THE GENERAL'S CLOAK.
It was indeed a question of duty.
Duty rose forbidding, before Cimourdain; terrible before Gauvain.
Plain, before one; complex, varied, tortuous, before the other.
The hour of midnight struck, then one o'clock in the morning.
Without being aware of it, Gauvain had imperceptibly approached the entrance of the breach.
The fire now only threw a diffused reflection and was dying out.
The plateau, on the other side of the tower, was lighted with the reflection, and became visible occasionally, and then was eclipsed as the smoke covered the fire. This blaze, flaring up suddenly and then cut off by sudden darkness, robbed objects of their proportions, and gave the sentinels in the camp the appearance of ghosts. Gauvain, as he meditated, vaguely watched the flames and smoke come and go. This appearance and disappearance of light before his eyes was strangely analogous to the appearance and disappearance of truth in his mind.
Suddenly, between two clouds of smoke, a flame from the dying bed of coals vividly lighted up the top of the plateau and brought out the crimson form of a wagon. Gauvain looked at this wagon; it was surrounded by horsemen wearing military caps. It seemed to him that it was the wagon which Guéchamp's spyglass had brought into sight on the horizon, some hours before, just as the sun was setting. Some men were on the wagon, and seemed busy unloading it. What they were taking from the wagon seemed heavy, and occasionally gave out a sound like iron; it would have been difficult to tell what it was; it looked like framework; two of them got down and placed a box upon the ground, which, to judge from its shape, contained some triangular object.
The flame died out, everything disappeared in the darkness; Gauvain, with his eyes still fastened on the spot, wondered what there was over there in the darkness.
The lanterns were lighted, there was coming and going off the plateau; but the forms moving about were confused, and, moreover, Gauvain, below, and on the other side of the ravine, could not see what was on the very edge of the plateau.
Voices were talking, but he could not tell what they said. Now and then, blows sounded on wood. He heard too, a strange metallic grating, like the sound of the whetting of a scythe.
Two o'clock struck.
Gauvain went slowly towards the breach, like one who would willingly take two steps forward and three back. Recognizing, in the dim light, the cloak and braided hood of the commander, the sentinels presented arms at his approach. Gauvain went into the hall on the ground floor, now transformed into a guardroom. A lantern was hanging from the arch. It gave just light enough to enable one to cross the hall without stepping on the men belonging to the post, who were lying on the straw on the floor, and for the most part asleep.
They had lain down there; a few hours before, they had been fighting there; the grapeshot, scattered under them in grains of iron and lead, which had not been entirely swept away, disturbed their rest somewhat; but they were weary, and sank to sleep again. This hall had been the place of horror; here had been the attack; here they had roared, howled, gnashed their teeth, given blows, killed, expired; many of them had fallen dead on the pavement where they were now lying asleep; this straw which served them for beds had drunk up the blood of their comrades; now, it was over, the blood was stanched, the sabres were dried, the dead were dead; they were sleeping peacefully. Such is war. And then to-morrow everybody will sleep the same sleep.
As Gauvain entered, some of these drowsy men rose, among others, the officer commanding the post. Gauvain pointed to the door of the dungeon,—
"Open for me," he said.
The bolts were drawn, the door opened.
Gauvain went into the dungeon.
The door closed behind him.