IT was not till nearly four o'clock in the afternoon that M. de Beaurepaire, Charles Duchenier, the peasant Texier, and the prisoner, whose name was Jacques la Force, rode out of Thouars. As soon as they were clear of the town, Charles, who had not yet been able to obtain a moment's private conversation with De Beaurepaire, inquired eagerly of him what were his plans.
"It is well that we should all be acquainted with them," said De Beaurepaire. "Texier, ride up abreast: and now, monsieur"--to the dragoon--" listen to this once for all. If I find you betraying me, as you will have plenty of opportunities of doing, that very instant I put a bullet into your head, even though the next moment I should have one put into my own. I hope you understand that."
"Perfectly, monsieur," said the dragoon. "Act upon it, then," said De Beaurepaire. "If you bear such hatred to me that you are disposed to lay down your life, so you force me to lay down mine, you will be able to do it: but if (which I rather guess is the case) you have a great idea of personal safety, you will obey us implicitly, till such a time as we turn you adrift.
And if you do, I promise you a handsome present on dismissing you.--And you too, Texier, understand. If the man gives the least proof of playing us false, shoot him on the spot."
"That I will, monsieur," replied Texier, in a tone of hearty good-will which could leave no doubt of his meaning what he said.
"And you, Duchenier--you promise the same?"
"Most undoubtedly," replied Charles.
"Then we are all of one mind; which must be a satisfactory thing for you, my good friend La Force. But now for my plan. You know that our army is not likely to be within ten leagues of La Flêche this many a day. But we must ride thither, and give out that it is at our heels, and that we are despatched before it to treat with the officer in command."
"It will be certain ruin," said Charles.
"Listen before you decide," returned De Beaurepaire. "We must avoid Saumur, because it is entirely republican, even should there not actually be a body of troops there. But we can cross the river at Les Rosiers--I know this part of the country well--and then we will press on to La Flêche. To-night we will sleep at some métairie a short distance from the town; in the meantime the news of our success this morning will have reached it--as what place at the same distance will it not? and it soonest of all, because it is on the high road to Paris. To-morrow we will boldly present ourselves in the town; proclaim ourselves captains in the insurgent army; report that it is a few leagues behind us; demand to see the commanding officer; let him know that we are aware of his having such a prisoner in that town, and require that she be forthwith put into our hands. You do not know the terror that is felt of the brigands so well as I do: we have only to announce that we have ridden on before the rest of the army, by way of not terrifying the inhabitants, and we shall be heard with courtesy. But to clench the matter, this dragoon is a prisoner on his parole--he will corroborate everything we say.--Woe to you, sirrah! if you do not!--If they offer (which I do not think they will) to take him from us, he must decline to acquire so dishonourable a freedom:--again I say, woe, sirrah, if you do not!--and will accompany us out of the town, as he accompanied us in."
"It is a very bold plan," said Charles Duchenier. "It may cost us all our lives: but certainly it is the only one that can give us a chance of the prize we seek. I am ready to try it to the utmost. What say you, Texier?"
"I would lay down my life any day for Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire," said he: "but, monsieur, if you play your game well, I think there will be no laying down of lives in the case. All I can say is, I will do my part, which appears to be none other than blowing out this rascal's brains in case he betrays us."
"And to take care that you do not accidentally betray yourself," said De Beaurepaire. "It would be too hazardous to profess that an army had surprised Saumur (though, in truth, I hope we shall do that in a few days), but there might be some person present who could condradict us. It will be better to say that the division of the army which I have the honour of commanding has crossed by Les Rosiers (as it will have done, Charles, to the number of our four selves), not wishing to be detained by the siege of Saumur, as we are anxious to advance. I have a letter here from Bonchamp which will forward our scheme. It is open--will you hear it?
"Pray let me," said Charles.
"'Know all men by these presents, that the bearers, M. de Beaurepaire and M. Duchenier, are authorised by the General-in-chief of the Royalist and Catholic Army to treat with the General commanding in chief the National Forces in the town of La Flêche, for the delivery of Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire, now understood to be detained a prisoner in that place. As witness my hand,
"'Head Quarters, May 5, 1793.'
"Now of course," pursued De Beaurepaire, "our terms will be, that the town will be sacked if my daughter is not restored at once. I know well enough that it is scarcely so defensible even as Bressuire; whereas, if she be honourably surrendered, we will give good quarter."
"I like the plan excessively," said Duchenier; "but I think we should be almost safer without the prisoner."
"No," said De Beaurepaire, "we should not. They will never think of suspecting us, if we have him; but, if we had him not, the slightest suspicion would be fatal to us; because, though I am sure they would not dare to touch us at once, they might keep us under surveillance while they sent their own commissioners to treat with our army."
"Why, there is something in that," said Duchenier. "I think it is the less of the two dangers."
They had been riding fast while they conversed; and they now struck off the Saumur road to the left. The country grew low and marshy, as bordering on the great river Loire; flocks of sheep, pasturing here and there, with the attendant shepherd-boy, showed that the horrors of war had not reached this place; here and there were cottage-gardens, which, in times of peace, had supplied the burghers of Saumur, Doue", and even Angers, with early fruit, but now seemed somewhat neglected, and, in some cases, deserted. Still they pressed on; and in half-an-hour they were on the banks of the Loire.
