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THE CHAPEL OF GENET
About ten days after the departure of the Larochejaquelins from Durbellière, three persons were making the best of their way, on horseback, through one of the deepest and dirtiest of the byeways, which in those days, served the inhabitants of Poitou for roads, and along which the farmers of the country contrived with infinite pains and delay, to drag the produce of their fields to the market towns. The lane, through which they were endeavouring to hurry the jaded animals on which they were mounted, did not lead from one town to another, and was not therefore paved; it was merely a narrow track between continual rows of high trees, and appeared to wind hither and thither almost in circles, and the mud at every step covered the fetlocks of the three horses. The party consisted of two ladies and a man, who, though he rode rather in advance of, than behind his companions, and spoke to them from time to time, was their servant: a boy travelled on foot to show them the different turns which their road made necessary to them; and though, when chosen for the duty, he had received numerous injunctions as to the speed with which he should travel, the urchin on foot had hitherto found no difficulty in keeping up with the equestrians. The two ladies were Madame de Lescure and her sister-in-law, and the servant was our trusty friend Chapeau. And we must go back a little to recount as quickly as we can, the misfortunes which brought them into their present situation.
No rest was allowed to the Vendean chiefs after reaching Chatillon from Durbellière. The rapid advance of the republican troops made them think it expedient to try the chance of battle with them at once. They had consequently led out their patriot bands as far as Cholet, and had there, after a murderous conflict, been grievously worsted. No men could have fought better than did the Vendean peasants, for now they had joined some degree of discipline and method to their accustomed valour; but the number of their enemies was too great for them, and they consisted of the best soldiers of whom France could boast. The Vendeans, moreover, could not choose their own battle-field. They could not fight as they had been accustomed to do, from behind hedges, and with every advantage of locality on their side. They had thrown themselves on the veteran troops, who had signalized themselves at Valmy and Mayence, with a courage that amounted to desperation, but which, as it had not purchased victory, exposed them to fearful carnage. D'Elbe, who acted as Commander-in-Chief, fell early in the day. Bonchamps, whose military skill was superior to that of any of the Vendeans; was mortally wounded, and before the battle was lost, de Lescure--the brave de Lescure, whom they all so loved, so nearly worshipped--was struck down and carried from the field.
There was an immense degree of superstition mixed up with the religious fervour of the singular people who were now fighting for their liberty; and many of them sincerely believed that de Lescure was invulnerable, and that they were secure from any fatal reverse as long as he was with them. This faith was now destroyed; and when the rumour spread along their lines that he had been killed, they threw down their arms, and refused to return to the charge. It was in vain that Henri Larochejaquelin and the young Chevalier tried to encourage them; that they assured them that de Lescure was still living, and exposed their own persons in the thickest of the enemy's fire. It was soon too evident that the battle was lost, and that all that valour and skill could do, was to change the flight into a retreat.
Many personal reasons would have made Henri prefer returning towards Chatillon, but it had been decided that, in the event of such a disaster as that which had now befallen them, the cause in which they were engaged would be best furthered by a general retreat of all the troops across the Loire into Brittany; and consequently Henri, collecting together what he could of his shattered army, made the best of his way to St. Florent. The men did not now hurry to their homes, as they did after every battle, when the war first began; but their constancy to their arms arose neither from increased courage nor better discipline. They knew that their homes were now, or would soon be, but heaps of ruins, and that their only hope of safety consisted in their remaining with the army. This feeling, which prevented the dispersion of the men, had another effect, which added greatly to the difficulty of the officers. The wives, children, and sisters of the Vendean peasants, also flocked to the army in such numbers, that by the time the disordered multitude reached St. Florent, Henri found himself surrounded by 80,000 human, creatures, flying from the wrath of the blues, though not above a quarter of that number were men capable of bearing arms.
De Lescure, in a litter, accompanied them to St. Florent, and Chapeau was sent back to Chatillon to bid the ladies and the old Marquis join the army at that place. Chapeau was sent direct from the field of battle before it was known whether or no M. de Lescure's wound was mortal, and at a moment when Henri could give him nothing but a general direction as to the route which the army was about to take. Chapeau reached Chatillon without accident; but having reached it, he found that his difficulties were only about to commence. What was he to tell Madame de Lescure of her husband? How was he to convey the three ladies and the Marquis from Chatillon to St. Florent, through a country, the greater portion of which would then be in the hands of the blues?
