It was a glorious evening in spring. The sun was just on the very verge of the horizon; there was that delicate tint of green around the place of his setting that seems to prove how earth cannot adorn herself with any one tint which may not be more beautifully displayed in heaven; the breeze, which had been brisk all day, was now dying into silence; there was the sweet smell of the new hay, of the young honeysuckles, and the may-thorn; everything, except the hearts of men, was at peace.
In the old-fashioned garden of a venerable house in La Chateignerie, where the head-quarters of the Vendeans now were, Charles Duchenier and Marie de Beaurepaire were enjoying the evening hour and the bright forecasts of love and hope. If we listen for a few moments to their conversation we may learn what had befallen them since we left them on the banks of the Loire.
"So, dearest one," said Duchenier, "whatever sorrows we may still have to bear, we shall bear them henceforth together, and so lighten them by more than half. I am almost selfish enough to rejoice in the past, when it seems, under Goto have opened such a future."
"Yes, Charles," returned Marie; "it almost seems as if we were wrong thus to think of ourselves, when there is such a crisis at hand for all we hold dearest. But I am sure that when I am really and truly yours, you will not be the less willing to risk all for what you love, or ought to love, better than me--our Church and our King."
"I trust not, I trust not, Marie; it would be sad indeed if it were so. But let us talk a little more of tomorrow. This Bishop of Agra, whose coming has given our troops so much confidence, will willingly officiate. One could hardly have looked, when we seem so utterly forsaken by all, for episcopal benediction on our marriage."
"We could not," replied Marie. "And yet, Charles, there is something about the Bishop of Agra--GOD forgive me if I do him injustice--which I do not like."
"How so?" inquired Duchenier.
"He always seems to me," pursued Marie, "to be acting a part; and I have once or twice heard him say things which perhaps he did not intend to convey that impression, but which certainly, so far as words and manner went, gave the idea that, in circumstances like ours, the end justified the means. Now, when one looks on the beautiful faith of our peasantry, who are so well assured that, if they only do right, GOD'S blessing will be upon them, it is most saddening to think of any less pure motive of action being introduced amongst them, by him especially whose business it is to teach and to guide them."
"Perhaps there may be something in what you say, dear Marie; but I trust it is the bishop's manner more than anything else. I left your father with him just now: he was very busy in settling everything for tomorrow."
"Oh, yes!" said Marie, half-smilingly, and yet mournfully; "my poor father cannot bear that the matter should pass over, as I should prefer it, quietly. He cannot yet imagine himself elsewhere than at Cerisay: and there, you know, to-morrow would have been a day to be remembered by the poor for years to come."
"Well, it is very natural," replied Duchenier. "And, ceremony or no ceremony, so I have but you, I care not a straw, except for your sake. But indeed, dearest one, you must be prepared for a good deal of notoriety; for I know that Cathelineau, and D'Elbée, and Marigny, and the other leaders, mean to ask leave to be present."
"Do not think that I have any silly wish to keep the matter needlessly quiet," said Marie: "and for your sake I cannot but be glad to hear that they do mean to be present, because I well know the reason of their wish. But consider, Charles, I am not only motherless, but, excepting Rose, I have not a single female friend with me: and, in the very midst of all these terrible preparations, there is something that sometimes makes my heart almost sink within me."
"I do not wonder at it--I cannot wonder at it, dear Marie. But I hope and trust that these sorrows and doubts may be but as for a moment compared with the long bright years GOD may be pleased to give us with each other."
"I hope so, Charles, and can sometimes almost believe so. But look! here comes my father with M. deLescure. You must let me go in--you must indeed; for I am not fit to meet them now." And Marie de Beaurepaire made her escape into the house.
"Good evening, Charles," said De Lescure, as he came forward with De Beaurepaire. "I am come to ask a favour of you and your fair bride--I may almost call her your bride now--which you will make me very happy if you will grant."
"What is that, M. de Lescure?" inquired his friend. "If I can anyhow do it, you know well. I shall only be too glad."
"You will be most anxious, I am sure, to place Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire in safety, as soon as possible after the wedding is over. M. de Beaurepaire tells me that you have not determined on your plans, and are yet undecided what place to choose for her. What I have to propose is this. You know that my own wife is at the Chateau de la Boulaye for the present; there cannot be a safer situation; and yet, on whatever side our army is attacked, it cannot be at a very great distance from her. If you will trust her to be a companion to your fair bride, till this insurrection, one way or the other, shall be decided, I am sure Victorine will do all in her power to cheer and to comfort her; and I shall be delighted to think that she has a friend, in my absence, whom she will, I am sure, learn to value so highly and to love so dearly."
