THE BARREL OF POWDER
Marius, still concealed in the turn of the Rue Mondetour, had witnessed,
shuddering and irresolute, the first phase of the combat. But he
had not long been able to resist that mysterious and sovereign vertigo
which may be designated as the call of the abyss. In the presence
of the imminence of the peril, in the presence of the death of
M. Mabeuf, that melancholy enigma, in the presence of Bahorel killed,
and Courfeyrac shouting: "Follow me!" of that child threatened,
of his friends to succor or to avenge, all hesitation had vanished,
and he had flung himself into the conflict, his two pistols in hand.
With his first shot he had saved Gavroche, and with the second
Amid the sound of the shots, amid the cries of the assaulted guards,
the assailants had climbed the entrenchment, on whose summit
Municipal Guards, soldiers of the line and National Guards from
the suburbs could now be seen, gun in hand, rearing themselves
to more than half the height of their bodies.
They already covered more than two-thirds of the barrier, but they
did not leap into the enclosure, as though wavering in the fear of
some trap. They gazed into the dark barricade as one would gaze into
a lion's den. The light of the torch illuminated only their bayonets,
their bear-skin caps, and the upper part of their uneasy and angry faces.
Marius had no longer any weapons; he had flung away his discharged
pistols after firing them; but he had caught sight of the barrel
of powder in the tap-room, near the door.
As he turned half round, gazing in that direction, a soldier took
aim at him. At the moment when the soldier was sighting Marius,
a hand was laid on the muzzle of the gun and obstructed it.
This was done by some one who had darted forward,--the young workman
in velvet trousers. The shot sped, traversed the hand and possibly,
also, the workman, since he fell, but the ball did not strike Marius.
All this, which was rather to be apprehended than seen through
the smoke, Marius, who was entering the tap-room, hardly noticed.
Still, he had, in a confused way, perceived that gun-barrel aimed at him,
and the hand which had blocked it, and he had heard the discharge.
But in moments like this, the things which one sees vacillate and
are precipitated, and one pauses for nothing. One feels obscurely
impelled towards more darkness still, and all is cloud.
The insurgents, surprised but not terrified, had rallied.
Enjolras had shouted: "Wait! Don't fire at random!"
In the first confusion, they might, in fact, wound each other.
The majority of them had ascended to the window on the first story
and to the attic windows, whence they commanded the assailants.
The most determined, with Enjolras, Courfeyrac, Jean Prouvaire,
and Combeferre, had proudly placed themselves with their backs
against the houses at the rear, unsheltered and facing the ranks
of soldiers and guards who crowned the barricade.
All this was accomplished without haste, with that strange and
threatening gravity which precedes engagements. They took aim,
point blank, on both sides: they were so close that they could
talk together without raising their voices.
When they had reached this point where the spark is on the brink
of darting forth, an officer in a gorget extended his sword and said:--
"Lay down your arms!"
"Fire!" replied Enjolras.
The two discharges took place at the same moment, and all disappeared
An acrid and stifling smoke in which dying and wounded lay with weak, dull
groans. When the smoke cleared away, the combatants on both sides could
be seen to be thinned out, but still in the same positions, reloading
in silence. All at once, a thundering voice was heard, shouting:--
"Be off with you, or I'll blow up the barricade!"
All turned in the direction whence the voice proceeded.
Marius had entered the tap-room, and had seized the barrel of powder,
then he had taken advantage of the smoke, and the sort of obscure mist
which filled the entrenched enclosure, to glide along the barricade
as far as that cage of paving-stones where the torch was fixed.
To tear it from the torch, to replace it by the barrel of powder,
to thrust the pile of stones under the barrel, which was instantly
staved in, with a sort of horrible obedience,--all this had cost
Marius but the time necessary to stoop and rise again; and now all,
National Guards, Municipal Guards, officers, soldiers, huddled at
the other extremity of the barricade, gazed stupidly at him,
as he stood with his foot on the stones, his torch in his hand,
his haughty face illuminated by a fatal resolution, drooping the
flame of the torch towards that redoubtable pile where they could
make out the broken barrel of powder, and giving vent to that
"Be off with you, or I'll blow up the barricade!"
Marius on that barricade after the octogenarian was the vision
of the young revolution after the apparition of the old.
"Blow up the barricade!" said a sergeant, "and yourself with it!"
Marius retorted: "And myself also."
And he dropped the torch towards the barrel of powder.
But there was no longer any one on the barrier. The assailants,
abandoning their dead and wounded, flowed back pell-mell and in
disorder towards the extremity of the street, and there were again
lost in the night. It was a headlong flight.
The barricade was free.