Vendean army marched for the Loire. Its leaders felt that they had made a false move in forsaking their native ground. All that now remained was, if possible, to regain it. It was a stormy evening. The republicans all day had been attacking Le Mans, which the Vendeans then held, on all sides; had driven in the peasantry from post to post; had, by sullen perseverance, overpowered the utmost efforts of despair; and now men and officers seemed to come to the same conclusion of Sauve qui peut.
Rose had been seated, that long afternoon, in a small room in one of the obscure streets of the town. Madame de Lescure was still with her; and the two, during the various accounts of that hotly-contested day, kept up each other's courage, or shared each other's fears. Now, De la Rochejacquelein's men had beaten off the Blues on the left wing; now Stofflet had been driven in from his advanced post; now Forestier had re-won it;--and so, betwixt terror and gleams of hope, the day wore away. .
"Surely the firing is coming nearer, cried Rose, as she stood by the casement, vainly endeavouring to distinguish any passer-by who might give information in the thickening obscurity.
"I have thought so the last ten minutes," said Victorine de Lescure; "but after all, it may be a mistake.--Hark! it seems getting further off!"
"They are pouring into the city!--Oh, madame, this is dreadful indeed!--Hark! there can be no mistake there!" And as she spoke, the sharp peal of musketry seemed to ring close under the very walls of the house.
"We must leave the place, Rose; we must trust ourselves with the fliers. We must not fall into their hands here! better be shot down in the mêlée--a thousand times better. Quick, put on your bonnet, and come!"
As she spoke a light quick step was heard on the staircase. Before there was time to express apprehension, the door opened, and Duchenier entered.
"All is lost!" he said; you must follow me instantly."
"All lost!" said Madame de Lescure, half reproachfully; "and you alive?"
"Even so," he said, with the deepest dejection. "Had GOD so willed, would it had been otherwise!"
"Nay, nay, M. Duchenier," said Rose, kindly. "Life is not to be thrown away thus.--Let me help you, madame." And she threw a shawl over her fair companion's shoulders.
"Now then, come," cried Duchenier. And in a moment they were involved in the press of fugitives. It was a scene of the wildest confusion. Soldiers, women and children hurried on the road ro Alencon. A few brave officers and peasants in the rear sacrificed themselves to give their brethren time for escape; except for them, the rout was universal.
"Now, Madame de Lescure,--now, Rose,--I must leave you," cried Duchenier, as soon as he had seen them through the gate. "My business is in the rear. We shall probably never meet again in this world! GOD bless you!--and farewell!"
As he spoke a small party of dragoons poured down on the fugitives by a cross lane. In the confusion Madame de Lescure was borne onwards and hurried forward with the foremost; Duchenier, with about twenty peasants and Rose, were cut off from the rest, and surrounded by double their own number of Blues. Even then Duchenier's presence of mind did not desert him. He rallied his men, faced about, repulsed the assailants, and retreated in good order down another lane, the continuation of that by which he had been attacked, towards a cottage some fifty yards distant.
"Into the cottage, Rose; we will defend you and ourselves to the last."
"No, no; let me remain outside,--I shall fall into their hands alive, if you make me go in!"
"You must, Rose; we may beat them off."
Almost forcing her into the cottage, he found that the inhabitants had, probably on that evening, deserted it. Calling in five or six of his men, he placed them by the only window the tenement could boast--for it was a mere hovel of one room--bade them barricade it, and hold it out to the last. Then, forming his remaining men round the door, he twice or thrice repulsed the most strenuous efforts of the assailants.
The window was soon barricaded after a sort, leaving loopholes for the muskets of the defenders. "Look, mademoiselle! look!" cried one of the men; "here is a bin, or something of that sort, by the fire-place in the floor; get into it, and they may not find you out."
Rose raised the lid by its ring, and looked in. It seemed to have been used for the reception of oats, of which a very thin sprinkling remained at the bottom.
"Ay, that will do! that will do!" said the man. "Get in! get in! I will shut down the lid."
He did so; and, in another second, after pouring in one furious discharge of musketry, the dragoons dismounted and fought their way, sword in hand, to the door. The Vendeans were driven in: the door was forced back on the republicans, and fastened with a rude staple of wood.
"Will you surrender?" shouted a voice from outside.
"On what terms?" asked Duchenier.
"No. We are resolved to sell our lives as dearly as we can.--Where's the lady?" he asked of those about him.
"Safe enough! safe enough!" answered the man who had assisted her in concealing herself.