The little village of Les Rosiers lay on the other side, and a ferry plied between the two banks. The sun was getting low; the dragon-fly sported amidst the rustling sedge; the kingfisher dipped into the stream, and rose again, displaying all the colours of the rainbow; the bittern boomed from the more distant parts of the marsh; the green weed that slept on the surface of the water undulated to its lazy motions; the distant spire of Les Rosiers glowed like a finger of gold; and the pleasant sounds of evening village life came over the water in a mellow hum. The horses were on the shingles: Duchenier dismounted, and shouted for the boat.
"Now, monsieur," said De Beaurepaire to the prisoner, "I have reserved a pleasant little surprise for you till we were on the point of making the first trial of your fidelity. If you think that you can betray us, because I might be arrested--or any, or all of us might be arrested--before we could get the pistol from 'our belts, cock it, and point it at your head--you will be disappointed. Look! I have provided myself with a dagger--very easily concealed--look! thus; and just as easily pulled out: and, by all the saints in heaven (if you believe in them), I want but a shadow of suspicion to plunge it into your heart. I am really sorry, monsieur, to appear unpolite; but the time, you will observe, will not allow me to stand very much on ceremony."
La Force seemed considerably disconcerted at this avowal and at the proximity in which M. de Beaurepaire seemed resolved to stand to him. He, however, said nothing. And now the creaking of the leather strap that served for rowlock, and the splash of the heavy oars in the water, grew louder and louder; and presently the boat's head grated on the beach. She was managed by two fishermen in their picturesque costume of red caps, checked waistcoats, leathern breeches, and immense jack-boots.
"Good-evening, messieurs," said one of them. "Are you for Les Rosiers?"
"Yes, we are," said Charles, getting in. "What! you seem, all pretty quiet here?"
"Pretty well, pretty well," replied the first speaker, assisting Duchenier to make his horse follow him into the boat. "And we shall be quieter ere long, if your good army can drive yonder rascals back to Paris."
"You are a royalist, then?" inquired De Beaurepaire.
"Never doubt of that, monsieur; so is all the village."
"Why don't you send some of your likeliest lads to serve in the army? We cannot have too many."
"Well, monsieur, and they do talk of listing: but, somehow, the war has not got down to us yet, and so the old folks have been for keeping quiet. There was a man passing through Longu<£ to-day though--that's only two leagues from Les Hosiers--but mayhap your honours know that as well as I do. Well, there was a man passed through Longu6, as I hear say, enough to make every man, woman, and child, take up arms, if he comes near us again."
"Why, who was that?"asked Charles.
"Why, that villain Santerre," answered the fisherman, giving so tremendous a tug at his oar, by way of expressing his indignation, that the boat's head flew round six or seven points the other side. "If ever there was a devil in man's flesh, that's he. I do sometimes think," and he crossed himself, "that it must be the great devil of all let loose on us."
"What! had he any troops with him?" inquired De Beaurepaire.
"Ay, monsieur, some fifty or sixty, dressed like that man," and he pointed to La Force, "whom I take to be your prisoner."
"He is," answered De Beaurepaire. "But where were they going?"
"To La Flêche, I heard," said the man. "They had some prisoners too--ladies--or women however."
"Is it possible," said Charles, "that------"
"I hope, I trust not," said De Beaurepaire, wi'th more agitation than Duchenier had ever yet seen him display. "I would sooner trust my child a thousand times over with Robespierre or Danton than with Santerre."
"But he said more than one;--did you not, mon ami?"
"Yes, monsieur; two, I think they said--but I am sure more than one."
"We know that there were no servants taken with her," said De Beaurepaire; "because we saw them safe before we left Cerisay. That gives me hope. But then, their going to La Flêche. And yes, how many prisoners must have passed that way!"
"If I might be so bold as to ask," said the man, "has monsieur lost any one in whom he is interested?"
"My daughter," said the other: "I am going to demand her at La Flêche."
"To seek her at La Flêche!" said the fisherman. "Why, you will be shot, as sure as this is the Loire."
"Not quite so sure, I hope," answered De Beaurepaire. "The Catholic Army is close at our heels,"--he swallowed the story with a better grace than Duchenier would have exhibited--" and we are empowered to make terms there."
"Well, monsieur, if they are in as much terror there as they are at Beaufort and Baugé, they will not stand much upon terms. But I am rejoiced beyond measure that the army is so near."
"This dragoon will tell you how near," said De Beaurepaire, looking significantly at him.
"Not more than two leagues," said La Force. "They will be here, I guess, before midnight."
The boat was now nearing the opposite shore. "Do you know La Flêche?" inquired Charles.
"Yes, I do," answered the boatman. "Many's the time I have been there with a cart-load of fish."
"Is there any auberge some league or so on this side of it? We want to put up there to-night, and not to ride into the town till to-morrow."
"Yes, there is, monsieur. It is in a little village, called Coudron; and the sign is the Perche. It stands on the left-hand side, just through the village; and there are three great ash-trees opposite."
"Do you know the landlord?"
"What! old Claude Salmeron? Ay; many a glass of wine have we had together. He makes it his maxim to cry with the loudest; so to-night, I suppose, he will be all for the royalists."
