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Santerre and Adolphe Denot left the main army at Thouars, and made their way to Argenton with about four thousand men. From thence, Durbellière was distant about four leagues; and Santerre lost no time in making his preparations for destroying that château, as Westerman was at the same moment doing at Clisson. Generally speaking, the people of the towns, even in La Vendée sided with the republicans; but the people of Argenton were supposed to be royalists, and Santerre therefore gave positive orders that every house in it should be destroyed. He did not, however, himself want to see the horrid work done, but hurried on to Durbellière, that he might, if possible, surprise the Vendean chiefs, whom he believed to be staying there. About one hundred and fifty men followed him, and the remainder of the army was to march on to Bressuire, as soon as Argenton was in ashes.
Santerre, since he had left the company of the other Generals at Thouars, had become more familiar and confidential with Denot, and rode side by side with him from Argenton, talking freely about the manners of the country, and the hopes of the royalists, till he succeeded in getting the traitor into good humour, and obtaining from him something like a correct idea of the state of the country.
"And this is the parish of St. Aubin?" said Santerre, as they drew near to Durbellière.
"Yes," said Denot, "this is the parish of St. Aubin; and the estate of the Larochejaquelins."
"And they are popular with the people?" said Santerre. "They must have been well loved, or they would not have been so truly followed."
Denot blushed at the heavy accusation against himself which these words conveyed; but he made no answer.
"And this old man, my friend?" said Santerre, "this ancient cripple that you tell me of? he is too old, too infirm, I suppose, to care much about this revolt?"
"Not at all," said Denot; "no one in the country is more anxious for success than the old Marquis."
"There you are again, friend," said Santerre, "I know you'll get your neck into danger. Have I not told you that the Republic knows nothing of Marquises?"
"I only called him by the name he goes by, as you'd call a man Peter, if his name were Peter. I didn't mean to say he was a Marquis," said Denot, excusing himself.
"But you mustn't say so at all, unless you speak of him as a criminal, as you would speak of a perjurer, or a parricide. But as to this foolish old man; is he not doting? If I thought that, I might perhaps he excused in sparing him."
"Doting!" said Denot; "not at all; he has all his faculties as much as you or I."
Santerre gave a look of disgust at the wretch, who would not even follow his hint by giving such an account as might spare the life of the old man, who had been his host, his guardian, and his friend. He said nothing further, however, but trotted on quickly, till the cherry groves of Durbellière were in sight, and then he halted to give his final orders to his men, and make arrangements that the house should be surrounded.
"You remember our bargain, citizen General?" said Denot.
"What bargain?" asked the brewer.
"Why, about the young lady; the girl, you know," replied the other. "No one is to interfere between me and Agatha Larochejaquelin. She is to be my prize and my reward."
"I will be as good as my word," said Santerre, "as long as you are true to yours; but I own I pity the young lady the treatment she is likely to receive from her lover," and as he spoke, he rode up to the front door of the house, accompanied by Denot and a company of men on horseback.
The immediate arrival of republican soldiers in the neighbourhood of Durbellière was neither expected, or even feared by the inhabitants of the château, or it would not have been left by Henri, as it had been, perfectly undefended. The truth was this: the royalists had hitherto been so very generally successful against the republicans; and that, when every odds of number, arms, and position had been in favour of their enemies, that they had learnt to look with contempt upon the blues, as they called them. Hitherto the royalists had always been the attacking party; the republicans had contented themselves with endeavouring to keep their position within the towns; and when driven from thence, had retreated altogether out of the revolted district. Except lately at Nantes, the Vendeans had as yet incurred no great reverse; they had not, therefore, learnt to fear that their houses would be attacked and burnt; their corn and cattle destroyed; and even their wives and children massacred. The troops which had now been dispatched by the Convention for the subjection of the country, were of a very different character from those with whom the Vendeans had as yet contended, and the royalists were not long before they experienced all the horrors of a civil war, in which quarter was refused them by their enemies, and mercy even to children was considered as a crime.
