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THE LAST DAY AT DURBELLIÈRE
After the re-capture of Durbellière, and the liberation of Santerre, the Vendeans again assembled in arms in different portions of the revolted district, and fought their battles always with valour, and not unfrequently with success. They did not, however, again form themselves into one body, till the beginning of October, when news having reached them that a large army, under fiercer leaders, was to be sent by the Republic for their extermination, it became necessary to take some decided step for their own protection. The Vendean Generals then decided to call together all the men they could collect at Chatillon, a town in the very centre of their country, and there also to prepare such a quantity of military stores and ammunition, as would make the place a useful and secure basis for their movements.
Some jealousy had arisen among the Generals; and on the death of Cathelineau, d'Elbée had been chosen Commander-in-Chief, through the influence of those who were envious of the popularity of M. de Lescure. On the latter, however, the management of the war depended; and though his exertions were greatly impeded by the factious spirit which unfortunately prevailed among the royalists, he nevertheless succeeded in collecting, equipping, and maintaining a considerable army. The republican troops of Lechelle and Thurreau were not long in making their way to the devoted district, and tidings soon reached Chatillon that they were devastating the country round Doué and Vihiers, and that parties of them had advanced to the neighbourhood of Cholet.
It was then determined at Chatillon that the royalist army should advance towards the republicans: that they should fight them on the first field of battle on which they could meet them, and that if beaten, they should cross the Loire into Britanny, and make their way to the coast, to meet the succour which had been promised them from England. Every day that the battle was delayed, hundreds of children and women perished in cold blood, numberless humble dwellings were reduced to ashes. The commands of Robespierre were being executed; the land was being saturated with the blood of its inhabitants.
De Lescure and Larochejaquelin were both staying at Chatillon. But Chatillon is but a league or two from Durbellière, and one or the other of them was almost daily at the château. They had many cares upon them besides those of the army; cares which, though not productive of so much actual labour, sat, if possible, heavier on their hearts. What were they to do with those dear but weak friends who were still at the château? three loving and beloved women, and an infirm old man, more helpless even than the women! They could not be left at Durbellière, for the château would doubtless, before long, be again taken by some marauding party of their enemies, and any death would be preferable to the fate which would there await them.
Henri now felt the weight of those miseries which his father had foretold; when he, flushed with the victory at Saumur, returned home after the campaign in which he had first drawn his sword so gloriously. He felt that he had done his duty, and therefore he regretted nothing; but he also felt that he might probably soon be without the power of protecting those who were so much dearer to him than his life, and the suffering arising from such thoughts was almost more than he could bear.
It was at last determined that the whole party should leave the château, and go over to Chatillon--there would be at any rate a better chance of security there than at Durbellière, and also better means of escape, should the town fall into the hands of their enemies.
It was a grievous thing to tell that old man that he must leave the house, where he had spent his quiet life, and go to strange places, to finish the short remainder of his days amid the turmoil of battles, and the continual troubles and dangers of a moving army. Nevertheless he bore it well. At first he beseeched them to leave him and old Momont, among his birds and cherry trees, declaring that nothing that the blues could do to him would be to him so calamitous as his removal from the spot in which he had so long taken root. But his children soon made him understand that it was impossible that they could abandon him, a cripple as he was, unattended, and exposed to the certain fury of the republicans. He yielded, therefore, and when the sad day came, he blamed no one, as they lifted him into the huge carriage, in which he was removed to Chatillon. To the last he was proudly loyal to the King; and, as he was carried over the threshold of his door, he said, that if God would grant him another favour in this world, it would be, that he might return once more to his own home, to welcome there some scion of his royal master's house.