"I will not waste words, M. de Lescure," replied Duchenier, "in trying to express how much I feel the kindness of your offer, nor how completely it is the very thing I could have wished; and I am sure I may say the same thing for Marie too.--I need hardly ask you, monsieur," he proceeded, turning to De Beaurepaire, "what is your opinion of the propriety of our accepting M. de Lescure's truly kind proposal?"
"Indeed you need not, Charles. Circumstances being as they are, I could not even imagine an arrangement more calculated for my daughter's happiness."
"I had mentioned the affair to M. de Beaurepaire," proceeded De Lescure, "and he did me the honour to coincide in my view of the case. But I was going to say, would it not be better to carry your bride thither as soon as possible? The country now is thoroughly clear between here and Chatillon."
"In my opinion, Charles, better not lose a single hour," said De Beaurepaire. "The wedding--so we have arranged with the bishop--is to be at ten. If you contrived it well, you might arrive at La Boulaye before dusk; the distance can scarcely be twelve leagues."
"Not more than eleven, I think," said De Lescure.
"And a messenger might be despatched early to-morrow morning, bidding them prepare all things for your reception."
"There is but one difficulty," replied Charles; "and that, if it be one at all, is so to the whole plan, I have promised Marie that, wherever it may be arranged that I take her, her friend Rose Le Grand shall be with her. Her father, I understand, is set on returning, disguised, to Mirebeau, for the purpose of preserving some of his property; and, as it is impossible that Rose should go with him,--for his expedition altogether is somewhat harebrained,--she would be left altogether without a friend, did not Marie take compassion upon her."
"Not the slightest objection, my dear fellow, that I can see, in that," replied De Lescure. "There is room enough at La Boulaye for many more than it is likely to contain." '
"Then," replied Charles, "I will joyfully go and acquaint Marie with the arrangement. All their little preparations must be made accordingly."
"Cerisay," said De Beaurepaire, "is as nearly as possible halfway between here and Chatillon. You might dine there, while you rest your horses for an hour or two."
"So we might," said Duchenier, going. "Good-night, M. de Lescure, if I do not see you again; and pray accept my thanks once more for your great kindness." So saying, he betook himself into the house.
The sun rose most uncloudedly on the following morning. Though but the middle of May, the weather was as hot as July; so intensely sultry, indeed, that more than one weatherwise peasant gave it as his opinion, that there must be some sudden change. Towards half-past nine, the fair little church of Ste. Marguerite was almost full, for great interest was felt by the peasantry in the happiness of one whom they valued so highly as Duchenier. Many, who could not obtain admission into the edifice, clustered round the outside, and formed themselves, as the time drew nigh, into a sort of half-military line, extending from either side of the church-door almost as far as M. de Beaurepaire's temporary abode, which lay on the other side of the little Place Ste. Marguerite. The parlour of that gentleman was filled with the principal leaders of the insurrection, all eager to show respect to Duchenier and--though in a less degree--to De Beaurepaire. The company were but waiting for the bride to make her appearance. The soi-disant Bishop of Agra was already at the church; and the chiefs were broken up into two or three little knots, discussing rather the prospects of the army than the occasion that had called them together. De Lescure, De Donnissan, De Beaurepaire, and Duchenier, were standing rather apart from the rest.
"Take a week, take a week, Charles," said the former. "To-morrow I trust we shall be in possession of Fontenay; and then the troops, I am very sure, will disband for a few days. So that if you are with us again in eight or nine days, you will be amply in time for whatever projects may by that period have been determined on."
"So it shall be, then," replied Duchenier. "I hope and trust that Fontenay will give you but little trouble; and--I am sure you will believe me--nothing less than such an engagement as this should have prevented my sharing that enterprise with you."
"We are certain of it, monsieur," said De Donnissan, politely. "I trust that your journey will be accomplished without inconvenience."
At this moment, Marie, leaning on her father's arm, and accompanied by Rose, entered the room. The bridal procession was formed; and moving across the Place which we have already mentioned, it presently entered the nave of Ste. Marguerite. Forth came the bishop, a man of grave presence and commanding air, from the sacristy. The chiefs and soldiers formed around him, leaving Marie, De Beaurepaire, Rose, Charles, and D'Elbée--who was as much flattered by acting as bridesman as if he had obtained a grand cross--in the centre of the circle. Then was the solemn and yet simple rite performed--the troths plighted and the ring blessed; and then, advancing to the altar, the bishop, according to the rite of his Church, said mass and blessed the marriage. As they came forth again from the holy walls, Marie Duchenier now leaning on her husband's arm, and followed by De Beaurepaire and Rose, the peasantry raised one long and joyful shout, and then permitted the bridal party to enter the house. De Beaurepaire soon found means of giving them, by Texier, wherewith to keep the day happily; and the Bishop of Agra having blessed the meal, the party sat down to their breakfast.
