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THE FLAGSTAFF TOWER.
Time pressing, the Commandant had gone straight from the orderly-room in search of Father Joly. As a soldier and a good Catholic he desired to be shriven, and as a man of habit he preferred the old Cure to Father Launoy. To be sure the Cure was deaf as a post, but on the other hand the Commandant's worst sins would bear to be shouted.
"There is yet one thing upon my conscience," he wound up. "The fact is, I feel pretty sure of myself in this business, but I have some difficulty in trusting God."
It is small wonder that a confession so astonishing had to be repeated twice, and even when he heard it Father Joly failed to understand.
"But how is it possible to mistrust God?" he asked.
"Well, I don't know. I suppose that even in bringing New France so near to destruction He is acting in loving mercy; but all the same it will be a wrench to me if these English pass without paying us the honour of a siege. For if we cannot force them to a fight, Montreal is lost." The Commandant believed this absolutely.
Father Joly was Canadian born and bred; had received his education in the Seminary of Quebec; and knowing nothing of the world beyond New France, felt no doubt upon which side God was fighting. If it were really necessary to New France that the English should be delayed-- and he would take the Commandant's word for it--why then delayed they would be. This he felt able to promise. "And I in my heart of hearts am sure of it," said the Commandant. "But in war one has to take account of every chance, and this may pass sometimes for want of faith."
So, like an honest gentleman, he took his absolution, and afterwards went to Mass and spent half an hour with his mind withdrawn from all worldly care, greatly to his soul's refreshment. But with the ringing of the sanctus bell a drum began to beat--as it seemed, on the very ridge of the chapel roof, but really from the leads of the flagstaff tower high above it. Father Launoy paused in the celebration, but was ordered by a quiet gesture to proceed. Even at the close the garrison stood and waited respectfully for their Commandant to walk out, and followed in decent order to the porch. Then they broke into a run pell-mell for the walls.
But an hour passed before the first whaleboat with its load of red uniforms pushed its way into sight through the forest screen. Then began a spectacle--slow, silent, by little and little overwhelming. It takes a trained imagination to realise great numbers, and the men of Fort Amitie were soon stupefied and ceased even to talk. It seemed to them that the forest would never cease disgorging boats.
"A brave host, my children! But we will teach them that they handle a wasps' nest."
His men eyed the Commandant in doubt; they could scarcely believe that he intended to resist, now that the enemy's strength was apparent. To their minds war meant winning or losing, capturing or being captured. To fight an impossible battle, for the mere sake of gaining time for troops they had never seen, did not enter into their calculations.
So they eyed him, while still the flotilla increased against the far background and came on--whaleboats, gunboats, bateaux, canoes; and still in the lessening interval along the waterway the birds sang. For the British moved, not as once upon Lake George startling the echoes with drums and military bands, but so quietly that at half a mile's distance only the faint murmur of splashing oars and creaking thole-pins reached the ears of the watchers.
The Commandant suddenly lowered his glass and closed it with a snap, giving thanks to God. For at that distance the leading boats began heading in for shore.
"Etienne, he intends at least to summon us!"
So it proved. General Amherst was by no means the man to pass and leave a hostile post in his rear. His detractors indeed accused him of spending all his time upon forts, either in building or in reducing them. But he had two very good reasons for pausing before Fort Amitie; he did not know the strength of its defenders, and he wanted pilots to guide his boats down the rapids below.
Therefore he landed and sent an officer forward to summon the garrison.
The officer presented himself at the river-gate, and having politely suffered Sergeant Bedard to blindfold him, was led to the Commandant's quarters. A good hour passed before he reappeared, the Commandant himself conducting him; and meantime the garrison amused itself with wagering on the terms of capitulation.
At the gate the Englishman's bandage was removed. He saluted, and was saluted, with extreme ceremony. The Commandant watched him out of earshot, and then, rubbing his hands, turned with a happy smile.
"To your guns, my children!"
They obeyed him, while they wondered. He seemed to take for granted that they must feel the compliment paid them by a siege in form.
The day was now well advanced, and it seemed at first that the British meant to let it pass without a demonstration. Toward nightfall, however, four gunboats descended the river, anchored and dropped down the current, paying out their hawsers and feeling their way into range. But the Fort was ready for them, and opened fire before they could train their guns; a lucky shot cut the moorings of one clean and close by the stem; and, the current carrying her inshore, she was hulled twice as she drifted down-stream. The other three essayed a few shots without effect in the dusk, warped back out of range, and waited for daylight to improve their marksmanship.
