WE must now return to a personage who has lately occupied but little of our attention, and who is not likely, when he again claims it, to win much of our affection: I mean the dragoon La Force. This personage, as the reader has already perceived, was by no means remarkable either for his courage or his truth; but he was a shrewd, clever man, who sacrificed everything to his own interest, and was seldom wanting to himself in the power of furthering that. On arriving with the rest of the party at Thouars, on the evening after that perilous passage of the Loire which we detailed in the last chapter but one, La Force was accommodated with very good quarters, and the next morning was summoned into M. de Beaurepaire's presence. That gentleman, in the first place, made him a present of fifty louis-d'or, being exactly double the sum that he, the said La Force, had expected to receive; and in the next, offered him a situation in the Vendean troops, if he chose to accept it.
The ex-dragoon expressed his gratitude in sufficiently polite language, but, at the same time, requested the delay of a day or two before he decided on serving against the army in which he had so lately been a soldier. De Beaurepaire, who imagined the man to be desirous of a decent time for changing sides, readily agreed; and during the attacks on Parthenay and Chateignerie, La Force attended him rather in the capacity of a military servant than in any other character. During all this time the dragoon was engaged in making very attentive, and, truth to say, very sufficiently able observations on the Vendean army, its component parts, and usual plan of operations; that he might be able with some degree of likelihood to augur as to its chances of final success. Had he come to the conclusion that there was a considerable prospect of this, he would have been glad to embrace the service, because he could do it without danger; whereas any attempt to return to his original position must, unless extremely well managed, be attended with considerable risk. He gradually, however, came to the conclusion, that, though the struggle might be protracted, the numbers of the Convention troops must prevail at last; and some disorders which had occurred among the Vendeans--for the first time--on occupying Chateignerie, confirmed him in this resolution. All his endeavours were now turned towards enabling himself to return in such a manner to the national troops as to secure his own forgiveness and welcome.
A day or two preceding that which had been fixed for the marriage, La Force informed his master that, after duly considering his obliging proposition, he should be very happy to accept it; and De Beaurepaire communicated this answer to Cathelineau and one or two of the other chiefs, and added, that he was amply convinced of the fidelity of the man, if only on principles of self-interest. It was accordingly settled that, as a slight garrison was to be left in La Chateignerie, La Force should form one in it; as it was thought that he would be better calculated for this kind of service than for the guerilla warfare of the Vendeans.
It need hardly be said, that this worthy personage was only desirous of obtaining information of some important secret, with which he might ensure his safety on his return to the national troops. Circumstances favoured him sooner than he had anticipated. On the evening previous to the marriage, he learnt the intended route of the bridal party; and it instantly struck him, that if he could possess himself of the persons of two somewhat important prisoners, and could capture such an officer as Duchenier, towards whom the Convention had such particular reasons for feeling hatred, he might well purchase his pardon. At the same time, the plan must be executed before they could reach Chatillon; for Madame de Lescure, at La Boulaye, was surrounded by too strong a garrison to render any such attempt feasible, without a far larger body of men than La Force could hope to be able to collect.
The shortness of the notice somewhat discouraged him; only twenty-four hours were to elapse before the party whom he proposed to attack would be out of his reach. Still, in twenty-four hours much might be done; and he proceeded, about dusk, to the cabaret of a man named Oncques, who was a violent Jacobin, and pretty well acquainted with the real feelings and wishes of La Force, though the latter had never committed himself by any open manifestation of them. He was fortunate enough to find his acquaintance at the door of his house, and requested a few moments' conversation with him on matters of importance.
"Well, we can take a stroll out," said Oncques. "We shall not be likely to be interrupted in the Place"
"No, no," replied La Force; "that would not do at all; they would suspect me, mon ami, if they saw us in such close companionship. Have you not some back room where we can chat for half-an-hour or so?"
