Chapter XXXVIII: The Dining-Hall of Sainte MarieEdit
What had occurred is easily explained. The watchers in the windows at the front found that it was more than flesh and blood could endure to remain waiting at their posts while the fates of their wives and children were being decided at the back. All was quiet at the stockade, and the Indians appeared to be as absorbed as the Canadians in what was passing upon the river. One by one, therefore, the men on guard had crept away and had assembled at the back to cheer the seaman's shot and to groan as the remaining canoe sped like a bloodhound down the river in the wake of the fugitives. But the savages had one at their head who was as full of wiles and resource as Du Lhut himself. The Flemish Bastard had watched the house from behind the stockade as a dog watches a rat-hole, and he had instantly discovered that the defenders had left their post. With a score of other warriors he raised a great log from the edge of the forest, and crossing the open space unchallenged, he and his men rushed it against the door with such violence as to crack the bar across and tear the wood from the hinges. The first intimation which the survivors had of the attack was the crash of the door, and the screams of two of the negligent watchmen who had been seized and scalped in the hall. The whole basement floor was in the hands of the Indians, and De Catinat and his enemy the friar were cut off from the foot of the stairs.
Fortunately, however, the manor-houses of Canada were built with the one idea of defence against Indians, and even now there were hopes for the defenders. A wooden ladder which could be drawn up in case of need hung down from the upper windows to the ground upon the river-side. De Catinat rushed round to this, followed by the friar. He felt about for the ladder in the darkness. It was gone.
Then indeed his heart sank in despair. Where could he fly to? The boat was destroyed. The stockades lay between him and the forest, and they were in the hands of the Iroquois. Their yells were ringing in his ears. They had not seen him yet, but in a few minutes they must come upon him. Suddenly he heard a voice from somewhere in the darkness above him.
"Give me your gun, lad," it said. "I see the loom of some of the heathen down by the wall."
"It is I. It is I, Amos," cried De Catinat. "Down with the ladder or I am a dead man."
"Have a care. It may be a ruse," said the voice of Du Lhut.
"No, no, I'll answer for it," cried Amos, and an instant later down came the ladder. De Catinat and the friar rushed up it, and they hardly had their feet upon the rungs when a swarm of warriors burst out from the door and poured along the river bank. Two muskets flashed from above, something plopped like a salmon in the water, and next instant the two were among their comrades and the ladder had been drawn up once more.
But it was a very small band who now held the last point to which they could retreat. Only nine of them remained, the seigneur, Du Lhut, the two Americans, the friar, De Catinat, Theuriet the major-domo, and two of the _censitaires_. Wounded, parched, and powder-blackened, they were still filled with the mad courage of desperate men who knew that death could come in no more terrible form than through surrender. The stone staircase ran straight up from the kitchen to the main hall, and the door, which had been barricaded across the lower part by two mattresses, commanded the whole flight. Hoarse whisperings and the click of the cocking of guns from below told that the Iroquois were mustering for a rush.
"Put the lantern by the door," said Du Lhut, "so that it may throw the light upon the stair. There is only room for three to fire, but you can all load and pass the guns. Monsieur Green, will you kneel with me, and you, Jean Duval? If one of us is hit let another take his place at once. Now be ready, for they are coming!"
As he spoke there was a shrill whistle from below, and in an instant the stair was filled with rushing red figures and waving weapons. Bang! Bang! Bang! went the three guns, and then again and again Bang! Bang! Bang! The smoke was so thick in the low-roofed room that they could hardly see to pass the muskets to the eager hands which grasped for them. But no Iroquois had reached the barricade, and there was no patter of their feet now upon the stair. Nothing but an angry snarling and an occasional groan from below. The marksmen were uninjured, but they ceased to fire and waited for the smoke to clear.
And when it cleared they saw how deadly their aim had been at those close quarters. Only nine shots had been fired, and seven Indians were littered up and down on the straight stone stair. Five of them lay motionless, but two tried to crawl slowly back to their friends. Du Lhut and the _censitaire_ raised their muskets, and the two crippled men lay still.
"By Saint Anne!" said the old pioneer, as he rammed home another bullet. "If they have our scalps we have sold them at a great price. A hundred squaws will be howling in their villages when they hear of this day's work."
"Ay, they will not forget their welcome at Sainte Marie," said the old nobleman. "I must again express my deep regret, my dear De Catinat, that you and your wife should have been put to such inconvenience when you have been good enough to visit me. I trust that she and the others are safe at the fort by this time."
"May God grant that they are! Oh, I shall never have an easy moment until I see her once more."
"If they are safe we may expect help in the morning, if we can hold out so long. Chambly, the commandant, is not a man to leave a comrade at a pinch."
The cards were still laid out at one end of the table, with the tricks overlapping each other, as they had left them on the previous morning. But there was something else there of more interest to them, for the breakfast had not been cleared away, and they had been fighting all day with hardly bite or sup. Even when face to face with death, Nature still cries out for her dues, and the hungry men turned savagely upon the loaf, the ham, and the cold wild duck. A little cluster of wine bottles stood upon the buffet, and these had their necks knocked off, and were emptied down parched throats. Three men still took their turn, however, to hold the barricade, for they were not to be caught napping again. The yells and screeches of the savages came up to them as though all the wolves of the forest were cooped up in the basement, but the stair was deserted save for the seven motionless figures.
