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Chapter 49

Chapter XLIX
An Homeric Song
It is time to pass into the other camp, and to describe at once the combatants and the field of battle. Aramis and Porthos had gone to the grotto of Locmaria with the expectation of finding in that place their canoe, ready moored, as well as the three Bretons, their assistants; and they at first hoped to make the boat pass through the little issue of the cavern, concealing in that fashion both their labors and their flight. The arrival of the fox and the dogs had obliged them to remain concealed. The grotto extended the space of about a hundred toises to a little slope dominating a creek. Formerly a temple of the Celtic divinities when Belle-Isle was still called Calonese, this grotto had seen more than one human sacrifice accomplished in its mysterious depths. The first entrance to the cavern was by a moderate descent, above which heaped up rocks formed a low arcade; the interior, very unequal as to the ground, dangerous from the rocky inequalities of the vault, was subdivided into several compartments which commanded one another and were joined by means of several rough broken steps, fixed right and left in enormous natural pillars. At the third compartment the vault was so low, the passage so narrow, that the boat would scarcely have passed without touching the two sides; nevertheless, in a moment of despair, wood softens and stone becomes compliant under the breath of human will. Such was the thought of Aramis, when, after having fought the fight, he decided upon flight,- a flight certainly dangerous, since all the assailants were not dead, and since admitting the possibility of putting the boat to sea, they would have to fly in open day, before the eyes of the conquered, who, on discovering how few they were, would be eager in pursuit.

When the two discharges had killed ten men, Aramis, habituated to the windings of the cavern, went to reconnoitre them one by one, and counted them, for the smoke prevented seeing on beyond; and he immediately commanded that the canoe should be rolled as far as the great stone, the closure of the liberating issue. Porthos collected all his strength, and took the canoe in his arms and lifted it, while the Bretons made it run rapidly along the rollers. They had descended into the third compartment; they had arrived at the stone which walled up the outlet. Porthos seized this gigantic stone at its base, applied his robust shoulder to it, and gave a heave which made this wall crack. A cloud of dust fell from the vault with the ashes of ten thousand generations of sea-birds, whose nests stuck like cement to the rock. At the third shock the stone gave way; it oscillated for a minute. Porthos, placing his back against the neighboring rock, made an arch with his foot which drove the block out of the calcareous masses which served for hinges and cramps. The stone fell; and daylight was visible, brilliant, radiant, which rushed into the cavern by the opening, and the blue sea appeared to the delighted Bretons. They then began to lift the boat over the barricade. Twenty more toises, and it might glide into the ocean. It was during this time that the company arrived, was drawn up by the captain, and disposed for either an escalade or an assault.

Aramis watched over everything, to favor the labors of his friends. He saw the reinforcements; he counted the men; he convinced himself at a single glance of the insurmountable peril to which a fresh combat would expose them. To escape by sea at the moment the cavern was about to be invaded, was impossible. In fact, the daylight which had just been admitted to the last two compartments had exposed to the soldiers the boat rolling towards the sea, and the two rebels within musket-shot; and one of their discharges would riddle the boat if it did not kill the five navigators. Besides, supposing everything,- suppose the boat should escape with the men on board of it, how could the alarm be suppressed, how could notice to the royal lighters be prevented? What could hinder the poor canoe, followed by sea and watched from the shore, from succumbing before the end of the day? Aramis, digging his hands into his gray hair with rage, invoked the assistance of God and the assistance of the devil. Calling to Porthos, who was working alone more than all the rollers,- whether of flesh or of wood,- “My friend,” said he, “our adversaries have just received a reinforcement.”

“Ah, ah!” said Porthos, quietly, “what is to be done, then?”

“To recommence the combat,” said Aramis, “is hazardous.”

“Yes,” said Porthos, “for it is difficult to suppose that out of two one should not be killed; and certainly, if one of us were killed, the other would get himself killed also.” Porthos spoke these words with that natural heroism which, with him, was greater than all material forces.

Aramis felt it like a spur to his heart. “We shall neither of us be killed if you do what I tell you, friend Porthos.”

“Tell me what?”

“These people are coming down into the grotto.”

“Yes.”

“We could kill about fifteen of them, but not more.”

“How many are there in all?” asked Porthos.

“They have received a reinforcement of seventy-five men.”

“Seventy-five and five, eighty. Ah, ah!” said Porthos.

“If they fire all at once they will riddle us with balls.”

“Certainly they will.”

“Without reckoning,” added Aramis, “that the detonations might occasion fallings in of the cavern.”