"Yes," said the other, anticipating that the communication was of more importance than he had first believed; "step this way." And he led him into a kind of low back-parlour, with sanded floor and white-washed walls; the latter ornamented with some wretched prints of Robespierre, Danton, and Collot d'Herbois, as also with one of the murder of Louis XVI. Having produced from a cupboard a bottle of brandy and two glasses, Oncques seated himself on one side of the little round table that occupied the centre of the room, pointed to his visitor to take the opposite seat, poured out two glasses, and said, "Well?"
"Well," said La Force, "I must cut a long story short, and begin in the middle, for I have no great time for talking. I know very well, my good friend, that you have no fancy for these brigands------"
"Why, you are one of them yourself," replied Oncques, with an inquiring look.
"So I am," answered the other; "so I am. Did you never hear say that there is reason in roasting of eggs?"
"There may be reason in roasting of eggs," said Oncques, "for I never saw any roasted; but I'll be hanged if I can understand what reason there can be in an honest man turning brigand."
"Why, if he can cheat the brigands, there may be very good reason," observed La Force. "But the long and the short of the matter is this: I have been forced into this service--no matter how--against my will; and I am desirous of getting back to my old place in the national troops."
"La France et la gloire, and all that sort of thing," said his friend.
"Exactly," returned La Force. "Well; if I go back poor Jacques La Force as I am, I shall chance to get my head into the little national window in a trice; and that I have no fancy for, I can promise you. But if I bring back something worth having, I shall not only get my own pardon for being obliged to do as I have done, but very likely promotion into the bargain. Now I have the chance of doing this, if I can get friends to help me, and at once; for it is more than I can manage of myself, and there is not time to run about and beat up for recruits."
"Ay!" said the cabaretier. "And pray, what might these friends hope to get? They are not to work for nothing, I suppose?"
"You shall judge what they might hope to get. I will not tell you anything, I will only put a case. Suppose that Colonel Duchenier up yonder were going to-morrow to marry old De Beaurepaire's daughter; suppose he were going to carry his bride home to Chatillon, which is quite a nest of brigands, for De Lescure's wife is there; suppose that other girl, the daughter of that Girondist fool Le Grand, at Mirebeau, were going with her; suppose that Santerre is enraged at letting those prisoners slip through his hands--you must have heard the joke how De Beaurepaire and Duchenier rode to La Flêche, and swore the whole royalist army were after them;--then suppose I with a few friends were to meet the ladies between here and Chatillon, and carry the whole party off together,--do you not think we might make what terms we liked?"
"Well," said Oncques, after a moment's pause, "I have heard of worse plans than that. But the mischief is, that the carriage they go in is pretty sure to have an escort."
"So it is," returned La Force, "and I know what the escort will be, too; for a prattling fool called Texier, who comes from De Beaurepaire's village, told me all. There are but six of the peasants to ride with them; for they have not the least idea of danger."
"Are you sure?" inquired Oncques, rather suspiciously.
"Do you take me for a fool?" asked La Force. "Should I tell you a lie where my own making is concerned in speaking the truth?"
"Why," said the other, "the truth is, you have such a long head, inon ami, that you may be too much for a plain simple fellow like me," and he smiled grimly. "But there is something in what you say."
"Something? Everything! Besides, look here; if you-have any fear, when it comes to the point, about making terms with Santerre, you are pretty sure to be able to do so with De Beaurepaire."
"Well," said Oncques, "I'm your man. I suppose we shall want a dozen good fellows."
"Better, if you know so many," replied La Force. "But all depends on being quick."
"What time's the wedding?"
"Well,---they say ten. But we ought to be off as soon as the gates are opened--one by one--and not all by the same gate. Then we can meet at Ponzauge by eight or nine o'clock, and get over the hills to the woods between Cerisay and Chatillon. But all this you have to arrange between now and then, and horses to get too."
"You stay here," said Oncques, "till I come back. I must go round and knock up a few of my friends; we will have supper here, and then we can settle our plans."
