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It had occurred to Rougon that this would serve as an excellent
post of observation. While conversing together the members of the
Commission leaned over the parapet. The strange spectacle that spread
out before them soon made them silent. In the distance, in the valley of
the Viorne, across the vast hollow which stretched westward between the
chain of the Garrigues and the mountains of the Seille, the rays of the
moon were streaming like a river of pale light. The clumps of trees, the
gloomy rocks, looked, here and there, like islets and tongues of land,
emerging from a luminous sea; and, according to the bends of the Viorne
one could now and again distinguish detached portions of the river,
glittering like armour amidst the fine silvery dust falling from the
firmament. It all looked like an ocean, a world, magnified by the
darkness, the cold, and their own secret fears. At first the gentlemen
could neither hear nor see anything. The quiver of light and of distant
sound blinded their eyes and confused their ears. Granoux, though he
was not naturally poetic, was struck by the calm serenity of that winter
night, and murmured: "What a beautiful night, gentlemen!"

"Roudier was certainly dreaming," exclaimed Rougon, rather disdainfully.

But the marquis, whose ears were quick, had begun to listen. "Ah!" he
observed in his clear voice, "I hear the tocsin."

At this they all leant over the parapet, holding their breath. And light
and pure as crystal the distant tolling of a bell rose from the plain.
The gentlemen could not deny it. It was indeed the tocsin. Rougon
pretended that he recognised the bell of Beage, a village fully a league
from Plassans. This he said in order to reassure his colleagues.

But the marquis interrupted him. "Listen, listen: this time it is the
bell of Saint-Maur." And he indicated another point of the horizon to
them. There was, in fact, a second bell wailing through the clear night.
And very soon there were ten bells, twenty bells, whose despairing
tollings were detected by their ears, which had by this time grown
accustomed to the quivering of the darkness. Ominous calls rose from all
sides, like the faint rattles of dying men. Soon the whole plain seemed
to be wailing. The gentlemen no longer jeered at Roudier; particularly
as the marquis, who took a malicious delight in terrifying them, was
kind enough to explain the cause of all this bell-ringing.

"It is the neighbouring villages," he said to Rougon, "banding together
to attack Plassans at daybreak."

At this Granoux opened his eyes wide. "Didn't you see something just
this moment over there?" he asked all of a sudden.

Nobody had looked; the gentlemen had been keeping their eyes closed in
order to hear the better.

"Ah! look!" he resumed after a short pause. "There, beyond the Viorne,
near that black mass."

"Yes, I see," replied Rougon, in despair; "it's a fire they're kindling."

A moment later another fire appeared almost immediately in front of
the first one, then a third, and a fourth. In this wise red splotches
appeared at nearly equal distances throughout the whole length of the
valley, resembling the lamps of some gigantic avenue. The moonlight,
which dimmed their radiance, made them look like pools of blood. This
melancholy illumination gave a finishing touch to the consternation of
the Municipal Commission.

"Of course!" the marquis muttered, with his bitterest sneer, "those
brigands are signalling to each other." And he counted the fires
complacently, to get some idea, he said, as to how many men "the brave
national guard of Plassans" would have to deal with. Rougon endeavoured
to raise doubts by saying the villages were taking up arms in order to
join the army of the insurgents, and not for the purpose of attacking
the town. But the gentlemen, by their silent consternation, made
it clear that they had formed their own opinion, and were not to be
consoled.

"I can hear the 'Marseillaise' now," remarked Granoux in a hushed voice.

It was indeed true. A detachment must have been following the course of
the Viorne, passing, at that moment, just under the town. The cry, "To
arms, citizens! Form your battalions!" reached the on-lookers in sudden
bursts with vibrating distinctness. Ah! what an awful night it was! The
gentlemen spent it leaning over the parapet of the terrace, numbed by
the terrible cold, and yet quite unable to tear themselves away from
the sight of that plain which resounded with the tocsin and the
"Marseillaise," and was all ablaze with signal-fires. They feasted their
eyes upon that sea of light, flecked with blood-red flames; and they
strained their ears in order to listen to the confused clamour, till at
last their senses began to deceive them, and they saw and heard the most
frightful things. Nothing in the world would have induced them to leave
the spot. If they had turned their backs, they would have fancied that
a whole army was at their heels. After the manner of a certain class
of cowards, they wished to witness the approach of the danger, in order
that they might take flight at the right moment. Towards morning, when
the moon had set and they could see nothing in front of them but a
dark void, they fell into a terrible fright. They fancied they were
surrounded by invisible enemies, who were crawling along in the
darkness, ready to fly at their throats. At the slightest noise they
imagined there were enemies deliberating beneath the terrace, prior to
scaling it. Yet there was nothing, nothing but darkness upon which they
fixed their eyes distractedly. The marquis, as if to console them, said
in his ironical way: "Don't be uneasy! They will certainly wait till
daybreak."

