FROM THE STONE DOOR TO THE IRON DOOR.
A whole army in despair over an impossible rescue; four thousand men unable to help three children; such was the situation.
They had no ladder; the ladder sent from Javené had not arrived; the conflagration increased like the opening of a crater; to try to put it out with water from the brook in the ravine, which was almost dry, was ridiculous; it would be like throwing a glass of water on a volcano.
Cimourdain, Guéchamp, and Radoub had gone down into the ravine; Gauvain had gone back into the hall in the second story of la Tourgue, where were the turning stone, the secret way of escape, and the iron door of the library. It was there that l'Imânus had lighted the sulphur match; it was there that the fire had started.
Gauvain had taken twenty sappers with him. The only resource was to break open the iron door. It was fatally closed.
They began by using axes. The axes broke. A sapper said,—
"Steel is like glass against this iron."
The door was made of double sheets of wrought iron, bolted together, each three fingers in thickness.
They took iron bars and tried to pry open the door. The iron bars broke.
"Like matches," said the sapper.
Gauvain, dubious, murmured,—
"Nothing but a cannon-ball could open this door. We should have to bring a cannon up here."
"But how?" said the sapper.
There was a moment of despair. All these powerless arms hung motionless. Dumb, conquered, dismayed, these men were considering the horrible immovable door.
A red reflection passed underneath. The fire was increasing behind it.
The frightful corpse of l'Imânus was there, ominously victorious.
A few minutes more, perhaps, and everything would give way.
What was to be done? there was no more hope.
Gauvain in exasperation cried, with his eye fixed on the turning stone in the wall and on the exit left open by the fugitives,—
"And yet here is where the Marquis de Lantenac made his escape!"
"And where he returns," said a voice.
And a white head appeared in the stone framework of the secret door.
It was the marquis.
Gauvain had not seen him so near for many years. He drew back.
All who were there remained in the same position, petrified.
The marquis had a large key in his hand. He cast a haughty look at the sappers in front of him, walked to the iron door, bent under the arch and put the key into the key-hole. The lock grated, the door opened, a gulf of flame met their eyes, the marquis entered it.
He went into it with a firm step, holding his head high.
All followed him with their eyes, shuddering.
The marquis had taken but a few steps in the burning hall, when the floor, undermined by the fire and shaken by his footsteps, fell in behind him, leaving a precipice between him and the door. The marquis never turned his head but went straight on. He disappeared in the smoke.
Nothing more was seen of him.
Had he been able to go farther? Had a new pit of fire opened under him? Had he only succeeded in being lost himself? They could not tell. They had nothing before them but a wall of smoke and flames. The marquis was beyond it, dead or alive.