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Duchenier; or, the Revolt of La Vendée

By John Mason Neale

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

Chapter XIII.

AS the great clock of Saint Jean struck eight the door which led from the prison to the court was thrown open, and Levrier, making his appearance for the second time, said: "Gentlemen, I have to announce to you that the commission is opened. The first name that I find on my list is Etienne Arnauld."

There was deep silence in the court; but no one stepped forward to answer to the name. "Etienne Arnauld," again shouted Levrier; still no one stirred. "There is no mistake, is there?" said the gaoler to Tarne, who stood by.

"Oh, none in the world," replied that officer, "unless the prisoner has made away with himself in the night;" and he proceeded to vociferate the name three or four times. At last, from the very furthest end of the court, emerged a pale, sickly-looking boy, apparently about fifteen; and, while the prisoners made way for him, right and left, to pass, with the true selfishness of human nature, he crept up to Levrier. "Are you Etienne Arnauld?" said the gaoler, in no very gentle voice. "I am, monsieur," replied the boy, trembling. "Then, why on earth," growled Tarne, "did you not say so at once? I promise you it will be all the worse for you in there." And the poor boy would have been dragged in, without one kind voice, or one kind hand, to encourage him--for he had no friends in the prison--had not Father Laval stepped up to him, and said: "GOD bless you, my son, and give you a good hearing."

"They will never," cried Charles Duchenier, "touch a boy like that."

"GOD grant you be a true prophet, monsieur," replied Chollet; "we shall see."

"I wonder," said the actor, "how long they give a man for his defence? They will be weeks in getting through all of us."

"I wish they would be," answered Chollet; "but never you think that."

As he spoke there came a pitiable shriek, or rather succession of shrieks, from the outside of the walls; and then a kind of yell from the mob.

"You see?" cried the peasant, shrugging his shoulders.

"What!" cried Duchenier; "you don't mean that that was the prisoner who went out not half a minute ago?"

But his question was answered by the reappearance of Levrier.

"Now, then," cried the gaoler, "Jean Bonfin?"

Warned by the fate of his predecessor, the person now summoned, who seemed a respectable yeoman, walked forward at once. "Farewell, gentlemen," he said; "I don't expect to see you any more in this world. Your blessing, father." And Father Laval gave it.

Two or three minutes followed, during which time Dreux, assisted by one or two of the other prisoners, mounted to the top of the wall, as before; and saying, "Your servant, gentlemen," nodded in a familiar manner to the mob. The crowd were just then in a state resembling that of a gorged tiger, not indisposed to be playful; and they saluted the actor with one or two expressions of approbation. But, notwithstanding all his assumed courage, Dreux turned pale, and felt sick at heart; for, in the midst of a little circle formed by the crowd round the side gate of the prison, lay the body of the boy that had left the court not five minutes before, literally hacked to pieces with the daggers of the mob; the men and women--for there were almost as many of the latter as of the former--who stood nearest being sprinkled from head to foot with his blood. Stooping beneath the wall, he told his friends what he saw; and almost at the same moment Levrier entered for a third prisoner.

"Louise Bonnechose," he cried.

There seemed to be some difficulty in finding the person inquired for; and in the meantime Dreux kept his station, and watched the gate, to see what would happen to the last prisoner. He saw it open; he saw Tarne and two of the National Guard push the unfortunate man out in spite of his struggles, which were very violent; and wrenching his arm from the gate-post, round which he had flung it, they thrust him into the mob, and shut the door. In a moment, those who stood nearest fell upon him: some with daggers, and some with swords; and Dreux remarked that his struggles, and more especially the natural impulse by which he raised his hands to protect his head, seemed very much to protract his sufferings. But his attention was presently called to what was going on within.

"Dead, is she?" said Levrier, "and a good thing, too; it will spare her and the commissioners some trouble; I'll take care that it is not a sham, presently. But now for the next: Jacques Charpentier." And a young artisan, who was imbued with the infidel principles of the age, came forward at once. Without bidding any one good-bye, or taking any other notice of Father Laval than by a little friendly nod (for the good priest had placed himself close to the door by which the prisoners went out), he merely said, "The comfort is, that when one's head is off, it can't ache, as mine does now ": and so he went out.

"I suppose," said Chollet, "that my turn will come next; and then, Louise, you must be prepared for yours."

