Project Canterbury

Duchenier; or, the Revolt of La Vendée

By John Mason Neale

London: SPCK, 1905.
First published London: J. Masters, 1848.

Chapter XII.

WE must now return to Charles Duchenier, whom we left a prisoner in the hands of the man called Oncques and his companions. Having got their horses together, and procured another from the stables, they made no secret of their destination; and Charles heard that he was to be conveyed to Nantes with more terror than that with which he would have received the intimation that he was bound to Paris. For, by this separation from his companions, he was cut off from the possibility of assisting or cheering them; while his own life, he felt assured, would equally be sacrificed to the hatred of the republicans, to whichever of the two places he might be conveyed. His captors reckoned on being able, by using extreme diligence, to reach Nantes the following night. And as the north-western portion of Poitou had less decidedly declared itself in favour of the royal cause, they considered that to carry their prisoner through that part of the country would be a work of no great difficulty. Duchenier was accordingly mounted, in spite of his entreaties that, whatever his captors were determined to do with him, he might at least be permitted to speak once more with the ladies, whom they had also made prisoners. To this request Oncques, as might be expected, turned a deaf ear; and Duchenier, having been properly secured, and attended by Oncques himself on one side, and by the stoutest of his companions on the other, was compelled to ride from the castle of Cerisay, ignorant of the fate of those whom he left behind and far more certain of his own.

It happened, as we have already said, that the poor family whom, on leaving Cerisay, Father Laval was called to visit, lived at the extremity of a lane leading from the road to Nantes. Having accomplished his errand, the good priest was returning towards the village; and as the sick child with whom he had been, was likely to do well, he had both left its parents and felt himself in higher spirits than such a visit might have been supposed to occasion. Unfortunately, however, for himself, he had been much longer than he anticipated; and as he approached the village the clock of the little church struck twelve. At the same time, in the direction of Cerisay, he heard the sound of horses approaching; and somewhat wondering what business could occasion any travellers to be pursuing their journey at so untimely an hour, he nevertheless proceeded without the slightest apprehension, well knowing that the whole of the surrounding country was in the possession of the royalists, and was supposed to be entirely quiet. By this time the moon had risen; so that Oncques and his companions, on approaching the priest, were perfectly able to distinguish his dress and character. Charles Duchenier also recognised his friend; but, knowing that to address him might ruin the priest and could not benefit himself, he resolved to give no sign of that recognition. Father Laval, on the contrary, who was more completely taken by surprise, as soon as he had satisfied himself that (which at first he could not believe) the prisoner was none other than Charles Duchenier, stepped up to his horse's head, and addressed him instantly. "My son," he said, "what is the meaning of all this? who are these soldiers?" And he was proceeding to ask more questions when Oncques put an end to his inquiries.

"Old gentleman," he cried, "we don't want to hurt you unless we are obliged; so pass on, and ask no questions, and no one here will touch you."

"But I will ask questions," replied the priest; "I have a right to ask them; who are you that are presuming to carry off this officer, engaged as you know, or may know, on his majesty's service?"

"Leave me alone, good father," replied Duchenier; "don't think of me; but go down to the castle, and, if you can, do something for poor Marie. Another pack of these fellows have got hold of her, and, I fear, mean to carry her to Paris."

"I will, my son,--I will," answered Father Laval, who saw that he could by no possibility help Duchenier; and he was about to hurry off towards the village when the man called Chemill6 seized him by the collar.

"Shall I blow his brains out?" he inquired of Oncques.

"Stay a minute," cried that personage; "they have set a price on the head of such fellows as he, and I don't see why we should not have him along with us too."

Father Laval, who was a strong man, made so violent an effort to release himself as nearly to unhorse Chemille; and another of the ruffians rode up and assisted in securing him.

"The only difficulty," said Oncques, "is where to get a horse for him; however, for the present he must be content to ride behind the other prisoner, and we will even make free with the next horse we can lay hands on."

Another horse, of a somewhat inferior description, was soon procured from the next village-green, where he was quietly grazing; and Oncques and his party pursued their way, without once resting, till sunrise. Then, after refreshing their horses and themselves in a small roadside inn near Moine, they again rode forward till the heat of the day compelled them to pause about ten miles on the southern side of Nantes. As they were not desirous of trusting themselves in any village, having good reason to believe that the royalist spirit of the peasantry might prompt them to liberate the prisoners, they preferred resting in a little wood of old oak-trees, which may still be seen about a hundred yards to the right of the road from Montfaucon to Nantes. They tethered their horses in the shade, desired their prisoners to dismount, and, after securing them to one of the trees, themselves lay down for an hour's repose. One of the party was left at the entrance of the wood as a kind of watch to provide against a possible surprise; but as he was at a distance from the rest, Father Laval and Duchenier had for the first time that day the opportunity of exchanging a few words. They had, indeed, attempted to do so more than once in the course of their journey; but such attempts had always been met with an immediate order from Oncques to keep silent.

