter, in which the cold steel of sabre and dagger would take the place of firearms. They would have a chance to hack the enemy in pieces, and therein lay their chief hope.
The interior of the tower seemed impregnable. In the low hall where the breach had been made the entrance was defended by that barricade so skilfully constructed by Lantenac, called that retirade. Behind it stood a long table covered with loaded weapons, blunderbusses, carbines, muskets, sabres, hatchets, and daggers. Having been unable to make use of the oubliette prison communicating with the lower hall, for the purpose of blowing up the tower, the Marquis had ordered the door of this dungeon to be closed. Above the hall was the round chamber of the first story, which could only be reached by a very narrow spiral staircase. This room, provided like the lower hall with a table covered with weapons ready for use, was lighted by the wide embrasure whose grating had just been crushed by a cannon-ball. Below this room the spiral staircase led to the round chamber on the second story, from which the iron door opened into the bridge-castle. This room on the second floor was called indiscriminately “the room with the iron door,” or “the mirror room”, on account of the numerous little mirrors hung from rusty old nails against the naked stone walls, – an odd medley of elegance and barbarism. As there were no means by which the upper rooms could be successfully defended, this mirror-room was what Manesson-Mallet, the authority on fortifications, calls “the last post where the besieged may capitulate.” The object was, as we have already stated, to prevent the besiegers from reaching it.
This round chamber on the second floor was lighted by embrasures, but a torch was burning there also. This torch, stuck in an iron torch-holder, like the one in the lower hall, had been lighted by the Imânus and placed quite near the end of the sulphur-match. Appalling solicitude.
At the end of the hall, on a long board raised on trestles, food had been placed as in a Homeric cavern; great dishes of rice, a porridge of some kind of dark grain, hashed veal, a boiled pudding made of flour and fruit, and jugs of cider. Whoever wished to eat and drink could do so.
The cannon had set them all on the alert, and now they had but half an hour of repose before them.
From the top of the tower the Imânus kept watch of the enemy’s approach. Lantenac had given orders that the besiegers should be allowed to advance unmolested.
“They are four thousand five hundred,” he said; “it would be useless to kill them outside. Wait till they are within the walls, where we shall be equal to them.” And he added, laughing, “Equality, Fraternity.”
It had been agreed that when the enemy began to advance, the Imânus should give warning on his horn.
Posted behind the retirade and on the steps of the staircase, they waited in silence, with a musket in one hand and a rosary in the other.
The situation might be summed up as follows: –
On one side of the besiegers a breach to scale, a barricade to carry, three rooms in succession, one above the other, to be taken by main force, two spiral staircases to be climbed, step by step, under a shower of bullets; the besieged meanwhile standing face to face with death.