Henri, de Lescure, and the little Chevalier, all came over to spend the last day at Durbellière, and a melancholy day it was. Madame de Lescure, Marie, and Agatha were also there, and all the servants, most of whom had been born in the family, and all of whom, excepting Chapeau and one maid, were now to be sent abroad to look for their living in a country in which the life itself of every native was in hourly danger. Hard they begged to be allowed to link their fate to that of their young mistress, declaring that they would never more complain, even though they were again called out to die, as they had been on that fearful evening when Santerre had found himself unable to give the fatal order. It was impossible--the safety of four women, who would probably have to be carried backwards and forwards through a country bristling with hostile troops, was a fearful burden to the young leaders; it would have been madness for them to increase it. The wretched girls, therefore, prepared to make their way to the homes of their relatives, knowing that those homes would soon be turned into heaps of ashes. It was a bright warm autumn day this, the last which the Larochejaquelins were to pass together in the mansion in which they had all been born. The men came over early, and breakfasted at the château, and both Henri and Arthur worked hard to relieve the sadness of the party with some sparks of their accustomed gaiety; the attempt, however, was futile; they each felt that their hours of gaiety were gone by, and before the meal was over, they had both resolved that any attempt at mirth that day, would be a stretch of hypocrisy beyond their power.
When breakfast was over, the Marquis begged that, for the last time, he might be wheeled round the garden-walks, which he loved so well, and accordingly he was put into his chair, and, accompanied by his children and friends, was dragged through every alley, and every little meandering path. He would not spare himself a single turn--he had a tear to give to every well-known tree, an adieu to make to every painted figure. To de Lescure and the others, the comic attitudes of these uncouth ornaments was, at the present moment, any thing but interesting; but to the Marquis, each of them was an old and well-loved friend, whom even in his extremity he could hardly bring himself to desert. On their return into the house from the garden, they began to employ themselves with arranging and packing the little articles which they intended to take with them. They had all counted on having much to do during the short hours of this one last day; on being hurried and pressed, so as to be hardly able to get through their task; but instead of this their work was soon done, and the minutes hung heavy on their hands. They would not talk of the things which were near their hearts, for they feared to add to each other's misery; they strove therefore to talk on indifferent subjects, and soon broke down in every attempt they made at conversation.
Agatha never left her father's side for a moment, and though she seldom spoke to him, she did a thousand little acts of sedulous attention, which showed him that she was near to him. Her gentle touch was almost as precious to him as her voice. De Lescure sat near his wife the whole day, speaking to her from time to time in a whisper, and feeling the weight upon his spirits so great that even with her he could hardly talk freely. He was already without a roof which he could call his own, and he was aware his friends would soon be equally desolate; such hitherto had been the result of their gallant enterprise.
Henri had much to say--much that he had made up his mind to say to Marie before he left Durbellière, but he put off the moment of saying it from hour to hour, and it was not till near midnight that it was said. Marie herself, bore herself more manfully, if I may say so, than any of them; she really employed herself, and thought of a thousand things conducive to their future comfort, which would have been forgotten or neglected had she not been there. The little Chevalier tried hard to assist her, but the pale sad face of Agatha, and the silent tears which from time to time moistened the cheeks of the Marquis, and told how acute were the sufferings which he tried in vain to hide, were too much for the poor boy; he soon betook himself alone into the cherry grove, where he wandered about unseen, and if the truth must be told, more than once threw himself on the ground, and wept bitterly and aloud.
They sat down to dinner about three o'clock; but their dinner was, if possible, a worse affair than their breakfast. They were not only sad, but worn out and jaded with sorrow. The very servants, as they moved the dishes, sobbed aloud; and at last, Momont, who had vainly attempted to carry himself with propriety before the others, utterly gave way, and throwing himself on to a chair in the salon, declared that nothing but violence should separate him from his master.
"It is five-and-fifty years," said he, sobbing, "since I first waited on Monseigneur. We were boys then, and now we are old men together It is not natural that we should part. Where he goes, I will go. I will cling to his carriage, unless they cut me down with swords."
No one could rebuke the old man--certainly not the master whom he loved so well; and though they knew that it would be impossible to provide for him, none of them at the moment had the heart to tell him so.
By degrees the daylight faded away, and for the last time, they watched the sun sink down among the cherry trees of Durbellière, and the Marquis, seated by the window, gazed into the West till not a streak of light was any longer visible; then he felt that the sun of this world had set for him for good and all. Even though he might live out a few more weary years, even though the cause to which he was attached should be victorious, yet he knew that Durbellière would be destroyed, and it never could be anything to him how the sun set or rose in any other place. His warm heart yearned towards his house; the very chair on which he sat, the stool on which rested his crippled legs, were objects of an affection which he had before felt, but never till now acknowledged. Every object on which his eye rested gave him a new pang; every article within his reach was a dear friend, whom he had long loved, and was now to leave for ever.