"One thing more," said De Beaurepaire, as the boat touched the shore; "what time did Santerre pass through?"
"In the forenoon, monsieur; but I don't rightly know the hour."
The party disembarked, and gave the boatmen so liberal a fare that both red caps were held off the heads they respectively fitted all the time the travellers were mounting. The latter rode off at a fast trot; and the fishermen repaired to the village, to tell and to comment on what they had heard.
"Do you mean to ride right through Baugé?"inquired Charles.
"Oh, yes," said De Beaurepaire. "If they stop us, it will be but the same tale as at La Flêche."
"I wish we could be there to-night," said Duchenier.
"I wish it as much as you can do. But I have thought it over, and it would not answer. Consider, we only gained Thouars this morning. They know that our marches are astonishingly quick, it is true; but they also must know, that to be within four or five leagues of La Flêche--and our troops must not be more than that, Charles--would be physically impossible. No one but a peasant would have believed the account we gave just now--though that was far more within the compass of possibility.--Which reminds me, sirrah," he added, turning to the dragoon, "the next time you have to tell a lie, tell a better one. Do you hear?"
"Why, monsieur," said the man, "you asked me how far off was the royalist army, and I thought you wanted it to be near."
"So I did, sirrah; but not impossibly near. You mind what you are about. You shall play no tricks with me."
"Only conceive," said Charles, after a pause, during which the horses' hoofs rang out merrily over the pave", "her joy at being so unexpectedly rescued. It will be like life in death."
"Ay," answered De Beaurepaire, "it will be so in more senses than one. I don't wish to discourage you; only remember,--and you too, Texier, remember,--that a slip after success may ruin us just as much as one before. The best way will be, to continue to deceive her till we are quite clear of their clutches. One can never tell what women will do. She might faint, or go into hysterics; and then the whole might come out."
Duchenier again relapsed into meditation. It was now a glorious twilight. The sky was cloudless, and intensely still and blue; lines of red and green, bright but somewhat cold, as in the spring, were clearly marked out on the western horizon. The dew was falling, and calling forth the sweet scent of the fresh hedge, from dog-brier, may, or young filbert. The flowers had closed on earth; but, as if in rivalry of them, Venus, like a flower of pure silver, began to gleam brightly in the heavens. By the time the travellers reached Bauge", it was nearly dark; and, finding that all was perfectly quiet, they ventured to water their horses on the outskirts of the town, at the other side; and gave the same account they had given to the boatmen.
It was not, however, so favourably received. The landlord swore at the news; loiterers began to gather in the street; the hostler moved slowly; one or two men attempted to approach the horses' heads; and some one at a distance cried, "Knock them off! "
"Stand off, my masters!" cried De Beaurepaire, keeping La Force between him and Texier. "Knock us off! And who would be the sufferers for that by noon to-morrow? Stand off, fellow!" hitting one of the bystanders a slight blow with the handle of his whip. "Now, hostler, is that water coming?"
The little crowd continued to show symptoms of anger, but seemed to judge it prudent to abstain from anything like actual assault. Duchenier watched La Force's countenance, which, in truth, would have presented a curious study for a physiognomist. The lips were compressed tightly, as if to keep in the words that would fain have burst forth; the brow was contracted; the eyes glistened; while the fingers played nervously with the switch which the dragoon carried instead of a whip. However, he seemed to have resolved not to betray his companions; and at the moment the crowd were most troublesome, glanced once or twice at De Beaurepaire's right hand, which was on his dagger.
At length the reckoning was paid; and the crowd, with a discontented growl, like that of a wild beast deprived of his prey, suffered the adventurers to ride on. They had scarcely, however, put their horses into a trot, when a stone, flung by some one among the mob, struck De Beaurepaire on the shoulder.
"We must not put up with this, Charles," said he. "If we had an army close behind us, we should not.--Texier, ride on slowly with La Force."
He reined his horse round, and, accompanied by Duchenier, rode back to the inn-door. The little crowd began to disperse in various directions, as if thinking that they had carried the matter too far.
"Landlord," said De Beaurepaire coolly, "give me up the name of the scoundrel who threw that stone."
The landlord hesitated between his fear of the brigands and his dislike of displaying any want of courage before those in whose presence he was accustomed to boast what great deeds he would do, if ever the necessities of the nation called him to take up arms.
"Oh, very well," said De Beaurepaire, "please yourself. I suppose you were the person. We shall remember it when we march through Bauge"."
"It was not I, monsieur," said the other; "on my honour, it was not."
"Your honour!" cried De Beaurepaire; "what is your honour worth? No, no; you are the man, without a doubt Very well; I shall remember."
"Stay, monsieur," said the landlord; "it was Nicholas Cautier."
"Where does he live?" inquired De Beaurepaire.
"At yonder cottage," answered mine host very unwillingly. "Yonder, with the stone step before it."
"You have done wisely, landlord, in telling me. Good-evening." And they rode off.
"Now, Charles," continued his friend, "we have thoroughly frightened those fellows, which may be a great thing on our return. I wonder how far it is to this Coudron. We shall have to knock them up, if it be very much further."
