WE must shift the scene to a mean auberge on the southern side of the Thoué, and a little way higher up it than the town of Thouars: and we must allow nearly thirty-six hours to elapse. It was about three o'clock in the morning of the fifth of May.
In the common room of this auberge the chiefs of the insurrection were seated round a miserable table. Two rushlights shed a melancholy light on the scene; the table was strewed with papers, plans, estimates, memoranda of the depth of the various fords, a rough sketch of the town of Thouars, a draft of the proposed scheme of crossing, and other documents of a similar kind.
At the head of the table sat M. de Bonchamp, the recognised head of the army, in the absence of M. de Boisy, who suffered from ill-health. He was well versed in the art of war, having seen service in India; and was one of the few among the leaders who were so. Gentleness was the leading feature of his character; perhaps he was over-gentle, considering the character of the times, and the villainy of the opponents against whom he acted. However, he was exceedingly beloved, and was just the man for the nominal position he held. He was willing to take advice from any one, extremely affable to the peasants, and courteous to his equals; and one of the most general favourites, without being so enthusiastically beloved as some of his brother officers, in the army.
Next to him was Cathelineau, the prime mover of the insurrection. He was a woolcomber at Du Pin, possessed of no military skill, of no very commanding talents, but so honoured for the saintliness of his life, that the peasantry regarded him with an enthusiasm approaching to veneration. Such a man, they thought, must be protected by GOD, and Providence would supply the deficiencies of worldly skill. He was usually known as "the Saint of Anjou."
The personage who sat next was of a different character. M. D'Elbée was a small, busy, bustling man, always ready to give his opinion on every subject, and generally ready to give it well. He, too, had been in the army, but had seen little actual service. So far as all his worldly interests were concerned, he had gladly sacrificed them; but he was not entirely able to get rid of ambition. After all it was ambition of a very harmless kind: he loved to have his name in all the manifestoes or bulletins which the army published, and had an ardent desire to be generalissimo, just for the name of the thing. A more serious fault was his making use of religion as a means of acquiring popularity. He was a man of piety, and no one could doubt it, but he brought in religious references without sense or reverence; and, in particular, the word Providence was scarcely ever out of his mouth. The peasants, in the innocence of their hearts, and without intending any sneer, named him General la Providence. To add to his particularities, he was in the habit of preaching to the soldiers, though not making any pretence to eloquence. He had but one expression when leading on his troops: "My lads, Providence will give us the victory!"
M. de Marigny sat at the left hand of M. de Bonchamp. He had the command of the artillery, a service which he understood perfectly. He was of a most ardent temperament, continually involving himself in disputes, and sometimes seriously injuring his cause by them. But the great blot in his character was his implacability towards the prisoners; a fault in which he was countenanced by his next neighbour, Stofflet. The latter had been a gamekeeper, and had served as a private soldier. The soldiers obeyed him better than they obeyed any one else, but it was the obedience of fear, not of love. His measureless ambition subsequently inflicted the deepest injury on the army. At this stage of the war it was not manifested, though suspected. Next him sat M. Lescure; then M. de la Rochejacquelein. This young hero--for he was but twenty--seemed a revival of the character of the perfect knight, and well merited his surname--the Intrepid. To the rest who were there present, M. de Donnissan, M. Dommaigné, and others, the course of our story will sufficiently introduce us.
But we must dwell a little longer on Charles Duchenier, who was hanging over the back of M. de Lescure's chair with an ill-concealed expression of impatience. On his return to Cerisay with the priest, he communicated to M. de Beaurepaire what he had learned of the fate of his daughter; and the three held a hurried consultation as to the course that it would be most prudent to pursue. Duchenier avowed his determination of going to Paris; Father Laval represented to him the impossibility of effectually benefiting Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire by such a step; and her father joined in the advice of the priest. "The only way we can hope to rescue her," he said, "is by offering to surrender myself, and that I will do; the letters are already written. But, Charles, you must stay over the affair at Thouars. If we succeed--for I must now cast in my lot entirely with the insurgents--we shall be in a position to make better "terms with government. The surrender of a victorious rebel will be purchased at a higher rate than that of a skulking fugitive. If you are determined to go, go: only wait over the day after to-morrow,--I might say to-morrow, for it must be midnight."
