Project Canterbury

Duchenier; or, the Revolt of La Vendée

By John Mason Neale

London: SPCK, 1905.
First published London: J. Masters, 1848.

Chapter I.

IT was a stormy morning in May. The west wind was sweeping heavy masses of clouds from the Atlantic ocean; and the sun, that now and then gleamed forth with a watery brightness, was soon blotted out by some fresh wreath of vapour, and the shower came on again.

But sun or rain seemed to make little difference to two officers, who, mounted on excellent though now somewhat wearied horses, were hurrying through one of the obscure lanes, that leads from Bressuire to Cerisay, in La Vendée. Sometimes it plunged into the heart of a little copse, where the birds, sheltered from the shower, were singing as merrily as if all were peace around them; sometimes it led out on to the ridge of a down, on either side of which might be seen the neat white farm--neat enough to be like the farms of England--its well-kept enclosure, and the twenty or thirty oxen that were feeding in the adjacent pasture; anon it swept down into the valley, and crossed the little stream that sparkled and bubbled in the sunlight on the bright summer day, but now poured along, one turbid, swollen, discoloured mass of foam. Occasionally the cottage of the labourer stood on the lane-side; that cottage which--for the sun had not long risen--was now pouring out its tenants to their daily labour. And so the travellers journeyed on, though in truth they took no great interest in the scene around them, except when they passed the peasant going forth to his work. Then a few kind words were interchanged on both sides,--though rather in general by the younger of the officers than by his older and graver companion.

"In good sooth, Duchenier," said the latter, "I could never have found my way to this Cerisay of yours without your direction. In my own part of the country, hedge, lane, cottage, métairie, I know them all far and near; and I would thread our labyrinth of downs the darkest night in the year, from Montaigu to Clisson. But here it is quite another thing; and I must have waited for daylight before I pushed on. So there would have been four or five hours lost, though GOD knows" (and he raised his cap) "we have little time to spare."

"It is not three or four months that could make me forget Cerisay," replied the other; "and I long to see it again with all my heart. But how our good neighbours there stand affected to the cause, I will not take upon me to say; for they have never yet, you know, been called on for their quota. This I know, that no one is more generally loved, and, by my good troth, no one has more right to be loved, than M. de Beaurepaire; and it he would but take an active part in leading the peasantry the right way, the spring must have done wonders in changing those who were never changed before, did they not follow him."

"We will hope better things, Duchenier," answered his friend. "Before this last great stroke, when Bressuire was not in our hands, we had grounds to fear that the universal terror of the dragoons might keep the peasants back. Now they think themselves invincible; and while they think so, they will be so."

"Such a cause must make us all so, M. de Lescure," said Duchenier.

"Think so as much as you will," returned M. de Lescure; "but if we succeed eventually--though, I grant you, we have hitherto succeeded beyond human belief--it will be by miracle. I do not despair; but if I looked to possibilities I should call our hopes madness. I have private intelligence from Paris that the Convention are beginning to regard the insurrection as formidable: they are incorporating new regiments there, and drafting in picked soldiers from the army of the North. Then Westermann is marching from Le Mans; that fiend, Santerre, from Chartres, or Orleans; and they talk of Kleber too. If Quetineau only holds his own till they form a junction with him, woe to the Catholic army!"

"But we must drive him out, M. de Lescure; he cannot resist for long."

"If he knew our weakness as well as we know his he could, Duchenier; but that is what the Convention have got to learn. We must muster strongly, however, and not lose one village that we can gain. Is that the church? The road seems to bear directly on it."

"That is Cerisay," said Duchenier. "We will ride to the priest's house. He will do more for us than any one else."

"I thought you would be eager to be at the chateau of M. de Beaurepaire," said Lescure, with a grave smile.

"So I am--so I am--on fire to be there; but, for Heaven's sake, don't let us lose time. My affairs can wait: those of the Catholic army cannot."

The horsemen rode into the little village. The peasant's wife came to the door of her cottage, and looked after them; children ran along the street and cried "Vive le Roi! Vivent les brigands!'" one or two old men doffed their hats; the blacksmith left the shoe he was fashioning on the anvil, and shouted, from lungs somewhat resembling his own bellows, "Vive l'armée Catholique!"

