IT has sometimes happened to me, in my rambles through Somersetshire or Sussex, to come to a stand-still in some lovely spot where my road branched into two. The one fork led onwards into a fair, open country, specked with churches, cottages and tree-tufts, and girdled in by a glorious belt of hills; the other plunged into a deep and overhung lane, where the trees, intermingling from either side, made a groining of bright leaves, and the jutting rocks were grey or yellow with the lichen, or gaudy with the heath or the foxglove. In such a spot I never hesitated long. The open country might have its charms for others; I always chose the deep quiet lane.
And even so it must be here. I am now come to a place in my tale where two paths are open before me. I might take my reader back to the Catholic army, with its thousand fights: I may also call upon him to accompany those in whom, I would hope, he is disposed to feel some interest, in their less extended, but more romantic, adventures. The latter shall be our choice.
The inhabitants of La Flêche saw, not without great curiosity and some apprehension, the little band of royalists that rode steadily through the narrow streets, and over the moat, on the road to Baugé. A report had spread that the Vendeans were not very far distant; and they therefore allowed our party to proceed without the slightest approach to insult. As soon as they had crossed the moat Duchenier was for riding forwards at a good pace.
"I must be general, Charles," said De Beaurepaire; "and we must not ride on fast. M. Le Grand, I must request you to ride in between your daughter and mine. You, sirrah"--to Santerre's soldier--"shall go next; and we four will bring up the rear."
"I may trust to your honour, monsieur," said Le Grand; "and I am sure you have some meaning in what you say." And he rode forward. Marie looked at her father, and read his countenance well enough to be sure that he was desirous not to be asked any questions; and, with a somewhat trembling heart, she also rode on by the side of the mayor. The soldier seemed disposed to dispute the order he had received; but, judging wisely that he could gain nothing by opposition, obeyed.
"Duchenier," said De Beaurepaire, "the case is this:--I have learnt, no matter how, that that villain Santerre has sent forward six marksmen on the road to pick us four off--you, La Force, too--and then to carry back my daughter. They are to seize all papers found on our persons: and thus Santerre hopes to get possession of the paper I made him sign, and to silence all those that were witnesses to his having signed it. But they have express orders not to injure my daughter in any way. Now, my belief is, that they will fire upon us from behind some bushes, or something of that kind. I therefore propose to let the ladies ride on first, ourselves keeping some little distance behind. This will oblige the marksmen to show themselves, and to stop them. We shall then, if we can, shoot them down; at all events, it is our best chance. We have all guns but you, La Force; we ought to be able to make sure of three of them. I do not think we can all hope to come off with life; but two, or at least one of us, may expect to do so. Whoever survives will conduct my daughter and the others to Thouars."
"But are you sure--are you quite sure," inquired Charles Duchenier, anxiously, "that you are not exposing Marie to danger?"
"Most positively certain," replied her father. "I have thought the plan over a hundred times; and I am sure it is the only one which can give us a chance. If we all ride on together we shall be quietly picked off, and she will be carried back to La Flêche,--and we know what that means. I would rather, ten times, see her shot down before my very eyes than that she should again fall into Santerre's power. Now, La Force, will you stand by us?"
"Undoubtedly, monsieur. But what am I to do? I have only pistols; and they, without question, will fire before we come near enough for pistol-shot."
"Nothing was said about M. Le Grand, was there?" inquired Duchenier.
"Nothing about him, or his daughter," answered De Beaurepaire; "because Santerre had despatched this party before we demanded their liberation."
"Then call back the mayor," said Charles; "he showed himself to be a man of courage to-day. Give him a couple of pistols, and tell him of the danger. They will probably not shoot him; but will suppose he is to be taken back as a prisoner; so they will only stop his horse, and he, in return, must pull his trigger."
"And, La Force," said Texier, "take my gun; I will ride on in front. They will fire at me, but they may miss me; or, if they don't, I may be only wounded, and I shall be within pistol-shot."
"You are a noble fellow, Texier," said Duchenier. "Ride on, and send the mayor back. But stay: what do you mean to do with this fellow whom Santerre sent with us?"
"To send him back when we get a little further," answered De Beaurepaire, "bidding him to tell Santerre that we have discovered his plans, and will not return his paper till we have escaped them. I would send him at once, but we are not far enough from the town. There is no saying what Santerre would do, should we drive him to desperation. Now, Texier, ride on."
Le Grand came back, heard the danger in which he stood, and showed himself equal to it. "You shall find, messieurs," he said, "this day, that a civic functionary has his honour as well as military personages. His honour, messieurs," he was proceeding, for he had got on a subject on which it was his custom to dilate, "his honour is as precious to him------"
"Yes, yes, monsieur," said Duchenier, somewhat hastily, "we know all that; but we are pressed, you will observe, for time, and we may fall into the ambush at any moment."