"M. de Beaurepaire says well," said Father Laval: "you are bound, my son, to follow that advice. I wonder we have heard nothing from Bressuire. I must go down again to the chateau, and look after the wounded: several of the good wives of the village are there already. But I will see you in the morning."
Just as the worthy priest was leaving the house, a horseman galloped up the street from the chateau. It proved to be the servant despatched to Bressuire, with a letter from the officer in command of the royalists there. It contained many apologies for being unable to comply with the request of M. de Beaurepaire. There were not above fifty soldiers in the town; the fidelity of the inhabitants was not thoroughly secure; the country round was entirely unsettled; and to diminish the little garrison might lead to the most serious results. Pierre, it appears, had been compelled to choose the most circuitous and unfrequented paths, to escape from the regiment of M de Cailly. He had at length made his way, with great caution, to the chateau, had there learnt that he was too late, and had thence ridden on to the village.
The next morning Charles Duchenier, M. de Beaurepaire and the remainder of the Cerisay recruits marched at the appointed time; and, after a gloomy and fatiguing day, had arrived at the rendezvous about nightfall. Both gentlemen went instantly to M. de Lescure, whom they found in the auberge which we have just mentioned, and acquainted him with the circumstances in which they stood; and he much commended the manner in which Duchenier had consented to be present at the attack on Thouars. "If you will go to Paris afterwards," said he, "GOD preserve you, and give you success. I will not try to dissuade you; though I fear, I fear, you have not the shadow of a chance of gaining your object. But now, after you have refreshed yourselves, you had better try to take some rest. You will find or make some corner in which you can sleep. The attack is fixed for five in the morning; the Council meets at three; and you are to be then sworn in of it, Charles. We meet in this room for lack of a better."
We may now return to the scene with which we opened this chapter.
"It seems then, messieurs," said M. de Bonchamp, "that we are resolved to distract Quetineau by an attack in four places. I am of the same opinion myself, and shall hardly need to put it to the vote. All those who are in favour of this scheme hold up their right hands. We are unanimous, messieurs, and I am very glad of it, for the point is one of great importance. We have now to arrange who shall command each division. Do me the favour to hand me that chart which is by you, M. Stofflet. It contains as correct a plan of the river and the bridges as could at the instant be obtained."
"May I inquire to whom we are indebted for it?" inquired M. de Donnissan.
"Partly, I believe, to M. de Marigny," replied Bonchamp, "and partly to the parish priest of Ligron yonder."
"Who deserves much more praise than I do," said Marigny, "for he has had some practice in the art of surveying."
"Well, here is the chart," proceeded the president. "The first position to be occupied is the bridge of S. Jean, just opposite the town. M. Stofflet has reconnoitred it."
"I have," said the gamekeeper, "as well as I could. Quetineau has thrown up a breastwork of timber at the further end; and I guess he has a masked battery to the right on the further side. Anyhow, he commands the bridge with his field-pieces, and his grape-shot will do fearful execution. I doubt if the bridge is passable."
"We had better distract his attention," remarked D'Elbée. "If we make a good feint further up we shall bring the old general down there. What is the highest of the points of attack called?"
"The Gué aux Riches," answered Bonchamp.
"What sort of ford? "asked M. de Lescure.
"Perhaps four feet deep where deepest," replied the other.
"You know it yourself, M. de Bonchamp?" inquired D'Elbée.
"I know it well."
"Then, gentlemen," proceeded D'Elbée, "I propose that M. de Bonchamp be requested to take the command in that post."
"I beg leave to second the motion,'1 said Cathelineau.
"I am very willing to do so," replied Bonchamp, "if the Council wishes it. The next place is a bridge, of which I cannot learn the name; but, however, it is close to Vrine, and is of great importance. It is the most undefended, naturally, of all the points of assault; and it seemed to me, as well as the mist let me see last night, that they have concentrated their best men there, and that the attack will be sufficiently dangerous."
"Let me be there," said M. de la Rochejacquelein.
"Not by yourself, Henri," said Bonchamp, "if the Council follows my advice. You can take care of others, but are not fit to be trusted with yourself."
"I will be with him," said Cathelineau and De Lescure at once. The former instantly apologised, and proposed the latter.
"Well," said De Lescure, "will you give me Duchenier also?"
"Nothing can be better," said D'Elbée.