And with daylight began one of the strangest of sieges, between an assailant who knew only that he had to deal with stout walls, and a defender who dared not attempt even a show of a sortie for fear of exposing the weakness of his garrison. The French had ammunition enough to last for a month, and cannon enough to keep two hundred men busy; and ran from one gun to another, keeping up pretences but doing little damage in their hurry. Their lucky opening shots had impressed Amherst, and he was one to cling to a notion of his enemy's strength. He solemnly effected a new landing at six hundred yards' distance, opened his lines across the north-western corner of the fort, kept his men entrenching for two days and two nights, brought up thirty guns, and, advancing them within two hundred yards, began at his leisure to knock holes in the walls. Meantime, twenty guns, anchored out in the river, played on the broad face of the fort and swept the Commandant's lunette out of existence. And with all this prodigious waste of powder but five of the garrison had fallen, and three of these by the bursting of a single shell. The defenders understood now that they were fighting for time, and told each other that when their comedy was played out and the inevitable moment came, the British General would not show himself fierce in revenge-- "provided," they would add, "the Seigneur does not try his patience too far." It was Father Launoy who set this whisper going from lip to lip, and so artfully that none suspected him for its author; Father Launoy, who had been wont to excite the patriotism of the faithful by painting the English as devils in human shape. He was a brave man; but he held this resistance to be senseless and did not believe for an instant that Montreal would use the delay or, using it, would strike with any success.
At first the tremendous uproar of the enemy's artillery and its shattering effect on the masonry of their fortress, had numbed the militiamen's nerves; they felt the place tumbling about their ears. But as the hours passed they discovered that round-shot could be dodged and that even bursting shells, though effective against stones and mortar, did surprisingly small damage to life and limb; and with this discovery they began almost to taste the humour of the situation. They fed and rested in bomb-proof chambers which the Commandant and M. Etienne had devised in the slope of earth under the terre-plein; and from these they watched and discussed in safety the wreckage done upon the empty buildings across the courtyard.
One of these caves had at the beginning of the siege been assigned to Diane; and from the mouth of it, seated with Felicite beside her, she too watched the demolition; but with far different thoughts. She knew better than these militiamen her father's obstinacy, and that his high resolve reached beyond the mere gaining of time. It seemed to her that God was drawing out the agony; and with the end before her mind she prayed Him to shorten this cruel interval.
Early on the third morning the British guns had laid open a breach six feet wide at the north-western angle, close by the foot of the flagstaff tower; and Amherst, who had sent off a detachment of the Forty-sixth with a dozen Indian guides to fetch a circuit through the woods and open a feint attack in the rear of the fort, prepared for a general assault. But first he resolved to summon the garrison again.
To carry his message he chose the same officer as before, a Captain Muspratt of the Forty-fourth Regiment.
Now as yet the cannonade had not slackened, and it chanced that as the General gave Muspratt his instructions, an artillery sergeant in command of a battery of mortars on the left, which had been advanced within two hundred yards of the walls, elevated one of his pieces and lobbed a bomb clean over the summit of the flagstaff tower.
It was a fancy shot, fired--as the army learnt afterwards--for a wager; but its effect staggered all who watched it. The fuse was quick, and the bomb, mounting on its high curve, exploded in a direct line between the battery and the flagstaff. One or two men from the neighbouring guns shouted bravos. The sergeant slapped his thigh and was turning for congratulations, but suddenly paused, stock-still and staring upward.
The flagstaff stood, apparently untouched. But what had become of the flag?
A moment before it had been floating proudly enough, shaking its folds loose to the light breeze. Now it was gone. Had the explosion blown it to atoms? Not a shred of it floated away on the wind.
A man on the sergeant's right called out positively that a couple of seconds after the explosion, and while the smoke was clearing, he had caught a glimpse of something white--something which looked like a flag--close by the foot of the staff; and that an arm had reached up and drawn it down hurriedly. He would swear to the arm; he had seen it distinctly above the edge of the battlements. In his opinion the fort was surrendering, and someone aloft there had been pulling down the flag as the bomb burst.
The General, occupied for the moment in giving Captain Muspratt his instructions, had not witnessed the shot. But he turned at the shout which followed, caught sight of the bare flagstaff, and ordering his bugler to sound the "Cease firing," sent forward the captain at once to parley.