"Now, my son," said the priest in a low voice, "that we have the opportunity of speaking, let us make the best of it; and tell me all about this sad change."

Duchenier told all that he could. "I know no more than this: Marie and Mademoiselle Le Grand had retired for the night; I was alone in the winter-parlour, and was just about to go up-stairs, when I heard a shriek from one of the bedrooms. I rushed to the door, and in a moment was in the hands of these fellows. From what I have heard, I imagine that they design to make a bargain of us with the national troops; but why they have separated us, or how they got into the castle, or who they are, or what set them on this villainy, I know no more, father, than you do. It is very clear what the end will be, so far as I am concerned; but only think what Marie's sufferings must be."

"My son," replied the father, "I have good hopes, from the very greatness of your trial, that you will be in some marvellous manner delivered from it. Think only of the cause for which you are suffering, and for which also she is suffering. I can give you no better comfort than that. Whatever it may please GOD to order with respect to you in this world, you yourself, and she for whom you are grieving, have a reward safely laid up in the next."

"But think," replied Duchenier, "of the end of that journey to Paris for her; think of all the long imprisonment, and the mockery of a trial, and then the guillotine. O, father, if you had ever felt the same affection, you would tell better how to sympathise with the same grief."

"I know," said Father Laval, "I know, my son, how easy it is to talk of the duty of trusting to GOD to take care of those who have been engaged in His cause; and I know, also, how miserably cold all human comfort must seem at such a time. But I never yet heard of any easy way of getting to heaven; and sure I am that the most easy ways are not the most safe. If He calls you, and if He calls her too, in any degree to follow the saints and martyrs of whom the Church teaches us in this world, so much the more may we expect to have a portion with them in the world to come."

"What's that about the world to come?" cried Chemilld, who had been half asleep when the conversation had begun. "That's one of the old stories; we know better than that now. It has served to put money in your pocket for a good while now; so you can't complain if the trick is found out at last."

"I trust, my son," replied Father Laval, "that the world of which you now speak so lightly will be held by you, before you die, as something infinitely more precious than any other possession."

"Well, father," said Chemille", yawning, "I won't argue the point, for the long ride has made me sleepy. However, it is a hard thing if poor wretches like you may not look forward to the next world, for it is uncommonly little more of this that you are likely to have."

So saying, he turned on his side and went to sleep. Father Laval endeavoured, and not without some success, to comfort Duchenier under his affliction. He pointed out that the intelligence of Marie's capture must of necessity soon reach the royalist army; and that none could doubt that the leaders would strain every nerve to effect her release. He pointed out, too, that very possibly some friendly party of peasants might already have accomplished that release; and showed, not without considerable truth, that for so small a body of men to attempt to convey two prisoners through a friendly country was an enterprise very hazardous in itself, and very likely to be defeated. In such conversation the time passed on; and when it drew towards six o'clock, Oncques, arousing himself from sleep, called together his companions, and gave orders that the journey should be continued. It was resumed accordingly, in the same manner as before; and in about an hour and a half the party had mounted the last hill that looked down upon the Loire.

It was a beautiful scene, had Father Laval or Duchenier been at liberty to observe it. The sun had just set; the broad river reflected the red light of the western sky; the city of Nantes, rising proudly on the opposite side, with its innumerable spires, glowed richly in the departing sunlight; while the tri-coloured flag that waved from the summit of the disused and ruinous castle, told too plainly that the citizens of that fair town had deserted their king, betrayed their country, and forsworn their GOD. As the evening grew darker, and the party descended the hill, the quays, parades, and public places of the town were kindled into a thousand lights; and when at length they stood on the beach, and the twilight had thickened around them, the form of the city had grown hazy and indistinct, while the countless lamps spoke of its industry and wealth.

Some little time was lost in waiting for the ferry; nor was it till ten o'clock that the party were landed on the Quai de la Revolution. Oncques, who was unacquainted with the place, had some difficulty in learning whither he was to take his prisoners. At length one of the National Guard informed him that a portion of the old town-hall had been set apart for the reception of all persons suspected of royalism. "But I doubt," concluded the man, "whether there is room for any more, for they have already squeezed three hundred into a place not meant to hold a hundred and twenty."

