The four pistols had been placed on the flags, for this hall had no floor; l'Imânus picked up two of them, one in each hand.
He went cautiously toward the entrance to the staircase, which was obstructed and screened by the chest.
The assailants evidently feared some surprise. One of those final explosions which are the catastrophe of the conqueror as well as the conquered. The last attack was as slow and cautious as the first had been impetuous.
They had not been able, they had not wished perhaps, to break through the chest with violence; they had demolished the bottom by beating it in with their muskets, and had made holes in the cover with their bayonets, and through these holes they tried to see into the hall before venturing to enter it.
The light from the lanterns with which they illuminated the staircase came through these holes.
L'Imânus noticed an eye looking through one of these holes. He quickly aimed the barrel of one of his pistols at this hole and pulled the trigger. The shot went off, and l'Imânus was rejoiced to hear a horrible cry. The bullet had put out the eye and gone through the head of the soldier who was looking through the hole, and the man had just tumbled backwards down the stairs.
The assailants had broken through the lower part of the cover in two quite large places and had made two kinds of loopholes in it; l'Imânus took advantage of one of these holes to pass his arm through, and to fire his second pistol at random into the throng of besiegers. The ball probably rebounded, for several cries were heard, as if three or four had been killed or wounded, and a great tumult among the men followed in the stairway, as they lost their footing and fell back.
L'Imânus threw down the two pistols which he had discharged, and took the two others; then, with the two pistols in his two hands he looked through the holes in the chest.
He ascertained the first effect produced.
The assailants had gone back down the stairs. The dying were writhing on the steps; on account of the winding he could only see three or four stairs.
"So much time gained," he thought.
Just then he saw a man on his belly, crawling up the stairs, and at the same moment the head of a soldier lower down, appeared behind the central pillar of the spiral.
L'Imânus aimed at this head and fired. There was a cry, a soldier fell, and l'Imânus changed from his left hand to his right, the last loaded pistol remaining.
At the same time he felt a frightful pain, and it was his turn to shriek. A sword had entered his bowels. A hand, the hand of a man who was crawling, had just passed through the second loophole in the lower part of the chest, and this hand had plunged a sword into l'Imânus's belly.
The wound was frightful. His bowels were cut from one side to the other.
L'Imânus did not fall. He ground his teeth and said,—
"That is good!"
Then tottering and dragging himself along, he went back to the torch burning beside the iron door; he laid down his pistol and took the torch, and holding with his left hand his bowels, which were gushing out, he lowered the torch with his right, and lighted the sulphur match.
The fire caught, the match blazed. L'Imânus left the torch still burning on the floor, took his pistol again, and having fallen on the flags, but lifting himself up again, blew the match with the little breath he had left.
The flame ran along, passed under the iron door, and reached the castle bridge.
Then seeing his accursed success, more satisfied, perhaps, with his crime than with his valor, this man who had just been a hero and was now nothing but an assassin, and was about to die, smiled.
"They will remember me," he murmured; "in these little ones, I avenge our little one, the king in the Temple.