Father Laval came up, and spoke a few words in a low tone to both father and daughter. Duchenier had in the meantime discovered that, by listening under a window, near to the door which we have just mentioned, he could catch something of what was going on. He heard the prisoner speak; he heard one or two other voices, which he took to be those of the commissioners; he heard a short laugh, or rather chuckle, from the artisan, who seemed to have delivered himself, by way of bravado, of something intended for wit; and then a gruff voice said, "Let the prisoner be set at liberty forthwith."

"He is acquitted, he is acquitted!" cried Duchenier; and the news spread almost as by intuition among his companions. But in about half a minute they heard the same kind of shriek that had so terrified them at first; and Dreux, looking down, said: "Acquitted, or not acquitted, they are putting him to death."

"I have heard," said a gentleman who stood by, and who seemed to have belonged to the army, "that in the September massacres a condemned prisoner was always ordered to be set at liberty; because it made him walk quietly off, and spared the gaolers some trouble."

Levrier came out again, "Now, then, father," whispered Chollet," if it is my turn, give me your prayers till it is all over." But the gaoler cried, "The next name is Louise Chollet."

"It must be mine, monsieur," said the peasant, stepping up. "My name is Jacques, and that must come before Louise."

"Ay, well, I see," answered Levrier; "it's a mistake. However, as the girl's name comes first, we'll have her first."

And Louise, after giving her father one embrace, went in as firmly as any of the preceding prisoners.

"Now I am about it," said Levrier, "I'll just look after that lady who is said to be dead. I've known such dead people come to life again; and that you know, old gentleman," clapping Father Laval on the back, "is contrary to law. Death, you know, is voted an eternal sleep." So saying, and with a laugh at his own jest, he passed on to the low range of buildings which we have already mentioned as bounding the further side of the court.

A lady, of one of the first families of Poitou, met him at the door of one of the hovels, and said, "Monsieur, if you really wish to satisfy yourself of the death of my poor friend, you may easily do it by stepping in there. She died in my arms about four o'clock this morning."

Levrier accordingly went in; and in one corner of the little apartment, decently covered with a silk cloak, lay the corpse. He just raised the arm, and, finding it stiff and cold, "Ay, very well," he said, and came out again.

"It must soon be over, father, it must soon be over," said poor Chollet, who had imagined that he entertained not a hope of either his daughter's or his own safety; but, when it came to the point, found himself in all the agonies of suspense; "they have been a very long time. Oh, do you think------"

The priest, who had evidently been engaged in prayer, said quietly, "My son, unto GOD the LORD belong the issues from death."

"I know they do, I know they do," replied Chollet. "I will trust Him."

"I can hear nothing," said Duchenier, "from the window, they are speaking so very low."

By this time Levrier had re-entered the prison; and Dreux, then looking down from his place, said, "I'll tell you what, gentlemen, I suppose no one wishes to suffer more than they need. It's my opinion, that those who have gone out by that door made it all the worse by trying to save themselves with their hands. I recommend whoever may come next to hold his hands down. Take my word for it, it would be much sooner over.

"You say well," said the military gentleman, to whom we have before referred. "But what a long time this examination lasts! I hope," he continued, with more politeness than could have been expected from an aristocrat to a peasant, "it may be a good sign."

"Thank you, monsieur," was all that Chollet could say, whose agitation was strangely contrasted with the deep, but not stoical, repose of Father Laval's face.

A pause of two or three minutes more ensued, during which time the priest seemed wrapped in prayer; Duchenier listened with intense eagerness, but to no purpose; and Dreux, on the top of the wall, whistled Ça ira.

He had not, however, pursued that occupation very long before the gate of the town-hall again opened and Louise Chollet came forth, accompanied by Levrier himself.

"Citizens," he said, "the republic takes this prisoner under her protection;" and, without further words, he re-entered the town-hall.

Dreux was amazed to find that one sentence seemed effectually to bridle the passions of so bloodthirsty a mob; just as at a previous time a tri-coloured ribbon suspended across the street had been found ample protection for Louis the Sixteenth and his family. The mob opened to allow the peasant girl to pass; but whither she went Dreux did not wait to see. The next moment he was at the side of old Chollet, to congratulate him on this unhoped-for deliverance. Then the old man's agitation was completely at an end, and he waited his own summons as calmly as if it had called him to the most indifferent action in the world.

"My son," said Father Laval to Duchenier, when the peasant had gone in, "your turn will come so soon that if you have any message to leave or wish to express, you had better select three or four among your fellow-prisoners for the chance that one of them may survive. No man will refuse, under the circumstances, to charge himself with such an errand."

