TITANS AGAINST GIANTS.
It was indeed frightful.
This hand-to-hand struggle surpassed all that could have been imagined.
To find anything equal to it, one must go back to the great combats of Æschylus or to the carnage of old feudal times; or to those "attacks with short arms," which lasted till the seventeenth century, when fortified places were penetrated by means of "fausse-brayes;" tragic assaults in which, says the old sergeant of the province of Alentijo, "when the mines have done their work, the besiegers will advance carrying planks covered with sheets of tins, armed with round shields and mantlets, and provided with plenty of grenades, causing the defenders to abandon the retrenchments or retirades, and, having taken possession, they will vigorously repulse the besieged."
The place of attack was horrible; it was one of those breaches called technically "vaulted breaches;" that is to say, as will be remembered, an opening going through the wall from one side to the other, and not a rupture open to the sky. The powder had worked like a gimlet. The effect of the explosion had been so violent that the tower had been rent more than forty feet above the mine, but it was only a crack, and the practicable opening, serving as a breach and penetrating into the lower hall, resembled a spear-thrust which pierces, rather than an axe-blow which cleaves.
It was a puncture in the side of the tower, a long, deep fracture, something like a horizontal wall under ground, a passage winding and rising like an intestine through a wall fifteen feet thick, a peculiar, shapeless cylinder full of obstacles, snares, explosions, where a man would hit his forehead against the rocks, and would stumble over the rubbish and lose his sight in the darkness.
The assailants had before them this dark porch, like the mouth of an abyss with all the stones of the jagged wall for upper and lower jaws; the jaws of a shark have not more teeth than this terrible rent. It was necessary to enter and to come out by this hole.
Within, there was a rain of fire, outside rose the retirade. Outside, that is to say, in the lower hall on the ground floor.
Only in the encounter of sappers in covered galleries when the countermine cuts the mine, or in the carnage on the gun decks of vessels which grapple each other in naval battles, is such ferocity displayed. To fight at the bottom of a ditch is horrible to the last degree. It is frightful to have a battle under a roof.
At the moment when the first swarm of besiegers entered, the whole retirade was covered with lightning, and it was something like a thunderstorm bursting underground. The thunderbolts of the assailants replied to the thunderbolts of the ambuscade. Report answered report; Gauvain's voice shouted,—
"Break them in!"
Then Lantenac's cry: "Hold firm against the enemy!" Then the cry of l'Imânus: "On, men of the Main!" Then the clashing of sword against sword, and blow on blow, terrible discharges, all devastating. The torch fastened against the wall lighted dimly all this horror. It was impossible to distinguish anything; it was in a reddish blackness; whoever entered there was suddenly deaf and blind,—deafened by the noise, blinded by the smoke. Disabled men were lying in the midst of the rubbish. Corpses were trodden down, the wounded were trampled upon, broken limbs were crushed, while howls of anguish arose; men had their feet bitten by the dying; now and then, there were moments of silence more hideous than the din.
They seized each other by the throat, groans were heard, then the gnashing of teeth, the death-rattle, imprecations; and the thundering began again. A stream of blood began to flow from the tower through the breach, and ran out into the darkness. This dismal pool steamed outside in the grass.
It seemed as if the tower itself were bleeding, as if a giant were wounded.
Wonderful to say, those outside heard hardly any sound. The night was very dark, and all around the fortress, on the plain and in the forest, there was a sort of funereal stillness. Inside, it was like hell; outside, it was like the grave. This conflict of men killing each other in the darkness, these volleys of musketry, this din, this madness, all this tumult died away under the walls and arches; the noise lacked air, and suffocation was added to slaughter. Outside the tower, there was scarcely a sound. The little children slept through it all.
The fury increased, the retirade held its own. Nothing is more difficult to storm than this kind of a barricade, with a re-entering angle. If the besieged had numbers against them, their position was in their favor. The attacking column lost a great many men. Stretched out in a long line outside, at the foot of the tower, it plunged slowly into the opening made by the breach and contracted, like an adder going into its hole.
Gauvain, with the imprudence of a young general, was in the lower hall, in the thickest of the fight, in the midst of all the firing. We may add that he had the confidence of a man who had never been wounded. As he turned round to give an order, a blaze of musketry lighted up a face close beside him.
"Cimourdain!" he exclaimed, "what are you doing here?"
It really was Cimourdain. Cimourdain replied,—
"I come to be near you."
"But you will be killed!"
"Well, what are you doing here yourself?"
"But I am needed here. You are not."
"Since you are here, I must be here also."
"No, my master."
"Yes, my child."
Cimourdain stayed near Gauvain.
The dead were heaped up on the floors of the lower hall.
Although the retirade was not yet forced, the greater number would evidently conquer at last. The assailants were exposed to the enemy's fire, and the besieged were protected. Ten besiegers fell to one besieged, but the besiegers were replaced. The besiegers increased and the besieged decreased.
The nineteen besieged were all behind the retirade, the attack being there. There were dead and wounded among them; fifteen at the outside were still fighting. One of the fiercest among them, Chante-en-Hiver, had been frightfully wounded. He was a thickset Breton, with curly hair, of the small, lively type. He had one of his eyes put out and his jawbone broken. He could still walk. He dragged himself up the winding staircase and went into the room on the first story, hoping to be able to say his prayers there and die.
He leaned back against the wall near the loophole to try to get a little air.
Below, the massacre before the retirade was growing more and more horrible. In an interval between two volleys, Cimourdain raised his voice.
"Besieged!" he cried, "why shed blood any longer? You are taken. Surrender. Remember that we are four thousand five hundred against nineteen, that is to say, more than two hundred to one. Surrender."
"Let us put an end to this sentimentality," replied the Marquis de Lantenac.
And twenty bullets answered Cimourdain.
The retirade did not reach as high as the arched roof; this allowed the besieged to shoot over it, but it also allowed the besiegers to scale it.
"Attack the retirade!" cried Gauvain. "Is there any one willing to scale the retirade?"
"I am," said Sergeant Radoub.