"They seem honest to the backbone," said M. de Lescure.

"I knew they would be--I knew they must be.--Ah, Pierre, how goes it with you? I shall see you presently at the church.--What, Colette! you out so early? Where is M. l'Abbé? at the church?--We will ride there, M. de Lescure, if you please; it is nearer than the priest's house. I dare say he has just said mass."

They drew up before the church. It lay on the north side of the road, with its packsaddle tower and flamboyant chancel and nave. The good priest was standing at the southern door, looking out into the village. The clouds were dispersing; the sun was looking down with a warmer and brighter glow; every blade of grass sparkled as with rare jewellery; smoke curled up here and there from the better sort of cottages; the old grey rood--tradition said that it had been erected at the expense of Du Guesclin--rose in the midst of the churchyard, and hallowed the rest of the sleepers; and the various oaken crosses scattered here and there on the greensward, bore, in ruder or more polished language, one and all the same expression of faith, and the same prayer for mercy. On three or four a garland of fresh spring flowers was still hanging--and the raindrops glistened on it, as if to symbolise the tears of those that had placed it there; just as the colours in which those raindrops were invested were no unmeet emblem of the hope of a better life which accompanies the tears of Christians for a departed friend.

"Your priest is insermenté, I trust?" inquired M. de Lescure.

"Do you take me for a heathen?" asked his friend. "Yes, yes; he wrote to the superintendent of the district to say that he meant to take the oath, so far as he could do it without injury to the rights of the Church or of the Holy See. But a few days after he wrote again to say that he had altered his mind, and would not take it at all. However, they took no notice: and so he stays on."

The old man came forward to meet them as they dismounted.

"GOD be praised, my son!" he said to M. Duchenier, "that I see you here again safe, and--if I may judge from your countenance--well. And I may also express the same joy at seeing your friend, though I have not the pleasure of being acquainted with him: for I see that he is engaged in the same good cause with yourself."

"He is, father, and that much more effectually. It is M. de Lescure."

"GOD bless and reward you, monsieur," said the priest, taking off his cap," for all that you have done for France!

"Whether you succeed or fail, the merit is the same; and doubtless the recompense on high will be the same too."

"I am much obliged to you, M. l'Abbé, for your high appreciation of my poor services. I have tried to do my duty; and I hope I have not much failed in it. But our errand brooks not delay. We are here for the purpose of raising, if it might be so, the parish; we have an important enterprise in hand, and we have need of every man and youth that La Vendée can send forth. You will assist us?"

"Willingly, my son. Henri, ring the tocsin: that will bring them together. Step this way into the sacristy, messieurs; there you shall tell me more. The church will be full in a quarter of an hour."

The priest said right. The tocsin rang out loud and clearly, and, as if by magic, the little street of Cerisay seemed peopled at once. Peasants threw down their mattock or their axe; the farmer left his yard, the miller his mill; the hedger came, bill in hand; the good wife set her spinning-wheel in the corner and went forth, not forgetting to tell little Jeannette to take good care of her little brother and the baby; venerable old men, who could remember the times of Louis Quatorze; striplings, who could not recollect aught but years of reform and revolution--all poured into the church; and in low and reverent voices--for reverence was the very life and soul of the Vendeans--discussed the character of the summons.

"It is for the Catholic army," said the farmer.

"Our Lady bless it," cried old Louis the cordwainer. "If it be, I will strike one stroke for it."

"Are the Blues nigh at hand, then?" asked Rose Arbalest, a young mother, who, with her one baby, had followed the crowd.

"À bas les Bleus!'' cried Pierre Texier the weaver. "They near? Not they indeed! Why, Maitre Cathelineau has taken good order for that. He picks them off as neatly as my bobbins take the thread from my swifts."

"They want to enlist us," said Jean Arbalest. "Well, I'm their man. I never handled much but a flail; but Maître Godard here knows that I can swing that with the best."

"Ay, Jean, that you can," said the farmer appealed to: "and I'll warrant you would lay it about a dragoon with as hearty good-will as ever you did about our sheaves."

"You may say that, master," answered the thresher. "Cheer up, Rose, cheer up; I shall come to no harm:--we shall drive back more men than ever the Convention can send. Why, you would not have me sit at home like a girl?"