"To what purpose?" asked Duchenier, sadly. "If you survive, as I trust you will, you will explain everything that needs to be explained; and if, by any chance, M. de Beaurepaire and the others should be yet ignorant of the destination of Marie, you will be able to inform them. Other message I have none to send."

"They are bringing him out," cried Dreux, a few minutes afterwards. And it was true that the old peasant had condemned himself by his first answer; for when asked if he had not a son then serving with Monsieur de la Charrette, he scorned to equivocate, and no other question was put. The commissioners thus thrust him out, as they thought, to certain destruction; but the mob were to give one of those rare proofs, which sometimes occurred during the history of the period, that they still retained a few human feelings. Louise, almost bewildered at her own preservation, had merely advanced a few steps into the crowd, and then waited to see what would become of her father. When she beheld him driven out on to the very swords of the assassins, she broke through the persons standing immediately before her, and, throwing her arms round his neck, exclaimed, "You shall kill me before you can touch him."

The men who surrounded him had yet feeling left to admire her devotion; they held back irresolute whether to strike or not; a straw would have turned the balance either way; when Dreux, from the top of his parapet called out, "Vive la générosité;" and the mob, with an involuntary cheer, allowed the old man and his daughter to pass out quietly.

In the meantime another victim had been summoned by the commission; it was the lady who had informed Levrier of the fate of Madame Bonnechose. She had" passed Father Laval, merely saying, "My husband is in the Catholic army, so I have nothing to hope." And she spoke too truly: and even Dreux held his hands before his eyes during the massacre of the first woman who had that day fallen a sacrifice to republicanism.

"Poor thing, poor thing!" he said, as he came down towards Duchenier, to whom he appeared to have taken a fancy. "Now, monsieur," he continued, "do let me entreat you, if you find yourself in circumstances to require my advice, to remember what I said just now. Put your hands in your pockets, or behind your back, or anywhere but just over your head; depend upon it, you will find it the most comfortable way."

"I am much obliged to you for the interest you take in me," replied Duchenier, almost provoked to a smile by the manner in which the actor spoke.

"My son," began Father Laval, "only remember that the great thing is------"but he was interrupted by the voice of Levrier thundering out, "Jules Dreux."

Dreux made a polite, but somewhat theatrical, bow to the prisoners generally, laid his hand on his heart to Duchenier particularly, and went off, saying, "It's not so bad as the first going from the green-room on to the stage, though it's my first appearance in this character. Enter Jules Dreux, and a gaoler;" and as he went away he chuckled to himself at his joke.

"Poor fellow!" said Father Laval; "that is what comes of modern principles." He had scarcely spoken when from the commission-room there came a loud burst of laughter, so unusual a sound, that every one in that part of the court turned to listen for something to explain it.

"I will mount the wall," said the military gentleman, "if any one will help me. I hope that fellow will get off." And, with the assistance of one or two others, he did as he proposed.

"Your turn will be the next, I suppose, my son," said the priest. "Now remember, GOD helps those that help themselves; make the best you can of your cause; you may come through, after all. Don't throw your life away desperately."

"I will do all I can, father," replied Duchenier, "to save it, though to what good purpose I can hardly see. However, no man has a right to lay down what GOD has given him, till He calls for it."

"All's right, all's right!" shouted the officer from the wall. "He is under the protection of the republic; they are making way for him, and he seems laughing and joking as he goes."

Duchenier hardly heard this intelligence; for his eyes were fixed on the door towards the commission-room, as he firmly believed that his summons was now coming. And accordingly Levrier came forth, and called for "Charles Duchenier." He wrung Father Laval's hand, received his blessing, followed the gaoler, and the door closed upon him, which seemed to shut him off, like that in the Inferno of Dante, from hope. He followed Levrier but five or six steps, and then found himself in a long low whitewashed room. At the upper end stood a table, with a green-baize cloth, strewed with pens and sheets of paper. At this table sat the five commissioners, Carrier occupying the chair; while the lower part of the room was filled with magistrates' clerks, the officials of the prison, and a few national soldiers. Two of the latter attended Duchenier to the place where the president motioned him to stand, about a couple of yards from the table; and then the examination began.

"Your name?" said Carrier, whose malignant expression of countenance was heightened by the enormous moustachios which hung down over his mouth, like dried grass over some foul cave.

"Charles Duchenier," he replied.

"Ay, yes, so it is," said the president; "an aristocrat, of course?"

