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THE PASSAGE OF THE LOIRE.
M. de Lescure had been two days in St. Florent, when his wife and sister arrived there on horseback, attended by Chapeau. None of the party had ever been in the town before, but it was not long before they were recognized, and the two ladies soon found themselves standing in the inn yard. Madame de Lescure had as yet asked no question about her husband; indeed she had not had opportunity to do so, for she had been hurried through a dense throng of people, none of whom she knew, and when she was lifted from her horse by a strange hand, she had no idea that the window immediately above her head looked from the room in which her husband lay. Chapeau, however, with considerate tact, did not lose a moment in finding the aubergiste, and learning from him enough to enable him to whisper a word of comfort to her.
"He is here, Madame," said he, standing close behind her, "in the room above there. He is somewhat better than he has been, and as strong in his mind as ever. He has been most anxious for your arrival," and then he led the way into the hotel, pushing aside the crowd to the right and to the left; and within five minutes from the time of their entering the town, the two ladies found themselves on the stairs immediately outside the chamber in which was lying the object of all their present anxiety.
For the last four days and four nights, it had been the first and only desire of Madame de Lescure to be with her husband; and now that she was so near him she dreaded to open the door. "Who is with him?" said she, speaking in a whisper, and trembling from head to foot, so that she could hardly stand.
"The little Chevalier is with him always," said the aubergiste, who had followed them up the stairs: "he never leaves him, now that M. Henri is obliged to be away."
"Hadn't I better go in, perhaps," said Chapeau, "and send the Chevalier out? I can tell M. de Lescure that Madame is here; it might be too much for Monsieur to see her all at once."
Without waiting for an answer, Chapeau knocked at the door and went in, while the two ladies sat down on the nearest step, dreading almost to breathe in their intense anxiety; in a few seconds Arthur Mondyon came out, and taking a hand of each of his two friends, pressed them to his lips.
"He knows you are here," said he to Madame de Lescure, "and you are to go into him alone. Marie and I wifi go down stairs until he sends for us. Be tranquil as you can, while you are with him; you will find him as calm as ever."
She rose, and entered the room on tiptoe, as Chapeau left it; her face was as pale as marble, and her heart beat so violently that she felt that she would hardly be able to reach the chair at the bed-side. De Lescure was lying on a decent but very humble bed, at the farthest end of a large room, in which there were three or four other bedsteads, and an enormous number of common deal chairs and tables piled one a-top of another. He was propped up in the bed on pillows, and as he turned his eyes towards the door, the full light of the sun shone upon his face, and gave an especial ghastliness to its pallor.
Madame de Lescure tried to control herself; but in such moments the feelings of the heart overcome the reason, and the motions of the body are governed by passion alone. In an instant her face was on his bosom, and her arms were locked closely round his body.
"Victorine--my own Victorine," said he, "my greatest grief is over now. I feared that we were not to meet again, and that thought alone was almost too much for my courage."
She was for a time unable to articulate a word. He felt her warm tears as she convulsively pressed her cheek against his breast; he felt the violent throbs of her loving heart, and allowed her a few minutes before he asked her to speak to him. She had thrown off the hat which she had worn before entering the room, and he now gently smoothed her ruffled hair with his hand, and collected together the loose tresses which had escaped down her neck.
"Look up, love," he said; "I haven't seen your face yet, or heard your voice. Come, Victorine, you were not used to be so weak. We must all string our nerves now, dearest: we must all be brave now. We used to praise you for your courage; now is the time for you to show it."
"Oh, Charles! oh, my poor stricken love!" and then she raised her face and gazed into his, till the tears made her eyes so dim that she could hardly see him. "I knew it would come at last," she said; "I knew this fearful blow would come at last. Oh, that we had gone when others went! at any rate I should not have lived to see you thus."
"Do no say that, Victorine; do not speak so--do not allow yourself to think so--or you will rob both of us of our dearest comfort. No, my love; were it to do again, I again would stand by the throne, and you again would counsel me to do so. A doubt on that point would be calamity, indeed; but, thank God, there is no doubt."
