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When Henri arose from his sleep, the whole house was up and stirring, and men and women were moving about through the dark rooms with candles in their hands. They all knew that this would be an eventful day for their cause; that much must depend on the success of that day's battle. If they were beaten now, their only hope would be to run farther from their homes, towards the coast, from which they expected English aid; but if fortune would once more visit their arms, they might hope to hold their position in Laval, and in other towns in the neighbouring and friendly province of Brittany. The gallant and cordial assistance which the Vendeans had received from the strangers among whom they were now thrown, had greatly tended to give them new hopes; and the yesterday's victory, which had been gained by the men called La Petite Vendée, over the advanced troops of the republicans, had made the Poitevins peculiarly anxious to exhibit their own prowess to their gallant friends.
Henri, Arthur, and one or two other Vendean officers, sat down to a hurried breakfast, while Marie and Agatha moved about the room, behind their chairs, attending to their wants. Chapeau had now too many of a soldier's duties to give his time to those of a serving-man, and the sisters and wives of the Vendean officers had long since learnt to wait on the heroes whom they loved and admired. De Lescure was already seated on his sofa, by the window, and his wife was, as usual, close to his side. He had wonderfully improved since he reached Laval; and though it was the firm conviction, both of himself and of his surgeon, that his wound must ultimately prove mortal, he was again alive to all that was done, and heart and soul intent on the interests of the war.
"Oh! what would I give to be but one hour today on horseback!" said he. "To lie pinioned here, and hear the sounds of brave men fighting! To know that the enemy are in the very street beneath me, and yet to be unable to strike a blow! Oh! it is fearfully tormenting."
Henri said something intended to comfort him.
"It is well for you to talk," continued de Lescure. "How would you have borne it yourself? You would have fretted and fumed, and dashed yourself like a bird against its cage, till either your senses or your breath had left you. Henri," he then added, in a calmer tone, "I feel that you will be successful today."
"That's a most glorious omen," said Henri, jumping up; "I look on success as certain when predicted by Charles, for he is the least sanguine among us all."
"But, Henri," said he, "take my advice, and don't attack them till they are close to the town. You may be sure they will be ready enough to give you an opportunity. After having driven us across the Loire like wild geese, Lechelle will not doubt his power to drive us also from the streets of Laval."
It was agreed among them that de Lescure's advice should be taken, and that none of the Vendeans should advance above a league on the road towards Antrâmes. It was already known that General Lechelle, and his whole army, were in the neighbourhood of that town; and it was not likely that, as he had pursued the Vendeans so far, he would remain there long without giving them the opportunity they now desired, of again trying their strength with them.
As Henri prepared to leave the room, the little Chevalier rose to accompany him: "No," said Henri, stopping him. "Do you remain with Chapeau today. Wherever you are, I know you will do well, but today we must not ride together." As the boy looked woefully disappointed, he added, "I will explain to you why, this evening, if we both live through the day to meet again."
He then kissed his sister, and Madame de Lescure and his cousin. They all of them knew that he was going into the midst of the hottest danger, where the visits of death would be thick and frequent; and they felt how probable it was that, before many hours were over, he might be brought back to them dead or dying. He either made some sign to her, or else from a feeling that she was dearer than the others to him, Marie followed him from the room. He said but a few words to her, as he held her in his close embrace, and she answered him with but one; but with that one she promised him, that if he returned safe and victorious from this day's contest, she would no longer object to join her hand and fate to his.
Henri immediately went to the gate, where he had promised to meet Adolphe, and there he found him on horseback, surrounded by his Breton followers, on foot. He had still the same wild, gaunt look about him, which had so startled his friend when he first saw him; but there was more of hope and spirit in his countenance, and he spoke, if he did not look, like a soldier.
We will now leave the warriors of La Vendée to obtain what success they can against the experienced troops of the republican army--the men so well known in many a bloody battle as the soldiers of Mayence, and will return and stay a while with the women and wounded man, who were left to all the horrors of a long day's suspense.
For a considerable time they said nothing to each other as to the probable events of the day, for they knew well that they could hear no news for some few hours to come. By degrees the cold grey dawn of an October morning broke into the room, and the candles were put out. Any ordinary employment at such a time was utterly out of the question, so they clustered together at the window and waited for such news as chance might bring them from time to time. Annot Stein, who was now living with them in the house, came in and joined them, and after a while the old Marquis was brought into the room, and took his station at the opposite window to that occupied by de Lescure.