When Santerre rode up to the door of the château, ten men might have taken possession of Durbellière. It was a fine July evening, about seven o'clock. The old Marquis had been wheeled in his easy chair out of the house, to the top of the broad steps which led from the back of the château into the garden. Agatha was sitting at his feet on the top step, reading to him, and the little Chevalier Mondyon, who retained no semblance of the soldier about his person, except the red scarf round his waist, was seated straddle-legged atop of one of the huge white lions which guarded the entrance.
"Agatha, I hear horsemen," said the boy, jumping off his seat. "There--there---quite plain!"
"It is Henri and Charles coming from Clisson," said Agatha.
"If it be, they have a troop of cavalry with them," said the Chevalier. "Perhaps it's the Prince de Talmont, for I think they have not so many horsemen with them in the south," and the little Chevalier ran out to greet, as he thought, his gallant friends.
"Whoever they be, Agatha," said the old Marquis, "give them a warm welcome if they come in the King's name. They will know that I cannot rise to meet them, but make them welcome to everything in and about the château."
Agatha had closed her book, and was rising to execute her father's wishes, when Momont, the grey-haired butler, hurrying round from the kitchen-door as fast his old legs would carry him, screamed out: "The blues! the blues!"
Agatha, who was in the act of entering the house as she heard the fearful cry, turned instantly back to her father's side. She was deadly pale, but she spoke not a word. She grasped her father's hand, and fixed herself close to his chair, determined in that position to await the worst that her enemies could do her.
"Run, Agatha, run," said the Marquis, "into the garden, my dear love. The gate will be open at the back. Run, Agatha, for your life!" Agatha, however, did not stir.
"Do you hear me, Agatha?" continued the old man, wildly supplicating her to go from him. "Do you hear me, my daughter? If you would have my blessing before I die, do as I bid you now. What are my grey hairs to your young life, that you should sacrifice yourself for me?"
It was of no avail, for the daughter stood fast by her disabled father's side, grasping his right hand so that nothing should tear her from him, and turning her beautiful face towards the house, watching for the approach of her enemies. Nor had she to watch long; before the Chevalier had been gone five minutes, Santerre, with his sword drawn, tramped heavily through the house, followed by Denot, and a score of his men. The door from the salon to the garden steps was open, and without waiting a moment in the house, he marched through and confronted Agatha and her father.
"Here is your damsel safe, at any rate, friend Denot," said Santerre, "and a pretty girl she is too, but a bitter royalist, no doubt, by the proud turn of her white neck."
Denot did not immediately follow Santerre on to the steps. He had firmly resolved to thrust himself upon Agatha as a conqueror; to rush upon her as an eagle upon its prey, and to carry her off with a strong hand, disregarding her cries, as the eagle disregards the bleating of the lamb; but the first glance he had got of his victim somehow startled his resolve, and scared the blood from his cheek, and almost from his heart. When Santerre, however, called to him, he was obliged to follow; and then, making fearful grimaces with his lips, and scowling with his eyes, he stalked out before the astonished father and daughter.
"Yes, Agatha," he said, looking full upon her, but not daring to turn an eye upon the countenance of her much more indignant father, "yes, Agatha, I have come, as I told you I would come--I have come to claim you, and no power shall now gainsay me. I have come to seize you as my own; to take you with a strong hand, and an out-stretched arm. My prayers were of no avail; you shall find that my sword is more powerful. When last I sought you, it was as a suppliant, I now come for you as a conqueror. Come, Agatha, you are now mine. All the powers of earth shall not rescue you from my arms."
"You appear to me, Sir, to come as a traitor," said Agatha.
"A good republican, my dear," said Santerre: "he comes as a good republican."
Agatha did not deign to make any further reply, but as Santerre and the men had now left the steps and gone into the house, Denot put his hand on her arm to lead her away from her father's side.
"Leave her alone," shouted the old man, now speaking for the first time since his eyes had rested on the republican soldiers. "Leave her alone, thou false wretch, thou basest of all miscreants. Touch her not, or--or--," and the poor Marquis strove in vain to rise from his chair to his daughter's help. "Momont, Chapeau, Arthur--Arthur," he halloed. "My daughter--my daughter, oh! my daughter!"