"But the misery to see you thus--torn, and mangled, and tortured. And for what? What good have we done with our hot patriotism? Is the King nearer his throne? Are the murders of the Republic less frequent?"
"I fear you are selfish now, love. Did we not know, when we first took up our arms, that many happy wives would be widowed--that numberless children would be made fatherless--that hundreds of mothers would have to weep for their sons. We must not ourselves complain of that fate, to which we have knowingly, and thoughtfully, consigned so many others."
Madame de. Lescure had no answer to make to her husband's remonstrance. She sat herself upon the bed, so that she could support his head upon her bosom; and pressing her lips to his clammy brow, she said in a low voice: "God's will be done, Charles: with all my heart I pity those who have suffered as I now suffer."
She remained sitting there in silence for a considerable time; weeping, indeed, but stifling her sobs, that the sound of her grief might not agitate him, while he enjoyed the inexpressible comfort of having her close to him. He closed his eyes as he leant against the sweet support which she afforded him, but not in sleep; he was thinking over all it might be most necessary for him to say to her, before the power of speech had left him, and taking counsel with himself as to the advice which he would give her.
"Victorine," he said, and then paused a moment for a reply, but, as she did not answer him, he went on. "Victorine, I want you to be all yourself now, while I speak to you. Can you listen to me calmly, love, while I speak to you seriously?"
She said that she would, but the tone in which she said it, hardly gave confirmation to her promise.
"I hardly know what account you have yet heard of that unfortunate battle."
"Oh! I have heard that it was most unfortunate: unfortunate to all, but most unfortunate to us."
"It was unfortunate. I hope those who spoke to you of it, deceived you with no false hopes, for that would have been mere cruelty. Give me your hand, my love; I hope they told you the truth. You know, dearest, do you not, that--that--that my wound is mortal?"
She strove hard to control her feelings. She bit her under lip between her teeth; she pressed her feet against the bed, and grasped the loose clothes with the hand which was disengaged. The virtue on which her husband most prided himself was calmness and self-possession in affliction. She knew that he now expected that virtue from her, and that nothing would so grieve him as to see her render herself weakly up to her sorrow, and she strove hard to control it; but all her exertion did not enable her to answer him. It seemed almost miraculous to herself that she could sit there, and retain her consciousness, and hear him utter such words. Had she attempted to speak, the effort would have overcome her.
"For heaven's sake, Victorine, let nothing, let nobody deceive you; know the worst, and look to Christ for power to bear it, and you will find the burden not too heavy to be borne. You and I, love, must part in this world. We have passed our lives together without one shadow to darken the joy of our union: we have been greatly blessed beyond others. Can we complain because our happiness on earth is not eternal? Is it not a great comfort that we can thus speak together before we part; that I have been allowed to live to see your dear face, to feel your breath on my cheek, and to hear your voice? to tell you, with the assurance which the approach of death gives me, that these sorrows are but for a time, and that our future joys shall be everlasting? And I must thank you, Victorine, for your tender care, your constant love. You have made me happy here; you have helped to fit me for happiness hereafter. It is owing to you that even this hour has but little bitterness for me. Are we not happy, dearest; are we not happy even now in each other's love?"
Madame de Lescure had, while her husband was speaking, sunk upon her knees beside his bed, and was now bathing his hand with her tears.
"I cannot blame you for your tears," he said, "for human nature must have her way; but my Victorine will remember that she must not give way to her sorrow, as other women may do. Rise, dearest, and let me see your face. I feel that I have strength now to tell you all that I have to say. I may probably never have that strength again."
