Project Canterbury

Duchenier; or, the Revolt of La Vendée

By John Mason Neale

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

Chapter II.

AT some little distance from the chateau of Cerisay, and on the limits of its immediate grounds to the south, there was a small shrubbery of fir, larch, and such-like trees, intermingled here and there with an ash or a birch. At the further side a kind of terrace had been raised, sheltered by the shrubbery on the north, and divided by a low hedge from the fields and pastures to the south. It was a pleasant place in the long summer evenings, when the declining sun shaped out fairy figures of gold in the decaying leaves of many a past year that strewed the ground beneath their parent trees, when the lark was rising for the last time into the calm air, and the peasant whistling his last tune as he trudged homewards; when the dove cooed softly from the neighbouring clump of elms, and the unwearied grasshopper shrilled out his vesper hymn.

On this terrace Charles Duchenier and Marie de Beaurepaire were walking, about seven o'clock in the evening of the day the events of which we have partly described. M. de Lescure had waited till the arrival of Father Laval, had concerted with him a few necessary arrangements, and had then taken his departure towards Chatillon; and, as it appeared from the accounts of the épicier of M. de Beaurepaire, who had accidentally come over from that place, the levy had been as successful in Chatillon as it had been at Cerisay. The preparations in the village had gone rapidly forward; Charles Duchenier and the priest had personally superintended a large proportion of them; bread had been baked; scythes, pitchforks, bills, hatchets, and one or two old boar-spears, called into requisition; and many a heart among the young peasantry of the village beat high for the morrow.

Up and down the terrace, then, the two lovers were walking; and their talk was more cheerful than the danger of the times might seem to have suggested. But they both had a firm confidence in their cause, and a firmer in the God of their cause; and though they spoke of melancholy things sometimes, they never spoke in a melancholy manner.

"No, Charles," said Marie de Beaurepaire, withdrawing her arm from his, and clasping her hands together; "you know me well enough to be sure that, if you fall in this war, my earthly happiness goes to the grave with you. To be another's after I have been yours is an impossibility. Time was that my course in such a case would have been easy. Hundreds of convents would willingly have received me. Now they have taken away that resource from us poor women; but I would lay myself out as a sister of charity, to wait on those that should suffer in the same holy cause in which you are engaging."

"Nay, dearest," said Duchenier, repossessing himself of the hand that had been withdrawn from him, "we will hope better things than this. I confess it, I was selfish enough to wish it, I was selfish enough to mention it to your father, that you might be really my own before I cast in my lot with the insurgents. But he judged for the best; and he gave me hopes that, if the war promises to last, and has any chance of terminating successfully, he would not withhold his consent from our marriage as soon as he had placed that part of his fortune in security which, if he gave his daughter to a brigand, would be confiscated by government at once."

"Get but his consent, and you shall have mine cheerfully," answered Marie. "Think what a sad parting it must be for many and many a son, and brother, and lover, in our little village this evening: some of them never can return again! Well--

'Le douleur est à nous, et la gloire est à lui.'"

"True, it is so; and it will one day be requited to them. But they have no such thoughts, depend upon it:.. they are anticipating the future, and the happiness and glory of their return. You have heard the three demands our Vendeans mean to make on government, if we are successful?"

"No, never," said Marie.

"Why, they are not very presumptuous. The first is, that there may be a province of La Vendée, formed out of the Vendean parts of Bretagne, Anjou, and Poitou. The second, that the King would condescend once to visit La Vendée; and the third, that there may be a Vendean troop in the life-guard, and that the white flag may float for ever over each parish church in the province."

"What peasantry but our own," returned Marie, "would think of such conditions? May we not well be proud of them? Well as I love you, Charles, it would have been a hard pang to have been asked to follow you into another province."

"I love them as dearly as you can do, Marie; and I am as proud of being a Vendean as that villain Robespierre is always telling his dupes that he is of being a Frenchman. It runs in the race, that provincial patriotism, I think. It is a thousand pities to have the people divided as they are territorially."

"But talk to me of yourself, Charles,--tell me what you think of this attack on Thouars. Oh, how my thoughts and prayers will be with you to-morrow night, and on that fearful next morning!"

