La Vendée, by Anthony Trollope

Cathelineau’s Mother

The old motto, attributing disrespect to every prophet in his own country, had not been proved true with reference to Cathelineau in St. Florent. His deeds, during the short period of his triumph, had been celebrated there with general admiration, and since his death, his memory had been almost adored. The people of the town had had no public means of showing their appreciation of his valour; they had not as yet had time to erect monuments to his honour, or to establish other chronicles of his virtues, than those which were written in the hearts of his townsmen. He had left an aged mother behind him, who had long been dependent on his exertions for support, and they had endeavoured to express their feeling of his services, by offering to place her beyond the reach of poverty; but, unaccountably enough, she was the only person in St. Florent, who was dissatisfied with her son’s career, and angry with the town which had induced him to adopt it.

She still lived in a small cottage near the extremity of St. Florent, which had been the residence of Cathelineau as long as he supported himself by his humble calling. It was now wrecked and shattered, and showed those certain signs of ruin which quickly fall on the dwellings of the aged poor, who have no young relatives round them. Here she would sit and spin, seldom now interrupted by any; though at first her neighbours used to flock thither to celebrate the praises of her son. She had loved her son, as warmly as other mothers love their children; but she had loved him as a hard-working labourer, earning for herself and for him their daily pittance; not as a mighty General, courted and complimented by the rich and great of the land. She had begged him not to go out into the town on the morning when he had been so instrumental in saving his townsmen from the ignominy of being pressed into the service of the Republic; and when he returned in the evening, crowned with laurels, she had not congratulated him. She had uttered nothing but evil bodings to him on the day when he first went to Durbellière; and when he returned from Saumur, chief General of all the forces of then victorious La Vendée, she had refused to participate in the glories which awaited him in his native town. On his departure to Nantes she had prophesied to him his death, and when the tidings of his fall were first brought to her, she merely said that she had expected it. The whole town mourned openly for Cathelineau, except his mother. She wept for him in silence and alone; but she wept for the honest, sturdy, hard — working labourer whom she had reared beneath her roof, and who had been beguiled away by vain people, to vain pursuits, which had ended in his death; while others bewailed the fall of a great captain, who had conferred honour on their town, and who, had he been spared, might have heaped glory on his country. Since that time, she had not ceased to rail on those who had seduced her son into celebrity and danger; and, after a while, had been left to rail alone.

When nearly all the inhabitants of the town flocked down to the river-side, anxious to escape from the wrath of the republicans, she resolutely refused to move, declaring that if it were God’s will that she should perish under the ashes of her little cottage, she would do so, and that nothing should induce her, in her extreme old age, to leave the spot on which she had been born, and had always lived. During the whole confusion, attending the passage of the river, she sat there undisturbed; and though she saw all her poor neighbours leave their humble dwellings, and all their little property, to look for safety in Brittany, she did not move.

On the day after that on which de Lescure had passed over, she was sitting alone in her cabin, and the unceasing whirl of her spinning-wheel proved that the distractions of the time had not made her idle. By this time all those who had lived immediately near her, were gone. it is not to be supposed that absolutely every inhabitant of the town left his home; there were some who had taken no prominent part in the war, and who could not believe that the republicans would destroy those whom they found quietly living in their own houses; but all the poorer part of the population were gone, and not a living soul but herself remained in the row of cabins, of which Cathelineau’s mother occupied one.

Her wheel was turning fast round, obedient to the quick motion of her foot, and her two hands were employed in preparing the flax before it was caught by the wheel; but her mind was far away from her ordinary pursuit. She had been thinking how true were the prophetic warnings with which she had implored her son to submit to the republicans, and how surely she had foreseen the desolation which his resistance had brought on all around her. And yet there was more of affection than bitterness in her thoughts of her son. She acknowledged to herself his high qualities; she knew well how good, how noble, how generous, had been his disposition. She was, even in her own way, proud of his fame; but she hated, with an unmixed hatred, those whom she thought had urged him on to his ruin — those friends of noble blood, who would have spurned the postillion from their doors had he presumed to enter them in former days; but who had thrust him into the van of danger in the hour of need, and had persuaded him, fond and foolish as he had been, to use his courage, his energy, and his genius, in fighting for them a battle, in which he should have had no personal interest.

As she sat there spinning, and thinking thus bitterly of the causes of all her woe, a figure darkened the door of her cottage, and looking up she saw a young lady dressed in black. She was tall, and of a noble mien; her face was very beautiful, but pale and sad, as were the faces of most in these sad times. Her dress was simple, and she was unattended; but yet there was that about her, which assured the old woman that she was not of simple blood, and which prepared her to look upon her as an enemy.