"I reserve to myself, monsieur, the right of making any observations on your brusqueness at a future time," replied the mayor, with what he would have called I'air grand. "At present, I shall ride on;" which he did accordingly.
"We are safe, I think, for the present," said De Beaurepaire; for the road now came out on a wide common, without a bush or tree. "Nevertheless, we may as well unsling our guns." This was done, and the party rode on at a fast trot. The arrangement was this: Texier occupied the extreme right of the first division; next to him was Marie de Beaurepaire; on her left rode Le Grand; and on his left, again, Rose. Some ten yards behind them came the dragoon, and at somewhat a greater distance from him the rear-guard,--Duchenier to the right, La Force in the middle, De Beaurepaire to the left. Thus they rode for about three-quarters of a mile, till the common gave signs of coming to an end. About a quarter of a mile further on a hedge appeared to terminate it, and to separate it from the cultivated land. Duchenier noticed it. "They will be there, M. de Beaurepaire," said he.
"There, or at the side of the road further on," he answered. "Halt!"
The party reined in their horses.
"Now, M. le Dragon," continued De Beaurepaire, "you will return to General Santerre, and tell him that I have discovered his villainy; and that therefore, till I have escaped it, I shall not dream of returning the paper for which he sent you. Begone, sir, or you will repent it."
"This is what you call aristocratic honour," said the fellow, with a sneer.
"Don't provoke me, sirrah!" answered Beaurepaire. "Remember, we are all armed. Ride home at once."
The man appeared disposed to disobey; but a sudden motion of Duchenier's hand to his pistol brought him to reason. He turned round, and rode slowly homewards.
"Now then, forward!" cried De Beaurepaire.
The party accordingly proceeded at a brisk trot, the ladies' horses cantering, till they approached the hedge. Duchenier's eye ran along it, but he could perceive no trace of anything like soldiers or horses; and the road now lay between unenclosed fields. The corn was not sufficiently high to offer the smallest obstruction to the sight, and they pressed onward for five minutes. Then the road turned slightly to the right, and, at the distance of fifty yards before them, an old and apparently deserted barn stood on the left hand.
"Now, then, for it!" cried Duchenier. "There cannot be a doubt that this will be the place. Let me change places with you, M. de Beaurepaire."
"No," replied that gentleman; "best keep as we are."
"Look!" cried Duchenier, "look! I am sure I saw something at the barn-door!"
The van of the little party was now almost even with it. At that moment six dragoons rode out with "Halt! you are prisoners!" The words were scarcely spoken before Texier shot one of the assailants through the head; Duchenier, La Force and De Beaurepaire reined in their horses and fired together, wounded one of the dragoons, and killed two. The mayor had not been behindhand in good-will; but, from his want of use in the weapon he held, had been collared and thrown from his horse by one of the dragoons. The two that remained unwounded rode off at full speed towards Baugé; turned at thirty yards, took aim at De Beaurepaire and Duchenier, and fired. The cap of the latter was pierced, and the former received a slight scratch on his arm; and the dragoons, finding their enterprise fruitless, put spurs to their horses and rode off,
The wounded dragoon was raised, and found to be but slightly hurt. De Beaurepaire gave into his hands the paper, requested him to return it to Santerre, and to inform that general of the bad success of his villainy; and the man, who had no hopes that his life would be spared, undertook to do so.
As soon as he was gone all was joyful confusion. There was so much to be talked over, so much to be settled, so many inquiries on both sides, that it was not till Marie had inquired how soon they might expect to be with their friends that M. de Beaurepaire remembered to inform her of the deception that he had practised on her captors. It cannot be denied that this information considerably damped the spirits of some of the party. It was so likely that at Baugé, through which they must pass, the trick would have been discovered; so possible that they might meet some body of the republican force marching northward. De Beaurepaire laughed at these suggestions. "We are more likely," said he, "to be overtaken by some of the Blues than to meet them. They are pouring in all the forces they can spare, and more than they can spare, on La Vendée; and as to the good people of Baugé, why, they may discover the trick or not, as they please. I would not give a rush one way or the other. Nevertheless, I think we had better ride forward as fast as may be."
The order was now somewhat changed. Texier and La Force rode first, the fidelity of the latter being by this time considered secure; Duchenier and Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire came next; and Rose rode between M. de Beaurepaire and her father in the rear.
"Dearest Marie," said Charles, when they had proceeded a little way in silence, "do you remember what you promised me three nights ago,--and it almost seems to be three months,--that last evening when we were together in the winter-parlour?"