"It is a fortunate thing we did not attempt to stop at Bauge," observed Duchenier: "they would certainly have done us a mischief."
"It must have been Santerre's march through the place which has set them up so, if they were ever as terrified as that fisherman told us. But come; we must be doing our best to get on; for, on all accounts, we should be early."
Night deepened and deepened. The moon came forth in glory; the country grew wilder; and at length, about ten o'clock, emerging from a little dell into which the road dipped, they saw before them, rising through a cluster of trees to the right, the gable-head of a church-tower.
"Here we are!" cried Duchenier; "now for the Perche!"
They were not long in discovering it; but there was no light to be seen, and it was plain that the inmates had retired to rest. Texier knocked long and loudly; and in a few moments an upper casement was thrown open, and a man looked out, with a nightcap on his head, and a pistol in his hand.
"Who's there?" he cried. "What's the matter?"
"Officers from the Royalist army," answered Beaurepaire, "which is just behind. We want accommodation for to-night; for we have despatches to deliver at La Flêche to-morrow."
"I will let you in," answered Claude Salmeron, after reconnoitring the party for a few moments longer. "Wait but a couple of minutes." And in less time than that, the door was opened, and the party entered.
"Texier, will you see to the horses?" asked De Beaurepaire. "I will look after the prisoner meanwhile."
"Did monsieur say that the Royalist army was close behind?" asked the landlord.
"Some five or six leagues off," answered De Beaurepaire. "You heard of our taking Thouars?"
"That we did," cried Salmeron, beginning to be a vehement loyalist. "That we did: and they tell me that General Quetineau was made prisoner."
"They tell you truly, mine host. Have you anything for supper? for we must be off early."
"I will see, monsieur." And he left the room so to do.
"It is chilly," said De Beaurepaire, endeavouring to rekindle the almost extinguished embers. "La Force, you may sit down; but I will thank you to sit a little further from the door. That's better. Well, Duchenier, no one can have had better luck hitherto, I think."
"You have managed admirably, monsieur. It seems hardly conceivable that we are but a league or so off."
"I knew the boldest strokes generally answer best.--Well, Texier, are the horses littered down well?"
"Yes, monsieur; the people here seem royalists, and glad to do anything for you. The hostler and stable-boy are up, and bustling about."
After partaking of the supper which the landlord, in fulfilment of his promise, had provided for them with his best skill, our party made arrangements. La Force was consigned to a small closet without a window, which opened into the room which was occupied by De Beaurepaire and Duchenier; and Texier, at his own request, slept outside the door of this apartment. The night passed over without any event of importance; and at six o'clock the next morning the adventurers were again on horseback. The tall tower of S. Jacques in La Flêche rose clearly before them on the horizon. The morning was cool and bright; and as they urged onward their horses over the league that they had yet to pass, their spirits seemed to rise with the necessity.
"Now," said Duchenier, "we shall soon know our fate; whatever it be, anxiety like this is almost worse than certainty of failure."
"Not it," replied De Beaurepaire; "but there is no occasion for so much nervousness; if we don't betray ourselves, we must succeed. Upon my word, I think our greatest danger is when we first fall in with the National Guard. They may shoot us through the head, without waiting to hear what we have to say."
Houses began to thicken on each side of the road; and, among the few persons whom they met, the sight of two royalist officers, with their white cockades, seemed to create quite a sensation. Still there was no word or sign of insult: and the Vendeans rode through one of the suburbs at a round trot, but without any symptoms of great haste. At length they reached the bridge which crossed the old moat. The moat itself was in many places dry, and in some turned into gardens; and the drawbridge had long become a fixed erection of stone. The gate, however, was kept up,--the guardhouse was formed in it; and two sentinels were posted at the further end of the bridge.
Texier and La Force rode rather the first; then followed the officers. The sentinels gazed at each other in stupid amazement, till De Beaurepaire thought they must mean to let him pass on. But he was mistaken. As he rode forward, one of them stepped up to him with "Halt! or I shoot you through the head. You are a prisoner."
"Ground your arms!" said De Beaurepaire, as if giving an order to his own troops. "Send some one to conduct us to the General commanding in chief; we are charged with a message to him from the Royalist and Catholic army, by this time in possession of BaugeV'
He had the satisfaction of seeing that his announcement was believed. The sentinels could not sufficiently command their countenances to conceal the fact of their being thunderstruck.
"Follow me to the guard-house, monsieur," said the one that had not yet spoken. "The sous-lieutenant will speak with you."
They crossed the bridge. "Wait here," said the soldier, "till I tell him of your arrival." While he went in, several of the Guards, not then on duty, gathered round the comers.
"Six hours hence," observed De Beaurepaire to his companion, "our men will be in that guard-house. I hope the quarters are comfortable."
"They are so, monsieur," said La Force, who, not knowing what turn matters might take, had come to the conclusion, that to carry himself as really on his parole would be the safest thing he could do. "I have been here before."
"Why, comrade," said an old soldier, "what, are you here with the brigands?"
"Prisoner on parole," replied La Force.
The sous-lieutenant came out. "Messieurs," he said, "I am informed that the Vendean insurgents are now at Baugé, and that you are deputed from them to treat with General Santerre."
