IN DAEMONE DEUS.
FOUND BUT LOST.
When Michelle Fléchard caught sight of the tower reddened by the setting sun, she was more than a league away from it. Although she could hardly walk a step, she never hesitated to traverse this league. Women are weak, but mothers are strong. She had walked.
The sun had set: twilight came, then thick darkness; as she walked along she heard from the distance eight o'clock, then nine, ring out from a belfry which could not be seen. This belfry was probably that of Parigné. Now and then she stopped to listen to certain strange sounds like dull blows, which were possibly some of the mysterious noises of the night.
She went on straight ahead, breaking away the furze bushes and the sharp heath under her bleeding feet. She was guided by a feeble light coming from the distant keep making it stand out, and giving a mysterious radiance to this tower. This light became brighter as the sound of blows grew more distinct, then it went out.
The vast plateau where Michelle Fléchard was passing along was nothing but grass and heather, without a house or a tree; it rose imperceptibly, and as far as one could see, rested its long, straight, hard line against the dark, starry horizon. What kept her up in this ascent was the fact that the tower was continually before her eyes.
She saw it slowly increase in size.
The muffled reports and the pale gleams of light coming from the tower, as we have just said, were intermittent; they would cease, then begin again, offering a strange, cruel enigma to the wretched mother in distress.
Suddenly they ceased; both sound and light, all disappeared; there was a moment of perfect silence, a sort of melancholy peace ensued.
At this very moment, Michelle Fléchard reached the edge of the plateau. She saw at her feet a ravine, the bottom of which was lost in the thick darkness of the night; at some distance on the top of the plateau an entanglement of wheels, taluses, and embrasures, which was a battery of cannons, and in front of her, dimly illumined by the lighted matches of the battery, an enormous edifice which seemed built with shadows blacker than all the other shadows which surrounded her.
This edifice was composed of a bridge, the arches of which plunged into the ravine, and of a sort of castle rising above the bridge, and the castle and the bridge were joined to a lofty, dark, round object, which was the tower towards which the mother had walked from so great a distance.
The lights were seen to come and go through the windows of the tower, and from the noise proceeding from it one would have guessed that it was filled with a crowd of men, and the shadows of some of them were cast above, even on the platform.
Near the battery there was an encampment, the mounted sentries of which Michelle Fléchard had noticed; but in the darkness among the brambles, she had not been seen by them.
She had come to the edge of the plateau, so near the bridge that it seemed to her as if she could almost touch it with her hand. The depth of the ravine separated her from it. In the darkness she could make out the three stories of the castle on the bridge.
All measure of time had been blotted out of her mind, and she remained long absorbed and dumb before this yawning chasm and this shadowy building.
What was it? what was going on there? was it la Tourgue? she was dizzy with a strange expectation, so that she could hardly tell whether she was just arriving or going away. She asked herself why she was there.
She looked, she listened.
Suddenly, she could no longer see anything. A cloud of smoke rose between her and what she was looking at. A keen smarting sensation made her shut her eyes. She had hardly closed her eyelids when they grew red and became luminous. She opened them again.
It was no longer night before her, it was light as day; but a kind of funereal daylight, the daylight which comes from a fire. The beginning of a conflagration was before her eyes.
The black smoke had grown scarlet and in it there was a great flame; this flame appeared, then disappeared, with the ferocious twisting peculiar to lightning and snakes.
This flame came out like a tongue from something resembling a mouth, and which was a window full of fire. This window grated with iron bars already red hot, was one of those in the lower story of the castle built on the bridge. This window was the only feature of the whole building which could be seen. The smoke covered everything, even the plateau, and only the edge of the ravine, black against the red flame, could be made out.
Michelle Fléchard looked on in astonishment. Smoke is a cloud; a cloud is a dream; she no longer knew what she saw. Ought she to go away? ought she to remain? she felt almost beyond reality.
A breath of wind passed by and broke through the curtain of smoke, and through the rent the tragic bastille, suddenly disclosed, rose visible in its entirety,—keep, bridge, châtelet; dazzling, terrible, magnificently gilded by the fire, illuminated by it from top to bottom. Michelle Fléchard, in the ominous distinctness of the fire, could see it all.
The lower story of the castle built on the bridge was burning.
Above it, the two other stories could be seen, still untouched, but as if borne in a basket of flames. From the edge of the plateau, where Michelle Fléchard was, the interior could be dimly seen through the rifts between the fire and the smoke. All the windows were open. Through the windows in the second story, which were very large, Michelle Fléchard could see, against the walls, the bookcases, which seemed to her to be filled with books, and, in front of one of the windows, on the floor, in the dim light, a little confused group; something which looked indistinct and huddled together, like a nest or a brood, and which looked as if it moved now and then.
She looked at it.
What was this little group of shadows?
Occasionally, it came into her mind that it resembled living forms; she was feverish, she had eaten nothing since morning, she had walked without resting, she was worn out, she felt as though she were in a sort of hallucination which she instinctively mistrusted; still, her eyes becoming more and more fixed, could not leave that dark heap of objects, probably inanimate, and apparently motionless, lying there on the floor of that hall above the fire.
Suddenly, the fire, as if it had a will power, sent forth from below, one of its jets, towards the great dead ivy covering the same front at which Michelle Fléchard was looking. It seemed as if the flame had just discovered this network of dry branches; a spark seized it eagerly, and began to mount along the shoots with the frightful swiftness of a train of powder. In a twinkling, the flame reached the second story. Then, from above, it lighted up the interior of the first. A sudden blaze brought into relief three little beings fast asleep.