"What, Charles?" asked Marie, looking a little conscious, however.
"That if ever, dearest, your father should give me leave to claim you as my own, you would not hesitate to give yourself to me. You remember saying so?"
"I believe," answered Marie de Beaurepaire, half-smiling and blushing, "that I did say so."
"And when I asked it," replied Charles, "I had no idea that I should be able to claim that promise for months,--perhaps not ever. But now the case is altered. Your father told me, when I had determined to track you to Paris myself, and he thought that his best hope of regaining you lay in not accompanying me,--may I tell you what he said, dearest one?"
"Oh, yes, you may tell me," answered Marie, gaily.
"He charged me with a message to you, which I promised to give. He said that if I were happy enough to rescue you, he wished, as soon as ever an insermenté priest could be found, that you should give me a better right to take care of you than that of a lover. Now, what he thought almost necessary then, I am sure there is equal necessity for now. Will you let me speak to him again on this? I do not think I am selfish in wishing it. I know well that I may fall any day, any hour, in these wars; but I believe that, if GOD so orders it, you would rather------" He paused, as if at a loss how to express himself.;
"Charles," she replied, "it is so. I know what you mean: you mean, that in that case--which our kind Lady forbid!--I would rather be left your widow than one who, in the eyes of the world, had no nearness of claim to grieve for your loss: I would ten thousand times rather that it were so. If you can get my father's consent to the plan you propose, you need not ask mine."
"Thank you, dearest one, a thousand times, for what you have said; I will speak to M. de Beaurepaire presently. But now we must ride carefully, for there is the town of Baugé, where they are staunch Blues.--Texier, I will thank you to ride on Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire's other side.--La Force, you may be able to help us, by speaking them fair, should there be any disposition to attack us."
"I will try, monsieur," answered he.
It fortunately happened to be nearly twelve o'clock, and almost every one in Baugé was at dinner. Thus they were two-thirds of the way through the town before the landlord of the Perche, who was the chief leader and mover of the republican party in the place, had received intimation of their approach. As they gained the southern end of the town one or two of the inhabitants looked out of their windows and doors, and remarks were interchanged which seemed to show that the scheme had been discovered.
"Do the rebels dine here?" shouted the butcher.
"How many more places have they taken since you were here, you old scoundrel?" cried the epicier.
"When Santerre catches you, he'll find means to make you smart for it," shouted a third fellow.
"You see, dearest, they dare not touch us; and we must not mind a few hard words.
"How could you devise such a plan?" asked Marie.
"It was not mine," replied her lover; "it was your father's. I thought it desperate at first; but he managed it with wonderful skill--both that and the manner in which he treated Santerre. We had no difficulty except in this town; and you see, thank GOD, we are now almost clear of it again."
"Where shall we rest the horses, Charles?" cried De Beaurepaire from behind, as the road again lay through the quiet fields.
"Might we venture Beaufort?" inquired Duchenier.
"Better not, I think; Les Hosiers is not much farther, and we know the people."
"Oh, they will hold out till then," cried Duchenier; and he went on talking to Marie. At length, "Now," he said, "dearest, I must talk a little to your father; Texier shall take my place.--M. de Beaurepaire, may I have a few words with you?"
De Beaurepaire consented, and the two fell back a little.
"Now, monsieur," said Charles, "you remember what you charged me to tell your daughter, in case I should be fortunate enough to rescue her at Paris; do you still hold to that wish? I tell you freely that I have mentioned it to her, and the matter now rests with you."
"Let us reach Thouars," said De Beaurepaire, "and she shall be yours as soon as the priest can be found. When I gave you that message I was in greater distress than, I hope, I ever shall be again; but that does not alter the case."
Charles Duchenier thanked M. de Beaurepaire with more fervency than fluency; for his heart was too full for words. Indeed, both of them were so occupied with their own thoughts, that it was Texier who, some ten minutes afterwards, cried out, "Messieurs, look behind you!"
They turned their heads, and a cloud of dust told but too plainly that a body of horse was on the road.
"We are pursued!" cried Charles; it must be from those villains at Baugé". Let me be by Marie.
"I will be in the rear with Texier," said De Beaurepaire. "La Force, you shall be by me, too. M. Le Grand, you and your daughter must ride."
And they did ride. The rough pavé clattered beneath the hoofs of the seven horses; and many an anxious eye was cast backwards to judge if the pursuers gained.
"Don't look behind you, Marie," cried Charles, as her horse stumbled; "you must take care of your horse,--a fall would be the end of the matter."
"But do you think they are gaining?"