"They will not try to rush us again," said Du Lhut with confidence. "We have taught them too severe a lesson."
"They will set fire to the house."
"It will puzzle them to do that," said the major-domo. "It is solid stone, walls and stair, save only for a few beams of wood, very different from those other cottages."
"Hush!" cried Amos Green, and raised his hand. The yells had died away, and they heard the heavy thud of a mallet beating upon wood.
"What can it be?"
"Some fresh devilry, no doubt."
"I regret to say, messieurs," observed the seigneur, with no abatement of his courtly manner, "that it is my belief that they have learned a lesson from our young friend here, and that they are knocking out the heads of the powder-barrels in the store-room."
But Du Lhut shook his head at the suggestion. "It is not in a Redskin to waste powder," said he. "It is a deal too precious for them to do that. Ah, listen to that!"
The yellings and screechings had begun again, but there was a wilder, madder ring in their shrillness, and they were mingled with snatches of song and bursts of laughter.
"Ha! It is the brandy casks which they have opened," cried Du Lhut. "They were bad before, but they will be fiends out of hell now."
As he spoke there came another burst of whoops, and high above them a voice calling for mercy. With horror in their eyes the survivors glanced from one to the other. A heavy smell of burning flesh rose from below, and still that dreadful voice shrieking and pleading. Then slowly it quavered away and was silent forever.
"Who was it?" whispered De Catinat, his blood running cold in his veins.
"It was Jean Corbeil, I think."
"May God rest his soul! His troubles are over. Would that we were as peaceful as he! Ah, shoot him! Shoot!"
A man had suddenly sprung out at the foot of the stair and had swung his arm as though throwing something. It was the Flemish Bastard. Amos Green's musket flashed, but the savage had sprung back again as rapidly as he appeared. Something splashed down amongst them and rolled across the floor in the lamp-light.
"Down! Down! It is a bomb!" cried De Catinat
But it lay at Du Lhut's feet, and he had seen it clearly. He took a cloth from the table and dropped it over it.
"It is not a bomb," said he quietly, "and it _was_ Jean Corbeil who died."
For four hours sounds of riot, of dancing and of revelling rose up from the store-house, and the smell of the open brandy casks filled the whole air. More than once the savages quarrelled and fought among themselves, and it seemed as if they had forgotten their enemies above, but the besieged soon found that if they attempted to presume upon this they were as closely watched as ever. The major-domo, Theuriet, passing between a loop-hole and a light, was killed instantly by a bullet from the stockade, and both Amos and the old seigneur had narrow escapes until they blocked all the windows save that which overlooked the river. There was no danger from this one, and, as day was already breaking once more, one or other of the party was forever straining their eyes down the stream in search of the expected succour.
Slowly the light crept up the eastern sky, a little line of pearl, then a band of pink, broadening, stretching, spreading, until it shot its warm colour across the heavens, tinging the edges of the drifting clouds. Over the woodlands lay a thin gray vapour, the tops of the high oaks jutting out like dim islands from the sea of haze. Gradually as the light increased the mist shredded off into little ragged wisps, which thinned and drifted away, until at last, as the sun pushed its glowing edge over the eastern forests, it gleamed upon the reds and oranges and purples of the fading leaves, and upon the broad blue river which curled away to the northward. De Catinat, as he stood at the window looking out, was breathing in the healthy resinous scent of the trees, mingled with the damp heavy odour of the wet earth, when suddenly his eyes fell upon a dark spot upon the river to the north of them. "There is a canoe coming down!" he cried. In an instant they had all rushed to the opening, but Du Lhut sprang after them, and pulled them angrily towards the door.
"Do you wish to die before your time?" he cried.
"Ay, ay!" said Captain Ephraim, who understood the gesture if not the words. "We must leave a watch on deck. Amos, lad, lie here with me and be ready if they show."
The two Americans and the old pioneer held the barricade, while the eyes of all the others were turned upon the approaching boat. A groan broke suddenly from the only surviving _censitaire_.
"It is an Iroquois canoe!" he cried.
"Alas, your excellency, it is so, and it is the same one which passed us last night."
"Ah, then the women have escaped them."
"I trust so. But alas, seigneur, I fear that there are more in the canoe now than when they passed us."
The little group of survivors waited in breathless anxiety while the canoe sped swiftly up the river, with a line of foam on either side of her, and a long forked swirl in the waters behind. They could see that she appeared to be very crowded, but they remembered that the wounded of the other boat were aboard her. On she shot and on, until as she came abreast of the fort she swung round, and the rowers raised their paddles and burst into a shrill yell of derision. The stern of the canoe was turned towards them now, and they saw that two women were seated in it. Even at that distance there was no mistaking the sweet pale face or the dark queenly one beside it. The one was Onega and the other was Adele.