"You are correctly informed, monsieur," replied De Beaurepaire, with a polite bow.
"This is very strange," answered the sous-lieutenant. "Saumur, to my certain knowledge, was in our hands at six o'clock yesterday evening."
"So it is now, monsieur, for anything I know to the contrary. The army crossed at Les Hosiers."
"You are bold men, messieurs, to put your head into the lion's mouth. Why, we could have you shot as rebels on the spot."
"So you might, monsieur," said De Beaurepaire, shrugging his shoulders; "so you might: but I do not think you will. There would be a very unpleasant reckoning to pay, as soon as our forces were in sight."
"You have some document from your leader, whoever he is?" asked the officer.
"Here is a letter from M. de Bonchamp, which you are at liberty to read," replied the other.
The sous-lieutenant read it. "Oh!" said he, "that partly explains the matter. You feared, I suppose, that the lady mentioned in this paper would be hurried off, if you did not anticipate the motions of your troops?"
"The remark does honour to your penetration, monsieur," replied De Beaurepaire, with serene courtesy. "I was aware that we incurred some danger; but I felt almost persuaded that the good sense of your officers would see the propriety of treating us with courtesy, when you must know as well as we do"--and he smiled pleasantly--"that the town is perfectly indefensible for half-an-hour."
"Hum!" said the sous-lieutenant; "I think it might be held out longer."
"Well, monsieur, we will say an hour. You might possibly not be shot till two o'clock. As particular friends of De Bonchamp's, we should, of course, be sufficiently revenged. This soldier, who is on parole, can give you any information."
The officer was completely taken in. "Where were you made prisoner?" he asked.
"At Thouars, monsieur."
"And you left the insurgents at------?"
"I left them with these gentlemen, monsieur."
"That was at------?"
"At Les Rosiers, monsieur."
De Beaurepaire could not help drawing a long breath; for, during the whole of this conversation, he felt that his life hung on a thread. Now he was secure that La Force had so thoroughly committed himself as to have no chance of safety except in committing himself still further by reiterating and enforcing his former statement. "I will accompany you to General Santerre," said the sous-lieutenant, after a moment's pause: "that, I think, will be the most satisfactory way to all parties. Of course I can say nothing as to your proposal: but I have no objection to acknowledging, what, I am sure, General Santerre himself will acknowledge in the frankest manner, that the young lady in question is a prisoner here."
Accompanied, then, by this officer, De Beaurepaire and Duchenier repaired to General Santerre's lodging. A house, not recently inhabited, had been taken possession of by him, and fitted up as well as the time permitted for himself and his staff. Everything showed the debased and brutalised character of these men. The state of the hall would have disgraced the lowest auberge in La Fldche. Filth of all kinds lay exposed to view, mingled with the most precious objects; the massive silver candlesticks from the altar of the neighbouring church peeped out from a heap of ashes, cast down in the house because it was too much trouble to carry them to the ash-heap; tobacco-pipes, tobacco, fragments of broken meat, tumblers half full of spirits, and a strong scent of brandy, proved that a debauch had recently been going on. At the door of this house stood the tree of liberty; and as the Vendeans entered the little crowd that had accompanied them augmented considerably and seemed resolved to await their exit.
The sous-lieutenant himself appeared rather ashamed of the condition of the General's head-quarters; for with the remark, "One cannot always have things straight on a march," he ushered his companions into an unfurnished parlour, where he requested them to wait while he should seek Santerre.
"La Force," said De Beaurepaire, as soon as the door was closed, "it is now your interest, as well as ours, to stick to the tale you have fabricated. If Santerre finds us out, you will be shot five minutes after. Go on as you have begun, and if you bring us off, on the honour of a French gentleman, I will provide for you handsomely."
"Monsieur," replied La Force, "if you are only true to yourself, you have no occasion to fear me. If I don't get out of this town with you, I shall never get out at all: and, I promise you, I am not so taken with its appearance as to wish that."
"I am pretty sure, monsieur," said Texier, "that Santerre is an arrant coward. Every one who has known him at all says so."
"Like enough--like enough," said De Beaurepaire; "he will not be the first blusterer by many that is so. But hush! I hear footsteps."
The door opened, and a man entered in the uniform of a republican general,--ill made, ill put on, and dirty. He had a low forehead, grisled dark hair, fishy eyes with something of a squint, a large projecting mouth, whiskers of inordinate size matted and untrimmed, an awkward gait, and a stoop which took off from his height as to make him appear a short, instead of a middle-sized, man,--an appearance to which his stoutness also contributed. Such was the brewer Santerre.
He was closely followed by the sous-lieutenant. "These, M. le G6ne"ral," he said, "are the deputies from the insurgents." De Beaurepaire and La Force bowed: Duchenier would not so far honour a man who had presided at the murder of his sovereign; and Texier, whether from the same reason, or merely from the force of example, did the same thing.
"Well, citoyens," said Santerre, "I think your message here the very coolest piece of impudence that I ever had the pleasure of hearing. What! ask me to give up a prisoner, because a pack of beggarly brigands mean, some day or other, to come and invest a strong place like this? And so you really persuaded yourselves that I should let you go back again? Having come so far, it were a pity not to travel a little further; and as I am going to Paris, I think I will have you guillotined there, rather than shot here."