It was Agatha Larochejaquelin. She and her father had, by slow stages, reached St. Florent in safety; and, after having seen him at rest, and spoken a word to her brother, her first care had been to inquire after the mother of Cathelineau. She had been told of her solitary state, and of her stubborn resolution to remain at St. Florent, and she determined to offer her any aid in her power, as a duty due to the memory of him, with whom she had been, for a short time, so strangely connected.

The old woman rose mechanically, and made a slight obeisance as she saw Agatha’s commanding figure, and then reseating herself, hastily recommenced her work, as though she had forgotten herself, in having been thus far courteous to her guest.

“I have come to express my esteem and respect to the mother of Cathelineau,” said Agatha, as soon as she found herself inside the cottage. “I knew and valued your son, and I shall be glad to know his mother. Was not the brave Cathelineau your son, my friend?” she added, seeing that the old woman stared at her, as though she did not as yet comprehend the object of her visit.

“My name is Françoise Cathelineau,” said the sybil, “and Jacques Cathelineau was my son.”

“And proud you may be to have been his mother. He was a great and good man: he was trusted and loved by all La Vendée. No one was so beloved by the poor as he was; no one was so entirely trusted by the rich and great.”

“I wish that the rich and great had left him as they found him. It would be well for him and me this morning, if he had not so entirely trusted them.”

“His death was a noble death. He died for the throne which he honoured, and loved so loyally; and his name will be honoured in Poitou, aye, and in all France, as long as the names of the great and the good are remembered. It must be a bitter thing to lose an only son, but his dearest friends should not regret him in such a cause.”

“Dearest friends! What do you know of his dearest friends? How can you tell what his dearest friends may feel about it?”

“I know what I feel myself. Perhaps I cannot judge of all a mother’s agony in losing her son; but I may truly say, that of those who knew Cathelineau, none valued him more than I did.”

“Valued him! Yes, you valued him as you would a war-horse, or a strong tower, but you did not love him. He was not of your race, or breed. His hands were hard with toil, his hair was rough, and his voice was harsh with the night air. The breath of the labouring poor is noisome in the nostrils of the rich. His garments smelt of industry, and his awkward gait told tales of his humble trade. You did not love him: such as you could not have loved a man like him. You have come here to bid me to forget my son, and you think it easy for me to do so, because you and his noble friends have forgotten him. You are welcome, Mademoiselle, but you might have saved yourself the trouble.”

“God forbid that I should ask you to forget him. I can never forget him myself.”

“Would that I could — would that I could! He left me that morning when I bade him to stay, though I went down on my knees to ask it as a favour. He was a stubborn self-willed man, and he went his own way. He never passed another night under his mother’s roof; he never again heard his mother’s blessing. I wish I could forget him. Indeed, indeed, I wish I could!” and the old woman swayed herself backwards and forwards in her chair, repeating the wish, as though she did not know that any one was with her in the cottage.

Agatha hardly knew what to say to the strange woman before her, or how to soften her bitterness of spirit. She had felt an unaccountable attraction to Cathelineau’s mother. She had imagined that she could speak to her of her son with affection and warmth, though she could not do so to any other living soul She had flattered herself that she should have a melancholy pleasure in talking of his death, and in assuring his aged mother that she had soothed her son’s last hours, and given him, in his dying moments, that care which can only be given by the hands of a woman. She now felt herself repulsed, and learnt that the short career of glory which had united her with Cathelineau, had severed him from his mother. Nevertheless her heart yearned to the old woman; she still hoped that, if she could touch the right cord, she might find her way to the mother’s heart.

“I thought, perhaps,” she said, “you would be glad to hear some tidings of his last moments; and as I was with him when he died, I have come to tell you that his death was that of a Christian, who hoped everything from the merits of his Saviour.”

“May his soul rest in peace,” said the mother, crossing herself, and mechanically putting her hands to her beads. “May his soul rest in peace. And you were with him when he died, Mademoiselle, were you?”

“I knelt at his bed-side as the breath passed from his body.”

“It would have been better for him had one of his own degree been there: not that I doubt you did the duty of a good neighbour, as well as it might be done by one like you. Might I ask you your name, lady?”

“My name is Agatha Larochejaquelin.”

“Larochejaquelin! I’m sorry for it. It was that name that first led Jacques into trouble: it was young Larochejaquelin that first made my son a soldier. I will not blame you, for you say you were kind to him at a time when men most want kindness; but, I wish that neither I nor he had ever heard your name.”

