But what did the convent at its prayers, as the Moorish host drew near? This was made clear ere long. For we were to see, we lads, what ne’er had met our eyes before, the very earth open to save us, and this by no miracle save man’s skill given by God to devise wise and cunning shifts for those in peril.
Lo! the abbot stood, in medio chori, noble and calm, and the sad strains of Miserere rolled down the aisle. He stood by a stool of oak that rested there for prayer withal, and ever so lightly touched a little point of brass, that lay but a speck in the midst of the stone floor. And as he pressed with his kid shoe a moment, the stone sank slowly some two fathoms, leaving disclosed a stairway, and a passage arched overhead with bricks, with a cool and pleasant air therein, that, rushing up, refreshed our souls.
Then we passed downwards, old and young, and so along the brick passage, that ran straight eastward, as I guessed to the Vale Castle. And the abbot stayed till we had all passed through. Then, as he pressed upon the stone, it slowly rose again to its right level, and looking round I saw him in like manner cause sundry other stones to drop behind him as he came. Then letting loose a trap—lo! a very shower of granite blocks came falling down closing the path behind us with great heaps high as a man’s shoulders.
So, heartening one another with cheery words as we went, we passed through a little chamber that led straight through the Keep—and so we were met by Hugo and Bernard, and dispersed each to his right place, as was meet in such a perilous time.
Now, by favour of Brother Hugo, I stood near and succoured him, and though in my stormy life I have had fighting and besieging in Normandy, Brittany, Touraine, and here in England, never have I seen such prowess and such strength as I saw in Brother Hugo.
Thus, by his favour, I was ere long on the south bastion that overlooked the gate of the Castle. There was but one gate by Cherbourg’s design, and that a small one for so great a place, and yet, what need of greater? The larger hole surely that a rat’s home hath the easier to find the rat, and rabbiting were easier were the burrow a yard in circuit. So Cherbourg built Vale gate not for state but for use, to pass men through, not foes but friends, and it was clamped with well-hammered iron, and secured by ponderous bars and bolts.
From the rampart we looked southward, and saw away by the cloister gates the black swarm of the Sarrasin. We saw them nearer by-and-by. But now they stood before the gate, and seemed as they would hold parley with those that they thought to be within. But they heard naught, and saw naught through trap or grating. Then must they have thought the brethren were in hiding, or maybe stayed in the church to meet death at prayer, as good monks have chosen to do ere this, preferring so with calm hope to pass to God than in a useless struggle, for which He framed them