"My wife will take good care of you, Rose," said the farmer; "I can answer for that, though I shall be away too.--But who is in the sacristy with Father Laval?"

"One of them is young M. Duchenier," answered Pierre: "I met him but now in the street; and he had a good word for me, as he ever had. But who the other was I cannot say: a stately man, and of a good presence, though."

"Hush!" cried more than one voice; "here they come." And accordingly the priest and the two officers came from the sacristy (which, according to the vicious practice of the day, was behind the altar), and went towards the pulpit. The priest ascended it: Lescure and Duchenier stood at the bottom of the steps.

"My children," said the Abbé, "you have heard much of the evil doings of those men whom GOD, partly, I hope, for the trial of our faith, and partly, I fear, for the punishment of our sins, has been pleased at this time to set over this nation. You know that they have driven out the m greater number of your bishops and priests; that they have killed your king; that they are making you send out your sons to a war you detest; that they have voted an enlistment of three hundred thousand men; that they have murdered thousands and thousands of innocents, whose blood cries to Heaven against them; and that they wish to make you suffer the same miseries that they have brought to pass in other parts of France. You know also that the brave men of La Vendée, trusting in GOD and their good cause, have risen against these traitors and rebels; and calling themselves the Royalist and Catholic army, have hitherto fought with good success. But they need more men, for the Republicans are pouring down upon them in all quarters. They need the assistance of this part of the country, and they apply to you for it first. You shall hear the requisition, which this gallant officer, M. de Lescure, will read to you."

De Lescure stood forward, and read as follows: "In the name of God, de par le Roi. The parish of Cerisay is invited to furnish as many men as it can to the Catholic army, at the Pont de S. Jean, near Thouars, by nine o'clock in the evening of the 4th of May. Provisions for two days to be brought."

"You hear," said the good priest, "the service to which you are called, my children; and I, as set over you by GOD, call upon you in His name, cheerfully to lay down your lives, if need be, in this, which is His cause rather than ours. I shall go with those that go: they will need counsel if they live, they will need absolution if they fall,--both I will be ready to bestow. Come forth, my children, into the churchyard: the names of those who will offer themselves shall be taken down; and I am sure that no man will be such a traitor to his country, or such a hypocrite to his GOD, as, having put his hand to the plough, to turn back."

The little crowd flocked out into the churchyard; a table, pen, ink and paper were brought; and Duchenier, sitting down, proceeded to enroll the volunteers. "Put my name down!" "Put me down!" "I spoke first!" "I will go, monsieur!" "Have you put my name down?" poured in so fast on the officer, that once or twice he was obliged to desire the volunteers to stand back, and to give him room and time. In the meanwhile the inquiry, whispered at first, became louder: "What is it for? "Where are we going?" "Who will lead us?"

"My friends," said De Lescure, "it must be enough for you to know that an important enterprise is afoot, the day after to-morrow, which you are invited to join. More I cannot tell you how; for one great help to our success will be our keeping the matter secret. M. Duchenier will be one of your leaders; I myself another: him you know well enough to be sure that he is worthy to lead you, and that he would not act with those who are unworthy of his confidence. The place and time hold, whatever you may hear to the contrary, as in these unsettled times there are rumours almost every hour."

There were joyful shouts of Vive le Roi! as Lescure ended; and, in the meantime, the business of enlistment went on with great rapidity. In about half-an-hour it appeared that the volunteers were exhausted; and Duchenier, turning with a smile to his brother officer, said: "We have eighty-five good men and true: I did not exaggerate.--"Now," he continued, speaking to the peasants, "home with you, one and all: get what arms you can, especially fire-arms: if any one has gunpowder, he must bring that too; as much bread as he can conveniently carry: and let no one forget his white cockade. Meet me here by six o'clock to-morrow morning; for we must make a long day's march of it.--Come, De Lescure, you must want breakfast; and if not, I do: let us to the chateau.--Father, will you come with us? We shall have need of your advice and help."

"I will follow you presently, my son. Ride you on before: there are those, I know, that are expecting you."