With this information Oncques was enabled to make his way to the place in question, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour and the dimness of the back streets. The town-hall itself was a building erected in the time of Louis Quatorze, and possessing some claim, or at least making some pretensions, to propriety of design. But towards the beginning of the reign of Louis the Sixteenth, the increasing trade of Nantes had obliged the municipal authorities to undertake the erection of additional rooms. The latter were hardly more than half completed when the troubles began which terminated in the Revolution. The unfinished buildings formed a kind of small quadrangle, partly bounded by buildings one story high, and partly by walls. Into this quadrangle, and into these buildings, the royalist prisoners were thrust, without distinction of age or sex, like sheep into a pen; the only consideration which seemed to present itself to the infamous Carrier, then commander-in-chief of the republican troops in Nantes, being the simple question, how many human bodies could be compressed into a given space.

On arriving at the gate of this temporary prison, Oncques requested to speak to the gaoler; and that person was accordingly summoned. His name was Tarne; he was a faithful assistant of Carrier in all his diabolical schemes, and may claim his full share in those Noyades de Nantes which have consigned the republican general's name to such a miserable immortality. To Tarne, then, Oncques explained the circumstances under which he appeared, and the value of the prisoners by whom he was accompanied; and from that official he received the very satisfactory promise that his claims to reward would assuredly meet with General Carrier's early consideration. Oncques, indeed, had at first attempted to make some kind of bargain with the gaoler, being unwilling, as he expressed himself, to write goods delivered on one side of his account unless he could balance it with value received on the other. But though a man of resolution and enterprise in his own way, he soon found that his best chance of being paid at all consisted in trusting to the republican generosity of Carrier; and, having come to that conclusion, he retired for the night, with his companions, to a small inn just opposite the town-hall.

In the meantime Father Laval and Duchenier were ushered through manifold passages, which composed part of the old building, into the place destined for their reception; Tarne consoling them with the reflection, that though they were then unfortunately very full, the place would be considerably emptier by the next night. Although the particulars of the September massacres, and other atrocities of the same kind, had found their way into La Vendée; and though Carrier was well known to resemble, if indeed, which some asserted, he were not, an incarnate fiend; still the two prisoners were almost overwhelmed at the first sight of the misery they beheld on entering the quadrangle. The little apartments had been assigned to as many of the ladies as could, by any possibility, be crammed into them; but in the court, under the open air, on straw, on mud, or on heaps of filth, the rest of the prisoners, men, women, and children, were compelled to sleep. It was a strange contrast--the squalid misery, the terror, the insufferable stench, the crying of children, the querulous complaints of men well-nigh in their dotage, the vain attempts of mothers to hush their little ones to sleep, and the silent wretchedness with which the father of a family looked on those he best loved--it was a strange contrast with the glorious sky above, the unclouded moon, the few stars that ventured to peep through the flood of radiance which she was pouring down--and the two tall towers of Saint Jean, which, glittering with inexpressible beauty, looked down on the very walls of the prison.

The entrance of two additional prisoners was hardly noticed by the greater part of those already in confinement; and when Tarne left them, saying, "You must go to sleep where best you can; or, if you prefer it, you can stay awake," Duchenier and his companion sat down against the wall, close to the door by which they had entered, and for a few moments gazed around them without saying a single word. Close to them was a venerable old peasant, who had been seized on suspicion of having been concerned in M. de la Charrette's motions on the northern side the Loire. He, too, was seated on the ground, and leaning against the wall; and at the same time supported on his broad shoulder the head of a girl, who, from her attitude of confidence in him, could be mistaken for none but his daughter. At the end of a few moments the old man spoke to his new companions.

"Father," he said in a low voice, as if fearful of rousing his child from her slumbers, "this is a sad place to a new-comer; but GOD'S will be done."

"Ay," said Father Laval, "I thought that I knew something of the wickedness of men before I came here; but this teaches me more than I could have dreamt of. Are all these prisoners confined on a charge of royalism?"

"Oh, yes," said the old man; "there are some felons in the town-hall, but they have very comfortable rooms. But if you were to be a prisoner anywhere, GOD be thanked that they have brought you here; for there is not another priest in the place."

"I am glad, then, my son," replied Father Laval, "that the little remainder of my life is likely to be useful. How long have these people been thus confined?"

"Some of them," answered the old man, whose name was Jacques Chollet, "as much as three days. We were only brought in here this morning. But forgive me, father, if I ask you one question,--I do not think I need, either: are you a constitutional priest?"

"Thank GOD, no, my son," answered Father Laval; "if I had been, I should not have been here."

