“The Chinese!” shout the sailors again, with their same brave smile.
But this time they find that there are a good many—too many; and one of them turning round perceives other Chinese coming from behind, springing up from the long tall grass.
At this moment, young Sylvestre came out grand; his old granny would have been proud to see him such a warrior. Since the last few days he had altered. His face was bronzed, and his voice strengthened. He was in his own element here.
In a moment of supreme indecision the sailors hit by the bullets almost yielded to an impulse of retreat, which would certainly have been death to them all; but Sylvestre continued to advance, clubbing his rifle, and fighting a whole band, knocking them down right and left with smashing blows from the butt-end. Thanks to him the situation was reversed; that panic or madness that blindly deceives all in these leaderless skirmishes had now passed over to the Chinese side, and it was they who began to retreat.
It was soon all over; they were fairly taking to their heels. The six sailors, reloading their repeating rifles, shot them down easily; upon the grass lay dead bodies by red pools, and skulls were emptying their brains into the river.
They fled, cowering like leopards. Sylvestre ran after them, although he had two wounds—a lance-thrust in the thigh and a deep gash in his arm; but feeling nothing save the intoxication of battle, that unreasoning fever that comes of vigorous blood, gives lofty courage to simple souls, and made the heroes of antiquity.
One whom he was pursuing turned round, and with a spasm of desperate terror took a deliberate aim at him. Sylvestre stopped short, smiling scornfully, sublime, to let him fire, and seeing the direction of the aim, only shifted a little to the left. But with the pressure upon the trigger the barrel of the Chinese jingal deviated slightly in the same direction. He suddenly felt a smart rap upon his breast, and in a flash of thought understood what it was, even before feeling any pain; he turned towards the others following, and tried to cry out to them the traditional phrase of the old soldier, “I think it’s all up with me!” In the great breath that he inhaled after having run, to refill his lungs with air, he felt the air rush in also by a hole in his right breast, with a horrible gurgling, like the blast in a broken bellows. In that same time his mouth filled with blood, and a sharp pain shot through his side, which rapidly grew worse, until it became atrocious and unspeakable. He whirled round two or three times, his brain swimming too; and gasping for breath through the rising red tide that choked him, fell heavily in the mud.
CHAPTER II—“OUT, BRIEF CANDLE!”
About a fortnight later, as the sky was darkening at the approach of the rains, and the heat more heavily weighed over yellow Tonquin, Sylvestre brought to Hanoi, was sent to Ha-Long, and placed on board a hospital-ship about to return to France.