The moment had come.
The inexorable held the merciless.
Cimourdain had Lantenac in his grasp.
The old Royalist rebel was taken in his ancestral seat, it was evident that he could not escape; and Cimourdain intended to have the marquis beheaded at his own home, on the spot, on his own territory, and in a certain sense in his own house, in order that the feudal dwelling should see the head of the feudal master fall, and that it might be a memorable example.
This is why he had sent to Fougères for the guillotine. It has just been seen on the way.
To kill Lantenace was to kill la Vendée; to kill la Vendée was to save France. Cimourdain did not hesitate. This man was familiar with the cruelty of duty.
The marquis seemed to be lost; in regard to this, Cimourdain felt easy, but in another respect he was anxious. The struggle would certainly be a frightful one; Gauvain would direct it, and would perhaps desire to take part in it; there was something of the soldier in this young chief; he was a man to throw himself into this hand-to hand encounter; supposing he should be killed? Gauvain! his child! the sole affection that he had on earth! Gauvain had been fortunate thus far, but good fortune becomes weary. Cimourdain trembled. His destiny was strange in this respect, that he was between two Gauvains, one of whom he wished to die, the other to live.
The cannon shot which had disturbed Georgette in her basket and called the mother out of the depths of solitude had done more than that. Whether it was by chance or from the intention of the gunner, the ball, which, however was only a ball of warning, had struck, broken, and half torn away the iron bars which masked and closed the great loophole in the first story of the tower. The besieged had not had time to repair this injury.
The besieged were boastful. They had very little ammunition. Their situation, we insist, was even more critical than the besiegers supposed. If they had had enough powder they would have blown up la Tourgue, with themselves and the enemy in it; this was their dream; but all their reserves were exhausted. They had hardly thirty shots apiece. They had plenty of guns, blunderbusses and pistols, and but few cartridges. They had loaded all their arms, in order to be able to keep up a continuous fire; but how long would this fire last? It would be necessary to use it lavishly and to husband it at the same time. Here was the difficulty
Fortunately,—ominous good fortune,—the contest would be principally man to man, and with side-arms, with sabre and dagger. There would be more hand-to-hand fighting than shooting. They would cut each other to pieces; this was what they hoped for.
The interior of the tower seemed impregnable. In the lower hall where the breach penetrated was the retirade, that barricade scientifically constructed by Lantenac, which obstructed the entrance. Behind the retirade, a long table was covered with loaded arms,—blunderbusses, carbines, and muskets, and with sabres, axes, and daggers As they had no powder to blow up the tower, they were unable to make use of the crypt of the oubliette communicating with the lower hall, and the marquis had ordered the door to this vault to be closed.
Above the lower hall was the round room of the first story, which could only be reached by a very narrow Saint-Gilles's staircase; this room, furnished like the lower hall with a table covered with arms all ready for use, was lighted by the large loophole, the grating of which had just been smashed by a cannon ball; above this room the spiral staircase led to the round room in the second story, where the iron door opened into the bridge-châtelet.
This room in the second story was called both the "room with the iron door" and the "room of mirrors," on account of the number of little mirrors hung up on old rusty nails against the bare stone, a strange mixture of elegance and barbarism. As upper rooms cannot be defended to advantage, this room of mirrors was what Manesson-Mallet, the authority on fortified places, calls "the last post where the besieged can capitulate."
As we have already said, it was important to prevent the besiegers from reaching this room.
This round room in the second story was lighted by loop-holes; but a torch was burning there. This torch, placed in an iron cresset like the one in the lower hall, had been lighted by l'Imânus, who had placed the end of the sulphur slow-match close beside it. Terrible foresight.
At the end of the lower hall, on a long table made of boards, there was food, as in a Homeric cavern: large plates of rice; of "fur," which is a porridge of buckwheat; of "godnivelle," a hash of veal; rolls of "houichepote," a paste made of flower and fruit cooked in water; and jugs of cider. Any one who wished could eat and drink.
The firing of the cannon put them all on guard. They had only half an hour more before them. L'Imânus, from the top of the tower, was watching the approach of the besiegers. Lantenac had commanded them not to fire, and to let them draw near. He had said,—
"There are four thousand, five hundred of them. It is useless to kill them outside. Don't kill until they are inside. Once inside, we shall be equal."
And he added, with a laugh, "Equality, Fraternity." It was agreed that when the enemy began to advance, L'Imânus should sound a note of warning from his horn.
All, in silence, stationed behind the retirade or on the stairs, waited, with one hand on their muskets, the other on their rosaries.
To sum up, this was the situation:
For the assailants, a breach to penetrate; a barricade to storm; three halls, one above another, to take by main force, one by one; two winding staircases to carry, step by step, under a shower of fire. For the besieged—death.