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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 XVII.

IT was a bright evening in July; the sun, setting cloudlessly on the country, shot a red and lurid glare through the smoke of London, and lighted up S. Paul's with that spectre-like majesty in which it is sometimes invested by the last brightness of the west.

A gentleman, who from his dress and general mien, was evidently a foreigner, might have been seen walking along the Strand towards Charing Cross; and every now and then looking with a somewhat hesitating glance to the names of the streets on his left hand, as if he had been directed to turn up some one of them and was not exactly aware which to take. Whatever he might think of the appearance of the city, it is certain that, to an eye better acquainted with it than his, it wore that evening a very threatening aspect. Every chance scaffolding or boarding was placarded with a notice of a great meeting to be held at the Crown and Anchor for the purpose of laying the distresses of the people before Government, and of expressing the sympathy of the patriots of England in the glorious triumph achieved by those of France over tyranny and superstition. "It was expected," the document proceeded, "that Mr. Thomas Paine would address the audience;" and another meeting was advertised to be held on Kennington Common on the succeeding morning; after which a large public entertainment would take place at the Horns. Government had reason to be apprehensive of some general outbreak; several regiments were quartered round London; a body of picked men had been thrown into the Tower, and the fortifications of that place had been surveyed and strengthened. Not, however, paying much attention to the placards, or to the state of the metropolis, the foreigner reached Charing Cross; and then, after a moment's hesitation, turned towards Westminster. He found it necessary before long to inquire, in very broken English, which was the way to Downing Street; and having received the required information he stepped onwards somewhat more briskly.

To a room in that same street we must now request the reader to accompany us. It was somewhat shabbily furnished: over the chimney-piece hung a portrait of King George III., and between the two long dingy and ill-cleaned windows another of the Prince of Wales. A table, which stood in the centre, covered with a cloth evidently the worse for use, was furnished with pens, ink, paper, a blotting-book and some singularly large seals. In this room three gentlemen were, after the English fashion, standing round the shavings which filled the fire-place, and were at the moment laughing very heartily at a paper, as it seemed, which one of them had been reading from.

"Not at all bad that, not at all bad indeed," said he who seemed the most important personage of the three; "I wonder whose it is? Eh, who do you think, Grenville?"

"Can't say, 'pon my honour," said the somewhat dandified personage addressed. "Let me see; there are plenty of them up to the thing; but the question is, Who understands German?"

"Well," said the one who had not yet spoken, "it was an uncommonly good idea, that I will say, to get up a paper of the kind; I sometimes wish, though, that it had another name."

"Why so?" said the first speaker, who was none other than Pitt; "why so, Mr. Chancellor?"

"Oh, I don't know," replied the Chancellor of the Exchequer; "Anti-Jacobin is too long a word. I dislike anti-anything. However, this is about the best number they have had." And, taking up the paper, he began to read with suitable intonation:

"There first for thee my passion grew,
Sweet, sweet Matilda Pottingen;
Thou wast the daughter of my tu-
Tor, Lord Professor of the U-
Niversity of Gottingen,
Niversity of Gottingen."

"Hush!" said Pitt, as a knock was heard at the door of the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, where the party were met, "that must be our man."

"I will put the paper on the table," said Grenville; "it will look well."

At this moment a servant entered with a card, on which was written the name, "M. Duchenier."

"It is so," said Pitt. "Show Monsieur Duchenier up at once."

The servant disappeared; and a moment afterwards ushered the foreigner, whom we lately saw in the Strand, into the room.

After the usual compliments had passed, and Duchenier was seated; "I believe, gentlemen," he said, in French, "that you are desirous of receiving some more accurate information as to the progress of the Royalist and Catholic army in La Vendée than I was able to furnish in my letter of last Wednesday?"

"The truth is, monsieur," said Pitt, speaking in very excellent French, "that the information we have received previous to your arrival in London has been so extremely vague and unsatisfactory, that, desirous as my colleagues and myself are of taking every possible step for relieving the sufferers in France, we have found ourselves perfectly unable to come to any opinion on the propriety of assisting the insurrection which is represented as having taken place in some parts of Anjou and Poitou. I believe," he continued, addressing the Chancellor of the Exchequer, "that I am right in stating that, before we can arrive at any result, it is absolutely essential that we have a clear statement of the motives and principles of the insurgents."