"Good advice, M. l'Abbé," cried Duchenier, springing into his saddle. "Let us ride, monsieur." "They are likely men, those peasants of yours," observed Lescure; "a stronger set than our Angevins. I suppose they will be armed no better than the rest?" "Worse, I should fear," said Duchenier. "But they have good bold hearts. Will you stay with us till to-morrow? They will be too happy to take you in, I am sure: and I can answer, you know, for M. de Beaurepaire, as I would for my own father."

"I doubt it not, Charles," returned De Lescure: "but I have other business in hand. I must summon the parishes between here and Argenton, round by Chatillon,--as near as I can venture to the Blues: so that I have a good day's work before me, and the council meets at six."

"I believe I ought to go with you," said Duchenier.

"Don't think of it," replied M. de Lescure. "I need no one's guidance in broad daylight: I will keep clear of danger, if I can: and you will be much more usefully employed in urging things on here. Come, a truce to the army for the present: when does your marriage take place?"

"Why, had it not been for these commotions, it would have been fixed before now: now, I suppose, not till we are victorious:--and," he continued, after a pause, "if we are not so, 1 suppose never."

"Nay, that does not follow," said De Lescure. "You are not to throw your life away, if it shall not please GOD to bless our arms. But we will trust to Him for better things. I hope to see you and your bride at Clisson ere many months. I can assure you, I have heard much of her from Victorine."

"You shall judge of her for yourself in a few moments," replied Duchenier, "for there is the chateau; as stately and as solemn as in the days of Louis Quatorze. My future father-in-law piques himself on its being kept in the same state that it was in the time of old Arnald de Beaurepaire; he that was one of the most noted gallants in the court of Anne of Austria. He laid out the grounds: and M. de Beaurepaire would think it sacrilege to alter his work."

They turned out of the road, and passing up an avenue of cedars, dark and gloomy, came out in that which was by courtesy called a pleasure-garden, stiff, formal, laid out in squares, hexagons, and other mathematical figures, sheltered on the north by a hedge of yew, and commanded on the east by the house itself. The chateau had been a fine one: but the then owner had employed a court architect to rebuild it in the time of Louis XIV. This he had done in what was then considered the grand style: the front of the quadrangle, of which the chateau originally consisted, was pulled down, and re-edified with long wings, and a great portico: but the three other sides were not removed, money having failed the proprietor, and therefore now projected, a somewhat useless excrescence, behind. M. de Beaurepaire himself had served with distinction in the German wars; and had been absent from his mansion a longer time than was usual with the aristocracy of La Vendée. Hence, perhaps, arose a stiffness and haughtiness of manner not usual with them, and rather in accordance with that of the noblesse in other parts of France. But he was a kind-hearted man, notwithstanding this defect: and though not entering eagerly into the projects of the insurgents, nor personally intermeddling in their affairs, was known to be well disposed towards the movement; and to be not unlikely, should it assume an appearance of success, to join it himself.

The servant, who appeared in answer to the ringing of Duchenier, informed the visitor that his master was not yet visible, for it was not more than between seven and eight o'clock. He ushered them through a long passage, hung with tapestry, into a kind of saloon, called Monsieur's Chamber--a prince of the blood-royal having once been entertained there. In a few moments he returned, bringing chocolate, and other refreshments; and informing M. Duchenier that his master would do himself the honour of coming down soon.

M. de Lescure was not a man to lose time; so after giving a glance at the two or three ancient portraits, never good and now much decayed, that ornamented the walls, he turned to the window and occupied himself with the scene; not exactly as a soldier, not exactly as a lover of nature, but with a feeling involving both characters.

"You have a good view hence," he said. "Duchenier, what are those hills yonder that shut in the horizon to the south? "

"The Gatines," replied his friend. "You would be well served from thence. They are somewhat wild and rude; but anti-revolutionists to a man."

"Counter-revolutionists, you should say," returned Lescure; "it is the word in vogue now. But did it never strike you, Charles, how admirably defensible a post this would make? The terrace here--those old ruins to the right--then that stream yonder in the valley--the windows of the chateau--and that clump of trees to the left: they would be just the thing for our guerilla warfare.