She rose at his bidding, and sat upon the bed where he could look full upon her face; and then he began to pour out to her all the wishes of his heart, all the thoughts which had run through his brain since consciousness returned to him after his wound. After a little while she conquered her emotion, and listened to him, and answered him with attention. He first spoke of their daughter, who was now in safety, with relatives who had fled to England, and then of herself, and the probable result of the Vendean war. He told her that he would not say a word to discourage Henri: that had his life been spared, he should have considered it his own most paramount and sacred duty to further the war with every energy which he possessed; but that he did not expect that it would ever terminate favourably to their hopes. "The King will reign again," he said, "in France; I do not doubt it for a moment; but years upon years of bloodshed will have to be borne; the blood of France will be drained from every province, aye, from every parish, before the guilt which she has committed can be atoned for--before she can have expiated the murder of her King." He desired her to continue with Henri till an opportunity should occur for her to cross over into England, but to let no such opportunity pass. He said that if Henri could maintain his ground for a while in Brittany--if the people would support him, and if English succour should arrive--it was still probable that they might be able to come to such terms with the republicans as would enable them to live after their own fashion, in their own country; to keep their own priests among them, and to maintain their exemption from service in the republican armies. "But should this not be so," he said, "should all the valour of the Vendeans not be able to secure even thus much, then remember that God will temper the wind to the shorn lamb. With a people as with an individual, he will not make the burden too heavy for the back which has to bear it."
He spoke also of Marie, and declared his wish that she should not delay her marriage with Henri. He even said, that should his life be so far prolonged, as to enable him to be carried over into Brittany, and should the army there find a moment's rest, he would wish to see their hands joined together at his bed-side.
"My poor dear Marie!" said Madame de Lescure, almost unconsciously. She was thinking of her sister's future fate; that she also might have soon to bewail a husband, torn from her by these savage wars. De Lescure understood what was passing through her mind, and said:
"I know, love, that there are reasons why they had better remain as they now are. Why they should not indissolubly bind themselves to each other at such a time as this; but we must choose the least of evils. You will both now be a burden--no, I will not say a burden, but a charge--upon Henri; and he has a right to expect that a girl, who will depend for everything on him, shall not shrink from the danger of marrying him. She has been happy to accept his love, and when she may be a comfort to him, she should not hesitate to give him her hand. Besides, dearest, think what a comfort it will be to me to know that they are married before I die."
There was one other subject on which he had made up his mind to speak, but on which even he, calm and collected as he was, found it difficult to express himself; he had, however, determined that it was his duty to do so, and though the words almost refused to come at his bidding, still he went through his task.
"You will be desolate for a time, Victorine, when I shall have left you," said he.
She answered him only by a look, but that look was so full of misery--of misery, blended with inexpressible love--that no one seeing her, could have doubted that she would indeed be desolate when he was gone.
"We have loved each other too well to part easily," he continued, "and, for a time, the world will all be a weary blank to you. May God, who knows how to pour a balm into every wound, which in his mercy He inflicts, grant that that time may not be long! Listen to me patiently, love. It is a strong sense of duty which makes me pain you; my memory will always be dear to you; but do not let a vain, a foolish, a wicked regret counteract the purpose for which God has placed you here. You are very young, dearest, you have, probably, yet many years to live; and it would multiply my grief at leaving you tenfold, if I thought that your hopes of happiness in this world were to be buried in the grave with me. No, love, bear with me," he said, for she tried to stop him. "The pain which I give you now, may prevent much grief to you hereafter. Remember, Victorine, that should these evil days pass by--should you ever again be restored to peace and tranquil life, my earnest, my last, my solemn prayer to you is, that my memory may not prevent your future marriage."
She was still kneeling by his side, and with her face upturned and her hands clasped together, she now implored him to stop. She uttered no dissent, she made no protestations; but she beseeched him, by their long and tender love, by all the common ties which bound them together, to cease to speak on a subject which was so agonising.
"I have done, love," he said; "and I know that you will not think lightly of a prayer which I have made to you in so serious a manner."