"M. d'Elbée," continued the president, "I think that if you, with M. Cathelineau and M. Stofflet, would take the Pont du Bac du Chateau (which, after all, I suspect will be the turning point), we shall be admirably provided on that side."
"And, perhaps," said Lescure, "M. de Marigny will be at the Pont S. Jean. The artillery service almost wholly lies there."
"Will M. de Donnissan accompany me?" he inquired.
"Willingly," said the brave old courtier; and thus the matter was settled.
"It is getting light," remarked De Bonchamp; "and we have still somewhat to settle. Henri, do me the favour to see if there are any provisions in the house. We must breakfast before we can fight, messieurs. I think that M. de Lescure and myself had better commence the attack simultaneously; two hours after, the Pont de S. Jean, I should say; and then, half-an-hour later, the Pont du Bac."
"Excellent, monsieur, excellent," cried D'Elbée. "And the sooner the better."
"At five o'clock we may do it," said Lescure; "and by twelve we may be in Thouars."
"Oh, how stiflingly hot and dark is this room!" cried De la Rochejacquelein, re-entering it. "It is a glorious morning. Do let me open the shutters. Honest Jeannette has been up and stirring this hour. Breakfast will be served immediately.--M. Duchenier, I hear that M. de Beaurepaire has been inquiring for you."
"Will the Council excuse me for a few moments?" inquired Charles; and he left the room.
"Do you hear, De la Rochejacquelein?" said Lescure; "we begin cannonading at five o'clock. I hope our men have been taking care of themselves."
"That they have--that they have," replied the other. And as he spoke Jeannette, the aubergiste's wife, entered with a tablecloth, a great brown loaf, and a stew, which gave very satisfactory evidence of its savoury character. Her bright red gown, neat white apron, slim shoes and high cap were as coquettishly arranged as if she had been going to a rustic merry-making, instead of to a council of war.
"Good morning, messieurs," she said; "I thought that you would not leave the Moulin fasting. I hope you will find the stew good.--Plates, Annette, as quickly as you can.--There is a letter for you, monsieur," she added, handing one to M. de Lescure, "just arrived by a Bressuire man."
"Thank GOD for that," he said, when he had read it; "it was to announce the safe arrival of my wife at Bressuire. I congratulate you, M. Donnissan."
"We share your joy, monsieur," said De Bonchamp; "it reminds us how much more France owes to such men as yourself and"--he added, after a momentary pause--"Mr. Cathelineau than to us, who have no such treasure to lose."
By this time a very respectable breakfast was laid out, and, to say truth, the Council did ample justice to it. Jeannette stood by with many a simper, and many a hope that the gentlemen found their meal to their taste, and many an apology for having nothing but vin ordinaire to set before them. With that beverage, however, all seemed fully content, except Stofflet, who called for brandy, and Cathelineau, who drank nothing but water. In the meantime arrangements went on with undiminished eagerness.
"The signal, M. de Lescure, shall be two cannons from your column," said Bonchamp; "and every one understands that the other attack is to commence precisely two hours after that."
"It is clearly understood," replied D'Elbée.--"Allow me to help you to some more of this stew, M. Cathelineau; you will find it excellent. Well, gentlemen, where shall we breakfast next?"
"In Thouars, no doubt," said De la Rochejacquelein. "Here, Duchenier," he cried, as the latter entered the room, "there is no time to be lost; M. de Lescure and I are impatient to be moving."
Charles had been listening to the hopes and fears of M. de Beaurepaire. That gentleman, who had a very considerable idea of attending to his own comfort wherever he went, had appropriated to himself the best bedroom in the auberge; and, to do it justice, it was a very good one. "Pierre," he had said the evening before, "there is less covering on the bed than I am used to, and the nights are getting cold; and one ought to take care of one's health; and I don't think these young fellows much mind where they sleep; and I will thank you, therefore, to fetch me two blankets from the next bedroom." With the aid of this addition to his comforts, M. de Beaurepaire had passed a sufficiently good night; and his attentive valet had merited his warmest praises by bringing him a cup of chocolate, as much as he had displeased Jeannette by refusing to allow her to assist in making that beverage, in which, as he pertinaciously declared, no one knew his master's taste but he. Notwithstanding, however, these peculiarities, his advice to Charles proved his good sense; he entered with the coolest nonchalance into the preparations for action.
