"Is it you, Halmalo?"
"It is, monseigneur. You see now that turning stones do exist, and that it is possible to escape through here. I have come in time. But be quick. In ten minutes you will be in the midst of the forest."
"God is great," said the priest.
"Save yourself, monseigneur," cried they all.
"All of you first," said the marquis.
"You first, monseigneur," said the Abbé Turmeau.
"I shall be the last."
And the marquis added in a stern voice,—
"No struggle for generosity. We have no time to be magnanimous. You are wounded. I command you to live and to flee. Be quick and take advantage of this means of escape. Thank you, Halmalo."
"Monsieur le marquis," said the Abbé Turmeau. "Are we going to be separated?"
"Without doubt, below. We can only escape each for himself."
"Monseigneur, will you appoint a rendezvous?"
"Yes. A clearing in the forest, the Pierre-Gauvain. Do you know the place?"
"We all know it."
"I will be there to-morrow at noon. Let all who can walk be found there."
"We will be there."
"And we will begin the war over again," said the marquis.
In the meanwhile, Halmalo pressing against the turning stone had just noticed that it no longer moved. The opening could not be closed.
"Monseigneur," he said, "let us hurry, the stone resists now. I was able to open the passage, but I shall not be able to close it."
Indeed, after long disuse the stone was, as it were, stiffened on its hinges. It would be impossible to stir it henceforth.
"Monseigneur," added Halmalo, "I hoped to close the passage, and that when the Blues entered, they would find no one here, and failing to understand it would believe that you had all vanished into smoke. But here, the stone will not move. The enemy will see the place open, and will be able to pursue us. But do not lose a moment. Quick! all down the stairs."
L'Imânus placed his hand on Halmalo's shoulder,—
"Comrade, how long will it take to go through this passage and reach a place of safety in the forest?"
"No one is seriously wounded?" asked Halmalo.
"In that case, a quarter of an hour will be enough."
"So," replied l'Imânus, "if the enemy should enter here in a quarter of an hour?"
"They could pursue us, but they would not reach us."
"But," said the marquis, "they will be here in five minutes, that old chest will not hinder them long. A few blows with the butt-ends of their muskets will finish it A quarter of an hour! who will keep them back for an quarter of an hour?"
"I will," said l'Imânus.
"I, monseigneur. Listen. Out of six, five of you are wounded. As for me, I haven't a scratch."
"Neither have I," said the marquis.
"You are the chief, monseigneur; I am the soldier. The chief and the soldier are two different men."
"I know it, we have each a different duty."
"No, monseigneur, you and I have the same duty; that is to save you."
L'Imânus turned toward his comrades.
"Comrades, the enemy must be held in check and their pursuit retarded as long as possible. Listen! I have all my strength, I have not lost a drop of blood; as I am not wounded, I shall hold out longer than any of the rest of you. Go, all of you; leave me your guns, I shall make good use of them. I shall undertake to keep back the enemy a good half hour. How many loaded pistols are there?"
"Put them on the floor."
They did as he desired.
"That is right; I will remain. They will find some one to speak to. Now, quick, go all of you."
Critical situations make short thanks. They hardly took time to press his hand.
"I shall see you soon," said the marquis.
"No, monseigneur, I hope not. Not soon; I am going to die."
One after another they all entered the narrow staircase, the wounded going first. As they were descending, the marquis took the pencil from his note-book in his pocket, and wrote some words on the stone which could no longer be turned, and which loft the passage open.
"Come, monseigneur, there is no one left but you," said Halmalo.
And Halmalo started to go down.
The marquis followed him.
L'Imânus was left alone.