"Really, Monsieur le Général, I do not clearly comprehend your question. If you mean by an aristocrat an enemy to liberty, then I beg leave to deny the name."

While he spoke the four assistant commissioners appeared to take not the slightest interest in the matter before them. The two to the right of Carrier were talking to each other on some subject which appeared to occupy their whole thoughts: of those on his left one was asleep, and the other drawing figures on a sheet of paper before him, among which Duchenier's quick eye caught the representation of a guillotine.

"Oh, an enemy to liberty," cried Carrier; "then I am afraid there is but one way for you; what say you, Legendre?"

"Upon my word, monsieur," said Duchenier, forcing a smile, "this matter is of considerable importance to me, and one does not like to lose one's life through a mistake."

"Well, that's true, too," said the president, somewhat disarmed by the other's good humour. "But what mistake?"

"I said," proceeded Duchenier, "that I had always professed myself the friend of liberty; and that if, in inquiring whether I were an aristocrat, you hinted this not to be the case, I certainly am no aristocrat."

"Ah," said the president, "everyone says that they are fond of liberty when they have none of their own; but the question is, were you, or were you not, engaged in the Vendean army?"

"If that is the question," answered Duchenier firmly, "I can only reply that I was."

"We need give ourselves no further trouble, Pelletier," observed Carrier, arousing the sleeping commissioner by poking him with his elbow.

"Eh! what!" cried the person addressed, starting up and assuming a great appearance of wisdom; "no further trouble, did you say? Certainly not, the case is quite clear."

The three other commissioners laughed without any kind of restraint; and Carrier, turning to the prisoner observed, "We have agreed that, as it might possibly hurt the exquisite feelings of you aristocrats from La Vendée to be dealt with by our good friends the citizens of Nantes, we will keep you back a little, till we have a good boatful of you. Stand aside there.--You look to him, Chaumier," addressing one of the turnkeys.

Charles Duchenier was thus obliged for some two hours to be a spectator of that iniquitous commission. One by one he saw the prisoners brought in from the court, laughed at, jested with, and insulted; and then, with scarcely an exception, dismissed with the technical "The prisoner may be set at liberty." He had ample opportunity of witnessing the various effects which terror produced on the minds of the parties under examination. The flippancy and affected nonchalance of some; the high resolve and unflinching demeanour of others; in some few instances, the irrepressible agony of an expected and bloody death. He had also time to allow his thoughts to gather from that scene the possible fate of Marie before one of the no less terrible revolutionary tribunals of Paris. It could not be, but that in some of the cases brought before him, he should feel for the moment a deep interest; but still none of the prisoners were known to him, either by sight or name, till Father Laval stood before the tribunal. He caught the priest's eye, the inquiring expression of which seemed to demand in what capacity he was detained there; but to put or to answer a question was, of course, a thing impossible.

"A priest," said Carrier, "I see;" as the father stood before him. "That sort of thing is pretty well over. You are the first of that kind of cattle which has turned in here to-day. Taken the oath to the Constitution, I suppose?"

"I have not," replied Father Laval.

"Have not; how's that?" asked Carrier.

"My conscience prevented my doing it," answered the priest.

"Oho, did it!" cried the president. "I think, citoyens, that the prisoner may be set at liberty." And without further remark Father Laval was hurried from the room.

Already had several prisoners, either from the Catholic army, or from that under M. de la Charrette, been set aside with Duchenier, and the course of half-an-hour more increased the number to fourteen or fifteen. At one o'clock Carrier observed that he had got through so much business as positively to feel an appetite; and that he believed his friends would find luncheon ready in an adjoining apartment. "But we may as well send these fellows off first," he said, pointing to Duchenier.

"By all means," answered Pelletier. "Levrier, get Tame to look after them."

Accordingly, as soon as the commissioners had retired, Tame was summoned and appeared.

"Tarne," said Levrier, "our friends here are going on the water; just have the kindness to pay the boatman:" and with a nod of intelligence the turnkey left the room for a moment, and returned with three or four of his brethren. The prisoners were chained together two and two; and thus made seven couples. Ten of them were men, the rest women; and none of them, excepting Duchenier himself, appeared to have any clear idea of the fate that awaited them, as they had been taken in the more distant parts of the country, and had not remained long enough in Nantes to become acquainted with the system adopted there by the republicans. Thus, amidst the jeers of the mob, and through the narrow streets of Nantes, they were conducted on their last journey to the water's edge.

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