"As you please, monsieur," said De Beaurepaire, with imperturbable coolness. "We shall probably lay down our lives in the service of our king some day; and whether by a cannon-shot or a guillotine is very immaterial: tastes differ. Only, as by this time tomorrow the royalist army will be in possession of La Flêche, you will know fully what to expect for the town--you may expect that no mercy will be shown."
"And who on earth cares," cried Santerre with an oath, "whether you show mercy or not? Burn the town down, if you please; I shall not lose a sou. That was what you trusted to, was it"?--you have thrust your head into the lion's mouth with a vengeance."
De Beaurepaire saw his mistake. He should have calculated on the utter recklessness of Santerre's nature. He should have taken care to make it known to the inhabitants of La Flêche that the safety of their town depended on the liberation of his daughter; and they would have seen that his terms were granted. Santerre, however much he might have had the disposition, was not in possession of the force to oppose them. But now it was only known in the town that the Vendeans were near, and that the two officers were charged with some proposition from the captors of Thouars. All these thoughts flashed in a moment through De Beaurepaire's mind; and he resolved on endeavouring after an opportunity of speaking to the people.
"In that case, monsieur," said he, "I shall be under the very painful necessity, on arriving at Paris, of denouncing you to the Convention as accessory to the loss of La Flêche, which long ere that time will have been lost, by your leaving it when you knew an attack was intended by the insurgents."
"Very well," cried Santerre, in a fury; "I will soon hinder that.--Danville," to the sous-lieutenant, "order out a file of musketeers into the court-yard."
De Beaurepaire seemed utterly confounded by the overthrow of his plan. Duchenier had augured, from the moment Santerre began to speak, that there was no hope; and had nerved himself for the issue. But Texier, whose mind was less occupied by anxiety for the liberation of Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire, just as Danville was turning the handle, collared Santerre in an instant with his left hand, and held a pistol to his head with his right.
"First of all, you scoundrel," said he, "I shall blow out your brains; and then your soldiers may do what they like with ours.7'
Danville, who had sprung forward to his general's aid, was confronted by Duchenier. Their swords crossed, and the sous-lieutenant's flew up to the ceiling. This took but a second; and the general made a violent effort to release himself from the peasant.
"Hold! hold!" shouted De Beaurepaire, who kept near to La Force, ignorant how that worthy personage might think fit to act. "Keep him fast, Texier, but don't hurt him. What is to be done?"
"I am for killing him," said Duchenier; "going out, boldly proclaiming the deed, and daring the townspeople to hurt us, letting them know that their safety depends on ours."
"They would not touch us, but the soldiers would," replied the other: "and our gaining Marie depends on them. No; I have a plan,--and, thank GOD, there is pen and ink. First, M. Danville, you must give me your word not to act against us, in any way, for four-and-twenty hours."
"I shall not give any such promise," returned the young officer.
"I am extremely sorry, monsieur," said De Beaurepaire, with the most winning suavity, "to hint at anything unpleasant; but, much as I value your life, allow me to suggest that I am bound to prefer that of my friends; and must take the one for the sake of preserving the other."
"Do so," said Danville.
"Allow me to suggest," said De Beaurepaire, "that you will not in the least advantage your cause by dying for it."
"Give the promise; don't be a fool," growled out Santerre, in a somewhat trembling voice.
"Well, then, I promise," said he.
"That's well," replied De Beaurepaire. "Duchenier, mind our worthy friend here." And he took a pen, and having pulled a small piece of paper from his pocket-book, offered the two to Santerre.
"Now, M. le Général," he said, "I could easily require you to write an order for the liberation of the prisoner; and it might be obeyed in five minutes, and we should all make our escape but one. But whoever was employed to intimidate you--as I am sorry that we are obliged to do--could not escape, because he must remain till last. I therefore prefer another method." He drew out a pistol, and cocked it. "Now, monsieur, write what I dictate, or I put an end to your proceedings in this world."
"Give me the pen," said Santerre, sullenly.
"Write thus:--'I promise, in consideration of the sum of thirty thousand francs, this day received by me,'--is that down?"
"Yes," said Santerre.
De Beaurepaire satisfied himself by looking over the general's shoulder, and then proceeded: "'To use my utmost endeavours to deliver Louis XVII.' "__
"I cannot write that," said Santerre; "it would bring my neck to the guillotine whenever you chose."
"I know it would," said De Beaurepaire. "I shall therefore keep the document in my pocket till we and the prisoner are safely out of the town, and then I give you my honour to destroy it. If you cause us to be arrested before that, I give the paper to your soldiers; and you know that they stand too much in awe of Convention to hesitate about denouncing you. If you call M. Danville as a witness, all that he will prove is that you are a coward--pardon the term, monsieur--and the Convention will guillotine you for that crime as readily as for treason."
"I will give you my word," said Santerre, "to liberate your daughter. You require me to trust to yours; you must also confide in mine."
"I fear, monsieur, that I must trouble you to proceed. Will you take up the pen?"
"What am I to do?" inquired Santerre of Danville.
"Consult your honour," answered he.
"He must find it first," said Texier.
"Now, monsieur," urged De Beaurepaire; "I give you half a minute." And he took out his watch.