Still he did not utter one word of complaint; he did not once murmur at his fate; he never reminded his son that he had, by his impetuosity, hurried on his old father to destruction. He never repined at the sacrifice he had made--I will not say for his King, for King at present he had none; the throne had been laid low, and the precious blood of him who should have filled it had been shed. No; his sacrifices had been to an abstract feeling of loyalty, which made fealty to the Crown, whether worn or in abeyance, only second in his bosom to obedience to his God.
The day faded away, and they still sat together in the room in which they had dined, each wrapped in his own thoughts, till the darkness of night was upon them, and still no one felt inclined to rise and ask for candles.
After a long pause, Arthur made a bold attempt to break through the heaviness of the evening. "We are not so badly off, at any rate," said he, "as we were on that night when Santerre and his men were here; are we, Agatha?"
"We are not badly off at all," said Henri. "We have now what we never had before--a fine army collected together in one spot, a promise of succour from faithful England, and a strong probability of ultimate success. After all, what are we giving up but an old barrack? Let the rascal blues burn it; cannot we build a better Durbellière when the King shall have his own again?"
"Ah, Henri!" said the Marquis. It was the only reproach he uttered, though the words of his son, intended as they were to excite hope, and to give comfort, had been to him most distasteful.
Henri was in a moment at his father's feet. "Pardon me, father!" said he; "you know that I did not mean to give you pain. We all love the old house--none of us so well as you perhaps; but we all love it; yet what can we do? Were we to remain here, we should only be smothered beneath its ashes."
"God's will be done, my son. He knows that I do not begrudge my house in his service, and in that of my royal master. It is not likely that I should do so, when I have not begrudged the blood of my children."
They were all to start on the following morning by break of day, and, therefore, the necessity of early rising gave them an excuse desired by all, for retiring early for the night. They could not talk together, for every word that was spoken begot fresh sources of sorrow; they could not employ themselves, for their minds were unhinged and unfitted for employment; so they agreed that they would go to bed, and before nine o'clock, the family separated for the night.
They did not, however, all go to rest. Henri, as he handed a light to his cousin, told her that he wanted to speak two words to her in his sister's room, and as she did not dissent, he followed the two girls thither. Two words! It took nearly the whole long night to say those two words.
Henri Larochejaquelin had thought long and deeply on the position in which he and his betrothed were now placed, before he made the request to which he asked her to listen that night, and it was from no selfish passion that he made it. In the presence of his sister, he asked her to marry him as soon as they reached Chatillon, so that when next the army separated, he might deem himself her natural protector. He had already asked and obtained de Lescure's permission. The brother gave it, not absolutely unwillingly, but with strong advice to Henri to take no new cares upon himself during the present crisis, and declaring that he would use no influence with his sister, either one way or the other.
Marie, with a woman's instinct, anticipated the nature of Henri's two words, and in a moment resolved on the answer she would give him: if her lover was generous, so would she be; she would never consent to link herself to him at a moment when the union could only be to him a source of additional cares and new sorrow.
Henri soon made his request: he did not do it, as he would have done in happier times; kneeling at her feet, and looking into her eyes for that love, which he might well know he should find there: he had not come to talk of the pleasures and endearments of affection, and to ask for her hand as the accomplishment of all his wishes; but he spoke of their marriage as a providential measure, called for by the calamitous necessities of the moment, and in every argument which he used, he appealed to Agatha to support him.
"No, Henri," said Marie, after she had already answered him with a faint, but what she intended to be a firm denial. "No, it must not, cannot, ought not be so. I am, I know, somewhat de trop in this tragedy we are playing. There are you and Charles, two good knights and true, and each of you has a lady whom it is his duty to protect. I am a poor forlorn young damsel, and though both of you are so gallant as to offer me a hand to help me over the perilous path we are treading, I know that I am grievously in the way."
"You are joking now, love," said Henri, "and I am not only speaking, but thinking, in most true and sober earnest."