The noises in the street were incessant. Soldiers on horseback and on foot; cannons and waggons passed on without a moment's pause: the men shouted as they went by, eager for revenge against the enemy who had driven them from their homes; and women mixed themselves in the crowd, shrieking and screaming as they parted from their husbands or their lovers.
The morning air was cold and chill, but still de Lescure insisted on having the windows open, that he might cheer with his voice the men as they passed below him, and that he might call to those by name whom he might chance to know. His wife was astonished to find how many he remembered, and to perceive that every soldier, as he passed, recognized the wan face of his General, and expressed his sincere delight at again seeing his features.
"Well done, Forestier! well done, my gallant friend!" he exclaimed, as a tall, handsome man rode by, who, from his garb and arms, was evidently an officer. He had, however, like many of the officers, belonged to a lowly rank, and still looked up with reverence to those of his fellow- soldiers, whose blood was more noble than his own. "You are never missing when strong arms are wanted."
The man took off his cap, and bowed low to the saddle bow. Had he been born to the manner, he could not have done it with more grace. "God bless you, General," he said, "God grant that we may soon see you here among us again;" and a thousand loud clamorous voices echoed the wish. A tear rose to de Lescure's eye, which none but his wife could mark: he knew that his friend's kind wishes were vain; that he had now, personally, no hope except in death; and he could not entirely repress a vain regret that he might live to witness the success of his party, of which, since his sojourn in Laval, he had taught himself to be sanguine.
It was but a moment before the tear was gone, and his eyes were again on fire with enthusiasm. "Ah, de Bauge--good de Bauge!" he exclaimed, as a friend of his early youth passed by, using at the moment every effort to repress the wild clamouring hurry of his followers. "God prosper thee, dear friend! Oh, that we now had but a score or two such soldiers as thou art!"
"We have many hundreds here as good," said de Bauge, pausing a moment from his work to salute the friends whom he recognized at the window.
"Thousands perhaps as brave, thousands as eager, if they did but know how to use their courage," answered de Lescure.
After this there was a lull for a few moments, and then a troop of cuirassiers trotted down the street, jingling their bridles, swords, and spurs as they moved. This small body of cavalry had been, for some time, the pride and strongest hope of the Vendeans. They had been gradually armed, horsed, and trained during the war, by the greatest exertions of the wealthiest among their officers, and they had certainly proved to be worth all the trouble they had cost. They were now, alas! reduced to half the number, which had ridden out of Chatillon before the battle of Cholet; but the remnant were still full of spirit, and anxious to avenge their fallen brethren. Their bright trappings and complete accoutrements, afforded a strange contrast to the medley appearance of the footmen, who retreated back to the houses, to make way for the horses; and told more plainly than any words could do, the difference between an army of trained soldiers, and a band of brave, but tumultuous peasants.
It was now nine o'clock; and shortly after the horsemen had all passed through the street, the little Chevalier came in with the news, that they were immediately about to attack the blues; the republican army being already within a mile of the town; and that Henri was at that moment leaving the guard-house, and preparing to lead the attack; and when he had told so much aloud to them all, he stooped down to whisper to de Lescure, that Adolphe Denot was riding everywhere through the town at Henri's right hand, and that he was the redoubtable Mad Captain, the leader of La Petite Vendée.
De Lescure had not time to question the Chevalier, or to express his surprise, before Henri was seen coming down the street on horseback, almost at full gallop, and at his right hand rode a man, whom they did not all immediately recognize. Agatha, however, knew at the first glance who the stranger was, and with an instinctive feeling that the sight of her would be painful to him, she retreated behind her father's couch, so that he could not well see her from the street. When Chapeau had first whispered into his master's ear the name of Adolphe Denot as the leader of the Bretons, Agatha had truly guessed the purport of his whisper; and it cannot, therefore, be said that she was startled to see Adolphe once more by her brother's side; but still she could not but shudder as she remembered the circumstances under which she had last seen him, and the inhuman crime of which he had been guilty.
Henri rode a little in advance, and as he passed, he merely turned his laughing face towards his friends, and kissed his hand to the window. Denot, till he was nearly close to the house, had not thought of the neighbourhood he was in; nor had he the least idea that any but the usual inhabitants of the town were looking down on him, till his wandering eyes fell full upon the faces of Marie and Madame de Lescure, who were standing close to the open window. Immediately the blood rushed to his face, and suffused it almost with a purple red: he checked his horse suddenly, and, for a moment, looked full up at the window, where he met the cold gaze of de Lescure fixed full upon him. The pause was but for a moment; he could not bear the ordeal of that look, but fixing his eyes to the ground, he struck his spurs into his horse, and hurried out of the sight of those on whom he did not dare to turn his face.
