The Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
Chapter LXII. Vive Colbert!
The spectacle which the Greve now presented was a frightful one. The heads, leveled by the perspective, extended afar, thick and agitated as the ears of corn in a vast plain. From time to time a fresh report, or a distant rumor, made the heads oscillate and thousands of eyes flash. Now and then there were great movements. All those ears of corn bent, and became waves more agitated than those of the ocean, which rolled from the extremities to the center, and beat, like the tides, against the hedge of archers who surrounded the gibbets. Then the handles of the halberds were let fall upon the heads and shoulders of the rash invaders; at times, also, it was the steel as well as the wood, and, in that case, a large empty circle was formed around the guard; a space conquered upon the extremities, which underwent, in their turn the oppression of the sudden movement, which drove them against the parapets of the Seine. From the window, that commanded a view of the whole Place, D'Artagnan saw, with interior satisfaction, that such of the musketeers and guards as found themselves involved in the crowd, were able, with blows of their fists and the hilts of theirs swords, to keep room. He even remarked that they had succeeded, by that esprit de corps which doubles the strength of the soldier, in getting together in one group to the amount of about fifty men; and that, with the exception of a dozen stragglers whom he still saw rolling here and there, the nucleus was complete, and within reach of his voice. But it was not the musketeers and guards that drew the attention of D'Artagnan. Around the gibbets, and particularly at the entrances to the arcade of Saint-Jean, moved a noisy mass, a busy mass; daring faces, resolute demeanors were to be seen here and there, mingled with silly faces and indifferent demeanors; signals were exchanged, hands given and taken. D'Artagnan remarked among the groups, and those groups the most animated, the face of the cavalier whom he had seen enter by the door of communication from his garden, and who had gone upstairs to harangue the drinkers. That man was organizing troops and giving orders.
"Mordioux!" said D'Artagnan to himself, "I was not deceived; I know that man, - it is Menneville. What the devil is he doing here?"
A distant murmur, which became more distinct by degrees, stopped this reflection, and drew his attention another way. This murmur was occasioned by the arrival of the culprits; a strong picket of archers preceded them, and appeared at the angle of the arcade. The entire crowd now joined as if in one cry; all the cries united formed one immense howl. D'Artagnan saw Raoul was becoming pale, and he slapped him roughly on the shoulder. The fire-keepers turned round on hearing the great cry, and asked what was going on. "The condemned are arrived," said D'Artagnan. "That's well," replied they, again replenishing the fire. D'Artagnan looked at them with much uneasiness; it was evident that these men who were making such a fire for no apparent purpose had some strange intentions. The condemned appeared upon the Place. They were walking, the executioner before them, whilst fifty archers formed a hedge on their right and their left. Both were dressed in black; they appeared pale, but firm. They looked impatiently over the people's heads, standing on tip-toe at every step. D'Artagnan remarked this. "Mordioux!" cried he, "they are in a great hurry to get a sight of the gibbet!" Raoul drew back, without, however, having the power to leave the window. Terror even has its attractions.
"To the death! to the death!" cried fifty thousand voices.
"Yes; to the death!" howled a hundred frantic others, as if the great mass had given them the reply.
"To the halter! to the halter!" cried the great whole; "Vive le roi!"
"Well," said D'Artagnan, "this is droll; I should have thought it was M. Colbert who had caused them to be hung."
There was, at this moment, a great rolling movement in the crowd, which stopped for a moment the march of the condemned. The people of a bold and resolute mien, whom D'Artagnan had observed, by dint of pressing, pushing, and lifting themselves up, had succeeded in almost touching the hedge of archers. The cortege resumed its march. All at once, to cries of "Vive Colbert!" those men, of whom D'Artagnan never lost sight, fell upon the escort, which in vain endeavored to stand against them. Behind these men was the crowd. Then commenced, amidst a frightful tumult, as frightful a confusion. This time there was something more than cries of expectation or cries of joy, there were cries of pain. Halberds struck men down, swords ran through them, muskets were discharged at them. The confusion became then so great that D'Artagnan could no longer distinguish anything. Then, from this chaos, suddenly surged something like a visible intention, like a will pronounced. The condemned had been torn from the hands of the guards, and were being dragged towards the house of L'Image-de-Notre-Dame. Those who dragged them shouted, "Vive Colbert!" The people hesitated, not knowing which they ought to fall upon, the archers or the aggressors. What stopped the people was, that those who cried "Vive Colbert!" began to cry, at the same time, "No halter! no halter! to the fire! to the fire! burn the thieves! burn the extortioners!" This cry, shouted with an ensemble, obtained enthusiastic success. The populace had come to witness an execution, and here was an opportunity offered them of performing one themselves. It was this that must be most agreeable to the populace: therefore, they ranged themselves immediately on the party of the aggressors against the archers, crying with the minority, which had become, thanks to them, the most compact majority: "Yes, yes: to the fire with the thieves! Vive Colbert!"
"Mordioux!" exclaimed D'Artagnan, "this begins to look serious."
One of the men who remained near the chimney approached the window, a firebrand in his hand. "Ah, ah!" said he, "it gets warm." Then, turning to his companion: "There is the signal," added he; and he immediately applied the burning brand to the wainscoting. Now, this cabaret of the Image-de-Notre-Dame was not a very newly built house, and therefore, did not require much entreating to take fire. In a second the boards began to crackle, and the flames arose sparkling to the ceiling. A howling from without replied to the shouts of the incendiaries. D'Artagnan, who had not seen what passed, from being engaged at the window, felt, at the same time, the smoke which choked him and the fire that scorched him. "Hola!" cried he, turning round, "is the fire here? Are you drunk or mad, my masters?"
The two men looked at each other with an air of astonishment. "In what?" asked they of D'Artagnan; "was it not a thing agreed upon?"