With Muspratt went a sergeant of the Forty-sixth and a bugler. The sergeant carried a white flag. Ascending the slope briskly, they were met at the gate by M. Etienne.
The sudden disappearance of the flag above the tower had mystified the garrison no less thoroughly than the British. They knew the Commandant to be aloft there with Sergeant Bedard, and the most of the men could only guess, as their enemies had guessed, that he was giving the signal of surrender.
But this M. Etienne could by no means believe; it belied his brother's nature as well as his declared resolve. And so, while the English captain with great politeness stated his terms--which were unconditional surrender and nothing less--the poor gentleman kept glancing over his shoulder and answering at random, "Yes, yes," or "Precisely--if you will allow me," or "Excuse me a moment, until my brother--" In short, he rambled so that Captain Muspratt could only suppose his wits unhinged. It was scarce credible that a sane man could receive such a message inattentively, and yet this old gentleman did not seem to be listening!
Diane meanwhile stood at the mouth of her shelter with her eyes lifted, intent upon the tower's summit. She, too had seen the flag run down with the bursting of the bomb, and she alone had hit in her mind on the true explanation--that a flying shard had cut clean through the up-halliard close to the staff, and the flag--heavy with golden lilies of her own working--had at once dropped of its own weight. She had caught sight, too, of her father's arm reaching up to grasp it, and she knew why. The flagstaff had a double set of halliards.
She waited--waited confidently, since her father was alive up there. She marvelled that he had escaped, for the explosion had seemed to wrap the battlements in one sheet of fire. Nevertheless he was safe--she had seen him--and she waited for the flag to rise again.
Minutes passed. She took a step forward from her shelter. The firing had ceased and the courtyard was curiously still and empty. Then four of the five militiamen posted to watch the back of the building came hurrying across towards the gateway. She understood--her senses being strung for the moment so tensely that they seemed to relieve her of all trouble of thinking--she understood that a parley was going forward at the gate and that these men were hurrying from their posts to hear it. In her ears the bugles still sounded the "Cease firing "; and still she gazed up at the tower.
Yes--she had made no mistake! The spare halliards were shaking; in a second or two--but why did they drag so interminably?--the flag would rise again.
And it rose. Before her eyes, before the eyes of the parleyers in the gateway and of the British watching from their batteries, it rose above the edge of the battlements and climbed half-way up the mast, or a little short of half-way. There it stopped--climbed a few feet higher--and stopped again--climbed yet another foot--and slowly, very slowly, fluttered downward.
With a dreadful surmise Diane started to run across the courtyard toward the door at the foot of the tower; and even as she started a yell went up from the rear of the fort, followed by a random volley of musketry and a second yell--a true Iroquois war-whoop.
In the gateway Captain Muspratt called promptly to his bugler. The first yell had told him what was happening; that the men of the Forty-sixth, sent round for the feint attack, had found the rear wall defenceless and were escalading, in ignorance of the parley at the gate.
Quick as thought the bugler sounded the British recall, and its notes were taken up by bugle after bugle down the slope. The Major commanding the feint attack heard, comprehended after a fashion, and checked his men; and the Forty-sixth, as a well-disciplined regiment, dropped off its scaling ladders and came to heel.
But he could not check his Indian guides. Once already on their progress down the river they had been baulked of their lust to kill; and this restraint had liked them so little that already three-fourths of Sir William Johnson's Iroquois were marching back to their homes in dudgeon. These dozen braves would not be cheated a second time if they could help it. Disregarding the shouts and the bugle-calls they swarmed up the ladders, dropped within the fort, and swept through the Commandant's quarters into the courtyard.
In the doorway at the foot of the flagstaff tower a woman's skirt fluttered for an instant and was gone. They raced after it like a pack of mad dogs, and with them ran one, an Ojibway, whom neither hate nor lust, but a terrible fear, made fleeter than any.
Six of them reached the narrow doorway together, snarling and jostling in their rage. The Ojibway broke through first and led the way up the winding stairway, taking it three steps at a time, with death behind him now--though of this he recked nothing--since he had clubbed an Oneida senseless in the doorway, and these Indians, Oneidas all, had from the start resented his joining the party of guides.