Make the best he could of it, the news was fearfully bad. He told Madame de Lescure that her husband was certainly wounded, but that as certainly he was not killed; and that he had every reason, though he could not say what reason, to believe that the wound was not likely to be fatal. The doubt conveyed in these tidings was, if possible, more fearful than any certainty; added to this was the great probability that Chatillon would, in a day or two, be in the hands of the republicans. They decided, or rather Chapeau decided for them, that they should start immediately for St. Florent; and that, instead of attempting to go by the direct road, they should make their way thither by bye-lanes, and through small villages, in which they possibly might escape the ferocity of their enemies.
A huge waggon was procured, and in it a bed was laid, on which the unfortunate old man could sit, and with the two horses which they had brought with them from Durbellière, they started on their journey. They rested the first night at St. Laurent, the place where Agatha had established an hospital, and where Cathelineau had died. The Sisters of Mercy who had tended it were still there, but the wards were now deserted. Not that the wars afforded no occupants for them, but the approach of the republicans had frightened away even the maimed and sick. On the following morning Madame de Lescure declared that she could no longer endure the slow progress of the waggon, and consequently, Chapeau having with difficulty succeeded in procuring three horses, she started, accompanied by him and her sister-in-law, to make her way as best she could to her husband, while the Marquis and his daughter, with a guide, followed in the cumbrous waggon.
On the second day the equestrians crossed the Sevre, at Mortaigne, and reached Torfou in safety. On the third day they passed Montfaucon, and were struggling to get on to a village called Chaudron, not far from St. Florent, when we overtook them at the beginning of the chapter.
They had already, however, began to doubt that they could possibly succeed in doing so. The shades of evening were coming on them. The poor brutes which carried them were barely able to lift their legs, and, Madame de Lescure was so overpowered with fatigue and anxiety, that she could hardly sustain herself in the pillion on which she sat.
The peasants whom they met from time to time asked them hundreds of questions about the war. Many of the men of the district were already gone, and their wives and children were anxious to follow them, but the poor creatures did not know which way to turn. They did not know where the army was, or in what quarter they would be most secure. They had an undefined fear that the blues were coming upon them with fire and slaughter, and that they would be no longer safe, even in their own humble cottages.
One person told them that Chaudron was distant only two leagues, and hearing this they plucked up their courage, and made an effort to rouse that of their steeds. Another, however, soon assured them that it was at the very least a long five leagues to Chaudron, and again their spirits sank in despair. A third had never heard the name of the place, and at last a fourth informed them, that whatever the distance might be, they were increasing it every moment, and that their horses' heads were turned exactly in the wrong direction. Then at length their young guide confessed that he must have lost his way, and excused himself by declaring that the turnings were so like one another that it was impossible for any one in that country really to remember his way at a distance of more than two leagues from his own home.
"And what village are we nearest to, my friend?" said Chapeau, inquiring of the man who had given the above unwelcome information.
"Why the chapel of Genet," said he, "is but a short quarter of a league from you, and the Curé's house is close by, but the village and the château are a long way beyond that, and not on the straight road either."
"Ask him the Curé's name, Chapeau," said Marie: "we will go there and tell him, who we are.'
"If he lives in his own house quietly now, Mademoiselle," answered Chapeau, "it would be dangerous to do so; he must be one of the constitutional priests." He asked the man, however, what was the name of the Curé.
"Why the regular old Curé went away long since, and another was here a while in his place--"
"Well, and he has gone away now, I suppose?" said Chapeau.
"Why, yes; he went away too a while since, when Cathelineau turned the soldiers out of St. Florent."
"God bless him," said Chapeau, meaning Cathelineau, and not the priest. "And is there no one in the house now, my friend? for you see these two ladies are unable to travel further. If there be a friend living there, I am sure he will procure them some accommodation."
"And where did the ladies come from?" asked the man.
"You need not be afraid," replied Chapeau, "they, and all belonging to them, are friends to the good cause;" and then, after considering within himself for a while, he added, "I will tell you who they are, they are the wife and sister of M. de Lescure."
Had he told the man that they were angels from heaven, and had the man believed him, he could neither have been more surprised, or expressed a stronger feeling of adoration.
The poor man implored a multitude of blessings on the two ladies, whose names were so dear to every peasant of La Vendée, and then told them that after the new priest had ran away, the old Curé had come back to his own house again, but that Father Bernard was a very old man, hardly strong enough even to perform mass, though, as there was no one else to it, he did go through it every Sabbath morning; that for these two days past there had been another priest staying with Father Bernard; he did not, however, know what his name was, but he knew that he had been with the army, and that no priest through all La Vendée had been more active than he had been to encourage the royalists. The man then offered to show them to the Curé's house, and they all turned thither together.