"That's well," said Charles. As he spoke, there was a clatter among the tiles overhead; three or four of the republicans were mounting there, and had begun to unroof the building. With the deadliest aim they poured in their fire from above; while that of the Vendeans was almost fruitless. One after one fell; and at length Duchenier himself was struck in the right shoulder, and the ball passed out under the blade.
There were but five or six of his men unhurt. Arbalest, who had been his faithful attendant from the time he had rejoined the army, ran up to him. "Are you much hurt, monsieur?"
"Mortally, I believe," said Duchenier. "Leave me alone: give them a lesson what it is to make men desperate."
"More tiles off! more tiles off!" said some one on the roof.
"I should know that voice," said Duchenier, faintly.
"So should I, monsieur. By S. Nicholas! it is that villain La Force."
"You are right," said the wounded leader. "Don't let him escape, if you can."
"No, monsieur, that I------"began Arbalest; and at the same moment was stretched a corpse at his master's feet.
"Now you may burst in the door," said La Force; "I don't think there are three left."
One vigorous push--a loud crash--one more volley--and the dragoons fell in, sword in hand, over the prostrate bodies of the Vendcans. The one or two who remained were disarmed.
"Keep them fast," shouted La Force. "We'll have them shot presently. But there was a woman in here, I'll swear. Have out the bodies--she must be hidden among them."
The dead and wounded, despite the groans of the latter, were rudely drawn out, and heaped together in front; but Rose, it is very clear from what we have said, was to be found nowhere.
"She cannot have escaped," cried one of the men.
"Not she," said La Force, with an oath. "Stop! I know what we'll do.--Hallo! you fellow!" to one of the prisoners; "you must know where the lady is: if you will tell me, you shall have your life; if not, I will have you shot on the spot."
"So you may," said the man; "I shall not say."
"Very well," cried La Force; "let him run for his life, and hit him as he goes--it is good practice. Leave go of him."
"I shall not stir an inch," said the Vendean; "I did not come here to make myself a mark for you."
"That's right, Petitot," said Duchenier.
"You here?" cried La Force, bending over the wounded man.
"Ay, La Force; your villainy has served your turn in this world."
"Not exactly," said Petitot, who, finding himself at liberty, drew his one loaded pistol and shot the traitor through the chest.
"The scoundrel has done for me," said La Force, staggering to the bench in front of the cottage; and even as he spoke five or six shots passed through the body of the brave Vendean soldier and stretched him a corpse on the ground.
"I am going very fast," gasped La Force, "but I should be sorry to go before that woman is found.---You, sirrah," to the remaining prisoner, "I will give you your life if you tell me where she is."
"I cannot if I would," returned the man; "I haven't seen her."
"Let him go," said La Force, "and shoot him down."
The peasant, on being released, sprang off like a deer for his life. A shot from one of the republicans brought him down on his knee; he struggled up again--a second stretched him on the ground in the convulsions of death.
"What's that ring there?" said one of the men in the cottage. "Pull it up, Jacques.--Hallo! mam'selle!--We have her, sergeant; we have her." And Rose was dragged out in front of the cottage.
"He does not understand," said one of the men; for La Force's eyes were shut, and he seemed insensible.
"Sergeant La Force," shouted another in his ear, "we have the woman."
La Force opened his eyes, and, by a great effort, looked up. "Let her be shot," he said; and, with the words of murder on his lips, his spirit went to its dark and terrible account.
"Tie her to the bench," said her captor; "we'll aim at her from fifty yards."
"If you have one human feeling," said Duchenier, faintly, "you will not murder a woman in cold blood. I promise you more ransom for her than you could venture to hope."
"Pshaw!" cried one of them, "what do we care for ransom? And who's to trust you? you're dying yourself.--Come, Jacques."
"M. Duchenier," said Rose, "don't ask for my life. There are worse things than death," she added in a low voice; "and if these men keep me till their thirst for blood is over,--it is too terrible to think of."
"Where's a bit of rope?" said one of the men.
"Don't tie me," pleaded Rose; "let me kneel down. I will not move."
"Hang me!" said Jacques, "but you have some spirit.--I'll tell you what, comrades, she shall give the sign herself; she deserves fair play."
"So she shall! so she shall! Lift up your right hand when you are ready."
Rose looked on Duchenier, saw that he was insensible, knelt down, crossed her hands on her breast, and prayed for about two minutes. The men stood some twenty yards off, with their guns to their shoulders--one or two having the humanity to reserve their fire. She raised her hand, as directed; ten or twelve reports rang through the air, and she fell forward.
"Quite dead," cried Jacques, coming up, "So is the officer, or dying. Well, that's a good job."