“You are wrong there, my friend. It was Cathelineau made a soldier of my brother, not my brother who made a soldier of him. Henri Larochejaquelin was only a follower of Cathelineau.”

“A Marquis obey a poor postillion! Yes, you stuffed him full with such nonsense as that! You made him fancy himself a General! You cannot fool me so easily. My son was not a companion for noble men and noble ladies. A wise man will never consort with those who are above him in degree.”

“We all looked on Cathelineau as equal to the best among us,” answered Agatha. “We all strove to see who should show him most honour.”

The old woman sat silent for a while, turning her wheel with great violence, and then she moved abruptly round, and facing Agatha, said:

“Will you answer me one question truly, Mademoiselle?”

Agatha said she would.

“Are you betrothed as yet to your lover?”

“No, indeed,” answered she; “I am not betrothed.”

“And now answer me another question. Suppose this son of mine, who, as you say, was as great as the greatest among you, and as noble as the noblest; suppose he had admired your beauty, and had offered to take you home to his mother as the wife of his bosom, how would you then have answered him? What would you then have thought of the postillion? Would he then have been the equal of gay young counts, and high-blooded marquises?”

Agatha at first made no reply, and a ruby blush suffused her whole face. She was not at all unwilling that Cathelineau’s mother should know the feeling which she had entertained for her son, but the abruptness, and the tone of the question, took her by surprise, and for a moment scattered her thoughts.

“Now I have made you angry, Mademoiselle,” said the other, chuckling at the success of her scheme. “Now you are wrath that I should have dared to suppose that the daughter of a Marquis could have looked, in the way of love, on a poor labourer who had been born and bred in a hovel like this.”

“You mistake me, my friend; I am not angry — I am anything but angry.”

“You would have scorned him as a loathsome reptile, which to touch would be an abomination,” continued the old woman, not noticing, in her eagerness, Agatha’s denial. “You would have run from him in disgust, and the servants would have let loose the dogs at him, or have chained him as a madman. Yes, your delicate frame shakes with horror at the idea, that a filthy stable boy could have looked on your beauty, and have dared to wish to possess it: and yet you presume to tell me that Cathelineau was among you as an equal: he was with you as a Jew is among Christians, as a slobbering drunkard among sober men, as one stricken with fever among the healthy. My son should have been too proud to have eaten bread at a table where his hand was thought unclean, or to have accepted favours, where he dared not look for love.”

“You are unjust to Cathelineau,” replied Agatha. “You are in every way unjust, both to your son and to me. He accepted no favour from us, but he did — but he did look —” and she paused, as though she still lacked courage to speak the words which were on her tongue, but after a moment she went on and said, “he did look for love, and he did not look in vain.”

“He did love, do you say, and not in vain! He did love, and made his love acceptable to one of those fine flaunting ladies who sit at ease all day, twirling a few bits of silk with their small white hands. Do you say such a one as that loved Cathelineau! Who was she? What is her name? Where is she?”

“She is close to you now,” said Agatha, sitting down on a low stool at the old woman’s feet. “I told you her name a while since. It is I who loved your son: I, Agatha Larochejaquelin.”

Françoise Cathelineau dropped from her hand the flax, which she had hitherto employed herself in preparing for the wheel, and pushing from her forehead her loose grey locks, and resting on her knees her two elbows, she gazed long and intently into Agatha’s face.

“It is just the face he would have loved,” said she aloud, yet speaking to herself. “Yes, it is the face of which he used to dream and talk — pale and sad, but very fair: and though I used to bid him mind his work, and bring down his heart to love some poor honest labouring girl, I did not the less often think over his strange fancies. And Jacques told you that he loved you, did he, Mademoiselle? I wonder at that — I wonder at that; it would have been more like himself to have carried his love a secret to the grave.”

“He was dying when he told me that he regarded me above other women; and I am prouder of the dying hero’s love, than I could have been had a Prince knelt at my feet.”

“He was dying when he confessed his love! Yes, I understand it now: death will open the lips and bring forth the truth, when the dearest hopes of life, when the sharpest pang of the heart fail to do so. Had he not been sure that life with him was gone, he never would have spoken of his love. He was a weak, foolish man. Very weak in spite of all his courage; very weak and very foolish — very weak and very foolish.”

She was talking more to herself than to Agatha, as she thus spoke of her son’s character, and for a minute or two she continued in the same strain, speaking of him in a way that showed that every little action, every wish of his, had been to her a subject of thought and anxiety; and that she took a strange pride in those very qualities for which she blamed him.