"I have been so much occupied," said Duchenier, "with other thoughts than those of war, while looking from this window or strolling in the garden, that I cannot say it ever struck me in that light; but I see it now you point it out. Heaven grant we never have cause to learn it practically!"

"Amen," returned Lescure; "nevertheless, if ever it should come to that, remember my words."

At this moment the door opened, and M. de Bearepaire entered the room. He greeted Duchenier with warmth; bowed politely, but somewhat ceremoniously, to De Lescure, and begged them both to be seated.

"I was aware of your coming, M. de Lescure; and had I known you were likely to be so early, I should have been up to receive you. You will excuse me, I trust. I hope your success in the village yonder has been satisfactory?"

"Perfectly so, monsieur; thanks to my friend here, and to your excellent priest. I find the same enthusiasm everywhere: it needs but a spark to kindle the whole into a blaze."

"I am somewhat old, as you see, M. de Lescure, and shrunk"--here the speaker looked with complacency at his yet well-rounded calf--"but I shall trust to join you yet. The fact is, I am at this moment in negotiation for the transfer of a very considerable sum of money I have at Paris,--yours, some day, Charles, you know,--aha, M. Lescure, young people will be young people,--and till that be safely bestowed, I am unwilling openly to declare myself."

"Are you not afraid that your tenantry may compromise you?" demanded M. Lescure.

"I have issued strict orders," said the other with a smile, "that no one should enlist. You understand me: if they choose to do it against my will, I cannot help it, you know."

"Certainly not, monsieur," said De Lescure, with the slightest possible contempt in his tone.

"And now, monsieur, what is the disposition of the army? I have heard rumours, and that is all. I should be glad to hear it on good authority. But first of all, Charles, as you are probably acquainted with it already, you may, if you please, step into the winter-parlour. I believe you will not be long alone there.--Poor fellow," he continued, when Duchenier had left the room, "I have not forgotten what it was to be young myself; we must make allowances. Allow me to give you some more chocolate. The attack, I presume, is on Thouars?"

"It is so, monsieur," replied De Lescure; "we must command the Thoué. But the thing is a secret to the peasantry. We shall be able to concentrate thirty-six thousand men on that post. My own detachment--they honour it, you know, with the name of la grande armée,--deducting all garrisons, and the corps de reserve at Bressuire, will muster pretty nearly twenty thousand;--then there is Cathelineau with his Angevins,--Royeau, with the Montaigu men, he reckons nearly twelve thousand,--Stofflet, and the parish of Maulevrier; and De la Rochejacquelein, with the Chatillon troops."

"Quetineau is no coward; he will defend the river. What may his numbers be?"

"We have no certain intelligence; vastly inferior to our own. Our plans are not absolutely determined; but we talk of attempting the river at four points."

"Provisions, monsieur, are you well off for them?"

"Not very. But we seldom have much difficulty on that score. You see, Monsieur de Beaurepaire, this system of our peasants returning to their homes every four or five days, whatever disadvantages it may have, is beneficial in that way. They can all the more easily furnish themselves with bread, and they care not much for anything else. Still, this affair may be longer; and, as we are determined never to suffer any pillage, we may be hardly put to it if we are fortunate enough to take Thouars."

"If the recruits find a dozen of oxen on the road which used to belong to me," said De Beaurepaire, "I shall take care to have them informed that they may drive them on. No thanks, pray! The time may come when I shall be able to assist you more effectually. I am afraid this affair will not, at this moment, allow me the honour of entertaining you for any length of time. I trust that hereafter you may be considered a visit in my debt."

"You do me honour, monsieur," said De Lescure. "But indeed I must be riding almost instantly, for I have work to do before night I would learn, if possible, something of the character of the people I am to visit, before I set off: I wish to raise the parishes towards Chatillon and Argenton."

"You will find them, M. de Lescure, much the same as in other parts of La Vendée. Easy landlords, with very moderate incomes, taking an interest, in all that interests their tenantry; the judges of all their differences, the arbitrators in all matters of taste, very frequently the directors of all their games: looked upon, in short, more in the light of an elder brother than as anything else. And, as a natural consequence, the people are ardently attached to them. You will find the cry everywhere the same--and the same, I suppose, it is at Clisson, Vivent le roi, la noblesse, et les prêtres! And certainly they have good reason to love the clergy; for there is not a more painstaking set of men on the face of the earth. I, monsieur, am something of a freethinker; you, I know, are not. Well every man must judge for himself. But I mention this to show that I am not a witness prejudiced in favour of the priesthood."

