Chapter XI. The desperate
While these deliberations were in progress on the first floor, a barricade was going up overhead. If success inspires fury, defeat fills men with rage. The two stories were about to clash in wild frenzy. There is a sense of intoxication in the assurance of victory. The assailants below were buoyed up by hope, that most powerful incentive to human effort when it is not counteracted by despair. All the despair was above, – calm, cold, and gloomy despair. When they reached this hall of refuge, their last resource, they proceeded first of all to bar the entrance, and in order to accomplish this object they decided that the blockading of the staircase would be more effectual than barring the door. Under such circumstances an obstacle through which one can both see what is going on and fight at the same time is a better defence than a closed door.
All the light they had, came from the torch which Imânus had stuck in the holder on the wall near the sulphur match.
One of those great heavy oaken chests such as formerly served the purpose of holding clothing and linen, before the invention of chests of drawers, stood in the hall, and this trunk they dragged out, and set up on end in the doorway of the staircase.
It fitted so closely into the space that it blocked up the entrance, leaving just room enough for the passage of a single man, thus affording them an excellent chance to kill their assailants one by one. It seemed somewhat doubtful whether any of them would attempt to enter.
Meanwhile, the obstructed entrance gave them a respite, during which they counted the men.
Of the original nineteen, but seven remained, including the Imânus; and he and the Marquis were the only ones who had not been wounded.
The five wounded men, who were still active, – for in the excitement of battle no man would succumb to anything less than a mortal wound, – – were Chatenay, called Robi, Guinoiseau, Hoisnard, Branche-d’Or, Brin-d’Amour, and Grand-Francoeur. All the others were dead.
Their ammunition was exhausted, and their cartridge-boxes were empty. On counting the cartridges, they found that there were just four rounds apiece among the seven men.
Death was now their only resource. Behind them yawned the dreadful precipice. They could hardly have been nearer to the edge.
Meanwhile, the attack had just begun again, – slowly, it is true, but none the less determined. As the assailants advanced, they could hear the butt-end of their muskets strike on each stair by way of testing its security.
All means of escape were cut off. By way of the library? Six guns stood on the plateau, with matches lighted. Through the rooms overhead? To what avail? Opening on to the platform as they did, they simply offered an opportunity to hurl themselves from the summit of the tower into the depths below.
And now the seven survivors of this epic band realized the hopelessness of their position; within that solid wall, which, though protecting for the moment, would in the end betray, they were practically prisoners, although not as yet really captured.
The voice of the Marquis broke the silence.
“My friends, all is over,” he said.
Then, after a pause, he added, –
“Grand-Francoeur will for the time being resume the duties of the Abbé Turmeau.”
All knelt, rosary in hand. The sounds of the butt-ends of the besiegers’ guns came nearer and nearer.
Grand-Francoeur, bleeding from a gunshot wound which had grazed his skull and torn away his hairy leathern cap, raised a crucifix in his right hand; the Marquis, a thorough sceptic, knelt on one knee.
“Let each one confess his sins aloud. Speak, Monseigneur.”
And the Marquis replied, “I have killed my fellow-men.”
“And I the same,” said Hoisnard.
“And I,” said Guinoiseau.
“And I,” said Brin-d’Amour.
“And I,” said Chatenay.
“And I,” said the Imânus.
Then Grand-Francoeur repeated: “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity I absolve you. May your souls depart in peace.”
“Amen!” replied all the voices.
The Marquis rose.
“Now let us die,” he said.
“And kill, as well,” said the Imânus.
The blows from the butt-ends of the muskets already shook the chest that stood within the door, barring the entrance.
“Turn your thoughts to God,” said the priest; “earth no longer exists for you.”
“Yes,” rejoined the Marquis, “we are in the tomb.”
All bowed their heads and smote their breasts. The priest and the Marquis alone remained standing. All eyes were fixed on the ground, – the priest and the peasants absorbed in prayer, the Marquis buried in his own thoughts. The chest, under the hammer-like strokes of the guns, sent forth its dismal reverberations.
At that moment a powerful, resonant voice suddenly rang out behind them, exclaiming, –
“I told you so, Monseigneur!”
All the heads turned in amazement.
A hole had just opened in the wall.
A stone, fitting perfectly with the others, but left without cement and provided with a pivot above and below, had revolved on itself like a turnstile, and, as it turned, had opened the wall. In revolving on its axis it opened a double passage to the right and left, – narrow, it is true, yet wide enough to allow a man to pass; and through this unexpected door could be seen the first steps of a spiral staircase. A man’s face appeared in the opening, and the Marquis recognized Halmalo.