Never a yard separated him from the musket-butt of the Indian who panted next after him; but above, at the last turning of the stair under a trap-door through which the sunlight poured, he caught again the flutter of a woman's skirt. A ladder led through the hatchway, and--almost grasping her frock--he sprang up after Diane, flung himself on the leads, reached out, and clutching the hatch, slammed it down on the foremost Oneida's head.
As he slipped the bolt--thank God it had a bolt!--he heard the man drop from the ladder with a muffled thud. Then, safe for a moment, he ran to the battlements and shouted down at the pitch of his voice.
"Forty-sixth! This way, Forty-sixth!"
His voice sounded passing strange to him. Nor for two years had it been lifted to pronounce an English word.
Having sent down his call he ran back swiftly to the closed hatchway; and as he knelt, pressing upon it with both hands, his eyes met Diane's.
She stood by the flagstaff with a pistol in her hand. But her hand hung stiffly by her hip as it had dropped at the sound of his shout, and her eyes stared on him. At her feet lay the Commandant, his hand still rigid upon the halliards, his breast covered by the folds of the fallen flag, and behind her, as the bursting shell had killed and huddled it, the body of old Sergeant Bedard.
Why she stood there, pistol in hand, he could partly guess. How these two corpses came here he could not guess at all. The Commandant, mortally wounded, had grasped at the falling flag, and with a dying effort had bent it upon the spare halliards and tried to hoist. It lay now, covering a wound which had torn his chest open, coat and flesh, and laid his ribs bare.
But John a Cleeve, kneeling upon the hatchway, understood nothing of this. What beat on his brain was the vision of a face below--the face of the officer commanding--turned upwards in blank astonishment at his shout of "Forty-sixth! This way, Forty-sixth!"
The Indians were battering the hatch with their musket-butts. The bolt shook. He pressed his weight down on the edge, keeping his head well back to be out of the way of bullets. Luckily the timbers of the hatch were stout, and moreover it had a leaden casing, but this would avail nothing when the Indians began to fire at the hinges--as they surely would.
He found himself saying aloud in French, "Run, mademoiselle!--I won't answer for the hinges. Call again to the red-coats! They will help."
But still, while blow after blow shook the hatch, Diane crouched motionless, staring at him with wild eyes.
"They will help," he repeated with the air of one striving to speak lucidly; then with a change of tone, "Give me your pistol, please."
She held it out obediently, at arm's length; but as he took it she seemed to remember, and crept close.
"Non--non!" she whispered. "C'est a moi-que tu le dois, enfin!"
From the staircase--not close beneath the hatch, but, as it seemed, far below their feet--came the muffled sound of shots, and between the shots hoarse cries of rage.
"Courage!" whispered John. He could hear that men were grappling and fighting down there, and supposed the Forty-sixth to be at hand. He could not know that the parleyers at the gate, appalled for an instant by the vision of Diane with a dozen savages in chase, had rallied at a yell from Dominique Guyon, pelted after him to the rescue, and were now at grips with the rearmost Oneidas--a locked and heaving mass choking the narrow spirals of the stairway.
"Courage!" he whispered again, and pressing a knee on the edge of the hatch reached out a hand to steady her. What mattered it if they died now--together--he and she? "Tu dois"--she loved him; her lips had betrayed her. "Tu dois"--the words sang through him, thrilling, bathing him in bliss.
"O my love! O my love!"
The blows beat upward against the hatch and ceased. He sprang erect, slid an arm around her and dragged her back--not a second too soon. A gun exploded against the hinges at their feet, blowing one loose. John saw the crevice gaping and the muzzle of a gun pushed through to prise it open. He leaped upon the hatch, pistol in hand.
What was that? Through the open crevice a British cheer answered him. The man levering against his weight lost hold of the gun, leaving it jammed. John heard the slide and thud of his fall.
"Hallo!" hailed a cheerful voice from the foot of the ladder. "You there!--open the trap-way and show us some light!"
John knelt, slipped back the bolt, and turned to Diane. She had fallen on her knees--but what had happened to her? She was cowering before the joy in his face, shrinking away from him and yet beseeching.
"Le pistolet--donne-moi le pistolet!"--her voice hissed on the word, her eyes petitioned him desperately. "Ah, de grace! tu n'a pas le droit--"
He understood. With a passing bitter laugh he turned from her entreaties and hurled the pistol across the battlements into air. A hand flung open the hatch. A British officer--Etherington, Major of the Forty-sixth--pushed his head and shoulders through he opening and stared across the leads, panting, with triumphant jolly face.
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