"Not very much; and if we can but keep them behind half-an-hour we shall be at Les Rosiers."
"Are we safe there?"
"Safe against any except a regular organised force; and if we can manage to cross the river, they will not be able to get their horses over, because there is but one barge."
Ten minutes more, however, served to put it out of doubt that the pursuers were gaining. They seemed to be in number about twenty, and were not all soldiers, though Duchenier thought that some were. Both parties held on; the road was as straight as an arrow--not a hedge, bush or tree to intercept the view; it was a pure trial of speed, and a trial between fresh and wearied horses. De Beaurepaire gave himself and his daughter up for lost; but he only said, "Well, Texier?"
"It is up with us, monsieur, I think. We have made a good fight for it, and no one can do more. But I almost hope we may save Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire."
"If you, monsieur, and I, and La Force throw ourselves in the way, we can keep them at bay for a few minutes; or, M. Duchenier might stand with us, and you ride."
"No, no," cried De Beaurepaire. "I have had a good taste of life; and I ought to be content to walk off the stage. What do you mean to do, La Force?"
"Fight to the last," he said. "The guillotine would be far too good for me, if Santerre were to get me in his clutches."
"And the mayor and his daughter will probably shift with the others. They are gaining pretty fast,"
"So they are, monsieur. They will be within pistol-shot in five minutes."
"Well, Texier, a man can die but once."
"No, monsieur; so he die well then--that is the thing."
And now the road, rising a little, gained the summit of a hill; and at its foot, to the unspeakable joy of the pursued, rolled the broad Loire, while the spire of Les Rosiers glittered brightly by the side of the great river.
"Duchenier," said De Beaurepaire, "listen to what I say. You and M. Le Grand must take care of my daughter and the other young lady. We turn and face these men."
"I will not leave you," said Duchenier. "M. Le Grand will be sufficient escort; but I trust you will ride forward yourself."
"Charles," cried De Beaurepaire, "if you fail my daughter now, my curse be on you! I shall certainly turn; if you turn with me, I shall look on you as a mean and pitiful scoundrel to desert a girl, whose heart you have won, at the moment she most needs you."
"I obey, M. de Beaurepaire," answered Duchenier. "But take notice, gentlemen, it is by compulsion."
This conversation, though by no means carried on in an under-voice, was not intelligible to Marie and Rose, whose light weight and comparatively fresh horses gave them an advantage in this race for life and death. They understood its sense, however; and Marie, turning her head, called her lover. He was at her side in a moment; and, in the rapid whirl of this flight, a few brief words were interchanged, audible to no ears but their own.
The road was rough and stony, and the hill that sloped towards the Loire of considerable steepness. The fugitives were about half-way down it when their pursuers appeared on the bend, and began to descend as furiously as those had done whom they were following. But the same speed was not attended with the same safety. An officer who rode in front, and who seemed by his eagerness and his gestures to be the leader of the party, was too intent on the pursuit to look well to his horse's feet; the beast stepped on a rolling stone, and in a moment came to the ground with extreme violence, crushing his rider's leg in his fall. The party were so close together that the two or three horses immediately behind the unfortunate officer went down over him; one or two more were thrown back on their haunches, and the confusion caused a sudden halt; those who had spurred past the fallen man almost unconsciously returning to render their assistance.
"On! on!" shouted Duchenier; "we may all cross. Look, the ferry is close to this side, and the man is unmooring it!" And, raising his voice with a prodigious effort of strength, he shouted, "Over?"
The boatman evidently understood; for he took off his hat and waved it, then replaced it on his head, and beckoned to the fliers. Then he, with his companion, stood at the head of the boat, and at the top of the steps intended for the descent of horses into it. Each held his long heavy punt in his hand, keeping the boat close to the beach, but ready to push it off the moment they should have received their freight. One standing on one side, and one on the other, seemed to intend that the Vendeans should pass between them without losing a second.
"Now Marie," cried Charles Duchenier, "all depends on ourselves. You and Mademoiselle Le Grand must ride into the boat without dismounting. I will do the same. The rest must leave their horses on this side; for there would not be room for all; and it is essentially necessary but to have three. You see there is no other boat, so that those who are on foot on the other side will still be perfectly safe. I will go first; your horses will follow mine the more easily."
"Right, right, Charles!" cried De Beaurepaire from behind. "Texier and La Force, throw yourselves from your horses as soon as ever they are on the beach,"
"They will fire," said Texier.
"And pretty unsteady hands they will have," said De Beaurepaire.