"A thing agreed upon that you should burn my house!" vociferated D'Artagnan, snatching the brand from the hand of the incendiary, and striking him with it across the face. The second wanted to assist his comrade, but Raoul, seizing him by the middle, threw him out of the window, whilst D'Artagnan pushed his man down the stairs. Raoul, first disengaged, tore the burning wainscoting down, and threw it flaming into the chamber. At a glance D'Artagnan saw there was nothing to be feared from the fire, and sprang to the window. The disorder was at its height. The air was filled with simultaneous cries of "To the fire!" "To the death!" "To the halter!" "To the stake!" "Vive Colbert!" "Vive le roi!" The group which had forced the culprits from the hands of the archers had drawn close to the house, which appeared to be the goal towards which they dragged them. Menneville was at the head of this group, shouting louder than all the others, "To the fire! to the fire! Vive Colbert!" D'Artagnan began to comprehend what was meant. They wanted to burn the condemned, and his house was to serve as a funeral pile.
"Halt, there!" cried he, sword in hand, and one foot upon the window. "Menneville, what do you want to do?"
"Monsieur d'Artagnan," cried the latter; "give way, give way!"
"To the fire! to the fire with the thieves! Vive Colbert!"
These cries exasperated D'Artagnan. "Mordioux!" said he. "What! burn the poor devils who are only condemned to be hung? that is infamous!"
Before the door, however, the mass of anxious spectators, rolled back against the walls, had become more thick, and closed up the way. Menneville and his men, who were dragging along the culprits, were within ten paces of the door.
Menneville made a last effort. "Passage! passage!" cried he, pistol in hand.
"Burn them! burn them!" repeated the crowd. "The Image-de-Notre-Dame is on fire! Burn the thieves! burn the monopolists in the Image-de-Notre- Dame!"
There now remained no doubt, it was plainly D'Artagnan's house that was their object. D'Artagnan remembered the old cry, always so effective from his mouth: "A moi! mousquetaires!" shouted he, with the voice of a giant, with one of those voices which dominate over cannon, the sea, the tempest. "A moi! mousquetaires!" And suspending himself by the arm from the balcony, he allowed himself to drop amidst the crowd, which began to draw back form a house that rained men. Raoul was on the ground as soon as he, both sword in hand. All the musketeers on the Place heard that challenging cry - all turned round at that cry, and recognized D'Artagnan. "To the captain, to the captain!" cried they, in their turn. And the crowd opened before them as though before the prow of a vessel. At that moment D'Artagnan and Menneville found themselves face to face. "Passage, passage!" cried Menneville, seeing that he was within an arm's length from the door.
"No one passes here," said D'Artagnan.
"Take that, then!" said Menneville, firing his pistol almost within an arm's length. But before the cock fell, D'Artagnan had struck up Menneville's arm with the hilt of his sword and passed the blade through his body.
"I told you plainly to keep yourself quiet," said D'Artagnan to Menneville, who rolled at his feet.
"Passage! passage!" cried the companions of Menneville, at first terrified, but soon recovering, when they found they had only to do with two men. But those two men were hundred-armed giants; the swords flew about in their hands like the burning glaive of the archangel. They pierce with its point, strike with the flat, cut with the edge; every stroke brings down a man. "For the king!" cried D'Artagnan, to every man he struck at, that is to say, to every man that fell. This cry became the charging word for the musketeers, who, guided by it, joined D'Artagnan. During this time the archers, recovering from the panic they had undergone, charge the aggressors in the rear, and regular as mill strokes, overturn or knock down all that opposed them. The crowd, which sees swords gleaming, and drops of blood flying in the air - the crowd falls back and crushes itself. At length cries for mercy and of despair resound; that is, the farewell of the vanquished. The two condemned are again in the hands of the archers. D'Artagnan approaches them, seeing them pale and sinking: "Console yourselves, poor men," said he, "you will not undergo the frightful torture with which these wretches threatened you. The king has condemned you to be hung: you shall only be hung. Go on, hang them, and it will be over."
There is no longer anything going on at the Image-de-Notre-Dame. The fire has been extinguished with two tuns of wine in default of water. The conspirators have fled by the garden. The archers are dragging the culprits to the gibbets. From this moment the affair did not occupy much time. The executioner, heedless about operating according to the rules of the art, made such haste that he dispatched the condemned in a couple of minutes. In the meantime the people gathered around D'Artagnan, - they felicitated, they cheered him. He wiped his brow, streaming with sweat, and his sword, streaming with blood. He shrugged his shoulders at seeing Menneville writhing at his feet in the last convulsions. And, while Raoul turned away his eyes in compassion, he pointed to the musketeers the gibbets laden with their melancholy fruit. "Poor devils!" said he, "I hope they died blessing me, for I saved them with great difficulty." These words caught the ear of Menneville at the moment when he himself was breathing his last sigh. A dark, ironical smile flitted across his lips; he wished to reply, but the effort hastened the snapping of the chord of life - he expired.
"Oh! all this is very frightful!" murmured Raoul: "let us begone, monsieur le chevalier."
"You are not wounded?" asked D'Artagnan.
"Not at all; thank you."
"That's well! Thou art a brave fellow, mordioux! The head of the father, and the arm of Porthos. Ah! if he had been here, good Porthos, you would have seen something worth looking at." Then as if by way of remembrance -
"But where the devil can that brave Porthos be?" murmured D'Artagnan.
"Come, chevalier, pray come away," urged Raoul.
"One minute, my friend; let me take my thirty-seven and a half pistols, and I am at your service. The house is a good property," added D'Artagnan, as he entered the Image-de-Notre-Dame, "but decidedly, even if it were less profitable, I should prefer its being in another quarter."