"I know they will, dearest one,--I am sure they will. But I have no fears of the issue. We have everything on our side: the peasantry flushed with success--the officers in the most perfect union--our numbers vastly superior to that of the enemy. Hark! what was that?"

"What?" said Marie, looking round. "I heard nothing."

"It is very strange," said Charles, "but I could have sworn that I heard a drum towards the south,--there toward Moncontour. It could not have been so, for this is the last parish summoned to the southward."

"You did not think, you could not think, it was the National Guards?" asked Marie, turning very pale and clinging to Duchenier.

"I should not have known what to think," replied he, "had it been so. Hark! it is there; I caught it clearly then. Perhaps the peasants at Moncontour have risen. Monsieur's chamber commands that road. Come in. Marie. If it be so, I must go and welcome them; if not-----"

"If not--" repeated Marie, anxiously.

"We must get the recruits up from the village instantly. There is no time to be lost." And Duchenier hurried forward, half leading, half supporting Marie de Beaurepaire. They entered the room which he had mentioned, and he gazed anxiously from the window.

"I can see something," he said, "down by the rock we used to call Le Nez Blanc. Run for your father, dear Marie; I will go for the telescope."

Duchenier returned before M. de Beaurepaire and his daughter reappeared. When they entered the room his eye was at the glass.

"Do not be frightened, Marie," he said, "we shall come safely through this. M. de Beaurepaire, you know best what grounds government have to suspect you. There is a body of infantry on the Moncontour road, and they seem in haste. Will you order horses to be saddled, and take care of your daughter; or take your stand here?"

"That depends--" said the old gentleman, coolly. "Let me see the glass. How many do you make them out?"

"About a hundred and fifty."

"So do I. We will beat them off, if they are going to arrest us. Who shall rouse the village?"

"I will!" said Duchenier. Send a servant to Bressuire with a letter: we can hold the house till help arrives, if the worst comes to the worst. I will be back again, dearest, long before they are here." So saying, he hurried to the stables, saddled his own horse before the groom could offer his assistance and galloped into the village.

"Ring the bell, Marie," said her father. The servant appeared. "Pierre, saddle the best horse in the stable, and ride full speed to Bressuire with a letter I will give you as soon as you are ready. Now, bring me the desk from my dressing-room, Marie."

"Here are pens, and ink, and paper, father," she said, fetching them hurriedly from a side table. "Write! O pray write!"

"I cannot write off my own desk, child," replied M. de Beaurepaire. These things should always be done with, coolness."

Marie returned with the desk. Her father drew a snuff-box from his pocket, opened it, took a pinch of snuff, closed it, returned it to its usual receptacle, chose one out of two or three pens, mended it, nibbed it, examined the nib with great deliberation, stretched a sheet of paper before him, and wrote as follows:--

"M. Le Commandant du Depôt de l'Armée Catholique.

"A body of from one hundred and fifty to two hundred men is at this moment on its way from Mon-contour to Cerisay. As I have reason to believe that I am an object of suspicion with government, it is probable that my own arrest, and that of my family, may be the design of this movement. I purpose holding out this chateau, with the assistance of the enlisted peasantry of Cerisay, who number about eighty. I have also the advantage of the advice and aid of my friend, M. Duchenier. If you can spare me any of the troops under your command, I doubt not that we shall be able to drive back the intruders. Your own experience will convince you that this is of as much importance to your own plans as to the safety of my property. I embrace this opportunity of assuring you of my high consideration; and have the honour to remain, M. le Commandant, your obedient humble servant,

Château de Cerisay, May 3, 1793."

The letter was scarcely written and the servant despatched when Duchenier burst in: "They will do their duty, M. de Beaurepaire; they are on fire to attack the Blues. Young or old, enlisted or unenlisted, they will be here in five minutes. You may reckon on at least a hundred. But now comes the question: if these troops have nothing to do with yourself, are you willing to let them pass?"