About two seconds more passed, during which the distance between the two parties held at about three hundred yards. The Vendeans were now close on the Loire. Duchenier spurred on in front; and conquering the resistance of his horse, forced him on board the ferry, and instantly dismounting, was ready to seize the bridle of Marie's steed, as, with some hesitation, she endeavoured to follow Rose, who was unused to riding, and who was mounted on an animal less properly trained, was nearly thrown from it in getting it on board: but De Beaurepaire, Texier and La Force were now dismounted and by her side, and they contrived to force it in without any accident. Then it took but a moment for the whole party to follow and for the men to push off; so that the republicans were full a hundred yards from the shore when the boat was fairly afloat.
"You must get down, dear Marie," said Duchenier, assisting her; "you must get down, Mademoiselle Le Grand, and crouch here out of the way of the horses, in case those fellows should fire."
"Better get, all of you, on this side the horses, and make them a screen," said the boatman. "Aha, monsieur! that was a clever trick you played yesterday; and I suppose the villains have found you out I guessed how it was, when I saw you first over the brow of the hill; at all events, says I to Pierre here, the boat shall be ready, in case of the worst."
"We owe you more than we can ever repay," replied De Beaurepaire. "But what mean you to do with yourselves!"
Before the question could be answered, the republican soldiers were on the beach. "Stop, boatman!" roared a young man at their head; "stop, or we fire! Those persons are royalists and brigands; carry them over at your peril!"
"Stretch to it, Pierre," said the boatman. And the long sweeps seemed to plough up the water with more than human force.
"Lie to; or we fire!" shouted the officer; the great heavy boat making but slow way. The sweeps gave a couple of strokes more, and then from the shore came the command--" Fire!" Instantly a volley was poured in on the devoted ferry. The boatmen, however, and Vendeans, were so well screened, partly by the massy seat that divided the place appropriated to the horses from that designed for passengers; partly by the horses themselves, that they received not the slightest injury. But the horses, one mortally and one severely wounded, reared, plunged, and kicked, with frightful violence. Texier and Duchenier were among them, and, assisted by La Force, contrived to master the animal that was not hurt, and that which was dying; the other struggled so violently that, taking advantage of his rearing up, Duchenier forced the curb back upon his mouth, and, with one of those fearful screams that horses can utter, he fell into the river. A second volley was poured in at less advantage, but to more effect. The dying horse was killed--the unhurt one wounded; and Texier felt a sensation in his arm as if a hot iron had been passed from shoulder to elbow. The ball, however, that passed him did no other harm, and the boatman said, "That is about over."
And so, in truth, it proved. The ferry had now the advantage of the current; and the shots that, for the third time, were poured on it were well nigh spent. Scarcely any one of the party, however (Marie and Rose excepted), but received some slight hurt; a hurt that scarcely did more than remind them what a fearful danger they had escaped.
"Where can they cross?" demanded De Beaurepaire.
"They must go round, monsieur, either by Angers or Saumur," replied the boatman: "there is no bridge between them; and there is no other ferry."
"Oh! then we are safe enough," cried Duchenier. "But, my good fellows, you can never return to Les Hosiers."
"Very true, monsieur," answered the man: we must even along with you. We had made up our minds to it before; for we cannot sit still any longer in these times. The man that won't strike a blow for the good cause when he might, is almost as much a scoundrel, to my mind, as if he struck one for the bad."
"That's true," answered Duchenier, "and I am very glad to hear you say so."
"It may be true," said De Beaurepaire," but it does not lessen my obligation to you, my good friends; and if I live to reach the camp I will show you that it has not diminished my gratitude."
"Oh, never talk of that, monsieur!" cried the fisherman. "Only give us the means of getting a gun each, and we shall ask nothing more. Look! they have made up their minds to try Angers; for they are riding on that way."
"So I see," replied Charles. "Marie, dearest, the danger is quite over: you may rise whenever you like."
Mademoisellede Beaurepaire instantly rose, and her fair companion followed her example. A hurried consultation followed as to what was next to be done; for the party were still twenty miles from the Vendean headquarters.
"My advice is this," said Duchenier. "Let us wait here a few moments till we can be sure that our friends yonder are too far on their way to notice what is done: then some of us can put over again, and endeavour to secure the four horses we turned adrift. On two of these we can mount the ladies, and two of us can ride forward with them. The others must provide themselves as best they can; at all events, if they can do no better, they can walk."
"Oh, no, Charles!" cried Marie. "You must not think of it. We can well walk till horses can be provided for us. You must not run into danger so very needlessly."
"Nonsense, child," replied her father. "The plan is an excellent one; and time is everything to us now. There is no danger in the world."
"Indeed there is not, Marie," said Charles. "We will but wait till the party are over that hill, and then cross."