"Agatha, my love, in the name of the Blessed Virgin, who was that?" said the Marquis, rubbing his eyes, before which an Unearthly apparition seemed to have appeared. "Who was that that rode by with Henri? only that I know it is impossible, I should have said that it was Adolphe Denot."
"It is Adolphe, Sir," said Arthur Mondyon; "it is he that is the Mad Captain, who has been knocking the blues about in such a wonderful manner. I suppose he got tired of Santerre, or Santerre of him. I thought they wouldn't agree long together."
"Arthur!" said Agatha, "you should speak kindly of him now; don't you see that Henri has forgiven him; if he can forgive him, surely you ought to do so."
"And is it really true that Henri and Adolphe Denot are again friends?" said the Marquis, speaking rather to himself than to any one else. "Well, I should have thought that would have been impossible. If Henri can forgive him, we all ought to do so too; but--but--but I do not think that I could feel at ease if he were in the room with me."
"I do not think he will come to us, father," said Agatha. "Did you not observe his face as he passed? the very sight of us seemed to cut him to the heart."
Adolphe had been quite right, when he said that they were not at all like Henri. There was not one of the whole party who did not strive, heartily and truly, to forgive the treason and iniquity of which he had been guilty; but there was not one there who did not, at the same time, feel a secret wish that he or she might never again be under the same roof with the man who had been a traitor, both to his friends and to his King.
Arthur Mondyon soon left them, and hurried out to bear his part in the contest which was just commencing. He was a little jealous to think that his accustomed place near Henri should have been taken from him by one who had proved himself so faithless as Denot, but still he was not inclined to pass such a day as this in-doors, with sick men and trembling women. He promised, however, to come to them himself from time to time, or if that were impossible, to send them news of what was going on; and as it was probable that the thickest of the fight would be either in the town, or immediately on the skirts of it, there was no reason why he should not keep his promise.
For a couple of hours they remained in dreadful suspense, hearing nothing and fearing everything. It seemed to them as though whole days must have passed in those two hours. De Lescure became dreadfully impatient, and even irritable; declaring at one moment that he was quite equal to mount his horse, and that he would go out and see what they were about; and then again almost fainting, with the exhaustion occasioned by his intense excitement. Then he would lament the inexperience of Henri, expressing his dread that his indiscretion this day would ruin all their hopes: and, again, when he saw how painful these surmises were to Agatha and Marie, he would begin to praise his courage and indomitable good spirits, and declare that their strongest safeguard lay in the affection to his person, which was shared by every peasant of La Vendée.
Their suspense was at length broken; not by any visit or message from their own party, but by a most unexpected and unwelcome sight. On a sudden, they again heard the tumultuous noise of troops coming down the street; but, on this occasion, they were entering, instead of leaving the town; and as the rushing body of men turned a corner in the street, it was seen that they all wore the well-known blue uniform of the republican regiments. Yes, there in truth were the blues, now immediately under the house they were occupying: file after file of sturdy, grizzled veteran soldiers, hurried through the streets in quick, but regular time. Men quite unlike their own dear peasant soldiers; men with muskets in their hands, shakos on their heads, and cartouche boxes slung behind their backs. The three ladies, before whose sight this horrid reality of a danger, so long apprehended, suddenly appeared, had never been so near a scene of absolute battle. Agatha, it is true, had had to endure through one long and dreadful night the presence of Santerre and his men in the château of Durbellière; but then she had no active part to play; she had only to sit in quiet, and wait for her doom: now they all felt that something should be done, some means should be tried to escape from the danger which was so close to them.
The women immediately withdrew from the window, and wheeled away the couch on which the Marquis was lying, but nothing would induce de Lescure to allow himself to be stirred; in fixed silence, with his head resting low on the window sill, he gazed on the crowded soldiers, as they poured thick and numerous into the town.
"Oh, where is Henri now?" said Madame de Lescure. "What shall we do--where are we to go? Speak, Charles, for heaven's sake, speak!"
Marie had opened the door, and now stood with it in her hands, wishing to run, and yet not choosing to leave her companions in misfortune; while Agatha vainly endeavoured with her unassisted strength to remove her father from the room.