"I have told you," replied M. de Beaurepaire, "already, that my heart is with you, that I wish you success, that I feel for most of your grievances; yet I should be willing to temporise a little longer, as I have frankly said before now, because a great part of my property hangs on the event. Were they willing to leave me alone I would not attack them. But it is not so. I have committed myself more decidedly than I have owned to you--perhaps even more than I have owned to myself; and, worse than that, Duvernier, the notary at Parthenay, is aware of it; and I doubt not he has sold himself to the authorities. Nevertheless, the criterion is easy. If such a handful of men really intend to penetrate La Vendée, they will keep the straight road to Chatillon, and avoid both us and Cerisay; if not, they must turn up the hill at the Grange Neuve. We will place our men between there and the chateau. If they pass along the high road, let them; if they turn hither, we know how to meet them."

"Where will you place your daughter, M. de Beaurepaire? And the women of your household must be thought of. Which is the safest place?"

"Oh, let me be with you as long as I can!" said Marie de Beaurepaire to her father; "I shall be safer with you and with Charles than anywhere else. Let the servants hide in the old cellars; I am sure no one will dream of looking for an entrance there. The door is in the wainscot, and there is tapestry before it."

"You are right, Marie," said her father; it is an excellent place; but you must go there too. We will make good the lane, if we can. If we are driven back upon the house, you shall be with us; but till then, in case of accident, you must go with the rest."

"Indeed, dearest, your father counsels well," said Charles Duchenier. "With God's aid, they shall not come near the chateau; but you must take care of yourself,--for all our sakes you must. If we are hard pressed, you shall be near us."

"But is there nothing we can do--nothing in which we can help? It is such a comfort to assist in something, be it only a trifle."

"Shut and bar all the shutters," said M. de Beaurepaire; unchain the dogs, and call them in; and then go down. You shall tell the female servants what they have to do.--I think I hear our recruits, Charles.--One word more, Marie: if I fall in this affair, I leave you the affianced bride of M. Duchenier. You will be well-nigh portionless; but he is a man of honour, and will fulfil his engagement. I should wish my death to put no bar in the way of your marriage; and, leaving you so unprotected, I wish it to be solemnised as soon as may be."

Marie burst into tears.

"Nay, dear Marie," said Duchenier," there is no occasion for this grief. The danger is a trifle; only your father, like a wise man, was resolved to be prepared for the worst. Half-an-hour hence we shall be sitting down to supper. But pray, pray take care of yourself.--Your pardon, M. de Beaurepaire." And, folding Marie in his arms, he kissed her more than once or twice.

The shouts of the advancing recruits were plainly heard. Duchenier and M. de Beaurepaire went out, accompanied by the six or seven servants of the latter gentleman, each of whom was provided with fire-arms.

"Mes amis," said he, "this may be a false alarm, and I hope it is. A body of the Blues is advancing from Moncontour hither. If they pass along the high road to Chatillon, well and good; no one shall hinder them. It is their business and not ours to take care of themselves further on. But if, at La Grange Neuve, they take the turning here, we will meet them on the hill. M. Duchenier will place you: you are to obey his orders."

M. de Beaurepaire's speech was received with acclamation. While the position of the Catholic troops is being taken, we must take the liberty of dwelling a little longer on the situation of the chateau.

We know well that the reader too frequently finds it tiresome to be requested to pause for a moment and impress on his mind a particular locality; but we know also how important it is that he should have a clear conception of the position of a struggle, if he would understand the struggle itself.

The road from Moncontour to the north divided itself at the Grange Neuve, about a quarter of a mile below the chateau, into two. Of these, that which led to the right went straight to Chatillon, leaving the chateau some way, and the village of Cerisay still further, to its left. That which led to the left wound up a steep hill, passed the chateau gates, leaving them on its right, and went directly into Cerisay. Thus it was clear that if the republicans merely intended to penetrate La Vendée, they would keep the main road at the Grange Neuve; if they there turned to the left, and struck up the hill, it would be a plain sign that their visit was intended for the village or for the chateau.

Duchenier had but a very few moments to dispose his men. Hardly one of them had seen fire before: and he knew well that the Vendeans, with all their bravery, generally showed some alarm at being first led into it. The hill up which the road passed was in some places deeply cut, and there were jutting sand rocks on each side, like the lanes in the northern parts of Sussex. Behind the trees that clustered on and down these, the six or seven men who possessed fire-arms were placed; half the rest were arranged about two-thirds of the way up the hill, and the remainder concealed in the copse which we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. M. de Beaurepaire took his station with those that were on the hill. "Mes amis," he said, "you have but to obey your orders, and you will succeed. You have an excellent position, and we will make use of it. Only be firm a few moments, and the affair will be over." He spoke confidently, but in his own heart his hopes of success were more moderate. The arms of the peasantry were of so very inferior a description that it was evident they could not stand for a moment hand to hand against trained infantry. The only chance was that the latter might be thrown into disorder by the first charge; if that failed to carry everything before it, numbers and discipline must tell. Charles Duchenier stood at the top of the cutting, waiting to see which turn of the road the regiment would take.