Chollet, on receiving this answer, told all his little story: how his family consisted of a son and the daughter who slept by him; how his son had joined the army of De la Charrette, and had won the good opinion both of that general and of the subordinate officers: how he himself would have joined the insurgents, had it not been, he said," for poor Louise here; "and how that very morning a detachment of the regiment commonly known by, and rather glorying in the name of" the infernal," had amused themselves by burning the villages in the direction of Poix, and, among fifty or sixty other prisoners, had brought himself and his daughter into Nantes.

Father Laval, not unused to tales of distress, comforted the poor man to the best of his power; and even Duchenier's attention was somewhat distracted from his own griefs by the afflictions of the peasant. But the intelligence he yet had to communicate was of still greater importance.

"Well, father, well," he said, "it will be but for a very short time; for we are to have a gaol-delivery tomorrow; and they do say, who ought to know, that it will be much such an one as there was last September in Paris."

"Impossible!" cried Duchenier; "Carrier may have the will for such atrocities, but the Convention itself would revolt at it."

"Oh, you don't know, monsieur," replied Chollet, "what they dare to do here I It was but two days ago that they put some five-and-twenty persons on board a vessel, with three great leaks in it, and then they launched it into the river; and that they call republican baptism. Ay, they do things that it makes one's blood run cold to tell. They strip men and women, tie them together, and fling them into the Loire; and that they call republican marriage. They dare to do anything here that the devil himself can teach them; for I am sure they could have learnt of none other but him."

In conversation such as this an hour or an hour and a half passed away; but then, notwithstanding the misery of their situation, Father Laval and Duchenier were fairly overpowered by the fatigue and excitement of their journey, and the sleeplessness of the preceding night; and they contrived to enjoy some slumber, such as it was.

It was towards seven o'clock that the priest was aroused by Chollet; and looking around him he saw that the prisoners had received some intelligence which seemed to occasion universal agitation.

"What is it?" he exclaimed: "is there any news?"

"It is just as I told you," answered Chollet; "they have sent in to say that the commission for trying us will sit in the course of half-an-hour; and we all know what that means. Hark! don't you hear the people outside the wall?"

Notwithstanding the exclamations and murmurs of his fellow-prisoners, Father Laval could not but catch the yells of the populace assembled in the great Place de Saint Jean to be spectators of the various trials and executors of the sentences which were sure to follow.

"They say," continued the old man, "that it is not for us only, but for the poor fellows down at the prison de l'Eperonnière; they are to be brought up here, it seems."

Duchenier was roused by the conversation, and soon understood what was anticipated. "It is very clear," he said, "what will be the end in my case; but, father, I trust that, for all our sakes, you will be spared."

"Do not hope it, my son," replied Father Laval; "my being a priest, as things go, will be sufficient for them. But I must not stand talking here when so many among us have but a few hours before they will be called to a tribunal more terrible than this."

"And more just also, father," said old Chollet.

"More just, my son, and also more merciful; or else we were truly of all men the most miserable. How is it with you, my daughter?" he inquired of Louise, who had hid her face in her hands, and only gave proof of her agitation by trembling excessively.

"It is a hard thing," he continued, not receiving any answer; "or, rather, it seems a hard thing to be called away just at the time when everything in life seems brightest and fairest, as it does to you, my daughter. But think only, what have we not to be thankful for, when we know that we might, at this moment, have been preparing ourselves to try, instead of to be tried; and to be murderers instead of sufferers? But I will talk to you again presently."

So saying, he mingled among the prisoners; and wherever grief seemed to be most violent, there was the priest also at hand to soothe it and turn it into the right channel. In the meantime Chollet and Duchenier maintained a desultory conversation, broken by intervals of gloomy silence. The cries of the mob grew louder, and came oftener; and in one of the rooms of the town-hall, that which was entered from the court, there was the noise of workmen, as if some kind of preparation was being made for the sitting of the commission. At length two or three heavy vehicles seemed to be driven up in front of the town-hall; and immediately the crowd united in a long and savage cheer.

"That must be the prisoners from L'Eperonniere," observed a young man who was standing close to Duchenier. "I wish, monsieur, that some one of us could find the means of looking over the wall, and seeing what is going on."

"That might easily be done," answered Duchenier; "look, the putlog-holes are left in several places; and a tall man might be helped up, so as to be able to look over the wall."

This idea seemed to excite some interest in several of the standers-by; and one or two voices exclaimed, "Let us try it, by all means."

"You had better let me try it," said the young man who had first spoken, and whose name was Dreux; "I have had some experience in that sort of thing."