"We came," said the Chancellor, "to that conclusion; and shall therefore be most happy to receive, M. Duchenier, any intelligence which you can give us on this point."

"Permit me first, gentlemen," said Duchenier, "to present you with my credentials."

And he handed a paper to Pitt, which that gentleman read to himself, the Chancellor looking over him as he did so. It ran thus:

"We, Henri d'Elbée, General commanding-in-chief, and the Members of the Superior Council of the Royalist and Catholic Army, do hereby authorise and appoint M. Charles Duchenier, acting major in the same army, to treat on our behalf with his Britannic Majesty's Ministers, and to agree to any terms which may be proposed by them, respecting the assistance to be afforded to the said Royalist and Catholic army. As witness our hands,


"It is perfectly satisfactory," said Pitt, when he had read it; "but how comes it to pass that M. Gaston's name is not mentioned in it?"

"M. Gaston, monsieur?" said Duchenier; "I do not recollect ever having heard the name."

"We were told," said the Chancellor, "and that on at least plausible authority, that he was at the head of the movement."

"There must be some strange mistake, monsieur," replied Duchenier; "I am sure that no person of that name was ever an officer in the army.--I beg your pardon; I do now remember that there was a man named Gaston, who, I think, was a barber, who headed one of the outbreaks in the south, and, I believe, fell at Longwy."

"We must have been misinformed, then," said the Prime Minister. "Nor are the accounts we have heard of your motives less uncertain. Some say that your aim is simply to establish a federative republic; some tell us that the rising is in connection with the Girondist outbreaks in the south of France; and by some we are informed that it is a bonâ fide attempt to reinstate the royal family in their capital."

"You may rest well assured, monsieur," replied Duchenier, "that we are what we call ourselves, Royalists. The greater part of Poitou and Anjou is in a state of insurrection; and there is no doubt that it will extend to Brittany and Normandy. But we have had no communication with any of the other insurgents in various parts of the country, nor have we reason to believe that they are influenced by the same motives as ourselves."

Pitt proceeded to inquire into the sum total of the forces which the united Poitevin and Angevin movement could bring into the field; into the manner in which war was carried on; the point to which it would be desirable that any British attack should be directed; the general character of the troops--their previous successes and reverses; to all of which he seemed to listen with great attention, and occasionally took a note of Duchenier's answer.

Candles had been brought in for nearly an hour before Duchenier rose to take his leave.

"We shall see you again," said Pitt, "before you leave London; in the meantime I wish to express to you my admiration of the energy which has been displayed by your countrymen, and my hope that we may feel it consistent with our duty to render that assistance to them which they so well deserve."

After a few more civil speeches on both sides, Duchenier left the room.

"Curious movement that," said the Chancellor of the Exchequer; "but--but--not quite the thing for us."

"We shall see," said Pitt. "Now, Grenville, we will release you; for I see you are in a hurry to be off."

"Why, 'pon honour!" said the young man, "I shall hardly have time to dress for the duchess's rout." And so the party broke up.

In the meantime Duchenier was pursuing his way to the temporary lodgings he occupied in the city. It was now past ten; the night was cloudy; and the wretched lamps with which London was then said--by a kind of delicate irony--to be lighted, did little more than reveal the obscurity of the evening. It was no wonder, then, that, partly from the darkness, partly from occupation in his own sad meditations, he should, on reaching Charing Cross, hurry forward down S. Martin's Lane, under the impression that he was retracing his steps to the city.

And his meditations might well be gloomy. Of Marie he had heard nothing previously to leaving France; the letter which she had forwarded to M. de Lescure did not reach the camp till some days after her husband's departure. Of the final success of the insurrection, his hopes were anything but sanguine; the failure of the attack on Nantes dwelt much on his spirits, and he was not very well satisfied with the tone taken by Pitt in the late interview. As he thus reflected on his own position, he came to a stand-still in Seven Dials; and, for the first time, observed that the road he was following was not the same by which he had come. He looked round him in considerable perplexity: the miserable houses by which he was surrounded were all closed for the night; there was but one man to be seen, and he was cloaked and muffled up, and seemed anything but a desirable guide; the watchman was probably asleep in his distant box; and Duchenier felt thoroughly puzzled. After walking round the various entrances by which the streets emptied themselves--so to speak--in that sink of misery, and deriving no possible guidance from their names, Duchenier struck up Queen Street, and, at its extremity, found himself again at fault.