He was not long left doubtful. The word was given, "To the left;" and the soldiers took the road to the chateau, and began to ascend the hill. But twenty of them, under the command of a cornet, were detached to the right, either to secure the rest from a surprise in flank, or to cut off the possibility of escape from the chateau.

This completely altered the plans of Duchenier. Calling his men together, and pursuing the skulking system in which the Vendeans usually fight, from copse to copse, from shrubbery to shrubbery, from bush to bush, they glided onwards towards the chateau, and were formed in the best order they might be under its eastern side. There we must for a moment leave them.

The main body of soldiery continued to advance till within a hundred yards of M. de Beaurepaire's men. Then a halt was called, and an officer came forward singly. M. de Beaurepaire hastened to meet him.

"Ah, M. de Cailly," he said, raising his hat, "I am happy to see you looking so well. I did not exactly expect the honour of your company; but the visit of a friend can never be out of place."

"It would give me the greatest pleasure," replied the republican officer, "to meet M. de Beaurepaire on any other errand; but the business on which I come is as painful to myself, as it will be, I fear, unpleasant to you. I am grieved, deeply grieved, to be obliged to inform you, that I am ordered by Convention to arrest yourself, and some members of your household, whose names I hold in this paper. If you will allow me to present it to you, you will see that I am only doing my duty."

"It is quite unnecessary, monsieur," answered De Beaurepaire; "in the first place, because I would not dishonour you by seeming to distrust your word; in the next, because I have not the slightest intention of being arrested. I have a large body of tenantry, as you see, on the hill; and were I willing to submit to government, they, I am sure, would not allow me."

"M. de Beaurepaire," replied Cailly, "let me recommend you, as a friend, to surrender peaceably. It must come to that. You cannot hope to escape: your chateau is invested behind; we are more than sufficient to sweep away that handful of peasantry: you are only pulling destruction on your own head."

"We shall see, M. de Cailly, we shall see," said the other. "In the meantime, if you have no further commands for me, I will wish you a good morning."

"Well," said Cailly, "I have given you good advice: your rejection of it be on your own head." And both officers rode full speed to their own men.

Cailly, though not personally hitherto engaged in the Vendean war, knew much of the tactics of the peasantry. He therefore restrained his men, who were eager to advance, and awaited the onset of the insurgents. Scarcely had M. de Beaurepaire gained his own troop, when he gave the word, "Forward!" Without order, without plan, knowing nothing of what they were to meet, or how they were to act, the peasantry poured down the hill. The regulars reserved their fire till their opponents were within twenty yards of them, and then poured it in with the most fatal effect. The whole column seemed to stagger: the greater part of the foremost had fallen; some were endeavouring to rescue a wounded companion, some to extricate themselves from a scene where their own wounds rendered them incapable of giving assistance. At this moment the republican troops charged with fixed bayonets. The rout was complete. It was in vain that M. de Beaurepaire besought, conjured, threatened; in vain that he performed the most daring deeds, and cut down, with his own hand, two or three of the Blues. He was forced along with the fliers; and thought himself too happy in being able to rally them a second time by the castle-gates. The combat was renewed with greater fury than before though on more unequal terms.

In the meantime the detachment despatched to surround the chateau had found themselves opposed, under its very walls, by the superior numbers of Duche-nier. The regular troops fired on the peasantry; the latter rushed forward, fell on the republicans, drove them from the garden, and cut almost all of them in pieces. Duchenier then led them to the right, in the hope of flanking De Cailly. But, in the meantime, the Vendeans had been driven from their second stand, along the avenue, and right under the portico. Here they turned for the third time; the steps were covered with the dead and dying, and slippery with blood; and still M. de Beaurepaire infused courage into his men, and held out against hope.