De Lescure had expressed the same wish to his wife on former occasions, which, however, had, of course, been less solemn; and then his wife had answered him with a full, but not grieving heart. "Had our lot," he once said, "been cast in an Indian village, the prejudices of the country would have required you to submit to a horrid, torturing death upon my tomb. The prejudices of Christian lands, which attribute blame to the wife who does not yield herself a living sacrifice to a life of desolation from a false regard to her husband's memory, are, if not so horrid, every whit as unreasonable; such a sentiment is an attempt to counteract God's beneficence, who cures the wounds which he inflicts."
Henri's first care, after having seen Marie and Madame de Lescure, was to provide for their transit, and that of his wounded friend, to the other side of the water; for he felt that if the blues came upon St. Florent before that was done, nothing could prevent the three from being made prisoners. No tidings had yet been received of the advance of the republicans from Cholet towards St. Florent, and the precautions which Henri had taken were such as to ensure him some few hours' notice of their approach. He knew, however, that those hours would be hours of boundless confusion; that the whole crowd of unfortunate wretches who might then still be on the southern side of the river, would crowd into the small boats, hurrying themselves and each other to destruction; that discipline would be at an end, and that all his authority would probably be insufficient to secure a passage for his party. About three o'clock he sent word to Arthur to have the strongest of the boats kept in readiness a little lower down the river than the usual point of embarkation; so that they might, if possible, escape being carried through the throng. He then procured a waggon into which de Lescure was lifted on his bed; his wife sat behind him, supporting his head on her lap, and Henri and his sister walked beside the vehicle down to the water's edge.
The little Chevalier was there with the boat, and he had with him two men, neither of whom were young, and who had been at work the whole day ferrying over the Vendeans to the island. Arthur's figure was hardly that of an aide-de-camp. His head was bare and his face begrimed with mud. He was stripped to his shirt sleeves, and they were tucked up nearly to his shoulders. He still had round his waist the red scarf, of which he was so proud; but it was so soiled and dragged, as hardly to be recognized as the badge of the honourable corps to which he belonged, for he had, constantly since the morning, been up to his breast in the water, dragging women and children out of the river, heaving the boats ashore, or helping to push them off through the mud and rushes.
It was settled on the bank that Arthur should go over with them into Brittany, as Henri felt that he could not conscientiously leave the St. Florent side of the river, while so many thousands were looking to him for directions; and, consequently, as soon as de Lescure and the two ladies had, with much labour and delay, been placed in the boat, he swung himself out of the water into the bow, and the frail bark with its precious load was pushed off into the stream.
The point from which it started was somewhat lower down the stream than that from which the boats had been hitherto put off, and, consequently, as they got into the middle of the river, they found themselves carried down towards the lower part of the island, on which they had intended to land. Had the men who were rowing worked vigorously, this would not have occurred to any great extent; but they pulled slowly and feebly, and every foot which the boat made across, it descended as much down the river. Arthur had been desired to land de Lescure on the island, and another boat had been sent round to be ready to take him at once from thence to the other shore; but when he found that they were unintentionally so near the lower end of the island, it occurred to him that it would save them all much pain and trouble, if he were to run round it, and land them at once on the opposite shore; they would in this way have to make a considerably longer journey, but then de Lescure would be spared the pain of so many different movements.
Madame de Lescure immediately jumped at the proposal. "For heaven's sake, Arthur, do so, if it be possible," said she; "it will be the greatest relief. I do not think we should ever get across to the other boat, if we once leave this."
Arthur was behind the two men at the oars, who had listened to what had been said, without making any observation, or attempting to alter the destination of the boat; rudder there was none, and the steering, therefore, depended entirely on the rowers.
"Do you hear?" said Arthur, stretching forward and laying his hand on the shoulder of the man who was in front. "Never mind the island at all; go a little more down the stream, and then we can cross over at once without landing at all. Do you hear me, friend?" added he, speaking rather hastily, for the boatman took no apparent notice of his instructions.
"We hear you, Monsieur," said the man, "but it is impossible; we could not do it."