"I am ready," said Santerre, taking the pen.
"'To use my utmost endeavours,'" dictated De Beaurepaire, "'to deliver Louis XVII. from his present captivity'--is that written?--'and to overthrow the usurped and rebellious power of the Convention:' may I trouble you to write a little more firmly, monsieur? 'and in particular to deliver Robespierre, Danton and Marat into the hands of his majesty's friends.' Now, monsieur, sign your name, and date it; let me see; this is May; we'll date it Feb. 3, 1793."
Santerre did so. De Beaurepaire folded up the precious paper, put it in his pocket-book, and that in his pocket.
"But you promise--you give me your honour," said Santerre, with now undisguised terror, "to destroy that paper as soon as you are in safety?"
"I will do more. If you send a soldier with me, I will enclose it carefully in an envelope and return it to you by him when we are a mile from the town."
"I will do so," said Santerre.
"Now then," cried Duchenier, "show us the way to Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire."
It had been previously arranged that Santerre, his prisoners, and his suite, should spend this day at La Flêche, in order to give time for the arrival of some other royalists who were to be conveyed to Paris. Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire, the mayor, and his daughter, had found somewhat better treatment from Santerre than they had expected. The fact was that, marching through an unsettled country, he was anxious not to give unnecessary offence; what might have been his conduct as he advanced nearer to Paris, and was more secure of his victims, it were difficult to say. On arriving at La Flêche, Marie and Rose were again permitted to occupy the same apartment; and the mayor was put in possession of an adjacent one, which he occupied by himself. Santerre, whether it were that he had military business elsewhere, or that he knew himself to be the object of abhorrence to Royalist and Girondist, had not visited his prisoners since their arrival in the town.
They were accordingly seated together at breakfast on the following morning; and Le Grand, finding himself more civilly treated, began to recover his animation.
"You see," he said," Rose; you see, Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire, that these fellows, as they get near Paris, are afraid of the representations I shall make. You observe that they treat us with more courtesy. Ah, ah! I understand them. They think to bribe my good word with Convention. Not mine, indeed! I will have them all punished as they deserve. I will denounce them as villains and robbers! I will------"
"My dear father," said Rose, "would it not be more fit, at a time of such great danger to us all, to lay aside these thoughts of revenge? I feel sure you will never have the power of which you speak. If we were not completely in the hands of these men, they would not have ventured to treat us as they have done."
"Danger, child! "he answered, angrily; "never have the power! You are talking nonsense; you do not know what you are saying. What! I, the mayor of Mirebeau; I who, I may say, have been at the head of the revolutionary party in Poitou; I, who have been honoured with the intimate acquaintance of Verginaud and Lan-juinais; I not able to make these rascals smart for their impudence! Pshaw! pshaw!" And he took a long pinch of snuff.
"Indeed, M. Le Grand," said Marie, "I fear you deceive yourself in this matter. I do not know much of politics--I do not wish to know much of them--but I have constantly heard that the party you support were losing their influence. The thorough Jacobins were willing to use your leaders while the king lived: after that they found them only a clog, and they will get rid of them as soon as they can. I have often heard my father say that the days of the Girondists were numbered.'
"Use us!" said, or rather shrieked, the mayor. "Use us, indeed! What, do you mean to say that we are to be browbeaten by beggarly rascals like Danton and Robespierre? No, no, mademoiselle: I have the greatest respect for your father, but he knows nothing about the state of politics. He must have lived at the fountain's head, as I may say that I have done, to be able to see the various bearings of the question."
Marie smiled sadly, but did not answer; and Rose, who seemed to read her friend's thoughts, with a half-mortified, half-affectionate look, expressed a wish that she might prove a false prophet.
"For though I know that you do not approve of my father's party," she said, "yet I am sure you would not confound it with the Jacobins, whom he detests almost as heartily as you do."
"GOD forbid!" answered Marie. "I believe some of them began with the pure wish of establishing a republic, with as little loss of blood as might be. But, in these fearful times, the worst and most desperate men always acquire the most power; because, when there is no restraint of law, those who have no hindrance from con-!! science must have a great worldly advantage over those who have."
"Well, well," said Le Grand, impatiently; but he was interrupted by heavy footsteps along the passage. The bolt was drawn back on the outside; the key snapped in the lock, and Santerre entered, with two officers.
"Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire," said he, "I have to announce to you that you are at liberty to go with these gentlemen."
Marie looked up, and saw her father and Duchenier. Though she was naturally accustomed to curb her feelings, it is no wonder that they were beyond her control on this occasion. With a faint cry she attempted to spring up, but would have fallen senseless on the floor had not Rose caught her in her arms.
"Don't waste more time than you can help," said Santerre, and left the apartment.
"The joy is too much for her," said Rose, who saw the nature of the surprise, though not knowing who the visitors were. "Father, perhaps you would go into your own apartment for a few minutes; and if you, messieurs, would accompany him, I think I could bring her round more quickly."
"I am her father," said De Beaurepaire: "I will not lose sight of her again. Charles, you are not her husband yet, though, please GOD, you soon shall be." And Duchenier very unwillingly accompanied Le Grand.