The little chapel was on one side of the road, and the humble house of the parish priest was immediately opposite to it, ensconced among a few trees, at a little distance from the road. The door of the chapel was open, and the murmuring sound of low voices within told the party that vespers were being sung. Madame de Lescure did not like calling at the priest's house without being announced, and she therefore desired Chapeau to go down and explain who she was, and the circumstances under which she begged for the Curé's hospitality, and proposed that she and Marie should get off their horses, and remain in the chapel till Chapeau returned.
They entered the little chapel, and found in it about a dozen peasants on their knees, while a priest was chaunting the vespers from a small side altar, built in a niche in the wall. It was now late, and the light, which even abroad was growing dimmer every moment, was still less strong within the building. They could not, therefore, see the face of the priest as he knelt at the side of the altar, but the voice seemed familiar to both of them.
Madame de Lescure, perhaps as much from fatigue as from devotion, sank down at once upon her knees against a little stone seat which projected from the wall near the door, but Marie remained standing, straining her eyes to try to catch the features of the Curé. After a moment or two she also knelt down, and said in a whisper to her sister, "It is the Curé of St. Laud--it is our own Father Jerome."
They had hardly been a minute or two in their position near the door, when the service for the evening was over, and the priest, rising from the altar, gave his blessing to the little congregation. Some of them rose from their knees and left the chapel, but a portion of them still remained kneeling, with their heads in their hands, trying to make up, by the length and perseverance of their devotion, for any deficiency there might be in its fervour. The two ladies also rose, and though they doubted for a moment what to do, they both advanced to the rude steps of the little altar, at which Father Jerome was again kneeling. He had not seen them as yet, nor had he noticed the entrance of any one, but the ordinary congregation of the chapel; and so absorbed was he, either in his thoughts or his devotions, that he did not even observe them till they were standing close to his elbow.
"Father Jerome," said Madame de Lescure in a low voice, laying her hand on the threadbare sleeve of the old grey coat, which he still wore. "If you could guess the comfort I have in finding you here!"
The priest sprang from his knees at hearing her voice, and gazed at her as though she had been a ghost.
"Is it possible," said he, "Madame de Lescure and Mademoiselle here in the chapel of Genet!" and then turning to the gaping peasants, he said, "go home, my children, go home! I have business to speak of to these ladies."
"Oh, Father Jerome," said Madame de Lescure, as soon as they were alone, "for heaven's sake tell me something of M. de Lescure. You have heard of what happened at Cholet?"
"Yes, Madame, I was there," said the priest.
"You were there! then you can tell me of my husband. For God's sake, speak, Father Jerome! Tell me the worst at once. I can bear it, for it can't be worse than I expect. Is he--is he alive?"
Father Jerome had been in the midst of the hottest part of the battle at Cholet, sometimes encouraging the troops by his words, and at others leading them on by his example, charging at their head, with his huge crucifix lifted high in the air. He had been close to de Lescure when he fell, and had seen him in his litter after he was carried from the field of battle. He could, therefore, have said at once that he had seen him alive after the battle was over, but he had no wish to deceive Madame de Lescure; and at the moment of which we are speaking, he most undoubtedly believed that the wound had been fatal, and that her husband was no more.
A musket-ball had entered just below the eye, and making its way downwards, had lodged itself in the back of his neck. A surgeon had examined the wound before Father Jerome left the army; and though he had not positively said that it would prove mortal, he had spoken so unfavourably of the case, as to make all those who heard him believe that it would be so.
Had Father Jerome expected to see the two nearest and dearest relations of the man whom he thought to be now no more, he would have prepared himself for the difficult task which he would have had to undertake, and no one would have been better able to go through it with feeling, delicacy, and firmness; but such was not the case. The sudden apparition of the wife and sister of his friend seemed to him to be supernatural; and though he at once made up his mind to give no false hope, he could not so quickly decide in what way he should impart the sad news which he had to tell.
Madame de Lescure was trembling so violently as she asked the question, on the answer to which her fate depended, that the priest observed it, and he turned to the altar at the end of the chapel, to fetch a rude chair which stood there for the use of the officiating clergyman, and which was the only moveable seat in the chapel; and whilst doing so, he was enabled to collect his thoughts, so as to answer not quite so much at random as he otherwise must have done.
"Sit down, Madame de Lescure," said he, "sit down, Mademoiselle," and he made the latter sit down on the altar step. "You are fatigued, and you have agitated yourself too intensely."
"Why don't you speak, Father Jerome? Why don't you tell me at once--is he alive?" And then she added, almost screaming in her agitation, "For God's sake, Sir, don't keep a wretched, miserable woman in suspense!"