"They are, indeed, the peasant's best friends here," said Lescure; "and their heroic self-devotion in our army is beyond praise. They venture as far in danger as any one; but they will not shed blood. They go to encourage, to comfort, and to confess; and some carry pistols for their personal protection--for confession on a field of battle is always a work of danger--but further than that they never interfere."

"And now, monsieur," said Beaurepaire, "I ask it in confidence, is there any hope of assistance from beyond the sea?"

"We have as yet received no intelligence--in fact there has scarcely been time to do so. And England is always slow. At present, indeed, it would hardly be advisable for the princes to declare themselves; could De la Charrette master Nantes, or could we gain possession of Noirmoutier, we should have free communication with the sea, and the stake might be thrown with better chance of success. But the insurrection is but in its infancy--it might be merely a Girondist rising, like that of Normandy; or it might be crushed in the bud, for all that the English ministry can at present tell."

"I am obliged to you, monsieur, for your frankness," said Beaurepaire. And he led the conversation to indifferent subjects.

In the meantime Duchenier, threading the somewhat intricate passages of the chateau as easily as he had done the downs of La Vendée that same morning, came into the room called the winter-parlour. It lay to the east; and consequently in the old part of the house. Marie de Beaurepaire preferred it to any other, perhaps chiefly because it had been a favourite of her mother's; and its window commanded a view, through a gap in a low chain of downs, of the distant spire of Bressuire. The room was well filled with books and pictures: one of Madame de Beaurepaire hung over the mantelpiece; one of her husband opposite to it. The books that lay about were not those of the character then most appreciated in France. There was a volume of Racine, one or two of Boileau, one of Desmaret, and the first tome of one of Scudery's interminable romances. But Rousseau, the sure tenant of a lady's boudoir in Paris, and the Henriade or any other work of Voltaire's, you might have sought in vain. The window was open; and a telescope stood on a little round table by it and pointed to Bressuire. Duchenier looked through it, and had the satisfaction of perceiving that the white flag floated serenely on the top of the spire and gave token that all was safe and secure.

The door opened, and Marie de Beaurepaire entered, and the next moment was in the arms of Duchenier. "Dear, dear Marie," he said, "this is one of those bright spots in a cloud that we can never expect till it really comes. I had nearly astonished the council by the extravagance of my joy when I was requested to assist M. de Lescure in raising Cerisay and the other villages. But you had my letter?"

"Yes, Charles, I had it yesterday evening; and that telescope, could it tell tales, would let you know what I was doing at the time."

"Would it say that Marie was thinking of Bressuire and those who were in it? I think it would. Well, dearest, we were there till midnight, for recruits poured in very fast, else I had hopes of almost anticipating my letter, or, at least, sleeping here last night."

"Then have you been riding all night, Charles? Had I known it, I would have been in the village to meet you. You know we Vendeans are not like the rest of France: we are not ashamed of saying what we think, and where we feel love, showing it. But who is your companion? I had but one glimpse of him as you rode up the avenue."

"You have heard of him, Marie, though you have never seen him. It is M. de Lescure. If he lives, he will be the heart and soul of the movement. So he is now, round his own chateau at Clisson. They call him the Saint of Poitou; and he deserves the name."

"Oh, yes, I have heard of him," said Marie de Beaurepaire, "we are not so far from his side of the country but that our peasants have many a tale of his goodness, and of Madame de Lescure's too, and her kindness I have myself seen. But now, Charles, how long do you stay? and what have you been doing in the village? I heard there are many who wish to join you--only my father is slow in declaring himself."

"We have eighty-five names down for the army, Marie; and that drafts off almost more than you ought to spare. They march at six to-morrow morning; and I go with them. But M. de Lescure is obliged to leave almost at once; and he is very desirous of seeing you."

"For your sake, I suppose; for I know that my father was not acquainted with him. Well, I will go down."

"Not yet, not just yet, dear Marie. I have so much to say to you."

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