"Council over?" he inquired, when Duchenier entered the room.
"They have decided on the plan of attack; one or two details remain to be discussed."
"How is it, then?" And Duchenier satisfied him on that point.
"D'Elbée is the last in action?" he asked.
"Let me see: five o'clock they begin the cannonade at the Pont de Vrine--that will be half-past; two hours and a half after, D'Elbée's time comes on--that will be three hours--half-past eight, say nine:--well, give my compliments to M. D'Elbée, and tell him that I shall do myself the honour of joining his column a little before nine. And now, Charles, to speak of my poor girl: are you determined to try for Paris? "
"I had thought much of accompanying you last night; but I firmly believe the object will be better attained by keeping with the royalists myself. If I thought otherwise, neither the danger nor--what is of far more consequence--the trouble, should have kept me here. It is almost an impossibility that you should hope to see her; but one never knows how these things may turn out. If you should be the means of rescuing her, or if she should be fortunate enough to make her escape, and you should fall in with her, I charge you, as you love her, to marry her as soon as an insermenté priest can be found. Tell her what I said; and desire her, on pain of my displeasure, to obey me."
"I did not need this, monsieur, to make me willing to do and suffer everything for her. But I shall see you again before I set forward?"
"I trust so. Keep close to M. Lescure, and I shall find you more easily, if we gain Thouars; and if not, I would not have you lose time for the chance of meeting me."
"Farewell, then, M. de Beaurepaire; I will trust that GOD will bring us together again; and rest assured, all that man can do for poor Marie will be done."
"I do, my good friend, I do. Adieu, Charles; take care of yourself."
Duchenier went down-stairs; M. de Beaurepaire composed himself to sleep, having first desired Pierre to wake him up at eight o'clock, and to remain within call. Since in this case, as in so many, the most important result did not arise from the source that seemed most important, we must take the liberty of waiting with M. de Beaurepaire rather than going forth with the royalist army.
That gentleman slept soundly for some time. At last he began to dream that he was going out in his heavy, lumbering, but most gorgeous carriage, to pay a visit. He thought that the roads were very bad; that his fine sleek black horses struggled and strained to get the vehicle along; that first one wheel, then another, and then another, rattled over a prodigious stone. Then he fancied himself upset, and the door fastened so that he could not get out; then he thought that the servants were endeavouring to beat it open with sledge-hammers, which made such an extremity of noise that the dreamer woke. He woke, and the same sound continued: there was a heavy cannonade in the direction of Vrine and the Gué aux Riches. He rang the little bell which stood by his bedside, and Pierre appeared.
"What is it o'clock, Pierre?"
"Why, how is that? I desired you to call me at eight"
"Yes, monsieur; but I knew that you only wanted to be in time for M. D'Elbée's division; and there has been some hindrance."
"I will get up, however. That cannonade is from M. de Lescure's column, I suppose?"
"Yes, monsieur; it has been pretty sharp for some little time."
"Any news from there?"
"As far as I can learn, monsieur, they keep it up on both sides with a great deal of spirit, but no great advantage either way."
"Is M. D'Elbée in the house?"
"No, monsieur; he is superintending the moving of some cannon."
"Bid some one saddle me my horse, then." And the servant went to do it.
M. de Beaurepaire made not a hurried toilette--for that, had he been going to the guillotine, he would not have been guilty of--but, for him, a quick one; took a few hasty mouthfuls--("If I live," said he, "I shall get somewhat better bread than this detestable pain bis before night; and if I am to fall, it is not worth while eating this")--and rode out to the spot where he had been directed to M. D'Elbée. He found that officer in the most violent state of excitement: more than two hours had elapsed since the time that had been agreed on for the commencement of his attack, and he had not yet been able to get his guns to the proper position. Five or six teams of oxen were even now labouring at the last detachment; and D'Elbée was directing, encouraging, vociferating and gesticulating with tenfold his usual energy.
Stofflet was superintending the arrangement of the field-pieces; and Cathelineau, whose active calmness presented a strange contrast to the agitation of his fellow-officers, was urging on the last field-piece and the weary beasts of burden.
"Glad to see you, glad to see you, M. de Beaurepaire. This is sad work, sad work indeed. Two messages I have had from De Lescure, praying me to get into action; his powder cannot hold out much longer: and these infamous roads still keep us back. Ha! they are keeping it up to the purpose," he continued, as another furious cannonade commenced. "The feint will become the real attack, I fear."