"Ah, nonsense!" answered the Chevalier: "not do it--I say you must do it. I wonder you should hesitate for a moment, when you know how M. de Lescure is suffering, and how much those ladies have to go through. Turn the boat down the stream at once, I tell you."
"It is quite impossible," said the old man doggedly, and still holding on to his course; "we should only upset the boat and drown you all. We could never push her through the current on the other side, could we Jean?"
"Quite impossible," said the other. "We should only be carried down into the rushes, or else be upset in the stream."
"Nonsense!" said Arthur. "What's to upset you? At any rate you shall try." And he laid his hand on the oar of the man who was nearest to him, but this, instead of having the effect which he desired, turned the nose of the boat the other way.
"For God's sake, my dear friends, do this favour for us if you can!" said Madame de Lescure. "It may save the life of my husband, and indeed we will reward you richly for your labour. Stop, Arthur, don't use violence; I am sure they will do this kindness for us, if they are able."
"If they won't do it for kindness, they shall do it because they cannot help it," said Arthur, when he saw that the men still showed no disposition to go down the stream; and as he spoke he pulled his pistol out of his belt, and prepared to cock it. The pistol, in truth, was perfectly harmless, for it had been over and over again immersed in the water, and the powder was saturated with wet; but this did not occur to the boatmen, nor, very possibly, to Arthur either; and when he, stepping across the thwart, on which the hinder man was sitting, held the pistol close to the ear of the other, threatening that if he did not at once do as he was bid, he would blow out his brains and take his place on the seat, the poor old man dropped his oar from his hand into the water, and falling on his knees on the bottom of the boat, implored for mercy.
"Spare me, Monsieur! oh, spare me!" said he. "Ladies, pray speak for me: I am not used to this work--indeed I am not--and I and my comrade are nearly dead with fatigue."
Arthur put the pistol back into his belt when the poor man begged for mercy, and pulling the fallen oar out of the water, declared that he would himself row round the island, and that the two old men might take the other oar in turns. They agreed to this, and then he who had been so frightened, and who was plainly the master of the two, told his tale to them, as he filled Arthur's place in the bow of the boat.
"When they had heard," he said, "what his former occupation had been, they would not wonder that the hard work at which they found him was almost too much for him. He was," he said, "a priest, and had been employed above twenty years as Curé in a small parish on the river side, between St. Florent and Chaudron. The other man, who was working with him, had been his sexton. He had, like other Curés, been turned out of his little house by the Republic, but had returned to his parish when he heard that the success of the Vendean arms seemed to promise tranquillity to the old inhabitants of the country. He had, however, soon been again disturbed. The rumour of Lechelle's army had driven him from his home, and he had fled with many others to St. Florent. He had been advised that those who were taken in a priest's garb, would be more subject even than others to the wrath of the republicans, and he had therefore disguised himself; and as from having lived so long near the river he had become somewhat used to the management of boats, he had, for charity's sake, leant his hand to the poor Vendeans, willing," as he said, "to use what little skill and strength he had for those who lost their all in fighting for him, his country, and his religion. But now," he added, "he found himself almost knocked up; and although, when he had been chosen to take over Monsieur and the two ladies, he had not had the heart to decline, still he had found that his strength would fail him. He knew that he and his companion could not, unaided, reach the opposite shore; but if the young gentleman would assist, they would still do their best, and perhaps they might cross over in safety."
This piteous tale soon turned their anger into admiration and friendship. They thanked the kind old man for all that he had done for them, and Arthur once, and over again, turned round to beg his pardon for the violence he had offered him.
"Indeed, then, I picked you out for this job," said he, "because you always worked so hard, and seemed so skilful and anxious, and because I observed that your boat always made the passage quicker than the others. You must not be angry when I tell you that I thought you had been a boatman all your life."