This time, however, two gentlemen of respectable appearance were going down King Street to Long Acre; and Duchenier, quickening his steps, and addressing them in French, requested them to put him into his way.

"The way is very simple, monsieur," replied one of them in the same language; "you have but to keep straight down yonder; then to turn to your left, which will take you into Holborn; and then you must keep straight forward."

"I am much obliged to you, monsieur," said Duchenier; and he was proceeding forward when the other, with some hesitation, said: "You are a native of France, monsieur?"

Duchenier bowed.

"You will probably, then, be interested in accompanying me. We are on our way to a meeting of the friends of that unfortunate country; a branch of the Corresponding Society, in fact; and if you will give us the honour of your company, you will be able to judge of the feeling which is excited in your behalf."

"Too quick, too quick by half, Hardy," said the other.

"Not a bit," said Hardy: "I know the man, I think." And in the meantime Duchenier had made up his mind to accept the invitation; fully believing that it was intended as a tribute of sympathy to the French loyalists; though certainly somewhat astonished at the selection of that time and place for its meeting. The three walked on together; at length Hardy and his companion turned up a narrow passage, and, entering some disreputable-looking mews, crossed the close and somewhat fetid court. A large room over a row of stables was lighted up; and, ascending a creaking staircase, Hardy pushed open the door at the top and ushered his friend and Duchenier on to a kind of platform. They were received with clapping and stamping by some forty or fifty persons, who appeared to compose the auditory; and, after requesting Duchenier to be seated, Hardy held a whispering conversation with two or three, who, it appeared, were to be speakers, and who occupied the platform. While this went on Duchenier looked round on the auditors; and could not conceal from himself that he had never beheld a set of men whose countenances gave a more unfavourable impression of their character. Every kind and degree of low debauchery seemed familiar to all; and the ferocious countenances of some might have authorised even a harsher judgment.

At length Hardy rose to speak; and Duchenier, who, though he spoke English with great difficulty, understood it much better, followed him as well as he could. At first he doubted whether he understood the speaker rightly; and when he was convinced that he did he could hardly trust his ears. Every term of abuse and malignity was heaped on the memory of Louis XVI. and the whole royalist party; every eulogium was passed on the noble-minded effort of the people of France to shake off the yoke of tyranny and priestcraft. Even while he was thinking which way to extricate himself from the place, the orator proceeded:

"Yes, gentlemen, the fall of superstition in one country is but the prelude to its overthrow in the other. The people of England need but one master-mind to give the word; and the feeble sway of the dotard who now occupies the throne of this island will pass from him, as it did from his brother tyrant. France sympathises in our struggles, as we sympathised in her victory: this gentleman"--and he pointed to Duchenier--"will bear me out when I say so. France is alive to our rights, and the means by which we are to attain them; France approves the organisation of the Corresponding Society, and------"

"Gentlemen," said Duchenier, rising, and speaking in French to those on the platform, "there is some mistake here. It is not France that has murdered her king, banished her priests, made herself drunk with the blood of her best and her bravest sons; it is an execrable faction which presumes------"

He was interrupted by loud cries. "A spy! a spy!" "Turn him out!" " Hold him fast!" "Look to the door!" and one deep voice at the further end of the room cried out, "Cut his throat!"

Duchenier, as if by instinct, sprang to the door; but he was caught, and held fast. After a few moments' consultation with his companions, Hardy, a gentlemanly man, said:

"Monsieur, the mistake in this case is mine. I had mistaken you for some other person. Will you pledge your honour not to make mention of this meeting to any one?--more especially not to reveal it to Government? If you do not promise--"he continued, seeing that the other hesitated--"I am afraid that we shall be forced to pursue some painful course to ensure your silence."

After a moment's thought, Duchenier gave the pledge; and even then it appeared to him Hardy had some difficulty in procuring him liberty of egress.

At length he was permitted to depart; and with some difficulty he contrived, shortly after midnight, to make his way into the city.

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