"I will come back again," replied La Force, "at ten o'clock; but now I must go up to M. de Beaurepaire, for else they might be wondering where I am, and perhaps taking the liberty of inquiring which way I went. That would never do."
"And it is to be share and share alike, and upon honour?" said Oncques, as they went forth.
"Most certainly," answered La Force: and they separated on their different errands.
Oncques, who had a large and intimate acquaintance among the most abandoned characters of La Chateignerie, found no difficulty in prevailing on seven of his friends to join in the expedition. But by that time it was so late, that he thought it best to be content with what he had got; and during the supper that followed, La Force was duly introduced to his new friends, and the plan of operations for the next day was distinctly marked out. It was agreed that the messenger, who (as La Force had by this time wormed out of Texier) was to be despatched to La Boulaye at six o'clock the next morning, should be permitted to go on his journey; that the confederates should steal out of the town as they best might, and meet in Ponzauge towards nine or ten o'clock, at the inn called Le Coq Brun; and then proceed onwards to the place where they intended to take up their position.
Nothing occurred to disarrange this plan; and at about two o'clock on the following day, the parties concerned rode into a magnificent chestnut wood, lying on the east of the road from Cerisay to Chatillon, and about three miles from the former place. To any one else the scene would have been most grand: the giant stems stretching away in innumerable cathedral-like vistas as far as eye could see; the tempered and green light; the solemn music of the leaves overhead; the presages, even in that shady retreat, of the coming storm; the quiet of the birds; the melancholy stillness, unbroken but by the more melancholy whispering of the branches;--all this, we say, to any one else would have been magnificent; but, of course, the ruffians with whom we are unfortunately compelled to keep company felt nothing of the beauty 01 the scene. They threw themselves from their horses; tethered them as best they might; and disposed themselves to pass a couple of hours in the way that most fell in with their views. Some went to sleep; one or two played at dice; one or two conversed together--if such talk as theirs can be called conversation; while Oncques and La Force, the acknowledged leaders of the party, held rather apart from the rest, and seemed more exclusively intent on the business in hand.
"Now, mind, Oncques," said La Force, "there must be no bloodshed, because it lessens our chance at the end: of course I don't mean the peasants; the more of them that have their brains knocked out the better. And when once you have them, take care of the girls. You have but a wild set with you."
"Oh, never fear, never fear!" answered Oncques; "I know them, and they'll mind me. But don't you think we had better put a good big log in the road, or a trunk of a tree, or something of that sort, just to stop the carriage?"
"Why, no," said La Force, after thinking a moment; "we might stop some one whom we did not want, and we cannot miss those whom we do. It's very hot."
"And as dark as if it were seven o'clock. We shall have a storm."
He had scarcely spoken, when, right over the forest, there burst that tremendous peal of which we have already spoken. The whole party sprang to their feet, some with the involuntary motion of alarm, some for the purpose of attending to their terrified horses.
"Well," said La Force at length, "that's unpleasant." "Very unpleasant indeed," said one or two who seemed the most irresolute of the set.
"Pooh!" cried Oncques, with an oath, "is it that noise you mean?"
Again the peal was heard, and more than one face looked white. However, by the help of a few oaths, and a few sneers, and a few blasphemous jests, Oncques contrived to keep his men together till the pouring rain gave them some occupation in the way of finding the most convenient places of shelter.
Who does not know the effect of a deluge of rain in a deep, deep forest? the darkness below, the intense roar above, the leaves flitting through the air, the solemn stillness round the aged trunks? I do not mean when the arching branches no longer resist the storm, and every leaf drips, and the ground becomes a swamp; but the first onset of the tempest, while there is not a drop on the greensward, and the earth seems thirsting for the supplies that cannot reach it. For nearly half-an-hour La Force and his companions contemplated (or might have contemplated, had they so pleased) this scene; then gradually the raindrops worked their way through the green vaulting, and began to drench in a very unpleasant manner those who were waiting below.