The priest gazed for a moment at the unfortunate lady. She had, at his bidding sunk upon the chair, but she could hardly be said to be seated, as, with her knees bent under her, and her hands clasped, she gazed up into his face. She felt that her husband was dead but still, till the fatal word was spoken, there was hope enough within her heart to feed the agony of doubt which was tormenting her. Marie had hitherto said nothing; she had made her own grief subservient to that of her brother's wife, and, though hardly less anxious, she was less agitated than the other.
"I cannot tell you anything with certainty, Madame," said the priest at last. "I cannot--"
"Then you do not know that he is dead! Then there is, at any rate, some room for hope!" said she, not allowing him to finish what he was about to say; and she sank back in the chair, and relieved her overwrought mind with a flood of tears.
The priest was firmly convinced that de Lescure was at this moment numbered among the dead, and his conscience forbad him to relieve himself of his dreadful task, by allowing her to entertain a false hope; he had still, therefore, to say the words which he found it so difficult to utter.
He sat down beside Marie on the low step of the altar, immediately opposite to Madame de Lescure; he still had on him the vestments of his holy office, though they were much worn, shabby, and soiled, and the cap, which formed a part of the priest's dress when officiating, was on his head; his shoes were so worn and tattered, that they were nearly falling from his feet, and the stockings, which displayed the shape of his huge legs, were so patched and darned with worsteds of different colours, as to have made them more fitting for a mountebank than a. priest. At the present moment, there was no one likely to notice his costume; but had there been an observer there, it would have told him a tale, easy to be read, of the sufferings which had been endured by this brave and faithful servant of the King.
"When God, Madame de Lescure," said he, speaking in a kind, peculiarly solemn tone of voice, "when God called upon you to be the wife of him who has been to you so affectionate a husband, He vouchsafed to you higher blessings, but at the same time imposed on you sterner duties than those which women in general are called upon to bear. You have enjoyed the blessings, and if I know your character, you will not shrink from the duties."
"I will shrink from nothing, Father Jerome," said she. "God's will be done! I will endeavour to bear the burden which His Providence lays on me; but I have all a woman's weakness, and all a woman's fears."
"He who has given strength and courage to so many of His people in these afflicted days, will also give it to you; He will enable you to bear the weight of His hand, which in chastising, blesses us, which in punishing us here, will render us fit for unutterable joys hereafter." He paused a moment; but as neither of the women could now speak through their tears, he went on: "I was close to your husband when he fell, and as his eyes closed on the battlefield, they rested on the blessed emblem of his redemption."
"He is dead then!" said she, jumping from her chair, and struggling with the sobs which nearly choked her. "Oh Sir, if you have the mercy which a man should feel for a wretched woman, tell me at least the truth," and as she spoke, she threw herself on her knees before him.
Father Jerome certainly lacked no mercy, and usually speaking, he lacked no firmness; but now he nearly felt himself overcome. "You must compose yourself before I can speak calmly to you, my daughter--before you can even understand what I shall say to you. I will not even speak to you till you are again seated, and then I will tell you everything. There--remember now, I will tell you everything as it happened, and, as far as I know, all that did happen. You must summon up your courage, my children, and show yourself worthy to have been the wife and sister of that great man whom you loved so well."
"He is dead!" said Marie, speaking for the first time, and almost in a whisper. "I know now that it is so," and she threw herself into her sister's lap, and embraced her knees.
The priest did not contradict her, but commenced a narrative, which he intended to convey to his listeners exactly the same impressions which were on his own mind. In this, however, he failed. He told them that de Lescure had been carried senseless from the field, and had been taken by Henri in a litter on the road towards St. Florent; that he himself had been present when the surgeon expressed an almost fatal opinion respecting the wound, but that the wounded man was still alive when he last saw him, and that, since then, he had heard no certain news respecting him. Even this statement, which the priest was unable to make without many interruptions, acted rather as a relief than otherwise to Madame de Lescure. She might, at any rate, see her husband again; and it was still possible that both the surgeon and Father Jerome might be wrong. As soon as he had told his tale, she, forgetting her fatigue, and the difficulties which surrounded her, wanted immediately to resume her journey, and Father Jerome was equally anxious to learn how she and Marie had come so far, and how they intended to proceed.
Chapeau had in the mean time called on the old priest, and though he had found it almost impossible to make him understand what he wanted, or who the ladies were of whom he spoke, he had learnt that Father Jerome was in the chapel, and was as much gratified as he was surprised to hear it. He had then hurried back, and though he had not put himself forward during the scene which has been just described, he had heard what had passed.
He now explained to Father Jerome the way in which they had left Chatillon, and journeyed on horseback from St. Laurent, and declared, at the same time with much truth, that it was quite impossible for them to proceed farther on their way that night.