“Ay,” said Porthos; “a piece of falling rock just now grazed my shoulder.”

“You see, then?”

“Oh! it is nothing.”

“We must determine upon something quickly. Our Bretons are going to continue to roll the canoe towards the sea.”

“Very well.”

“We two will keep the powder, the balls, and muskets here.”

“But only two, my dear Aramis,- we shall never fire three shots together,” said Porthos, innocently; “the defence by musketry is a bad one.”

“Find a better, then.”

“I have found one,” said the giant, suddenly; “I will place myself in ambuscade behind the pillar with this iron bar; and invisible, unattackable, if they come in floods, I can let my bar fall upon their skulls thirty times in a minute. Eh! what do you think of the project? You smile!”

“Excellent, dear friend, perfect! I approve it greatly; only you will frighten them, and half of them will remain outside to take us by famine. What we want, my good friend, is the entire destruction of the troop; a single man left standing ruins us.”

“You are right, my friend, but how can we attract them, pray?”

“By not stirring, my good Porthos.”

“Well, we won’t stir, then; but when they shall be all together-”

“Then leave it to me; I have an idea.”

“If so, and your idea be a good one,- and your idea is most likely to be good,- I am satisfied.”

“To your ambuscade, Porthos, and count how many enter!”

“But you, what will you do?”

“Don’t trouble yourself about me; I have my work.”

“I think I can hear voices.”

“It is they! To your post! Keep within reach of my voice and hand.”

Porthos took refuge in the second compartment, which was absolutely black with darkness. Aramis glided into the third; the giant held in his hand an iron bar of about fifty pounds weight. Porthos handled this lever, which had been used in rolling the boat, with marvellous facility. During this time, the Bretons had pushed the boat to the beach. In the enlightened compartment, Aramis, stooping and concealed, was busied in some mysterious manoeuvre. A command was given in a loud voice. It was the last order of the captain. Twenty-five men jumped from the upper rocks into the first compartment of the grotto, and having taken their ground, began to fire. The echoes growled; the hissing of the balls cut the air; an opaque smoke filled the vault.

“To the left! to the left!” cried Biscarrat, who in his first assault had seen the passage to the second chamber, and who animated by the smell of powder wished to guide his soldiers in that direction. The troop accordingly precipitated themselves to the left,- the passage gradually growing narrower. Biscarrat, with his hands stretched forward, devoted to death, marched in advance of the muskets. “Come on! come on!” exclaimed he, “I see daylight!”

“Strike, Porthos!” cried the sepulchral voice of Aramis.

Porthos breathed a sigh; but he obeyed. The iron bar fell full and direct upon the head of Biscarrat, who was dead before he had ended his cry. Then the formidable lever rose ten times in ten seconds, and made ten corpses. The soldiers could see nothing; they heard sighs and groans; they stumbled over dead bodies, but as they had no conception of the cause of all this, they came forward jostling one another. The implacable bar, still falling, annihilated the first platoon without a single sound having warned the second, which was quietly advancing. But this second platoon, commanded by the captain, had broken a thin fir growing on the shore, and with its resinous branches twisted together, the captain had made a torch.

On arriving at the compartment where Porthos, like the exterminating angel, had destroyed all he touched, the first rank drew back in terror. No firing had replied to that of the guards, and yet their way was stopped by a heap of dead bodies,- they literally walked in blood. Porthos was still behind his pillar. The captain, on lighting up with the trembling flame of the fir this frightful carnage, of which he in vain sought the cause, drew back towards the pillar behind which Porthos was concealed. Then a gigantic hand issued from the shade and fastened on the throat of the captain, who uttered a stifled rattle; his outstretched arms beating the air, the torch fell and was extinguished in blood. A second after, the corpse of the captain fell close to the extinguished torch and added another body to the heap of dead which blocked up the passage.

All this was effected as mysteriously as if by magic. On hearing the rattling in the throat of the captain, the soldiers who accompanied him had turned round; they had caught a glimpse of his extended arms, his eyes starting from their sockets, and then the torch fell and they were left in darkness. By an unreflective, instinctive, mechanical impulse the lieutenant cried, “Fire!” Immediately a volley of musketry flamed, thundered, roared in the cavern, bringing down enormous fragments from the vaults. The cavern was lighted for an instant by this discharge, and then immediately returned to a darkness rendered still thicker by the smoke. To this succeeded a profound silence, broken only by the steps of the third brigade, now entering the cavern.

Alexandre Dumas pere