Chapter XIII. The executioner
Upon the flagstones which formed the only floor of the hall the four pistols had been placed, and the Imânus, taking two of them, one in each hand, advanced stealthily towards the entrance of the staircase, obstructed and concealed by the chest.
The assailants evidently suspected a snare. They might be on the verge of one of those decisive explosions that overwhelm both conquerer and conquered in one common ruin. In proportion as the first attack had been impetuous, the last was cautious and deliberate. They could not, or perhaps did not care to batter down the chest by main force; they had destroyed the bottom of it with the butts of their muskets and pierced its lid with their bayonets; and now through these holes they attempted to see the interior of the hall before venturing within it.
The glimmer of the lanterns, by means of which the staircase was lighted, fell through these chinks, and the Imânus, catching sight of an eye peering through one of them, instantly adjusted the barrel of his pistol to the spot and pulled the trigger. No sooner had he fired than to his great joy he heard a terrible cry. The ball passed through the head by way of the eye, and the soldier, interrupted in his gazing, fell backward down the staircase. The assailants had broken open the lower part of the lid in two places, forming something not unlike loop-holes; and the Imânus, availing himself of one of these apertures, thrust his arm in it and fired his second pistol at random among the mass of the besiegers. The ball probably rebounded, for several cries were heard, as though three or four had been killed or wounded, and a great tumult ensued as the men, losing their footing, fell back in confusion. The Imânus threw down the two pistols which he had discharged, and caught up the remaining ones; grasping one in each hand, he peered through the holes in the chest and beheld the result of his first assault.
The besiegers had retreated down the stairs and the dying lay writhing in agony upon the steps; the form of the spiral staircase prevented him from seeing beyond three or four steps.
“So much time gained,” he thought to himself.
Meanwhile, he saw a man crawling up the steps flat on his stomach, and just at that moment, a little farther down, the head of a soldier emerged from behind the central pillar of the winding stairs. The Imânus aimed at this head and fired. The soldier fell back with a cry, and as the Imânus was transferring his last pistol from his left hand into his right, he himself felt a horrible pain, and in his turn uttered a yell of agony. Some tone had thrust a sabre into his vitals, and it was the very man whom he had seen crawling along the stair, whose hand, entering the other hole in the bottom of the chest, had plunged a sabre into the body of the Imânus.
The wound was frightful. The abdomen was pierced through and through.
The Imânus did not fall. He ground his teeth as he muttered, “That is good!”
Then, tottering, and with great effort, he dragged himself back to the torch still burning near the iron door; this he seized, after putting down his pistol, and then, supporting with his left hand the protruding intestines, with his right he lowered the torch until it touched the sulphur-match, which caught fire, and the wick blazed up in an instant.
Dropping the still burning torch upon the ground, he grasped his pistol, and although he had fallen on the flags, he lifted himself and used the scanty breath that was left him to fan the flame, which, starting, ran along until it passed under the iron door and reached the bridge-castle.
When he beheld the triumph of his villanous scheme, taking to himself more credit for this crime than for his self-sacrifice, the man who had acted the part of a hero and who now degraded himself to the level of an assassin smiled as he was about to die, and muttered: –
“They will remember me. I take vengeance on their little ones, in behalf of our own little king shut up in the Temple.”