"Henri is just where he ought to be," said de Lescure. "There--there--now they come--now they come. By heavens, there's Denot leading--and see, there's de Bauge and Arthur--dear boy, gallant boy. Well done, Henri Larochejaquelin: had you been grey it could not have been better done; he has got the blues as it were into a wine-press; poor devils, not one can escape alive."
De Lescure, when he first saw the republicans coming down the street, had for a moment thought that the town was in their hands; but a minute's reflection served to show him, that were such really the case, they would have driven before them hundreds of the retreating Vendeans. The peasants had never yet so utterly forgotten their courage, as to throw down their weapons at the first sight of their enemy, and fly without making an effort for victory, and de Lescure was sure that such could not now have been the case. It immediately occurred to him, that the passage of the gate must have been purposely left free to the devoted blues, and that Henri and his men would fail upon them in the town, where their discipline and superior arms, would be but of comparatively little use to them.
He was right; for while the women were yet trembling, panic-struck at the first sight of their enemies, Henri and his party had entered the long street from the market-place, and with a fierce yell of defiance, the Vendean cavalry rushed upon the astonished blues, meeting them almost beneath the very window from which de Lescure was looking.
The three women crouched round the aged Marquis in the farthest corner of the room, comforted to find that he whom they so trusted still expected victory; but nearly fainting with fear, and deafened with the sounds of the conflict. To de Lescure the sight was pleasure itself; as he could not be in the fight, the next thing was to see the combatants and cheer his friends. The foremost of the republican soldiers soon gave way beneath the weight of the attack; though they fought sturdily, and did their best to keep their ground. They could not, however, retreat far; their own men still advancing behind blocked up the way; and after a while, that which De Lescure had predicted took place: another party of Vendeans had attacked them in the rear, and occupied the only gate through which they could leave the city.
And now the slaughter in the street was dreadful, and the blues hemmed in on every side fought desperately for their lives, like beasts at bay. Every now and again the Vendeans retreated a step or two, driven back by the fury of their foes, and then again regained their ground, advancing over the bodies of the slain. No one in the strange medley on which he was looking, was more conspicuous to de Lescure's eyes than Adolphe Denot; he had lost his cap in the confusion of the fight, and his thin, wan face, disfigured by the wound which the Chevalier had given him, was plainly to be seen; and de Lescure was shocked by the change which he saw there: the only weapon he bore was a huge sabre, which he swung round his head with a strength which could not have been expected from his attenuated frame; he was often the most forward, always among the first of the assailants; and frequently became surrounded by the blues, who were prevented by the closeness of the crowd from using their arms. He had caught de Lescure's eye, and from time to time turned his face up toward the window, as though anxious to discover whether he who had before witnessed his cowardice was now looking upon his prowess.
"By heavens! he fights well," said de Lescure to his wife, who was gradually creeping somewhat nearer to her husband, but still unable to face the horrors of that open window. "He is greatly changed--look--look at him now; well done, Adolphe--well done: there, there; he's down! Poor fellow, I fear he has struck his last blow: gallant Henri, brave Henri--there, they are up again together; but Denot's face is covered with blood. He still has his sword, however--well done, Denot: bravely done Denot: no man of those living or dead, ever struck a better blow than that."
These last words were distinctly heard by him to whom they were addressed, and as he again turned up his face, a ray of triumph illumined his sunken eyes; he did not, however, or he could not speak, for the heat of the battle was carried back again towards the gate, and the tumultuous sea of fighting men was hurried away from the spot where they had been contending.
While this scene was going on in the street, another set of combatants were engaged near the gate; and here two men of very different natures, but of similar station in life, found themselves together during a temporary pause, after a protracted struggle. These were Michael Stein, and Auguste Emile Septimus Plume. In spite of all that he had himself said against the trade, Michael had, in his old age, turned soldier, and had been fighting sturdily with a huge woodman's axe, a weapon which he had chanced to meet with, and the use of which came readily to his hand: he was now sitting on the step of the gate-house, wiping with the sleeve of his coat the perspiration which the unaccustomed work had brought to his forehead, and listening to the praises of M. Plume, who was standing over him, leaning on his sword.
"That axe of yours," said Auguste, "is a singular weapon, and perhaps not entirely fitted for military purposes; but I must own you have used it well--it fell with decided effect this morning on many a poor fellow's head and shoulders. You have probably, my friend, fought many a battle with these fellows of Mayence?"