No one, however, came to his aid, and Agatha, finding resistance to be in vain, suffered Denot to lead her into the house, without uttering another word.
Not the slightest resistance was made to Santerre and his men; he took possession of the château without a word even being said to stop him. The servant girls hid themselves in the garrets, but were soon brought down again, and bade to set quiet in the hall, till their fate should have been decided on. Momont attempted to conceal himself in the garden, but he was soon found and brought back again, and stationed among the women. Chapeau was not seen at all, and even the little Chevalier was missing for a time, though he returned of his own accord before Santerre had been long in possession of the place.
Santerre seated himself with two of his officers in the largest of the salons, and ordered that the old Marquis should be brought before him. He was rather perplexed as to what he should next do; his orders were to destroy everything--houses, property, and life; to spare neither age, sex, nor imbecility; and Santerre, undertaking the commission, had thought, in his republican zeal, that he would find no weakness in himself to militate against the execution of such orders. He was mistaken in himself, however. He had led the fierce mobs of Paris to acts of bloodshed and violence, but in doing so he had only assisted with an eager hand in the overthrow of those who he thought were tyrannizing over the people. He had stood by at the execution of a King, and ordered the drums to beat to drown the last words of the dying monarch; but the King had been condemned by those whom Santerre looked on as the wisest and best of the nation; and in acting as he had done, he had been carried on as well by ideas of duty as excitement. He found his present a much more difficult task. Indeed, after sitting still for some few minutes in that easy chair, meditating what he would do next, he found that the work which he had undertaken was one which he literally could not go through with.
"Is the old gentleman there?" said he; and as he asked, the Marquis, with his eyes closed, and his hands crossed on his breast, was wheeled into the room. Agatha was seated, or rather was crouching, on a sofa in the corner, for Adolphe Denot was standing over her uttering threats and words of love alternately, the latter of which, however, sounded by far the most horrible in poor Agatha's ears.
"Give me a pen and paper," said Santerre, and having got them, he continued writing for a minute or two. "Now, my old friend," said he, addressing the Marquis, "I am given to understand that you yourself, personally, have never lent a hand to this iniquitous revolt. Is it so?"
"I am too old and too infirm to carry a sword," said the Marquis, "but what little I could do for my King, I--."
"Exactly--exactly," said Santerre, interrupting him, "you are a cripple I see. There is no evidence wanting to show that you haven't taken up arms. It is this pestilent son of yours has brought you into trouble."
"He would have been no son of mine had he not acted as he has done," said the old man indignantly.
"Will you hold your silly tongue, my friend," said Santerre. "He is doting, quite doting, I see," and he turned round to his brother officers, as though appealing to them to corroborate his opinion.
"Either that, or else he must be very fond of Mademoiselle Guillotine," said one of them.
"Well, now, old gentleman, answer me this question," said Santerre, "do you want to die this evening?"
"If I could but think that my daughter was safe, and out of the power of that viper, whom I have warmed in my bosom, death would not be unwelcome to me."
"Viper!" said Denot, curling his lips, and speaking through his closed teeth. "Warmed in your bosom! I have yet to learn, old man, that I owe you ought; but if it be a comfort to you to know it, know that no worse evil awaits your daughter than to become the wife of a true Frenchman."
"True!" said the Marquis. "Yes, as true as the Prince of Darkness."
"Come, old man," said Santerre," we know nothing about Princes, nor yet about Marquises. You must be content now to call the devil by his plain name, though I rather believe it has already been decided in Paris, that the gentleman is nothing but a foul fiction of the aristocrats. Come, if you wish to save your neck, put your signature to this little document."
"I will sign nothing that is put before me in such a manner," said the Marquis.
"Why you have not even read it. Take the pen in your hand, I tell you; it is only a proclamation of the truth, that you have not taken up arms against the republic."
Agatha understood the object of the republican General, though her father did not. She sprang from the corner in which Denot had placed her, and coming close to her father, whispered to him.
