Excerpt from “Ninety-Three” by Victor Hugo ~~Children~~

He attempted to climb the bridge, but in vain; he dug his nails in between the stones and clung there for a few seconds, but the layers were as smoothly joined as if the wall had been new — Radoub fell back. The conflagration swept on, each instant growing more terrible. They could see the heads of the three children framed in the red light of the window. In his frenzy Radoub shook his clenched hand at the sky, and shouted, “Is there no mercy yonder!”
The mother, on her knees, clung to one of the piers, crying, “Mercy, mercy!”
The hollow sound of cracking timbers rose above the roar of the flames. The panes of glass in the book-cases of the library cracked and fell with a crash. It was evident that the timber-work had given way. Human strength could do nothing. Another moment and the whole would fall. The soldiers only waited for the final catastrophe. They could hear the little voices repeat “Mamma! mamma!”
The whole crowd was paralyzed with horror. Suddenly, at the casement near that where the children stood, a tall form appeared against the crimson background of the flames.
Every head was raised — every eye fixed. A man was above there — a man in the library — in the furnace. The face showed black against the flames, but they could see the white hair: they recognized the Marquis de Lantenac. He disappeared, then appeared again.
The indomitable old man stood in the window shoving out an enormous ladder. It was the escape-ladder deposited in the library; he had seen it lying upon the floor and dragged it to the window. He held it by one end; with the marvellous agility of an athlete he slipped it out of the casement, and slid it along the wall down into the ravine.
Radoub folded his arms about the ladder as it descended within his reach, crying, “Long live the Republic!”
The marquis shouted, “Long live the King!”
Radoub muttered, “You may cry what you like, and talk nonsense if you please, but you are an angel of mercy all the same.”
The ladder was safely grounded, and communication established between the burning floor and the ground. Twenty men rushed up, Radoub at their head, and in the twinkling of an eye they were hanging to the rungs from the top to the bottom, making a human ladder. Radoub, on the topmost rung, touched the window. He had his face turned toward the conflagration. The little army scattered among the heath and along the sides of the ravine pressed forward, overcome by contending emotions, upon the plateau, into the ravine, out on the platform of the tower.
The marquis disappeared again, then re-appeared bearing a child in his arms. There was a tremendous clapping of hands.
The marquis had seized the first little one that he found within reach. It was Gros-Alain.
Gros-Alain cried, “I am afraid.”
The marquis gave the boy to Radoub; Radoub passed him on to the soldier behind, who passed him to another, and just as Gros-Alain, greatly frightened and sobbing loudly, was given from hand to hand to the bottom of the ladder, the marquis, who had been absent for a moment returned to the window with René-Jean, who struggled and wept and beat Radoub with his little fists as the marquis passed him on to the sergeant.
The marquis went back into the chamber that was now filled with flames. Georgette was there alone. He went up to her. She smiled. This man of granite felt his eyelids grow moist. He asked, “What is your name?”
“Orgette,” said she.
He took her in his arms – she was still smiling, and, at the instant he handed her to Radoub, that conscience so lofty, and yet so darkened, was dazzled by the beauty of innocence: the old man kissed the child.
“It is the little girl!” said the soldiers; and Georgette in her turn descended from arm to arm till she reached the ground, amid cries of exultation. They clapped their hands; they leaped; the old grenadiers sobbed, and she smiled at them.
The mother stood at the foot of the ladder breathless, mad, intoxicated by this change — flung, without a pause, from hell into paradise. Excess of joy lacerates the heart in its own way. She extended her arms; she received first Gros-Alain, then René-Jean, then Georgette. She covered them with frantic kisses, then burst into a wild laugh, and fainted.
A great cry rose: “They are all saved!”
All were indeed saved, except the old man.
But no one thought of him — not even he himself, perhaps. He remained for a few instants leaning against the window-ledge lost in a reverie, as if he wished to leave the gulf of flames time to make a decision. Then, without the least haste, slowly indeed and proudly, he stepped over the window-sill, and erect, upright, his shoulders against the rungs, having the conflagration at his back, the depth before him, he began to descend the ladder in silence with the majesty of a phantom. The men who were on the ladder sprang off; every witness shuddered; about this man thus descending from that height there was a sacred horror as about a vision. But he plunged calmly into the darkness before him; they recoiled, he drew nearer them; the marble pallor of his face showed no emotion; his haughty eyes were calm and cold; at each step he made toward those men whose wondering eyes gazed upon him out of the darkness, he seemed to tower higher, the ladder shook and echoed under his firm tread — one might have thought him the statue of the commandatore descending anew into his sepulchre.
As the marquis reached the bottom, and his foot left the last rung and planted itself on the ground, a hand seized his shoulder. He turned about.
“I arrest you,” said Cimourdain.
“I approve of what you do,” said Lantenac.

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1 Comment

Filed under Fiction, Literature

One response to “Excerpt from “Ninety-Three” by Victor Hugo ~~Children~~

  1. Victor Hugo was born in Besançon, France on 26 February 1802, and died in Paris on 22 May 1885, aged 83 years. ‘Ninety-Three’ was published in 1874.

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