As soon as it seemed possible so to do, Duchenier gave orders for the heavy, lumbering coach which was to convey his bride, Rose, and himself to La Boulaye. Forth it came, its rich painting and gilding--for it had once belonged to a certain Count de la Chateignerie--contrasting strangely enough with the rope-harness and miserable horses. Texier, and five others from the parish of Cerisay, had vowed that they would not leave their young lady till they saw her in safety at La Boulaye, and were therefore now prepared to act as a sort of military escort to the carriage. All things being ready, and announcement made that they were so, De Beaurepaire folded his daughter in his arms with affection which would have considerably injured his character as a perfect gentleman, in the Versailles of his younger days. Rose took a leave not less tender of her father; and then both the fair girls fell on their knees before the bishop for his blessing. Duchenier, meanwhile, was bidding the various chiefs farewell gaily and brightly; and then the whole party descended the broad staircase, and surrounded the carriage. The clumsy steps are let down, Marie enters; Rose follows, seating herself on the opposite side; and then Duchenier seats himself, with an apology to the latter, beside his wife. The escort draws up behind the carriage--adieus are waved--the peasantry shout--and the bridal party drives off. Our course is with them.
The heat of the weather and the sandy roads rendered the journey necessarily slow--at least, so thought Rose and the men who rode by the side; and when the party began to ascend the Gatines, the heavy carriage seemed scarcely to make any way at all. Duchenier alighted, and, walking by the side of the vehicle, now and then spoke to his bride, and sometimes addressed a passing observation to some one of the escort.
"Why, Texier," he said, "this weather is tremendously hot."
"You may say that, monsieur," replied the young peasant drawing his hand across his forehead, and dashing it on to the ground. "I never remember such a day in May; and I think we shall have a storm before long. Look there, monsieur."
He pointed through one of the gaps to the right in the chain of downs that they were ascending; and Duchenier, following the direction of his hand, saw a closely-heaped bank of black clouds, with here and there a white fleece-like vapour piled upon them, coming up, as it seemed, from the horizon.
"I hope," said he, "we shall be at Boulaye before it comes on, for that will be a bad storm."
"At Boulaye, monsieur? If we are at Cerisay," replied Texier, "it will be as much as we are: they are coming up against the wind very fast."
"How far do you call it to Cerisay?" inquired Charles.
"They call it three leagues from the top of the hill," replied Texier, "and a good three leagues it is. But, on my word, monsieur, I never knew anything like this before. The higher one mounts, instead of rinding a fine fresh breeze, the more sultry it becomes."
"I don't want you to distress the horses, mes amis" said Charles to the postilions, as he re-entered the carriage, which was now nearly at the summit of the hill; "but the faster you can get on to Cerisay the better for us."
"And the better for us too, monsieur," said one of the men; "for there is a heavy storm brewing yonder; and, if we lose time, we shall be drenched to the skin."
"Eh bien! courrez toujours!" cried Duchenier; and the carriage proceeded at a pace at which it probably had never been driven before.