"The poor brutes are dead beat," said he. "All the spurs in Poitou wouldn't get them on a league. The night will be pitch dark, too, and, above all, Madame and Mademoiselle would be killed. They have already been on horseback all day--and so they were yesterday: it is quite clear they must rest here tonight."
Chapeau's arguments against their farther progress were conclusive, and as there was no better shelter to which to take them, Father Jerome led them into the little glebe. "There is but one bed left in the place," said he, as he entered the gate, "but you will be very welcome to that; you will find it poor enough; Father Bernard has shared it with me for the last two nights. We poor Curés have not many luxuries to offer to our friends now."
Madame de Lescure tried to utter some kind of protest that she would not turn the poor old man out of his only bed, but she succeeded badly in the attempt, for her heart was sad within her, and she hardly knew what she was saying. They all followed Father Jerome out of the chapel, of which he locked the door, and putting the key into his pocket, strode into the humble dwelling opposite.
They found Father Bernard seated over a low wood fire, in a small sitting-room, in which the smell arising from the burning of damp sticks was very prevalent. There was one small rickety table in the middle of the room, and one other chair besides that occupied by the host, and with these articles alone the room was furnished. That there was no carpet in a clergyman's house in Poitou was not remarkable; indeed it would have been very remarkable if there had been one; but the total want of any of the usual comforts of civilized life struck even Madame de Lescure, unsuited as she was at the present moment to take notice of such things.
The old man did not rise, but stared at them somewhat wildly: he was nearly doting from age; and fear, poverty, and sorrow, added to his many years, had now weighed him down almost to idiotcy. Father Jerome did the honours of the house; he made Madame de Lescure sit down on the chair, and then bustling into the kitchen, brought out a three legged stool, which he wiped with the sleeve of his coat, and offered to Marie. Then he took Chapeau to the door, and whispered to him some secret communication with reference to supper; in fact, he had to confess that there was nothing in the house but bread, and but little of that. That neither he or Father Bernard had a sou piece between them, and that unless Chapeau had money, and could go as far as the village and purchase eggs, they would all have to go supperless to bed. Chapeau luckily was provided, and started at once to forage for the party, and Father Jerome returned into the room relieved from a heavy weight.
"My dear old friend here," said he, laying his hand on the old man's arm, "has not much to offer you; but I am sure you are welcome to what -he has. There is not a heart in all La Vendée beats truer to his sovereign than his. Old age, misfortune, and persecution, have lain a heavy hand on him lately, but his heart still warms to the cause. Does it not my old friend?" And Father Jerome looked kindly into his face, striving to encourage him into some little share of interest in what was going on.
"I don't think I'll ever be warm again," said the old man, drawing his chair still nearer to the dull smoky fire, and shivering as he did so. "Everything is cold now. I don't understand why these ladies are come here, or what they're to do; but they're very welcome, Jerome, very welcome. A strange man came in just now, and said they must have my bed."
"Oh no, Sir," said Madame de Lescure, inexpressibly shocked at the dreadful misery of the poor old man; "indeed, indeed, we will not. It is only for one night, and we shall do very well. Indeed, we would not turn you out of your bed."
"You are welcome, Madame, welcome to it all--welcome as the flowers in May. I know who you are, though I forget your name; it is a name dear to all La Vendée. Your husband is a great and good man; indeed, you shall have my bed, though you'll find it very cold. Your husband--but, oh dear! I beg your pardon, Madame, I forgot."
I need not say that the evening which they spent at Genet, was melancholy enough, and the privations which they suffered were dreadful. During the early part of the night both Madame de Lescure and Marie lay down for a few hours, but nothing, which could be said, would induce them to keep the old priest longer from his bed. About midnight they got up and spent the remainder of the night seated on the two chairs near the fire, while Father Jerome squatted on the stool, and with his elbows on his knees, and his face upon his hands, sat out the long night, meditating upon the fortunes of La Vendée.
They started early on the next morning, and the priest of St. Laud's went with them, leaving Father Bernard in perfect solitude, for he had neither friend or relative to reside beneath his roof.
"Some of them will come down from time to time," said Father Jerome, "and do what little can be done for him, poor old man! His sufferings, it is to be hoped, will not last many days."
"And will he perform mass next Sunday?" said Marie.
"Indeed he will, if able to walk across the road into the chapel, and will forget no word of the service, and make no blunder in the ceremony. To you he seems to be an idiot, but he is not so, though long suffering has made his mind to wander strangely, when he sees strange faces. There are many who have been called to a more active sphere of duty for their King and country than that poor Curé, but none who have suffered more acutely for the cause, and have born their sufferings with greater patience."
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