In a few moments Marie, who had been laid on the bed, recovered her recollection, and heard, piece by piece, the joyful news; that the Vendeans were but six leagues off (for De Beaurepaire acted on his own advice, and kept up the deception), that Santerre had given permission for her instant liberation, and that she was to ride, as soon as ever she should feel able, to the advancing Catholic army.
"Shall I call Charles?" asked her father. "Are you strong enough to see him?"
"Oh, yes, yes!" said Marie, eagerly. "But don't go, Rose--don't leave me,"--for Rose was about to leave the room,--I cannot part with you."
Charles Duchenier entered, followed by Le Grand, who could not imagine that his presence could be unwelcome anywhere. While the lovers were hurriedly telling each other of their happiness, De Beaurepaire took the opportunity of asking if mademoiselle and monsieur were also prisoners.
This brought on an explanation; and De Beaurepaire, rather moved by what he considered a point of honour than by any other feeling, was just debating in his own mind whether he could not liberate Le Grand and his daughter as well, when Duchenier, after saying, "If it possibly can be done, dear Marie," came towards the rest of the party.
"A word with you, M. de Beaurepaire," he said. "Marie is excessively anxious that the young lady who is her fellow-prisoner should accompany us. That cannot be, unless her father goes too. The man is a Girondist; but perhaps he might be made something of--and he has influence."
"I was just thinking," replied the other, "that it would hardly be consistent with our honour to leave two people, who seem to have behaved well to my daughter, in the fangs of that devil Santerre; especially when, as we know very well, he will not dare to refuse us that or any other request."
"Announce it to them, then, monsieur," said Duchenier; and he returned to his place by the couch where Marie was lying.
"M. Le Grand," said De Beaurepaire, "I am happy to be able to make you the offer of escorting you from this place to the royalist army. Your political opinions, I know, are not ours; but I need not say they shall be respected."
Rose only said, "Thank GOD! thank GOD!" and burst into a flood of tears.
Her father, however, thought fit to express his sentiments in a somewhat different strain. "I am much obliged to you, M. de Beaurepaire," said he, "for your offer; and I shall accept it with gratitude on one condition. You must not think me bound to change my opinions, if I follow you to the Vendean army. I hate the malpractices of these Jacobins; but GOD forbid that I should be a royalist."
"Monsieur," said De Beaurepaire politely, "I respect you for your conscientiousness. You lay yourself under no obligation by accepting our protection; but you must feel that, except with us, you cannot, for the present, be in safety."
"I think, Charles," said Marie, "that I feel strong enough to ride now. Do not let us lose an unnecessary moment I feel as if something even yet might occur to prevent my being free."
"I am quite as unwilling, dearest, as you can be to lose any needless time. Do you think, monsieur, that Marie might venture?"
"Oh, yes, I am sure I can," she said, rising, and taking Charles's arm. "But must you not make some arrangement about M. Le Grand?"
"I will go down and do that," said her father; "General Santerre will not object to it, I am sure."
"You seem to have a great deal of influence with him, monsieur," observed Le Grand.
"It is reasonable we should have," answered De Beaurepaire, as he left the room, "with a victorious army so near."
He passed along the passage, down the stairs, and was about to cross the court by which they were separated from the house where Santerre was lodging when Danville met him.
"Allow me, monsieur," said he, "to say a word in private. You are a man of honour; Santerre is not. I feel that I may safely put my life in your hands."
De Beaurepaire bowed.
"We are enemies, monsieur," replied the sous-lieutenant; "but I wish to be an open enemy. General Santerre has thought fit to direct six picked marksmen to await you about a mile from this town, on the road to Baug6; they have instructions to take off yourself, your friend, your servant and the dragoon whom you have on parole; to seize all papers found on your persons, and to bring back your daughter here without injuring her. You must make your arrangements to avoid this danger. I have done enough, and perhaps too much, in warning you of it."
"Monsieur," said De Beaurepaire, "you have laid me under an obligation which is, undoubtedly, the greatest I ever received. All I can say is, if ever the time comes that I am enabled to assist you in any way, I need not assure you that you may command any services that I can render. Will you allow me to ask one thing? Did I understand you rightly that the men were not to hurt my daughter?"
"They had strict orders to take care, in firing, that she did not suffer in the least. You may rest assured on that head."
"I am obliged, monsieur," replied De Beaurepaire.
"We had better not remain longer in conversation," said Danville. "Were you going to the general?"
"I was so, to demand the liberation of the other prisoners."
"Oh, he will easily grant that, after the little private arrangement he has just made. Follow me to him, monsieur."
There was indeed no difficulty. Santerre seemed to have lost the sullen ferocity of his manner; and remarked, though not without a slight touch of sarcasm, that "anything M. de Beaurepaire wished, he could, of course, find no possibility of refusing."
Horses were now ordered to be prepared, both for the party and for the dragoon who was to accompany it out of the town, and to bring back the paper which Santerre had been compelled to sign. Having declined an offer of refreshment made by Santerre, the ladies were summoned from their apartment, and mounted, with joyful hearts, the beasts that had been provided for them. Marie had her own favourite mare, which had carried her hither from Cerisay, and which now arched her beautiful neck and whinnied for joy as she felt her mistress once more on her back.