"The gentleman means well to you, father, though his words are rough. He wishes to save us. He will save both of us, father, if he can. Read the paper, and if there be nothing absolutely untrue in it, put your name to it."
"Read it yourself, Agatha," said he, "and if you then tell me to sign it, I will do so."
Agatha took up the paper which Santerre had written, and read, but not aloud, the following words:
"I hereby proclaim myself a true son of the Republic, and a citizen brother of all free Frenchmen. I declare that I have never carried arms against the Convention myself, and demand that I may not be accounted responsible for any misguided members of my family, who may have done so."
Twice Agatha read the words, and as she did so, her father's eyes rested anxiously on her face. "Well, my child," said he, "your father's honour is in your hands; tell me what I am to do," and he mechanically held the pen within his fingers, which Santerre had thrust into his hand.
"We will die, father," said she, "if these men please it," and she put down the document on the table on which it had been written. "I cannot ask you to denounce our dear, our gallant Henri. I cannot bid you to deny your King. Death at any rate will not dishonour us. We will only beg of this gentleman that in his mercy he will not separate us," and putting her arm round her father's neck, she fastened her hand upon the folds of his coat, as though determined that nothing should again separate her from his side.
"Denounce Henri!" said the old man; "denounce my own dear, gallant son, the most loyal of those who love their King--the bravest of the brave! No, Sir! I give you no thanks for your mercy, if you intended any. I, and my daughter, Sir, cannot bear arms for our King; she by reason of her sex, and I from my infirmities; but, Sir, we can die for him; we can die for him as readily as the bravest who falls in the first ranks of the battle. Had I still so much power in my own house as to command a cup of wine, I would drink my last pledge to my royal master--but it matters not; the heart and the will are still the same," and taking off the tasselled velvet cap which he wore, he waved it above his head, exclaiming, "Vive le Roi! vive le Roi!"
"The accursed, pestilent old fanatic!" said Santerre, spurning the table as he rose in his passion, and upsetting it into the middle of the room; and then he walked up and down the salon with rapid strides, trying to induce himself to give orders for the immediate execution of the staunch old royalist.
"What is to be done next, General?" said one of his officers, who did not quite admire the evident clemency of the brewer.
"The accursed, pestilent old fanatic!" he repeated between his teeth; and then he said, after drawing a long breath: "they must go to Paris, and let Fouquier Tinville deal with them. There may be secrets that I know not of. I think it better that they should go to Paris." And he felt relieved of a heavy load in having devised a scheme by which he could avoid having himself to give the order for the execution. "Let him be locked up, and well treated, mind you. He shall go to Saumur in his own carriage, and Barrère may send him to Paris how he pleases, or to the devil if he chooses."
"And the servants, General?"
"Oh! ah, yes, the servants!" said Santerre, walking out into the hall to inspect them; "women, an't they? What, five, six, seven, nine women, one old man, and a boy; well, I suppose we must have them out in a row, and shoot them."
Down on their knees went the nine women and the boy, imploring that their innocent lives might be spared to them. Momont, like his master, had still some spirit in his bosom, and kept his seat, saying to himself, but out loud, "I told him so--I told him so. I told him that we who remained here needed as much courage as those who went to the wars; but now, he that talked so much, he's the only one to run away." The poor butler alluded to Chapeau, who had certainly been in the house a few minutes before the arrival of the republicans, and who as certainly had not been seen since.
"I suppose we must have them out before the house, and fire upon them?"
And he turned to the officer who was next to him, as though asking his advice.
"If you ask my advice, General, I would make no difference between the lot; ten minutes should see the last of the whole set of them--the old man, his daughter, and the rest. If we are to send every master of a family with his children up to Paris, or even to Saumur, the tribunals can never do their work, nor can the guillotines fall half fast enough for them."
"When I ask your advice on one subject, Captain, I do not expect you to give it me on another," said Santerre. "Sergeant, take those women out, and the old man, and the boy, stand them in a line upon the gravel plot there, and bring a file of musketeers." And the republican General again began pacing up and down the room, as though he did not at all like the position in which his patriotic zeal had placed him.