"You have better ground now, monsieur," said Beaurepaire; "I will ride on with your good leave, and look at your position."
He did so: and it was a beautiful scene. A lovely day, with a pleasant northerly breeze; scarcely a cloud except two, that were snow-white as two straying lambs. A steep bank sloped abruptly down to the Thou6; here and there an old oak or sapling birch shaded the sides of the slope; at its foot the river rolled swiftly on in that kind of dark brightness that the ruffling breeze imparts to water. Immediately in front the town of Thouars rose on its steep hill, crested gloriously by its grey old castle; the houses and churches clustered up to and around it in black broken masses; and from the highest pinnacle of the keep floated the tri-coloured banner. The river, by a bold sweep, almost encircled the town. Far to the right a heavy drifting fog of smoke told the violence of the prolonged cannonade; the bridge immediately at the foot of the eminence whereon M. Beaurepaire stood was alive with its republican defenders; and a small park of artillery stood ready to play upon it in case any attempt were made to force it. To this bridge a zigzag road swept down, without hedge, bush, or tree at its side, and fearfully exposed to the fire of the enemy when the Vendean troops should be called to defend it.
Stofflet had disposed his guns on a small piece of table-land at the top of the zigzag. The gunners and mates were at their posts: all was ready, but for the arrival of the artillery that D'Elbée was bringing up, and for his approval of the arrangements. At this instant a messenger rode up to Stofflet.
"Monsieur," he said, "we have not charge for above six rounds more: M. de Lescure bids me to say that if any longer delay takes place he must evacuate his position."
"You shall judge for yourself," said Stofflet. And he gave the word to the gunners.
The roar of twenty pieces of artillery rent and shivered the calm spring air. When the white cloud had a little dispersed, Stofflet's keen eye discerned that there was considerable confusion on the bridge. The gunners were reloading and repointing; the infantry drawn back a little, so as to be clear of the enemy's fire, when it should come; and Stofflet had just said, "We shall drive them out, monsieur," when twelve long tongues of fire shot out from the opposite bank. Another moment, and a large oak to the right of Beaurepaire was shivered to atoms, branches, boughs and leaves whirling hither and thither, as if rent by a sirocco: the earth was ploughed up in all directions; dust, stones and clods flew like chaff from a winnowing machine; and three artillerymen, standing by Stofflet, were cut asunder by one ball, covering him and Lescure's messenger with their blood.
"We have done them more harm than that, M. D'Elbée," said Stofflet, as the latter officer rode up. "Hands here! hands here! There is their place!"--pointing to the newly-arrived cannon and a vacant space that was left for them.
"Well done, M. Stofflet, well done indeed," said D'Elbée, rubbing his hands. "Move this body away, some one;" for one of the corpses of the artillerymen was beating the ground convulsively with its feet. "Now, my lads, take good aim, and Providence will give us revenge. All ready!--then--Fire!"
It appeared, as soon as the opposite shore became visible again, that some person of eminence had been wounded, as six or seven soldiers were seen bearing a leader off. "Let us make sure of him," said Stofflet, superintending the pointing of a gun.
"No, no, Stofflet," said Cathelineau, who at that moment came up," no, we do not war with the wounded. Give them another round before they can fire, my lads."
But it could not be done. Pierre, M. de Beaurepaire's servant, had, very unwillingly, followed his master to the field: and did so rather because he thought there was less danger in going than staying. At the first fire he had thrown himself on the ground; but had found curiosity stronger even than fear, and was standing by De Beaurepaire's horse. Again the tongues of fire shot out; and almost simultaneously a long, loud, whistling noise ensued. Pierre, his master and Stofflet spoke in the same moment.
"Oh, oh, gracious Heaven!" cried Pierre.
"Canister-shot," observed Stofflet.
"Down, my lads!" shouted De Beaurepaire.
Cathelineau said nothing, but crossed himself; as, it may be observed, most of the artillerymen did before firing.
This second round did infinitely more execution. Stofflet himself was slightly wounded by a splinter from an old post that stood near; six or seven Vendeans were killed, or mortally wounded, and several others injured, more or less. It appeared, however, that the cannonading at the Gué aux Riches and the Pont de Vrine grew less. At this moment, De Donnissan and De Marigny, who had been prevented, like D'Elbée, from commencing their attack at the time fixed, opened their fire.
