The flag: act first
As yet, nothing had come. Ten o'clock had sounded from Saint-Merry. Enjolras and Combeferre had gone and seated themselves, carbines in hand, near the outlet of the grand barricade. They no longer addressed each other, they listened, seeking to catch even the faintest and most distant sound of marching.
Suddenly, in the midst of the dismal calm, a clear, gay, young voice, which seemed to come from the Rue Saint-Denis, rose and began to sing distinctly, to the old popular air of "By the Light of the Moon," this bit of poetry, terminated by a cry like the crow of a cock:—
Mon nez est en larmes, Mon ami Bugeaud, Prete moi tes gendarmes Pour leur dire un mot.
En capote bleue, La poule au shako, Voici la banlieue! Co-cocorico!
They pressed each other's hands.
"That is Gavroche," said Enjolras.
"He is warning us," said Combeferre.
A hasty rush troubled the deserted street; they beheld a being more agile than a clown climb over the omnibus, and Gavroche bounded into the barricade, all breathless, saying:—
"My gun! Here they are!"
An electric quiver shot through the whole barricade, and the sound of hands seeking their guns became audible.
"Would you like my carbine?" said Enjolras to the lad.
"I want a big gun," replied Gavroche.
And he seized Javert's gun.
Two sentinels had fallen back, and had come in almost at the same moment as Gavroche. They were the sentinels from the end of the street, and the vidette of the Rue de la Petite-Truanderie. The vidette of the Lane des Precheurs had remained at his post, which indicated that nothing was approaching from the direction of the bridges and Halles.
The Rue de la Chanvrerie, of which a few paving-stones alone were dimly visible in the reflection of the light projected on the flag, offered to the insurgents the aspect of a vast black door vaguely opened into a smoke.
Each man had taken up his position for the conflict.
Forty-three insurgents, among whom were Enjolras, Combeferre, Courfeyrac, Bossuet, Joly, Bahorel, and Gavroche, were kneeling inside the large barricade, with their heads on a level with the crest of the barrier, the barrels of their guns and carbines aimed on the stones as though at loop-holes, attentive, mute, ready to fire. Six, commanded by Feuilly, had installed themselves, with their guns levelled at their shoulders, at the windows of the two stories of Corinthe.
Several minutes passed thus, then a sound of footsteps, measured, heavy, and numerous, became distinctly audible in the direction of Saint-Leu. This sound, faint at first, then precise, then heavy and sonorous, approached slowly, without halt, without intermission, with a tranquil and terrible continuity. Nothing was to be heard but this. It was that combined silence and sound, of the statue of the commander, but this stony step had something indescribably enormous and multiple about it which awakened the idea of a throng, and, at the same time, the idea of a spectre. One thought one heard the terrible statue Legion marching onward. This tread drew near; it drew still nearer, and stopped. It seemed as though the breathing of many men could be heard at the end of the street. Nothing was to be seen, however, but at the bottom of that dense obscurity there could be distinguished a multitude of metallic threads, as fine as needles and almost imperceptible, which moved about like those indescribable phosphoric networks which one sees beneath one's closed eyelids, in the first mists of slumber at the moment when one is dropping off to sleep. These were bayonets and gun-barrels confusedly illuminated by the distant reflection of the torch.
A pause ensued, as though both sides were waiting. All at once, from the depths of this darkness, a voice, which was all the more sinister, since no one was visible, and which appeared to be the gloom itself speaking, shouted:—
"Who goes there?"
At the same time, the click of guns, as they were lowered into position, was heard.
Enjolras replied in a haughty and vibrating tone:—
"The French Revolution!"
"Fire!" shouted the voice.
A flash empurpled all the facades in the street as though the door of a furnace had been flung open, and hastily closed again.
A fearful detonation burst forth on the barricade. The red flag fell. The discharge had been so violent and so dense that it had cut the staff, that is to say, the very tip of the omnibus pole.
Bullets which had rebounded from the cornices of the houses penetrated the barricade and wounded several men.
The impression produced by this first discharge was freezing. The attack had been rough, and of a nature to inspire reflection in the boldest. It was evident that they had to deal with an entire regiment at the very least.
"Comrades!" shouted Courfeyrac, "let us not waste our powder. Let us wait until they are in the street before replying."
"And, above all," said Enjolras, "let us raise the flag again."
He picked up the flag, which had fallen precisely at his feet.
Outside, the clatter of the ramrods in the guns could be heard; the troops were re-loading their arms.
Enjolras went on:—
"Who is there here with a bold heart? Who will plant the flag on the barricade again?"
Not a man responded. To mount on the barricade at the very moment when, without any doubt, it was again the object of their aim, was simply death. The bravest hesitated to pronounce his own condemnation. Enjolras himself felt a thrill. He repeated:—
"Does no one volunteer?"