The poor women were dragged by their limbs out before the door, screeching as they went, and filling the air with their loud, agonizing cries. Momont walked after them, with his head hanging down, his knees shaking, and his back bent double; but still he was walking himself; he was still able to save himself the disgrace of being dragged out like the women. When he got to the front door, he attempted to totter back, but a republican soldier stopped him.
"My master! my dear master!" said Momont, "let me but kiss his hand, and I will come back."
The soldier let him pass in, and the old man in a moment was at his master's feet. "God bless you, Monseigneur!" said he, "God bless you! Say one word of kindness to your servant, before he is shot for loving his master and his King."
The Marquis put his hand on the grey hairs of the old butler, and moved his lips, but he said nothing: the power of speech for the time failed him; the energy he had displayed, and the excitement he had felt, had been too much for him, and he was unable to reply aloud to the blessing of his faithful servant.
"God bless you, Momont" said Agatha, calmly, as she stood close to her father, still holding to his coat, and supporting his head against her body. "Let your last thoughts be of the Saviour who died for you, and so shall your death be only the end of all your troubles."
He was not allowed to remain longer on his knees, but was hurried back to the spot where the women were awaiting their doom. The soldiers could not get them to stand; they were crouching down on the ground in all positions, one or two with their heads almost buried in the earth, one or two kneeling, and still screaming for mercy. The old housekeeper had fallen on her haunches, and was looking up to heaven, while she wildly struck the ground with her hands; the poor page had made a last, but futile effort to escape with the aid of his heels, but he had been at once caught, and was now bound by his waist to a tree, which grew close to the road on which the wretched party were huddled; the poor boy had quite forgotten his attempt at manhood and mingled his loud screams with those of the women.
"General," said the sergeant, stepping up to him, "the men are ready; will you give the word to fire?"
Two salons, one looking to the front of the house, and the other to the back, communicated with each other by folding-doors, which were now wide open. Santerre, the Marquis, Denot, Agatha, and the other republican officer, were in the back room; the unfortunate wretches doomed to die were collected on the gravel before the windows of the front room; the carabineers who were to fire on them stood in a double file on the broad area before the front door, and above the steps. Santerre, on being addressed by the sergeant, stalked into the front room to give the order; his altered face plainly shewed the strong passion which was at work within his heart. As he passed from one room to the other, he threw his cap upon the ground, and trampled on it; then clenched his fist, and bit his lip till the blood ran. The fatal word "Fire" was on his tongue; but, without intending it, he looked through the window, and his eyes fell on the wretched creatures who were expecting death, and he was unable to give the command. He sank back upon a chair, and hiding his face in both his hands, he said to the sergeant, in a low voice:
"They must get some one else for this work, I am not the man I thought I was." He then rose and said, in a voice he vainly attempted should appear calm and dignified, "Sergeant, keep the prisoners in custody this night: I have changed my mind. Be ready to march at four tomorrow morning. We will have a bonfire to light us on our journey: see that there are plenty of faggots ready before you let the men sleep."
The poor women were unable to raise themselves and walk away, when they were made to understand that they were not to die that night. Some prayed, others screamed almost louder than before: one or two of them fainted, and continued fainting the greater part of the night: they were all of them taken into the house, and kept together in the kitchen surrounded by a guard.
"Citizen General!" said Denot to Santerre, stepping up to him after this scene was over; "I have performed my part of my engagement I believe."
"Well, man, supposing you have; what do you want? Are you going to grumble because I have not slaughtered the wretches you have betrayed to me?"
"Not at all, General; you know your own duty, doubtless. I am going to return to Saumur, to which place I desire an escort for myself and this young lady."
"By heaven I pity her!" said Santerre. "I don't know what has come to me tonight, that I should trouble myself with the cares of a swarm of aristocrats." And then he said, addressing Agatha, "Are you ready and willing, young woman, for a midnight ride with this hot young lover, who seems so fond of you?"
"She must be ready, General Santerre," said Denot, taking hold of Agatha's hand: "it is now my turn to command her: she must be ready, whether she be willing or no."