"Not a battle I ever fought before, Monsieur," said Michael; "nor do I ever wish to fight another; it's horrid weary work, this of knocking men's brains out, not to talk of the chance a man runs of losing his own."
"But ain't you one of the Vendeans, my gallant comrade?" asked Auguste.
"If you mean, did I come over from Poitou with them, I certainly did; but I only came because I could not help it, and because I could not live to see a little girl I have fall into the hands of the butchers; it was not for any love of fighting that I came."
"But yet you take to it kindly, my friend. I am considered to know something of the sword exercise, and I thought you wielded that axe, as though your arm had been used to a sabre this many a year."
"I am a blacksmith," said Michael, shortly; "and I have been fifty years ringing hammers on an anvil: that makes a man's arm lusty."
"Indeed," said the other, "a blacksmith--well, you may be a blacksmith, and yet a good soldier. Now you wouldn't believe it, but I'm a baker--you wouldn't take me to be a baker by my trade, would you now?"
Michael Stein looked at him, and told him he couldn't well give an opinion, as he knew nothing about bakers.
"I knew you wouldn't," said the other; "no one on earth would take me to be a tradesman--that's what they all say; I have that kind of manner about me, that I look like a soldier--I did when I hadn't been at it above a week. Every one used to say, Plume, you were born to be an officer; Plume, you will live to be a General: and if I don't get killed in the wars, I think I shall. Now it's only three months since I joined, and I am already second in command in the whole army."
Michael Stein stared at him, as he repeated his words, "Second in command in the whole army!"
"Indeed I am, my friend, the second in command. You wouldn't believe it, now, but I was sticking loaves of bread into an oven three or four months ago."
"The second in command!" said Michael, still regarding his companion with a look in which incredulous surprise and involuntary reverence were blended. "I suppose you're a great way above Jacques Chapeau, then?"
"Oh, my friend Chapeau--and do you know my friend Chapeau? No, I'm not above him; he's not in our army; he's second in command himself in the Vendean army. You know I belong to La Petite Vendée."
At this moment, the very man of whom they were speaking, the redoubtable Chapeau, came up with a large party of straggling Vendeans, out of breath with running; they were in full pursuit of the blues, who were now said to be flying towards Antrâmes and Château-Gonthier.
"Come, my friends," said Chapeau, "no idling now; come to Antrâmes, and we'll get plenty of arms, if we get nothing else. What, is it you, Captain Plume. I'm told you did as well as the best today; and what--my dear old friend Michael: a soldier at last, eh, Michael Stein! Come, man, don't be ashamed to give us your hand; you've joined us in very good time, for the Vendeans never gained such a victory as they have today. Come on, old friend, we'll get another sight of these running devils at Antrârnes."
"They may run for me, M. Chapeau, and run far enough, before I try to stop them; do you know I'm nearly ashamed of what I've been doing as it is."
"Ashamed!--ashamed of what?" said Chapeau.
"Why look there," said Michael; and as he spoke, he pointed with his foot to the body of a republican soldier, who lay calmly at his ease, in the sleep of death, not three yards from the spot where the old man was now standing.
"Not an hour since, that poor fellow ran this way, and as he passed, he had no thought of hurting me; he was thinking too much of himself, for half-a-dozen hungry devils were after him. Well, I don't know what possessed me, but the smell of blood had made me wild, and I lifted up my axe and struck him to the ground. I wish, with all my heart, the poor man were safe at Antrâmes."
It was in vain that Chapeau tried to persuade the smith that he had only done his duty in killing a republican, who would certainly have lived to have done an injury to the cause, had he been suffered to escape. Michael Stein would not, or could not, understand the arguments he used; and decidedly declared that if he found it possible to avoid fighting for the future he would do so.
"Do you know, M. Chapeau," he said at last, "when I first took this axe in my hand, this morning, I had hardly made up my mind on which side I should use it. It was only when I thought of the boys and of Annot, that I determined to go with the Vendeans. It wasn't possible for a man not to fight on one side or the other--that's the only reason I had for fighting at all."
Chapeau became rather ashamed of his friend's irregular doctrines, and hurried on; explaining to Plume, who accompanied him, that Michael Stein was a queer eccentric old man, but a thorough good royalist at heart. "Why he has two sons among the red scarfs," he added, to settle the point.
"Has he, indeed?" said Plume, who had never heard who the red scarfs were.
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