De Beaurepaire was observing the movements at the other side of the bridge when a boy from the auberge where he had slept came running up to him with a note, in the address of which he recognised his daughter's hand. It contained these words: "They will stop one whole day at La Flêche at the Sol Rayonnant.'"
"Who brought this, boy? "inquired De Beaurepaire.
"A man from Cerisay," said the boy. "It was left at the priest's house, he said; but he did not hear who left it there."
"Monsieur D'Elbée, I have business of a very important character with De Lescure's division. Will you excuse me? "And leaving Pierre to shift for himself, he galloped along the high bank of the river. It was plain that the enemy considered him to be charged with a message of importance, for once a cannon-ball ploughed up the earth about twenty yards before his horse's head, and one shivered a stone wall about as much behind him.
The village of Vrine lay on the low ground, close to the river. Down the hill rode De Beaurepaire, at a speed which equally endangered his horse and himself. Dashing through the village, which was deserted, he found himself in the detachment he sought, and was directed to M. de Lescure. Here a very different scene presented itself from that on the heights. The two parks of cannon were much nearer, and the ground that intervened between them perfectly flat. The grass around the cannons was strewed with dead--sometimes lying singly, sometimes in heaps; the ruts of the road were full of blood; the air was oppressive and sulphurous; men and officers looked flushed and intensely excited.
"M. de Lescure," said De Beaurepaire, touching him on the shoulder as he leant over a field-piece, "where is Duchenier?"
"Gone with De la Rochejacquelein to seek powder," said Lescure briefly, his whole soul concentrated on the business in hand.
"Where shall I be likely to find him?" persisted De Beaurepaire, intent on his own overwhelming interests, and not seeing that De Lescure was watching, with every nerve strained to the utmost, an ill-defined and doubtful motion among the republican troops.
"I have tidings of my daughter," urged the agitated father, receiving no answer to his question.
"Mes amis, les voilà qui s'enfuient!" shouted De Lescure. "Suivez-moi!" And he rushed forward, fully expecting that the peasantry would follow him, and made his way alone on to the bridge. A furious fire of cannon and musketry poured in upon him; his clothes were cut into shreds; but he himself stood unhurt on the bridge, beckoning to his troops. At any other time De Beaurepaire would undoubtedly have hurried forward to his support, though it had been to certain death; but now he was absorbed in his own concerns, and anxious for nothing except to find Duchenier. A kind of motion passed along the front line, as if it were about to charge; but irresolution prevailed. M. de Lescure, after remaining for about a minute and a half on the bridge, returned leisurely.
"My friends," said he, somewhat reproachfully," is this the support you give your generals?"
As he spoke Duchenier and De la Rochejacquelein galloped up. "Follow us now! follow us now!" shouted the latter; and all three, followed by one soldier, threw themselves on the bridge.
"Charles! Charles! Duchenier!" cried M. de Beaurepaire; "one moment! stop! pray stop! "But Duchenier only waved his hand, and rode on.
De Beaurepaire was reduced to desperation. "My friends," he cried, "for shame's sake follow them!" And he, too, rode on.
"Aim at the red handkerchief! aim at the red handkerchief!" burst from the Blues. De la Rochejacquelein always carried four pistols attached to him by a handkerchief of that colour; and to preserve him, by sharing his danger, most of the other officers adopted the same uniform, and partly from this cause acquired the name of Brigands.