"No, Henri, I am not joking; am I, Agatha? One need not be joking because one does not use harsh, grim words. What I say is true. I must be an additional burden either to you or Charles. You are already the heaviest laden, for you have your father to care for. Besides, I have a claim upon Charles; I have for eighteen years been to him an obedient sister."
"And have you no claim on me, Marie?"
"A slight one, as a cousin; but only in default of Charles. Don't look so unhappy," and she held out her little hand to him as she spoke. "The day may come when I shall have a still stronger claim upon you; when I have been to you for eighteen years an obedient wife."
"These are times when stern truths must be spoken," said Henri. "The lives of us all must now be in constant jeopardy--that is, of us who must go out to battle."
"Ay, and of us women too. Don't be afraid of our lacking courage. Do not be afraid that the truth will frighten us. Agatha, and Victorine, and I, have schooled ourselves to think of death without flinching."
"To think without flinching of the death of others, is the difficulty," said Agatha. "I fear we have none of us as yet brought ourselves to that."
"But we must think of the death of others," said Henri. "Should de Lescure fall--"
"May God Almighty in His mercy protect and guard him!" said the sister.
"But should he fall--and in battle there is none, I will not say so rash, but so forward as him--should he fall, will it not be a comfort to him to know that his sister has a husband to protect her; that his widow has a brother to whom she can turn. Should I fall, will it not be better for Agatha that you should be more closely knit together even than you are?"
"That can never be, can it, Agatha? We can never be more entirely sisters than we are."
"You talk like a child, Marie. You perhaps may never have a warmer love for each other than you now have, but that is not the question. You must see how great would be the advantage to us all of our union being at once completed You should not now allow a phantasy of misplaced generosity to stand in the way of an arrangement which is so desirable."
"Nay, Henri, now you are neither fair nor courteous. You are presuming a little on the affection which I have owned in arguing that I am prevented only by what you call generosity from so immediate a marriage; that is as much as to say, that if I consulted my own wishes only, I should marry you at once."
"It is you that are now unfair," said Agatha. "You know that he did not mean to draw such a conclusion. You almost tempt me to say that he might do so, without being far wrong. You are flirting now, Marie."
"Heaven help me then; but if so, I have committed that sin most unconsciously, and, I believe, for the first time in my life. I have had but one lover, and I accepted him, the very moment that he spoke to me. I can, at any rate, have but little flirtation to answer for."
"Alas! dearest love," said Henri, "we are both driven to think and talk of these things in a different tone from that which is usual in the world. If I was merely seeking to transplant you in days of peace from your own comfortable home, to be the pride and ornament of mine, I would not curtail by one iota the privilege of your sex. I wouldn't presume to think that you could wish yourself to give up your girlish liberty. If you allowed me any hope, I would ascribe it all to the kindness of your disposition; your word should be my law, and though I might pray for mercy, I would submissively take my fate from your lips. I would write odes to you, if I were able, and would swear in every town in Poitou that you were the prettiest girl, and sweetest angel in all France, Italy, or Spain."
"Thanks, Henri, thanks; but now you have too much to do to trouble yourself with such tedious gallantries. Is not that to be the end of your fine speech?"
"Trouble myself, Marie!"
"Yes, trouble yourself, Henri, and it would trouble me too. It is not that I regret such nonsense. I accept your manly love as it has been offered, and tell you that you have my whole heart. It is from no girlish squeamishness, from no wish to exercise my short-lived power, that I refuse to do what you now ask me. I would marry you tomorrow, were you to ask me, did I not think that I should be wrong to do so. Am I now not frank and honest?"
Henri put his arms round her waist, and clasped her to his bosom before he answered her:
"You are, you are, my own, own love. You were always true, and honest, and reasonable--so reasonable that--"
"Ah! now you are going to encroach."
"I am going to ask you once again to think of what I have said. It is not to your love, but to your reason, that I now appeal."