It was a charming little heap,—arms and legs intertwined, eyelids closed, a smile on their fair faces.
The mother recognized her children.
She uttered a frightful cry.
This cry of inexpressible anguish is only given to mothers. Nothing is more fierce, and nothing more touching. When a woman utters it, one would think it was a she-wolf; when a she-wolf gives it, it sounds like a woman.
This cry of Michelle Fléchard's was a howl. Hecuba bayed, says Homer.
It was this cry which the Marquis de Lantenac had just heard.
We have seen that he stopped.
The marquis was between the outlet of the passage through which Halmalo had helped him to escape and the ravine. Through the brambles intertwined above him, he saw the bridge in flames, la Tourgue red from the reflection, and, through the opening between two branches, he saw above his head, on the other side, on the edge of the platform, opposite the burning castle and in the full light of the fire, a haggard, pitiful figure, a woman bending over the ravine.
This figure was no longer Michelle Fléchard; it was Medusa. The wretched are terrible. The peasant woman was transformed into one of the Eumenides. This country woman, vulgar, ignorant, unreasoning, had suddenly the epic proportions of despair. Great sorrows have a gigantic power of enlarging the soul; this mother represented maternity; everything which sums up humanity is superhuman; she rose then, on the edge of this ravine, before this conflagration, before this crime, like a power from the grave; her cry was like that of a wild beast, and her gestures like those of a goddess; her face, from which proceeded imprecations, seemed like a masque of flame. Nothing could be more sovereign than the lightning of her eyes bathed in tears; her eyes flashed lightning on the fire.
The marquis listened. This fell on his ear; he heard something strangely inarticulate and heartrending, more like sobs than words.
"Ah! my God! my children! those are my children! help! fire! fire! fire! but you are bandits! is there no one there? but my children will be burned! Ah! how terrible! Georgette! my children! Gros-Alain, René-Jean! but what does it mean? who put my children there? they are asleep. I am mad! it is impossible! Help!"
Meanwhile, there was a great confusion in la Tourgue and on the plateau. The whole camp ran around the fire, which had just burst out. The besiegers, after being concerned with the firing, were now concerned with the fire. Gauvain, Cimourdain, Guéchamp, gave orders. What was to be done? there were but a few buckets of water to be drawn from the shallow brook in the ravine. Their distress increased. The whole edge of the plateau was covered with frightened faces looking on.
It was a frightful sight.
They looked on, and could do nothing.
The flames, by means of the ivy which had taken fire, had reached the upper story. There it had found the granary full of straw and had seized upon it. The whole granary was now burning.
The flames danced; the joyfulness of flames is a doleful thing. It seemed as if some malicious breath were fanning the fire in this funereal pile. It might have been thought that the grim l'Imânus was wholly there, changed to a whirlwind of sparks, living in the murderous life of the conflagration, and as if this monster of a soul had turned to fire.
The story where the library was had not yet been reached, the height of its ceiling, and the thickness of its walls retarded the time when it would take fire, but the fatal moment was drawing near; the fire in the first story licked it, and the flames in the third story caressed it. The awful kiss of death touched it. Below, a cellar of lava, above, an arch of embers; if a hole should break through the ceiling, the children would be buried in the live coals. René-Jean, Gros-Alain, and Georgette were not yet awake, they were sleeping the deep, quiet sleep of childhood; and through the folds of flame and smoke, which alternately covered and disclosed the windows, they could be seen in this grotto of fire, behind this meteoric blaze, peaceful, graceful, motionless, like three confiding child Jesuses, asleep in a hell; and a tiger would have wept to see these roses in this furnace and these cradles in this tomb.
Meanwhile, the mother was wringing her hands.
"Fire! fire! I say. Are they all deaf that they do not come? They are burning my children! Come, you men over yonder. I have walked days and days, and and this is how I find them. Fire! help the angels! Indeed they are angels! What have those innocent little creatures done? the men shot me, and now they are burning them! Who does such things? Help! save my children! Don't you hear me? One would take pity on a dog! My children! they are asleep! Ah! Georgette! I see her dear little stomach! René-Jean! Gros-Alain! Those are their names. You see that I am their mother. It is abominable that such a thing as this should happen. I have walked days and nights, as I told a woman this morning. Help! help! fire! You are monsters! It is horrible! the oldest is not five years old, the little one less than two. I see their little bare legs. They are asleep, good, holy Virgin! the hand of Heaven gave them to me. and the hand of hell is taking them from me. And I have walked so far! My children that I fed from my breast! And I thought I was unfortunate not to find them! Have pity on me! I want my children, I must have my children! And yet they are in the fire! See how my poor feet are all covered with blood. Help! It is not possible that there are men on the earth who would leave these poor little ones to die like this! Help! murder! The like of this was never seen before. Ah, you brigands! What is this frightful house? You stole them away from me to kill them! Jesus have pity! I want my children. Oh, I do not know what I can do! I cannot let them die! help! help! help! Oh, if they should die like this I should hate God!"
During the mother's awful supplication, voices were heard on the plateau and in the ravine.
"There is no ladder!"
"There is no water!"
"Up there in the tower, in the second story, there is a door."
"It is of iron."
"Burst it open!"
"It cannot be done!"
And the mother redoubled her desperate appeals,—
"Fire! help! Hurry! Oh, kill me! My children, my children! Ah! the horrible fire! Take them out of it, or throw me in, too!"
In the intervals between her cries was heard the calm crackling of the fire.
The marquis felt in his pocket and touched the key to the iron door. Then bending down under the archway through which he had made his escape, he went back into the passage from which he had just come out.