There was a rush forward. They fell fast and thick; but the barrier was at length reached. It was formed of a dung heap, and a waggon overturned at the top of it. This waggon was crowded with republicans--the passage being defended by the battalions of the Nievre and the Var. They pushed the royalists down with their lances--they leant their pieces on the spokes of the wheels, and fired with murderous precision. Duchenier was among the foremost. A republican presented his piece at him, touching his forehead with the muzzle--his finger was on the trigger; De Beaurepaire saw his danger, but could not aid him; when Texier, the peasant whom we have before mentioned, struck up the gun with his oaken stick, the only weapon he had; it exploded into the air, six inches above Duchenier's head. Texier caught hold of the wheels of the waggon, and grappled with the soldier whose aim he had foiled. With his right hand the brave peasant grasped the fellow, with his left he embraced his opponent, drew him by a prodigious effort of strength over the wheel, and threw him on the ground behind, where he was trampled on and his brains beaten out. De la Rochejacquelein, De Lescure and Duchenier fired together--one between the arm and side, the others between the legs of Texier. Two or three of the battalion fell: there was a rush forward, and the four Vendeans made good their position on the further side of the wheel. The waggon lay bottom upwards, and a terrible struggle was kept up on it. Vendeans poured up on one side, republicans on the other, when Texier happened to look to the right. "Mes amis! "he shouted out, "M. de Bonchamp is crossing!" It was true. Taking advantage of the momentary panic, the foremost Vendeans pushed their opponents off the waggon by main force, and leaped after them. The peasantry poured over the barricade--the national troops began to retire--then to look behind them--then to turn--then to run. The Vendeans followed with loud shouts, and the bridge was forced,
"To Thouars! to Thouars!" shouted a hundred voices as the column formed on the eastern shore of the Thoué. And the insurgents rushed forward so furiously that the officers were obliged to canter in order to keep at their head. And now Cathelineau and D'Elbée were leading their division down the zigzag, the opposed artillery and the castle guns playing upon them. Marigny had already forced the passage of the Pont S. Jean, and De Bonchamp was hurrying on his forces to the walls. The slaughter of the republicans had been immense: the National Guard of that section had defended the Gué aux Riches long and well, but had been cut to pieces to a man; and the flying remains of the battalions of Var and Nievre were hurrying impetuously, each man with no other care than to avoid being the hindmost into Thouars.
De Beaurepaire had kept in the front; and, indeed, had considerably distinguished himself in forcing the bridge. Finding himself again by the side of Duchenier, he informed him, in a few hurried words, that his daughter would be, or even then might be, in La Flêche. "Then there will I be too," said Duchenier, "ere many hours. Let us only take the town by assault, and the road will be open. The wall is not defensible. We must carry it somewhere."
In about twenty minutes the vanguard of the Vendeans was at Thouars. No attempt was made to preserve order or arrangement: every peasant attacked the walls in the manner that seemed to promise most success; some with pickaxes--some with spades--some endeavoured to loosen the old stones with their hands. M. de Lescure with his immediate staff rode round the wall, noting its weak points.
"Here," said he to Duchenier, "I think we may manage it. Get together twenty or thirty of the stoutest peasants; I will open the way for them. Meanwhile, Texier, let me mount your shoulders." And having done so, Lescure was easily able to place his hands on the parapet. Five or six of the National Guard rushed towards him. He discharged first one pistol, then another, and brought down two of his opponents. His friends below fired on the remainder. Lescure, by a great effort, drew himself on to the wall, and gave his hand to Texier, who followed. One by one the Vendeans mounted, and presented a firm phalanx to their scattered assailants.
"On, on!" cried De la Rochejacquelein. "Let us take Quetineau alive; he will be a hostage worth his capture. Whatever happens, let none injure him!"
"The white flag is up on the town-house," said Lescure.
"That makes no difference," cried Marigny. "We were on the wall before they capitulated."
"We should be justified, I grant you, in sacking the place," answered Lescure; "but we are Catholics. For the sake of our cause and our GOD, let us give quarter."
"Surely," said De Donnissan. And Marigny found none to second him; for Stofflet, who undoubtedly would have taken his view of the case, had not yet come up. A deputation was formed for the purpose of treating with the general and the mayor. Lescure, De Donnissan and De la Rochejacquelein proceeded to the residence of the latter. The gates were thrown open: the insurgents halted under arms in the Place Constitutionelle, on the ramparts, and outside the gate, and waited the issue.
"Now, Charles," said De Beaurepaire, "we will furnish ourselves with good horses, and ride to La Flêche. We can take no force with us; it is out of the question: but we must trust to money and sleight of hand. I should like to take Texier with us, though: he is a perfect giant in strength, which is always useful, and he is as faithful as a hero of romance."
A noise at his side caused him to look round. Three or four peasants had seized a republican soldier, and evidently showed that they intended no gentle treatment of him. M. de Bonchamp was interfering.
"What is the matter, my friends?" asked Duchenier. "Remember, till the deputation returns, it is truce."