"Well, Henri, we will leave love aside, and both of us appeal to reason. Here she sits, always calm, passionless, and wise," and Marie put her hand upon Agatha's arm. "We will appeal to Reason personified, and if Reason says that, were she situated as I am, she would do as you now wish me to do, I will be guided by Reason, and comply." Henri now turned round to his sister, but Marie stopped him from speaking, and continued: "I have pledged myself, and do you do likewise. If Reason gives her judgment against you, you will yield without a word."
"Well, I will do so," said Henri. "I'm sure, however, she will not; Agatha must see the importance of our being joined as closely together as is possible."
"You are attempting to influence Dame Reason, but it will be useless. And now, Reason, you are to remember, as of course you do, for Reason forgets nothing, that you are to think neither of brothers or of sisters. You are entirely to drop your feelings as Agatha, and to be pure Reason undefiled by mortal taint. You are to say, whether, were you, Reason, placed as I am now, you would marry this unreasonable young man as soon as he gets to Chatillon, which means tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that at the very latest. Now, Reason, speak, and speak wisely."
"You have given me a thankless task between you. I cannot decide without giving pain to one of you."
"Reason always has a thankless task," said Marie. "Reason is her own reward--and a very unpleasant reward she usually has."
"Do you think," said Henri, "it will give so much pain to Marie to be told that she is to marry the man whom she owns she loves?"
"Ah, Henri," said Agatha, "you are prejudiced. I do not mean as to Marie's love, but as to my award. I might, perhaps, not pain her so much by advising her to marry you at once, as I fear I shall pain you by telling her, that in her place, I should not do so."
They both sat in breathless silence to hear their fate from Agatha's lips. Though Marie had appealed to her with a degree of playfulness, which gave to her an air of indifference on the subject, she was anything but indifferent; and yet it would have been difficult to analyse her wishes; she was quite decided that it was becoming in her to refuse Henri's prayer, nay, that it would be selfish in her to grant it; and yet, though she appealed to Reason so confidently to confirm her refusal, there was a wish, almost a hope, near her heart, that Agatha might take her brother's part. They were, neither of them, perhaps, gratified by the decision.
"Reason has said it," said Marie, after a short pause, "and Reason shall be rewarded with a kiss;" and she put her arms round her cousin's neck and kissed her.
"But why, Agatha, tell me why?" said Henri. He, at any rate, was not ashamed to show that he was disappointed.
"Do not be so inconsiderate as to ask Reason for reasons," said Marie.
"I will tell you why, Henri. I would never consent to make myself a burden to a man at a moment when I could not make myself a comfort to him; besides, the time of marriage should be a time of joy, and this is no time for joy. Again, there is a stronger and sadder reason still. Did you ever see a young widow, who had not reached her twentieth year? if so, did you ever see a sadder sight? Would you unnecessarily doom our dear Marie to that fate! I know you so well, my dear brother, that I do not fear to speak to you of the too probable lot of a brave soldier!"
"That is enough!" said Henri, "I am convinced."
"Do not say that, Agatha, do not say that," said Marie, springing up and throwing herself into her lover's arms. "Indeed, indeed, it was not of that I thought. Though we should never marry, yet were you to fall, your memory should be the same to me as that of a husband. I could never forget your love--your disinterested love--there is no treasure on this side the grave which I so value. It is the pride of my solitary hours, and the happiness of the few happy thoughts I have. The world would be nothing to me without you. When you are away, I pray to God to bring you back to me. When you are with us I am dreading the moment that you will go. Oh, Agatha, Agatha! why did you say those last fearful words!"
"You asked me for the truth, Marie, and it was right that I should tell it you; it was on my tongue to say the same to Henri, before you appealed to me at all."
"You were right, dearest Agatha," said Henri; "and now, God bless you, Marie. I value such love as yours highly as it is worth. I trust the day may come when I can again ask you for your hand."
"I will never refuse it again. You shall have it now, tomorrow, next day, any day that you will ask it. Oh, Agatha! my brain is so turned by what you have said, that I could almost go on my knees to beg him to accept it."
"Come, Henri, leave us," said Agatha, "and prevent such a scandal as that would be; there are but a few hours for us to be in bed."
Henri kissed his sister, and when he gave his hand to Marie, she did not turn her lips away from him; and as he threw himself on his bed, he hardly knew whether, if he could have his own way, he would marry her at once or not.
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