L'IMANUS ALSO ESCAPES.
At this very instant a great noise was heard, the chest violently pushed, gave way, letting a man pass who rushed into the hall, sword in hand.
"It is I, Radoub, if you want to know it. I am tired of waiting; I am running a risk. No matter, I have just ripped open one. Now I will attack you all. How many are there of you?"
It was Radoub, indeed, and he was alone. After the slaughter just made by l'Imânus in the stairway, Gauvain, fearing a masked fougade, had recalled his men and consulted Cimourdain.
In this darkness through which the torch almost extinguished, faintly gleamed, Radoub, sword in hand on the threshold, repeated his question.
"I am alone. How many are you?"
Hearing nothing, he went forward. One of those jets of light occasionally given forth by a dying fire, and which might be called sobs of light, flashed from the torch and lighted up the whole hall.
Radoub caught sight of one of those little mirrors fastened to the wall, went towards it, looked at his bloodstained face and hanging ear, and said,—
"What a hideous mutilation."
Then he turned round, astounded to see the hall empty.
"There is nobody here," he exclaimed. "The effective force is zero."
He noticed the turned stone, the opening in the staircase.
"Ah! I see. The key to the fields. Come on, men, all of you! Comrades, come on! they are all gone. They have vanished, melted away, slunk away, decamped. This jug of an old tower was cracked. Here is the hole through which they escaped, the rascals! how can one expect to get the better of Pitt and Cobourg with such trickery as this! the devil himself came to their aid! There is no one here at all!"
Just then a pistol was fired, a bullet grazed his elbow and was flattened against the wall.
"But there is some one here, after all. Who was so kind as to be so polite to me?"
"I was," said a voice.
Radoub looked around and made out something in the dim light which proved to be l'Imânus.
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "I have one of them. The others have escaped, but you will not escape."
"Do you think so?" replied l'Imânus.
Radoub took a step and stopped.
"Hallo, you man on the floor, who are you?"
"I am one who is down and who laughs at those who are on their feet."
"What is that in your right hand?"
"And in your left hand?"
"I take you prisoner."
"I defy you to do so."
And l'Imânus, bending over the burning match, blew his last breath on the fire and died.
A few moments later, Gauvain and Cimourdain, and all the others entered the hall. All saw the opening. They explored the recesses, they examined the stairway. It led into the ravine. They assured themselves that the enemy had escaped. They shook l'Imânus. He was dead. Gauvain, with a lantern in his hand, examined the stone, which had given escape to the besieged; he had heard of this turning stone, but he, too, considered the legend as a fable. As he was looking at the stone he noticed something written with a pencil; he held the lantern near and read this,—
"Au revoir, monsieur le vicomte.—Lantenac."
Guéchamp had rejoined Gauvain. Pursuit was evidently useless. Their escape was complete; the whole country was in favor of the fugitive; the thicket, the ravine, the copse, the natives; they were, doubtless, already far away; there was no way to find them; and the whole forest of Fougères was an immense hiding-place.
What was to be done? all would have to be begun over again. Gauvain and Guéchamp expressed their disappointment and their conjectures.
Cimourdain listened in solemn silence.
"By the way, Guéchamp," said Gauvain, "where is the ladder?"
"Commander, it has not come."
"But still we saw a wagon escorted by mounted men."
"It did not bring the ladder."
"What did it bring, then?"
"The guillotine," said Cimourdain.