"Yes, monsieur; but this villain had cocked his pistol at M. de Bonchamp, and swore there should be one brigand less in Thouars. He shall hang for it, law or no law."
"He is my prisoner, however," said one of the peasants.
"He is not," said the other; "he is mine."
"You lie!" said the first speaker.
His comrade raised his hand to strike him.
"Comrade," cried De Donnissan, "JESUS CHRIST died for His enemies; and one soldier of the Catholic army would strike another?"
The men rushed to each other's arms.
"No, no, my good friends," remonstrated Bonchamp, "the man has done me no harm. Keep him a prisoner if you will; but we can afford to forgive to-day."
"That's true," cried one or two of the peasants. "Have him away to prison instead."
"Stay, my friends," said De Beaurepaire; "you may do me the most essential service if you give him into my hands. I am sure M. de Bonchamp will agree to the arrangement."
The prisoner was accordingly handed over to Texier. "Bring him this way," said De Beaurepaire, who saw, from the man's demeanour, that he was a coward.
"Now, sirrah," he said, "I mean to use you this one day; and if you serve me well I give you my honour that I will set you free at its end; if not I will blow your brains out.--Texier, I want you to ride with me to La Flêche."
"To La Flêche, monsieur? If you desire it; but we cannot possibly escape, if we go half-way thither even, from the Blues."
"We shall see. I will get you a good horse. Meanwhile take care of the prisoner, for I shall want him too; and take care of yourself, and get some refreshment. We can do nothing till the deputation returns; then I will make my arrangements. In the meanwhile keep by me."
"What do you mean to do?" inquired Duchenier.
I will explain my plan when we are out of the town. Where are we to get horses? Mine is thoroughly knocked up."
"So is mine. We must exchange them as best we may. Here is Lescure."
The commission returned, and with them General Quetineau, a prisoner of war. He was a tall, thin man; but withal had a character of decision and honesty in his open forehead, sharply-cut nose, and compressed lips, that made him appear an adversary of a very different kind from the usual commanders employed by the Convention.
"The terms are agreed on," said De Lescure to De Bonchamp. "Allow me to introduce General Quetineau to you. We must all feel that, while we are to have enemies, the fewer that resemble him in talent, and the more in every other quality, the better for us."
Quetineau bowed. "It was, indeed," he said, "my wish to spare unnecessary bloodshed. Had I had a sufficient force at my command I would have held out the place to the last, indefensible though it be; but I should have but lost some thousands of gallant men, who will do better service, I trust,"--he smiled as he spoke--"next time."
"I am sure," said De Bonchamp, "that I speak the sentiments of my friends as well as my own, when I say that you are at liberty to depart when and where you will; but I wish we could persuade you to stay with us on your parole. You know how Convention will treat you; you know how they have wreaked their pitiful vengeance on other brave officers for want of success, however little they were responsible for it. We offer you an asylum here, if you will give us your word of honour to consider yourself a prisoner of war. If you return, it needs no prophet to foresee that your fate will be the guillotine."
"I am much obliged, monsieur," returned Quetineau, "but my honour forbids me to accept your offer. I know that I incur considerable danger by returning to Paris; but my resolution is taken. If you set me free, I shall be obliged by your kindness; if not, you must keep me a close prisoner, for I will not give my parole."
"I am sorry for your determination, M. le General; but undoubtedly you are free to act as you please. De Lescure, are those the terms you hold in your hand?" "They are. Shall I read them?" "If you will have the goodness." De Lescure read:--"'De par le Roi. It is ordered by the Generals of the Royalist and Catholic army, that each soldier be furnished gratis with bread and wine by the inhabitants of Thouars; every other article to be paid for. And all disputes to be adjusted by M. de Donnissan on the one hand, and the Mayor of Thouars on the other. God save the King. Head-quarters, Thouars, May 5, 1793.' I have had a hundred copies struck off, and have given directions that it shall be posted in the streets."
The troops were now entering the town; the leaders of the insurrection agreed to meet at the mayor's house, and to establish their head-quarters there. M. de Beaurepaire called aside De Bonchamp, and gave him an account of what he had lost, what he had learnt, and what he intended to do. Then he and Duchenier rode to the mayor's house, to be present at another consultation and to provide themselves with horses; and Texier and his prisoner, who was also placed under the guard of two other Vendeans, awaited them at a little auberge at the foot of the Castle Hill.