Marie de Beaurepaire had been unable to think of her own safety. After seeing that the servants were concealed, as well as the time and circumstances allowed, she had stood at one of the upper windows and witnessed the gallant manner in which Duchenier dispersed his assailants. But the firing and shouts soon drew her to the other side of the house; and there it was a very different scene which presented itself to her eyes. Her father and his division were driven up the avenue, righting for every inch of ground, and losing it, till at length they took refuge in and round the porch, and seemed to acquire courage from despair. She hurried into the hall, unlocked and unbolted the door, leaving the chain up, and opened it, to make sure whom she was admitting. The event widely differed from her expectations. There were shouts of "The door is open!" from the peasants; a rush was made to enter; the door was forced back upon the chain, and Marie de Beaurepaire could not slip it from the holdfast. In vain she begged them to stand off; in vain her father assured them, that if they would keep but for one moment from the door, they would be in safety; still they pressed against it, pushing themselves, and impelled alike behind by friends and foes, till the staple seemed almost yielding with the impetus of so many agonising men. Already had one or two chance shots rattled in the hall; one had demolished the chandelier which hung from its centre; and one or two of the Vendeans, nearest the door, cried out, "Take care of yourself, mademoiselle, and leave us!" But Marie kept her place, hoping and praying that some chance would, for one moment, relieve the door, and enable her to loose the chain.

And now attempts were made to break open some of the lower shutters, when the arrival of Duchenier's troop altered the state of things. Hurrying along the avenue, they obliged M. de Cailly to form a double front, and oppose these new assailants. Thus the tide of battle swept for a moment from the door; the few remaining peasants of M. de Beaurepaire's troop, by a prodigious effort of strength, pushed back their nearest opponents, at the same time shouting, "Now! now!" Marie de Beaurepaire shut the door, extracted the chain, and then flung it open. There was a violent struggle at the very threshold, the report of a pistol close outside, and then two gigantic republican soldiers burst into the hall, closed the door again, and bolted it. One of them seized Marie with the grasp of a vice; the other threw open one of the shutters, and a stream of republicans poured in. The chateau was taken.

"Charles," said M. Beaurepaire, coming up to the side of M. Duchenier, who was endeavouring to rally his somewhat disordered men for another charge, "it is all over. My daughter is in their hands."

"Where, and how?" he asked.

"They have fought their way into the house. She attempted to open the door for us. They want me, and not her. I will offer myself, if they restore her."

"They will detain you both," said Charles. "Make one more effort with me. We were all but at the porch last time. My life is hers, more than my own. They shall not carry her off."

One last effort brought the Vendeans on to the very steps of the portico; and Charles and M. de Beaurepaire were fighting hand to hand with the republicans. But now the windows of the chateau were filled with musketeers; and a murderous volley was poured on the royalists. Weary, dispirited, thinned fearfully, they at length drew off; and in spite of all the efforts of the two officers, retired to the village. Duchenier seemed bent on forcing his way in single-handed. M. Beaurepaire, with the greatest difficulty, led him off.

"Charles, Charles," he said, "this is pure madness. You cannot save my poor girl now. Her only hope is in our saving our lives for another time. We must follow our men. Consider; the royalists from Bressuire must soon be here. Then we may have a hope."

Duchenier yielded, and followed the poor remains of the Vendean recruits. It seemed that the republicans had no intention of attacking the village. It was now dusk; and it would appear, from the various lights that glanced through the chateau, that all its principal rooms were tenanted; doubtless the victors were refreshing themselves after their fatigues.

It was a dreadful scene in Cerisay. There were but about thirty who had returned unhurt; and some ten more wounded with greater or less severity. Wives, sisters and daughters were running hither and thither in the wildest agitation; few knew positively, or could know positively, that those they loved had fallen; and yet that was a preferable fate than to be left on the field of battle hopelessly wounded, as many undoubtedly were. Add to this, the momentary expectation of troops from Bressuire; the fear of some attack from the republicans; the care that the wounded required; the one or two deaths that occurred amongst those who had just had strength to crawl back; and there was confusion and misery that would not soon be forgotten. M. de Beaurepaire retired to the priest's house, and busied himself in writing; his aim being, by the sacrifice of his property, to repossess himself of his daughter's person. Charles, though half distracted by his own loss, was busy in the village, comforting, to the best of his ability, the bereaved and wounded, and infusing courage into the unhurt. The priest went from cottage to cottage, congratulating or consoling, and proved himself, in every sense of the word, the true father of his parish.