He said he was not angry at all, but flattered; indeed he had spent much of his leisure time in rowing, and was heartily glad that his little skill was now useful to his friends. He soon offered to take his place again at the oar, and when neither his old servant or Arthur would allow him to do so, he declared that he was quite himself again, and that those few minutes' rest had wonderfully recruited him. The ladies both thanked him kindly, but begged him to remain a while where he was, and Marie, from time to time, asked him questions about the past, and tried to hold out hopes to him for the future. The tears came into his eyes, and rolled down his cheeks, and after a while he took the sexton's oar, literally to relieve himself from having to speak.
"It is not he work alone that has upset me," said he after a while, "but the poor people seem so callous. We have worked hard these two days, as the young gentleman knows, and all for charity, and yet till this moment we have not had a kind word. They urge us on to the work, and when we land them at the shore, they do not even thank us as they go away; then we turn back with a heavy heart for another load."
They reached the shore of Brittany in safety, and when de Lescure was placed in the carriage which had been provided for him, he desired that the poor priest might be begged to accompany them on their journey. He declined, however, saying that he had found a sphere in which he could be useful, and that he would stick to the work till it was all done, or till his strength failed him. De Lescure pressed his hand, and begged his blessing, and told him that if there were many such as him in the country, La Vendée might still carry her head high, in spite of all that the Republic could do against her. This praise made the old man's heart light once again, and he returned to his bat, and passed. back to St. Florent with his comrade and Arthur, ready to recommence his labours. In the meantime de Lescure and his wife and sister were warmly welcomed on the Breton side of the river, and before night he, for the first time since the battle of Cholet, found himself in comparative security and peace.
When Arthur got back he found that another plan had been started for carrying over the Vendeans, which, if it did not drown them altogether, would be certainly much more expeditious than that of the boats. It had originated with Chapeau, under whose guidance the operations were about to commence.
He had come down to the water-side with his master, and on seeing the way in which the men were working, had calculated that it would yet take above a week to carry over all who remained, and as it was probable that they would be attacked before twenty-four hours were over, he had observed that they might as well give themselves up for lost if they could devise no other scheme of passing over.
"We will do the best we can," said Henri. "If we can get over the women, and children, and wounded, the rest of us can fight our way to the bridge of Ancenis."
"Why not make a raft?" said Chapeau.
"Make one if you can," said Henri, "but it will only go down the stream. Besides, you have neither timber nor iron ready to do it."
Chapeau, however, determined to try, and he employed the men from Durbellière, who knew him, and would work for him, to get together every piece of timber they could collect. They brought down to the bank of the river the green trunks of small trees, the bodies of old waggons, the small beams which they were able to pull down out of the deserted cottages near the river-side, pieces of bedsteads, and broken fragments of barn doors. All these Chapeau, with endless care, joined together by numberless bits of ropes, and at last succeeded in getting afloat a raft on which some forty or fifty men might stand, but which seemed to be anything but a safe or commodious means of transit. In the first place, though it supported the men on it, it did not bear them high and dry above the water, which came over the ankles of most of them. Then there was no possible means of steering the unwieldy bark; and there could be no doubt that if the Argonauts did succeed in getting their vessels out into the river, it would immediately descend the stream, and that it, and those upon it, would either be upset altogether, or taken to whichever bank and whatever part of it, the river in its caprice might please.
In this dilemma a brilliant idea occurred to Chapeau. He still had plenty of rope in his possession, and having fastened one end of a long coil with weights and blocks on the riverside, he passed over with the other end into the island, and fastened it there. The rope, therefore, traversed the river, and by holding on to this, and passing it slowly through their hands, while they strained against the raft with their feet, the enterprising crew who had first embarked reached the island in safety. Ten of the number had to return with the raft, but still from thirty to forty had been taken over, and that without any great delay.
After this first success the boats were sent round to work between the island and the other shore, and the raft was kept passing to and fro over the river the whole night. Nobody got over with dry feet, but still no one was drowned, and upon the whole Chapeau was considered to be entitled to the thanks of the whole army for the success of his invention. He had certainly accelerated their passage fivefold.
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