Meanwhile, as the afternoon advanced, the storm came up with fearful speed. The sun was shrouded in a red and lurid haze; and yet the heat seemed to increase. The big drops of sweat rolled off the horses--the soldiers every now and then raised their caps from their foreheads, as if courting some imaginary breeze--the dust, here and there, rose in whirls to the sky--the birds, in the wooded district through which the travellers were now passing, were profoundly silent--a death-like expectation of something dreadful seemed to have come over the face of nature. Rose felt depressed to a degree of faint-heartedness she had never before experienced. Sitting on the storm-side of the carriage, her eyes were fixed on the on-coming of the tempest; but her heart was with her father, who also, that same day, was to set forth on his perilous expedition. Marie might, perhaps, have felt the same depression, had she been situated as her friend; as it was she crept closer to her husband, and every now and then interchanged with him a few sweet words of perfect affection. As to Charles Duchenier, he gave the storm no further consideration than in so far as it was likely to affect the comfort of his little escort, and might possibly prevent their reaching La Boulaye that night. They had calculated on being at Cerisay by two o'clock,--resting there a couple of hours, and so arriving at their destination by seven at the latest: but it was three before they began to descend the hill which over-topped the valley of Cerisay; and the horses seemed perfectly exhausted by the sultriness of the weather and the heaviness of the road. The sky was now quite black overhead; still there was not a breath of wind, nor a drop of rain--everything around, leaves, grass, and boughs, were as hush as at midnight. Just as they began to descend the hill, an intensely vivid flash of lightning, accompanied rather than followed by a tremendous peal of thunder, gave notice that the storm had commenced. It was a fortunate circumstance for the party that the horses were so weary; for, tired as they were, they gave manifest proofs of terror and restiveness. The beast on which one of the peasants was mounted, after rearing and plunging, took the bit between his teeth, and tore wildly down the hill. Down the same hill the postilions hurried, at a pace very far from their usual caution; and they had almost reached the Grange Neuve, which we have described in the second chapter of this history, when a second flash, still more brilliant than the first, and more simultaneously accompanied with the peal of thunder, urged them to still greater exertions.
"If this lasts, dearest," said Duchenier, "it will be absolutely impossible for us to go beyond Cerisay this afternoon. The horses will be perfectly unmanageable.--What are you about, sirrah?" he continued, looking out of the window, and speaking to one of the postilions; "don't beat that horse so; beating him will never cure him of his fright."
"Indeed, Madame Duchenier," said Rose,--it was the first time she had called her so,--" indeed, I think that it would be better to stay at your own chateau for tonight, if there is no danger from any party of the Blues."
"Not the slightest," said Charles,--" good heavens, what a flash!--not the slightest; and as they had notice down at the village from De Lescure's messenger, that we should dine there to-day, we shall doubtless find persons enough waiting for us at the chateau, so that we may make any arrangements we please."
It should be observed that, as soon as the successive captures of Thouars, Parthenay, and La Chateignerie, had thrown all that part of Poitou into the power of the Vendeans, M. de Beaurepaire had taken care that his chateau (which had suffered very little serious injury when stormed) should be again put into habitable order, and tenanted by the housekeeper who had previously managed it, and the ordinary servants; so that when the postilions turned--we have already described the topography--to the right, and dashed up the avenue which led to the house, Duchenier was not astonished to see a large number of the peasantry crowding in and around the portico, foremost among whom was the spare figure of Father Laval. The carriage drew up, the steps were let down; Duchenier jumped out, and handed forth first his bride, and then Rose Le Grand; and the whole party were forthwith received with that mixture of politeness and warm-heartedness which makes the hospitality of the French peasantry so delightful a thing. After replying to the questions that poured in upon them, and asking and receiving the news of the village, Charles and Marie followed Father Laval, who reminded the villagers that Madame Duchenier would probably feel tired.
"Tell them, Charles," said his bride, "to go into the kitchen. I daresay good old Madame Le Brun will find something for their dinner."
"Ay, that I will," said the kind-hearted housekeeper, who had come forth to meet her young mistress in high stiff cap, pocketed apron, and Angevin boots--the very type of staidness and matronly respectability. "This way, madame--this way, mademoiselle. Father Laval thought--and so did I too--that you would prefer taking your dinner in the winter-parlour; it is not so comfortless as the rest of the house."
"You are never intending to proceed to La Boulaye to-night, my son?" inquired the good priest of Duchenier, as they mounted the stairs to the room in question.
"If the storm continues, certainly not," said Duchenier; "and certainly it looks not as if there were any chance of its ceasing." For now the rain had begun to pour down in torrents; and the thunder roared, and the lightning flashed, almost incessantly.
"You must not think of it," continued Father Laval. "The Sevre, petty stream as it generally is in summer, would be too hazardous to attempt now without necessity. No, no; you must not think of it. You will be as safe here as at La Boulaye."
So saying, the party entered the winter-parlour. Father Laval was introduced to Rose: a brief conversation ensued on the expediency of not, that day, continuing the journey; and, finally, it was agreed not to attempt it. Orders were given that Texier and his companions, after attending to their horses, should take up their quarters in the house. The priest was invited to stay to dinner, which Madame Le Brun declared had been ready long since: and Marie and Rose went to make some alteration in their dress previously to partaking of that meal. Left alone with Father Laval, Duchenier detailed to him the latest movements and the present intentions of the Vendean forces, respecting which the priest possessed no very authentic or satisfactory information; and at about four o'clock, the storm still giving no prospect of abating, the whole party sat down to dinner.