"You will not force me to leave my father?" said Agatha, appealing to Santerre. "You will not deliver a poor unprotected girl into the hands of such a maniac as that."
"Maniac!" said Denot. "But I care not; your words are to me like the empty wind: the time had gone by for words between you and me, when you refused to listen to those I addressed to you upon my knees. Come, Agatha, come; my heart's treasure--for still you are so; come, my love, my captive, and my bride!" And Denot essayed to go, as though he expected Agatha to follow him through the world like a tame dog.
"Oh, Sir, protect me from him!" said Agatha, still appealing to Santerre. "He is mad--you see and hear he is mad! I have not asked you for my life, nor do I so now; but I pray you, I beseech you, by the remembrance of the females who are dear to yourself save me from the power of that frantic man. Had he not been mad, had he not utterly lost his senses, he would have been the last to have brought you hither."
"I have thought something like that myself pretty one," said Santerre. "Come, Denot, you shall talk to the lady tomorrow; we will leave her with her father tonight." "Your word, General!" said Denot, assuming his furious look, "your plighted word and honour. Was she not to be my prize, my captive, my reward. You dare not go back from the promise you have made me."
"Nonsense, man alive," said Santerre. "You can't carry her off tonight. I believe in my heart she's right, and that you're as mad a man as ever roared in a hospital. Let go her arm, I tell you; you shall not drag her about in that way."
The Marquis, during this scene, was endeavouring to throw his arms round his daughter, so as to protect her; but his efforts were but of little avail. Agatha herself still held to her father by one hand, but the other she was unable to extricate from her persecutor's grasp. She did not scream or cry, for there was something within her--a memory of Cathelineau's last moments, of her brother's gallantry, and her father's loyalty, which strongly urged her to repress her tears before a republican; but her strength was almost gone, her nerves were all but over strung, when she heard a sudden noise behind her of some one rushing into the room, and Adolphe Denot quickly dropped her hand, and gave a yell of pain. He had received a sharp blow of a cherry switch across his face, and the blood was running from both his cheeks.
Santerre, and the other republican officers in the room, put their hands to their pistols, and prepared to defend themselves, but the only person who appeared was a young boy: to be sure he had the dreadful red scarf round his waist; but he had no weapon but his cherry stick, after having given Denot the blow across his face, he made no farther use of that. It was the little Chevalier who had arrived so opportunely; he took Agatha's hand in his, and pressed it closely, and took his place beside her without speaking a word.
"And who the deuce is this young bantam cock?" said Santerre.
"I am the little Chevalier Mondyon," said Arthur; "a true royalist, and sworn knight to Agatha Larochejaquelin. And that man there is a traitor and a false knave; he is not fit to be punished with a sword like a gentleman."
"Well crowed, my bantam," said Santerre; "and be good enough to tell me where you come from. No, friend Denot, no, we'll have no dagger work just at present." And putting his huge hand on the other's shoulder, he dragged him back as he was about to plunge his knife into the little Chevalier.
"I came from the cherry wood there," said Arthur. "Maybe you think I ought not to have run away, and deserted my lady love. Maybe I'm rather ashamed of my own self, but at any rate when you speak of it, say that I came back of my own accord. I'm not a bit afraid to die now," and as he spoke he squeezed Agatha's hand. His heart was full of apprehension, lest she should suspect for a moment that he had really fled from her through fear, but Agatha understood well his ready wit, and appreciated his more than boyish courage.
Santerre now made his arrangements for the night. All the inhabitants of the château were kept under strict surveillance. The Marquis, his daughter, and the Chevalier were allowed to remain together, and Denot was prevented from annoying them. At day-break the following morning Durbellière was to be burnt, and Santerre, with his prisoners, would then proceed to join Westerman at Bressuire.
"Let him slaughter them, if he likes," said he to himself, "I don't care what he says of me. I am at any rate too well known to be suspected. I don't know what came over me today, but had the Republic depended on it, I could not have done it," and he flung himself down on one of Agatha's sofas, and slept not the less soundly for having began his career of extermination in so vacillating a manner.
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