When it drew towards ten o'clock, and still no tidings from Bressuire, he proposed to Charles, and to six or seven of the stoutest among the peasantry, to venture close to the chateau, and carry back such of the wounded as might still survive. The party was formed: silently and stealthily they wound along the route we have so often mentioned, and down the avenue. It was a warm, close, dark night; and, the clouds having gathered in at sunset, a mizzling rain had come on. More than once the foremost of the party stumbled over a corpse, but they could not discover any living person. Thus they approached quite close to the house, and were examining the steps of the portico, from which the dead had not been removed, when a sound was heard in the hall--the door opened--and a bright gleam of light shot forth into the dusky murkiness. At the same time, on the other side of the chateau, there were the various sounds of marshalling a body of men; and presently the word, "Forward! quick march!" was heard in the clear tones of the sergeant. The reconnoitrers crouched down among the dead bodies, incurring no great danger, except the priest, whose habit would have been sufficiently visible had a strong gleam of light fallen upon them. The men marched down the avenue, six abreast, and halted at its lowest end. In the meantime three or four horses were brought round to the front; and Duchenier perceived, with a heart ready to burst from indignation, that one of them had a lady's saddle.

"Lie still, my son, lie still!" whispered the priest, who was fortunately near him. "You have no right to throw away your life for absolutely nothing: what could you do against some twenty men? Still less have you a right to betray your companions, who will undoubtedly be discovered if you discover yourself."

"You are right, father, and I will be still," answered Charles Duchenier. "But you cannot judge what a terrible struggle it costs me."

"Trust also, that we may gain some information, if we can remain here unperceived. Hush! they are speaking now."

Voices seemed to approach the hall-door. "Are the horses ready, Bertier?" demanded M. Cailly.

"Yes, monsieur," replied the man addressed.

"Then, mademoiselle," said Cailly, looking back, "we must trouble you to mount. I am sure your good sense will see the propriety of complying where you cannot resist."

"Where are you going to take me?" inquired Marie de Beaurepaire, in a voice so tolerably firm as to prove that she had no immediate apprehension."

Duchenier held his breath in the extreme eagerness of his silence.

"To Paris, mademoiselle; but as soon as you reach La Flêche, you shall be accommodated with female attendance. The Convention does not war with women."

"So it seems," was the only reply.

Charles touched the priest's side with his elbow, and was answered by a scarcely audible "Thank GOD, my son!"

"Lecointel," said M. de Cailly, "are you sure that none of our wounded men are left here? There seems a prodigious number of corpses," he added, looking towards the spot where the Vendeans were lying hid." Duchenier and one or two of his companions almost involuntarily felt for their pistols.

"No, monsieur, there are none," replied Lecointel. "We looked carefully over the ground, and bestowed a bullet on one or two of the brigands, to put them out of their misery. All our wounded are safe in the chateau, we cannot care better for them; and when the rebels return to it they will find them, and, to do them justice, I know they will treat them well."

In the meantime, Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire was mounted on the horse that had been provided for her; M. Cailly rode on her right side, the man called Lecointel at her left, two or three others immediately behind, and ten or twelve soldiers on foot brought up the rear. It appeared that they were resolved to avoid the village; for at the end of the avenue they turned to the left, rode down the hill, and, again turning to the left, struck off on the high road.

As soon as they were fairly out of hearing, "Well, my son," said Father Laval, "did I not advise well? And have you not cause for thanking GOD that you have learnt the destination and the route of Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire?"

"Indeed you did," said Duchenier; "and indeed I have. But what is to be done?"

"My children," said the priest, "go, some of you, and find out where the wounded men are lodged. Now we have a glorious opportunity of showing them how Catholics take revenge. Then come back to my house, and I will return here again; but, first, I must consult with M. de Beaurepaire."

Thus it was arranged. Three or four of the peasants entered the chateau; the rest, with Duchenier and the priest, hurried back into the village.

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