Gauvain on his side, was arranging the attack. He gave his last instructions to Cimourdain, who, it will be remembered, without taking part in the action was to guard the plateau; and to Guéchamp, who was to wait with the main part of the army in the camp of the forest. It was understood that neither the masked battery in the woods nor the open battery on the plateau should fire, unless there was a sortie or an attempt to escape. Gauvain reserved for himself the command of the attacking column. This was what troubled Cimourdain.
The sun had just set.
A tower on an open field is like a ship on the open sea. It must be attacked in the same way. It is rather a boarding than an assault. No cannon. Nothing useless. What is the good of cannonading walls fifteen feet thick? A port-hole, some storming it, others passing it, axes, knives, pistols, fists, and teeth. This is what takes place.
Gauvain felt that there was no other means of carrying la Tourgue. An attack where the combatants see the whites of each other's eyes is most deadly. He was familiar with the formidable interior of the tower, having lived there as a child. He was deep in thought.
In the meantime, a few steps from him his lieutenant, Guéchamp, with a spyglass in his hand, was scrutinizing the horizon toward Parigné. Suddenly Guechamp exclaimed,—
"Ah! at last!"
This exclamation roused Gauvain from his reverie.
"What is it, Guéchamp?"
"Commander, there is the ladder."
"The escape ladder?"
"What? Hasn't it come yet?"
"No, commander. I was anxious about it. The express which I sent to Javené has returned."
"I know it."
"He announced that, in the carpenter's shop at Javené, he had found a ladder of the required length, that he had it requisitioned, that he had the ladder put on a wagon, that he obtained an escort of twelve horsemen, and that he had seen the wagon, the escort, and the ladder start for Parigné. After which he returned post haste."
"And gave us this report, and he added that as the wagon was drawn by strong horses, and started about two o'clock in the morning, it would be here before sunset. I know all that. Well?"
"Well, commander, the sun has just set and the wagon with the ladder has not yet come."
"Is it possible? Nevertheless, we must begin the attack. The hour has come. If we delay, the besieged will think we are retreating."
"Commander, you can begin the attack."
"But we must have the escape ladder."
"But it is not here."
"It is here."
"How is that?"
"That is why I said, 'Ah! at last!' The wagon had not come; I took my spyglass and examined the road from Parigné to la Tourgue, and, commander, I am satisfied. The wagon is yonder with the escort; it is coming down the slope. You can see it."
Gauvain took his spyglass and looked.
"To be sure. Here it is. There is not enough daylight left to make it all out. But I see the escort; that is plain enough. But the escort seems to me to be larger than you told me, Guéchamp."
"It seems so to me, too."
"They are about a quarter of a league away."
"Commander, the escape ladder will be here in a quarter of an hour."
"We can begin the attack."
It was really a wagon which was coming, but it was not the one they thought.
Gauvain, turning around, saw behind him Sergeant Radoub, erect, his eyes downcast, in attitude of military salute.
"What is it, Sergeant Radoub?"
"Citizen commander, we, the men of the battalion of Bonnet-Rouge, have a favor to ask of you."
"What is it?"
"To have us killed."
"Ah!" said Gauvain.
"Will you do us this kindness?"
"But—that depends on circumstances," said Gauvain.
"You see, commander, since the affair at Dol you have been careful of us. There are still twelve of us."
"This humiliates us."
"You are the reserve."
"We would rather be the advance-guard."
"But I need you to decide the final success of an action. I hold you in reserve."
"Too much so."
"No matter. You are in the column, you march with it."
"In the rear. Paris has the right to march ahead."
"I will think about it. Sergeant Radoub."
"Think about it to-day, commander. There is going to be an engagement. There will be a rough tripping-up, on one side or the other. It will be lively. La Tourgue will burn the fingers of those who touch it. We ask the privilege of being in the fight."
The sergeant stopped short, twisted his moustache, and added in a different tone,—
"And then you see, commander, our babies are in that tower. Our children are there, the children of the battalion, our three children. The terrible face of Gribouille-mon-cul-to-baise, of Brise-bleu, of l'Imanus, that Gouge-le-Bruand, that Bouge-le-Gruand, that Fouge-le-Truand, that thunderbolt of God, man of the devil, threatens our children. Our children, our little ones, commander. When the tower quakes and tumbles, we do not want any harm to come to them. Do you understand this, master? we do not want any harm to happen to them. Just now, I took advantage of the truce to go up on the plateau, and I saw them through a window; yes, they are really there, you can see them from the edge of the ravine and I saw them, and they were afraid of me, the darlings. Commander, if a single hair falls from the heads of those little cherubs, I swear a thousand times by all that is holy that I, Sergeant Radoub, that I will do something desperate. And this is what all the battalion say: 'We want the children saved, or we want to be all killed. This is our right, yes, to be all killed.' And now, good luck and reverence."
Gauvain held out his hand to Radoub, and said,—
"You are a brave man. You shall be in the attacking column. I will divide you. I will put six of you with the vanguard, that the troops may be sure to advance, and I will put six of you in the rearguard, to keep them from retreating."
"Shall I still command the twelve?"
"Thank you, commander. For I belong to the vanguard." Radoub saluted his commander and went back to the ranks.
Gauvain took out his watch, spoke a few words in Guéchamp's ear, and the attacking column began to form.