"Let us have some brandy," said Oncques at length, after vainly shifting his position several times; and he produced two monstrous flat bottles from his immense pockets. "Here's to our good success, comrades!" and he took a sufficient draught from the mouth of one of the bottles.
"Our good success," said La Force, doing the same; "and may it not be very long in coming!" The bottles were drained; and another half-hour, miserably wet and of great suspense, succeeded.
When it drew towards four o'clock both Oncques and La Force began to grow seriously uneasy. What if something had occurred to disarrange the intended journey? What if some one--and each villain thought of the other with suspicion--had divulged the plan? Still they kept their fears to themselves, for they were too good leaders to run the risk of discouraging their men.
"This is strange," said Oncques at last.
"Very strange," returned La Force. "I hope no one has peached."
"I don't think they have," replied Oncques, "because we should have had five hundred of the Whites after us before now. Perhaps the storm made them stop."
"They were to dine at Cerisay; perhaps they have stopped there for to-night."
"May be so," replied Oncques; and he seemed to be pondering over the affair for some minutes. At last, "I'll tell you what it is," he said, "La Force; either you or I must ride to Cerisay, and find out whether they ever came there. I care not a straw which it is; do you choose."
Had Oncques proposed to ride himself, La Force would probably have suspected treachery. As it was, he thought a moment, and then said, "You had better go. If I were to meet them, they would know me. We will wait here for your return."
"Hark ye, my lads," said Oncques; "I am going to see what is come of our game. I shall not be away more than an hour. Keep together, and mind what La Force says."
"There's no chance of their baulking us, is there?" asked one of the party.
"No, no, mon ami; but they ought to have been here before now, and they may be stopping yonder at Cerisay; in which case I don't want a night's watching in the woods." And he rode off.
La Force, as was natural, found the time pass uneasily enough; but still he could not. complain that he was kept waiting. For in about three quarters of an hour, that is to say at about five o'clock, a horse was heard on the Cerisay road; and the dragoon looking out cautiously, soon discovered his friend.
"It is well I went, La Force; it is well I went, comrades," said he, as he rode into the wood; "they sleep at the chateau at Cerisay."
"How did you find it out?" inquired La Force.
"Why, I went straight there, and professed to be a messenger from La Boulaye. And so they gave me a letter for De Lescure's wife; which I don't think will ever reach her."
"Let's hear it! let's hear it!" shouted more than one voice.
It was accordingly torn open and read, but afforded the auditors very little amusement or information, as it contained nothing more than a regret that the storm prevented the bridal party from leaving Cerisay that night; but that, weather permitting, they should hope to reach La Boulaye by two o'clock on the following day.
"And now," said La Force, "the question is, What's to be done?"
"There are but two things we can do," observed Oncques. "The one is, to waylay them as they pass here to-morrow; the other, to take them in that chateau to-night. What say you, La Force?"
"Why," replied the personage addressed, "I presume all these gentlemen are pretty much of my opinion, that it will be better not to spend a night in these woods if it can be avoided. But we ought to know how many persons we are likely to find in the chateau, if we make any attempt upon it. There are not so many of us, you know."
"There will be the escort, that is six," answered Oncques; "Colonel Duchenier; one servant, who lives in the house; and two postilions; that is ten;--but I am sure that none of the Cerisay people will be there; because I heard, when I was in the kitchen, that there was some difficulty about finding room for as many as I have said."
"Let us go to the chateau! let us go to the chateau!" cried more than one voice. "Anything is better than being drowned here."
"I think so too," said La Force; "I can be of use to you there, for I was there when De Cailly carried the place the week before last."
"Very good," cried Oncques; "but we must let it get dark before we ride to it. And just now, all the parish of Cerisay are there. Nothing to be done just yet. I think, towards nine o'clock will be our time."
"And a precious long time it is like to be," grumbled one of the ruffians. "Hang me if I think I will wait so long!"
"Why, you did not fancy I was going to leave you without something to warm you?" cried Oncques. And he drew his two flat bottles forth, and showed that they had been very satisfactorily replenished.