Accordingly the speaker was hoisted up, till he was able to place his foot in the lowest hole; and then he contrived to elevate himself to the necessary height. As soon as ever his head appeared above the wall, there was a cry among the mob, "A prisoner is escaping!"

"No, no, gentlemen," replied Dreux, who took the matter with infinite coolness; "I mean no offence,--but I can't say that you look such pleasant company as to make me wish myself among you. I am very well off, I assure you, where I am."

"What do you see?" inquired more than one voice in the court.

"See!" exclaimed Dreux, "I have not seen so many heads together since I was Valere in the Malade Imaginaire. See! why, all the tag, rag and bob-tail of the town; or, as my very excellent friend Maximilien Robespierre would call them, the glorious sons of enlightened and liberated France. But I'll tell you what," he continued, leaning downwards and speaking in a somewhat lower voice; "there are more daggers among them than I like to see anywhere, except on the stage."

"You see, monsieur, you see," cried Chollet, "it will be September over again."

"Nay, nay, my good friend," replied Duchenier, "we must not make the worst of the matter. But if it were really so," he continued, after a pause, "then I for one should say, Let us stand all together, and sell our lives as dearly as we can. It would surely be better to be swept down with cannon, as they did at the Bicetre, than to be given over, one by one, to be butchered by the mob."

"So I say," cried more than one voice.

Just as this conclusion seemed to be becoming universal, the governor of the prison entered and endeavoured to obtain a hearing. He was a short, somewhat stout and sleek personage: his hair black, and arranged with more care than was usually bestowed upon it by the Jacobins, and his voice by no means unpleasing, though giving the impression of servility and fawningness.

"Gentlemen," he began, "gentlemen, it is my duty to inform you,--really this noise is very unpleasant,--to inform you, gentlemen, that General Carrier,--upon my word, I fear I do not make myself heard, but it is not my fault,--that General Carrier, anxious to spare you the unnecessary delay and inconvenience of a journey to Paris--Monsieur, may I trouble you to descend from that position," he continued to Dreux; "I don't in the least suspect anything; but our friends outside may not like it,--of a journey to Paris, has obtained authority from the Convention,"--and at every word he spoke the silence in the court became greater,--"to hold a commission for your trial in this place. Your names will be called over alphabetically; and I can assure you that every capability of defence will be allowed you by the president and the board. They are almost ready to commence their sitting; and I trust your good sense will prevent any unnecessary delay as each person is summoned."

"Monsieur," replied Dreux, with great gravity, "we are infinitely obliged to you for the notice. Permit me, however, to observe in the first place, that it is rather of the shortest; and in the second, that, as a good many of us will have no supper to-night, it is the more desirable that we should have some breakfast this morning."

"I will see, monsieur, what can be done," replied the governor, who was called Levrier. "Is there anything else that I can do to make any lady or gentleman comfortable?"

There was a kind of indignant murmur among the prisoners, which seemed to make Levrier, tyrant though he were, and shackled as they were, feel that there might be a point beyond which his victims would not endure to be tormented; he therefore returned to the gaol, and left the royalists to a quarter of an hour's miserable suspense.

"My children," said Father Laval at length, taking advantage of a moment's general silence, "there can be no doubt that, ere long, many of us will have been called to appear before the judgment-seat of GOD. I call on you all now, while yet time is given you for repentance, to acknowledge that, however unjust may be your sentence as regards men, as regards GOD our enemies cannot inflict the half that we have deserved. I call upon you to look steadfastly at Him Who has Himself passed through deeper sorrows than those which He now calls us to endure; Who stood before more unjust judges, Who was exposed to a more furious mob, Who was deserted by all, and yet Who suffered not, as we do, for His own faults, but for ours. 'We, indeed, justly,' my children. I call upon you to put all your trust in Him, both now and at the hour of your trial; look to His merits, and to the prayers of our Lady and of the Saints. I call upon you to pray for your enemies--they need your prayers--and to forgive them with all your heart, and with all your soul, even as you hope for forgiveness yourselves. And now I am ready to bestow, on such as desire it, that absolution which Holy Church gives to the desire as well as to the act of confession; bidding you only to remember that you may trifle with me as to the truth of your penitence here, but there will be no paltering with Him before Whom some of you are so soon about to appear."

The greater number of the prisoners fell on their knees, and thus received the absolution which the priest pronounced. A few--whether such as were involved in the miserable infidelity .of the day, or were unhappily not in the fold of the Church, though professedly Christian--stood apart, respectfully, till it was finished, and then Father Laval resumed his labours of consolation among the prisoners.

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