While they were taking counsel in the first story, they were building a barricade in the second. Success is madness, defeat is rage. The two stories were about to clash in desperate encounter. To touch victory is intoxicating. Below there was hope, which would be the greatest of all human forces if it were not for despair.
Above, there was despair.
A calm, cold, ominous despair.
On reaching this hall of refuge, beyond which there was nothing left for them, the first care of the besieged was to bar the entrance. It would be of no use to fasten the door. It would be better to block up the stairway. In a case like this, an obstacle through which it is possible to see and to fight is of more value than a fastened door.
The torch placed by l'Imânus in a cresset on the wall, near the sulphur slow match, gave them light.
In this hall on the second floor there was one of those large, heavy oak chests in which clothing and linen were kept before the invention of furniture with drawers. They dragged this chest, and stood it on end in the doorway of the staircase. It fitted in firmly and obstructed the entrance. It left only a narrow space open near the arch, large enough to let a man through, excellent for killing the assailants, one by one. It was doubtful if men would risk themselves there.
Having blocked up the entrance, they took a respite.
They counted their number.
Of the nineteen only seven were left, including l'Imânus. All were wounded except l'Imânus and the marquis.
The five who were wounded, but very active,—for in the heat of battle, all wounds not mortal allow men to come and go,—were Chatenay, called Robi, Guinoiseau, Hoisnard, Branche-d' Or, Brin-d'Amour and Grand-Francœur. All the rest were dead.
They had no ammunition. The cartridge boxes were exhausted. They counted the cartridges. How many shots for the seven had they? Four.
They had reached the moment when there was nothing left but to fall. They were driven to the very precipice, yawning and awful; it would have been difficult to be nearer the edge.
In the meantime, the attack was beginning; but slowly and all the more sure. The sound of the besiegers' gunstocks was heard as they hit against the staircase, step by step.
No means of escape. Through the library? There were six cannons on the plateau pointed at it, with matches lighted. Through the rooms above? what would be the use? They only lead to the plateau. Then their only means of escape would be to throw themselves from the top to the bottom of the tower.
The seven survivors of this epic band saw themselves inexorably imprisoned and held by this thick wall, which protected them and betrayed them. They were not yet taken; but they were already prisoners.
The marquis addressed them,—
"My friends, it is all over."
And after a silence he added,—
"Grand-Francœur, be the Abbé Turmeau once more."
All knelt down, with their rosaries in their hands. The knocking of the assailants' muskets came nearer. Grand-Francœur, covered with blood from the bullet which had grazed his skull and torn off the skin covered with hair, raised his crucifix in his right hand. The marquis, a skeptic at heart, placed one knee on the ground.
"Let each one," said Grand-Francœur, "confess his faults aloud. Monseigneur, speak."
The marquis replied,—
"I have killed."
"I have killed," said Hoisnard.
"I have killed," said Guinoiseau.
"I have killed," said Brin-d'Amour.
"I have killed," said Chatenay.
"I have killed," said l'Imânus.
And Grand-Francœur added,—
"In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, I absolve you. May your soul depart in peace."
"Amen!" replied all the others.
The marquis arose.
"Now," said he, "let us die."
"And let us kill," said l'Imânus.
The blows from the muskets began to shake the chest which barred the door.
"Think on God," said the priest. "Earth no longer exists for us."
"Yes," added the marquis, "we are in the tomb."
All bowed their heads and beat their breasts. The marquis and the priest alone remained standing. Their eyes were fixed on the floor, the priest was praying, the peasants were praying, the marquis was deep in thought; the chest, as though it were struck by hammers, gave forth a lugubrious, hollow sound.
At this moment, a quick, strong voice rang out behind them, crying,—
"I told you the truth, monseigneur."
The heads of all turned around in amazement.
A hole had just opened in the wall.
A stone perfectly jointed with the others, but not cemented, and turning on a pivot above and below, had just revolved on itself like a turnstile, and in turning had opened the wall. The stone having turned on its axis, made a double opening and offered two passages, one to the right, the other to the left, narrow, but large enough to allow a man to pass through. Outside this unexpected door could be seen the first steps of a spiral staircase.
The face of a man appeared in the opening.
The marquis recognized Halmalo.