Meanwhile Rougon cursed and swore. He felt himself again giving way to
fear. As for Granoux, his hair turned completely white. At last the dawn
appeared with weary slowness. This again was a terribly anxious moment.
The gentlemen, at the first ray of light, expected to see an army drawn
up in line before the town. It so happened that day that the dawn was
lazy and lingered awhile on the edge of the horizon. With outstretched
necks and fixed gaze, the party on the terrace peered anxiously into the
misty expanse. In the uncertain light they fancied they caught glimpses
of colossal profiles, the plain seemed to be transformed into a lake of
blood, the rocks looked like corpses floating on its surface, and the
clusters of trees took the forms of battalions drawn up and threatening
attack. When the growing light had at last dispersed these phantoms,
the morning broke so pale, so mournful, so melancholy, that even the
marquis's spirits sank. Not a single insurgent was to be seen, and the
high roads were free; but the grey valley wore a gruesomely sad and
deserted aspect. The fires had now gone out, but the bells still rang
on. Towards eight o'clock, Rougon observed a small party of men who were
moving off along the Viorne.

By this time the gentlemen were half dead with cold and fatigue. Seeing
no immediate danger, they determined to take a few hours' rest. A
national guard was left on the terrace as a sentinel, with orders to
run and inform Roudier if he should perceive any band approaching in the
distance. Then Granoux and Rougon, quite worn out by the emotions of the
night, repaired to their homes, which were close together, and supported
each other on the way.

Felicite put her husband to bed with every care. She called him "poor
dear," and repeatedly told him that he ought not to give way to evil
fancies, and that all would end well. But he shook his head; he felt
grave apprehensions. She let him sleep till eleven o'clock. Then, after
he had had something to eat, she gently turned him out of doors, making
him understand that he must go through with the matter to the end.
At the town-hall, Rougon found only four members of the Commission in
attendance; the others had sent excuses, they were really ill. Panic
had been sweeping through the town with growing violence all through the
morning. The gentlemen had not been able to keep quiet respecting the
memorable night they had spent on the terrace of the Valqueyras mansion.
Their servants had hastened to spread the news, embellishing it with
various dramatic details. By this time it had already become a matter of
history that from the heights of Plassans troops of cannibals had been
seen dancing and devouring their prisoners. Yes, bands of witches had
circled hand in hand round their caldrons in which they were boiling
children, while on and on marched endless files of bandits, whose
weapons glittered in the moonlight. People spoke too of bells that of
their own accord, sent the tocsin ringing through the desolate air,
and it was even asserted that the insurgents had fired the neighbouring
forests, so that the whole country side was in flames.

It was Tuesday, the market-day at Plassans, and Roudier had thought it
necessary to have the gates opened in order to admit the few peasants
who had brought vegetables, butter, and eggs. As soon as it had
assembled, the Municipal Commission, now composed of five members only,
including its president, declared that this was unpardonable imprudence.
Although the sentinel stationed at the Valqueyras mansion had seen
nothing, the town ought to have been kept closed. Then Rougon decided
that the public crier, accompanied by a drummer, should go through the
streets, proclaim a state of siege, and announce to the inhabitants
that whoever might go out would not be allowed to return. The gates were
officially closed in broad daylight. This measure, adopted in order to
reassure the inhabitants, raised the scare to its highest pitch. And
there could scarcely have been a more curious sight than that of this
little city, thus padlocking and bolting itself up beneath the bright
sunshine, in the middle of the nineteenth century.

When Plassans had buckled and tightened its belt of dilapidated
ramparts, when it had bolted itself in like a besieged fortress at
the approach of an assault, the most terrible anguish passed over the
mournful houses.



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Keywords: terrible, appeared, fancied, turned, closed, valley, members, morning, together, parapet
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