THE CHILDREN AWAKEN.
In the meantime, the children had at last opened their eyes.
The fire, which had not yet reached the library, threw a rosy glow on the ceiling. The children were not familiar with this kind of a dawn. They looked at it, Georgette contemplated it.
All the splendors of the fire were displayed there; the black hydra and the scarlet dragon appeared in the shapeless smoke, superbly dark and vermilion. Long tongues of flame blew off and lighted up the darkness, and it seemed like a battle of comets running one after another.
A fire is prodigal; the live coals are full of jewels, which are scattered to the winds; it is not without reason that charcoal is identical with the diamond.
In the wall of the third story, cracks opened, through which the embers poured down into the ravine cascades of precious stones; the heaps of straw and oats burning in the granary began to stream through the windows in avalanches of gold dust, the oats became amethysts, and the straws, carbuncles.
"Pretty," said Georgette.
All three had risen.
"Ah!" cried the mother; "they are waking up!"
René-Jean got up, then Gros-Alain got up, then Georgette got up.
René-Jean stretched out his arms, went towards the window and said,—
"I warm," repeated Georgette.
The mother called to them.
"My children: René! Alain! Georgette!"
The children looked around them. They tried to find out what it all meant. When men are terrified, children are only curious. It is difficult to frighten those who are easily astonished; ignorance causes fearlessness. Children have so little claim on hell, that if they should see it they would admire it.
The mother repeated,—
"René! Alain! Georgette!"
René-Jean turned his head; this voice attracted his attention; children have short memories, but their power of recollection is quick; to them the past is but yesterday.
René-Jean saw his mother, found it quite natural, and, surrounded as he was by strange objects, feeling a vague need of support, he cried,—
"Mamma!" said Gros-Alain.
"Mamma!" said Georgette.
And she held out her little arms.
And the mother shrieked, "My children!"
All three came to the window; fortunately, the fire was not on that side.
"I am too warm," said René-Jean.
He added,— "It burns."
And he looked at his mother.
"Tum, mamma," repeated Georgette.
The mother with disordered hair, all scratched, and bleeding, had let herself roll through the brambles into the ravine. Cimourdain was there with Guéchamp, as helpless below as Gauvain was above. The soldiers, in despair at being of no use, swarmed around them. The heat was intolerable but no one felt it. They considered the escarpment of the bridge, the height of the arches, the elevation of the stories, the inaccessible windows, and the necessity for prompt action. Three stories to climb; no means of accomplishing it.
Radoub, wounded, with a sword-cut in his shoulder, and one ear torn off, dripping with sweat and blood, came running up; he saw Michelle Fléchard.
"Hold on," said he, "you are the woman who was shot! so you have come back to life again?"
"My children," said the mother.
"You are right," replied Radoub; "we have no time to spend with ghosts."
He began to scale the bridge, a futile attempt; he buried his nails in the stone, he climbed up a little way; but the courses were smooth, not a break, not a relief, the wall was as correctly pointed as though it had been new, and Radoub fell back.
The dreadful fire continued; in the window frame, now all red, could be seen the three fair heads. Then Radoub shook his fist towards heaven, as if looking for some one, and said,—
"Is this thy dealing, good God."
The mother on her knees clasped the piers of the bridge, crying, "Mercy!"
Heavy cracking was heard above the snapping of the fire. The panes of glass in the bookcases in the library cracked, and fell with a crash. It was evident that the woodwork was yielding. No human power could avail. A moment more and all would be destroyed. They were waiting for the fatal moment. The little voices were heard calling: "Mamma! Mamma!" The people were in a paroxysm of despair. Suddenly, at the window next the one where the children were, against the crimson background of the flames, appeared a tall form.
Every head was raised, every eye became fixed. A man was up there, a man was in the library, a man was in the furnace. This form stood out black against the flames, but it had white hair. They recognized the Marquis de Lantenac.
He disappeared, then he appeared again.
The terrible old man rose before the window with an enormous ladder. It was the escape ladder which had been placed in the library, and which he had gone to look for, and had dragged from the side of the wall to the window. He seized it by one end, and with the masterly agility of an athlete he slid it out of the window, supporting it on a jutting of the wall, and let it down to the bottom of the ravine. Radoub, below, wild with delight, held out his hands, took the ladder, held it firmly in his arms, and cried: "Long live the Republic!"
The marquis replied: "Long live the King!"
And Radoub growled: "You may cry anything you like, and say all the foolish things you will, you are from the good God, all the same."
The ladder was fixed in place; communication was established between the burning hall and the ground; twenty men ran forward, with Radoub at their head, and in a twinkling they placed themselves in a row on the rounds, like masons carrying stones. It made it a living ladder over the ladder of wood. Radoub at the top of the ladder touched the window. He was facing the fire.
The little array, scattered in the heather and on the slopes, pressed forward, distracted by every emotion at once, rushed over the plateau into the ravine, on the platform of the tower.
The marquis disappeared again, then re-appeared, bringing one of the children.
There was a tremendous clapping of hands.
The marquis happened to have seized the oldest. It was Gros-Alain.
Gros-Alain cried: "I'm afraid."
The marquis gave Gros-Alain to Radoub, who passed him down behind him to a soldier, who passed him to another, and, while Gros-Alain, very much frightened and crying, was being taken thus from arm to arm to the bottom of the ladder, the marquis, after a moment's absence, came back to the window with René-Jean struggling and crying. The little fellow struck Radoub just as the marquis passed him on to the sergeant.
The marquis went back into the hall full of flames. Georgette was left alone. He went to her. She smiled. This man of stone felt something moist come into his eyes. He asked: "What is your name?" "'Orgette," she said.
He took her in his arms; she was still smiling, and just as he gave her to Radoub this conscience so lofty and yet so dark was dazzled by her innocence, and the old man gave the child a kiss.
"It is the little girl!" said the soldiers; and Greorgette in her turn passed down from hand to hand to the ground, amidst cries of adoration.
They clapped their hands, they stamped their feet; the old grenadiers sobbed, and she smiled at them. The mother was at the foot of the ladder, panting for breath, beside herself, intoxicated with all this surprise, suddenly exalted from hell into paradise; excess of joy bruises the heart in its way. She held out her arras, she received first Gros-Alam, then René-Jean, then Georgette, she covered them with kisses, then she burst out laughing and fell down in a faint.
A great cry arose: "All are saved!"
Indeed, all were saved, except the old man.
But no one gave him a thought; perhaps, he did not even think of himself.
He remained at the edge of the window for some moments, in thought, as if he wished to give the gulf of flame time to decide upon its action. Then, slowly, deliberately, proudly, he stepped out through the window, and, without turning round, straight, erect, leaning back against the rounds, with the fire behind him, facing the precipice, he began to descend the ladder in silence, with the majesty of a phantom.
Those who were on the ladder hastened down; all present shuddered. This man coming from above filled them all with a holy horror, as though he had been a vision. But he plunged solemnly into the darkness before him; while they drew back, he was approaching them; the marble pallor of his face was without a change; his ghostly eyes had not a gleam of light; at each step that he took towards these men, whose frightened eyes were fixed on him in the darkness, he seemed taller, the ladder trembled and creaked under his solemn step, and he seemed like the statue of a commander going down into the tomb.
When the marquis was at the bottom, when he had reached the last round and had placed his foot on the ground, a hand was laid on his collar. He turned around.
"I arrest you," said Cimourdain.
"I sanction it," said Lantenac.