“And did you come to me on purpose to tell me this, Mademoiselle?” she said after a while.

“I came to talk to you about your son, and to offer you, for his sake, the affection of a daughter.”

“And when he told you that he loved you, what answer did you make him? tell me: did you comfort him; did you say one word to make him happy? I know, from your face, that you had not the heart to rebuke a dying man.”

“Rebuke him! How could I have rebuked him? though I had never owned it to myself I now feel that I had loved him before he had ever spoken to me of love.”

“But what did you say to him? tell me what you said to him. He was my own son, my only son. He was stubborn, and self-willed, but still he was my son; and his words were sweeter to me than music, and his face was brighter to me than the light of heaven. If you made him happy before he died, I will kneel down and worship you,” and joining her skinny hands together, she laid them upon Agatha’s knees. “Come, sweetest, tell me what answer you made my poor boy when he told you that he loved you.”

“It is a fearful thing, you know, to speak to a dying man,” answered Agatha. “You must not suppose that we were talking as though he were still in the prime of health and strength —”

“But what did you say to him? you said something. You did not, at any rate, bid him remember that he was a poor labouring man, and that you were a lady of high rank.”

“We neither of us thought of those things then. I do not know what it was I said, but I strove to say the truth. I strove to make him understand how much I valued, esteemed — and loved him.”

“You told him that you loved him; you are sure you told him that. I wish he had lived now. I wish he had lived and won more battles, and beat the blues for good and all, and then he would have married you, and brought you home as his wife to St. Florent, wouldn’t he, love? There would have been something in that. There would have been something really grand in that. Such a beautiful bride! such a noble bride! so very, very beautiful!” and the old woman continued gazing at the face of her whom she was fancying to herself a daughter-inlaw. “Real noble blood of the very highest. Had he married you, he would have been a Marquis, wouldn’t he? I wish he had lived now, in spite of all I said. Why did he die when there was such fortune before him I Why did he die when there was such great fortune before him!”

“He was happy in his death,” said Agatha. “I do not think he even wished to live. As it is, he has been spared much sorrow which we must all endure. Though I loved your son, I do not regret his death.”

“But I do — but I do,” said the old woman. “Had he only lived to call you his wife, there would have been. honour in that — there would have been real glory in that. People would then not have dared to say that after all Cathelineau was only a postillion.”

“Do not regard what people say. Had a Princess given him her hand, his fame could not be brighter than it was. There was no thought of marriage between us, since we first knew each other. There has been no time for such thoughts; but his memory to me is that of a dear — dear friend.”

From the time when Cathelineau first went to Durbellière, after the battle of St. Florent, his mother had expressed the greatest dislike at his attempting to associate with those who were so much above himself in rank; with those who would, as she said, use him and scorn him. She had affected to feel, or perhaps really felt, a horror of the insolence of the great, and had quarrelled with her son for throwing himself among them. This feeling, however, arose, not from contempt, but from admiration and envy. In her secret soul the high and mighty seemed so infinitely superior to those in her own rank, that she had felt sure that her son could not be admitted among them as an equal, and she was too proud to wish that he should be admitted into their company as a humble hanger-on. What Agatha had now confessed to her had surprised and delighted her. There could be no doubt now; there was the daughter of one of the noblest houses in Poitou sitting at her feet in her own cabin, owning her love for the poor postillion. Agatha Larochejaquelin, young, noble, beautiful, grandly beautiful as she was, had come to her to confess that she had given her heart to her son. There was, however, much pain mixed with her gratification. Cathelineau had gone, without enjoying the high honours which might have been his. Had he lived, Agatha Larochejaquelin would have been her daughter-inlaw; but now the splendid vision could never be more than a vision. She could solace herself with thinking of the high position her son had won for himself, but she could never enjoy the palpable reality of his honours.

She sat, repeating to herself the same words, “Sad and pale, but very beautiful — sad and pale, but very beautiful; just as he used to dream. Why did he die, when such fortune was before him! Why did he die, when such noble fortune was before him!”

Agatha suffered her to go on for a while before she interrupted her, and then she came to the real purport of her visit. She offered the old woman her assistance and protection, and begged her to pass over with the others into Brittany, assuring her that she should want for nothing as long as Henri or her father had the means of subsistence, and that she should live among them as an honoured guest, loved and revered as the mother of Cathelineau.

On this point, however, she remained obstinate. Whether she still fancied that she would be despised by her new friends, or whether, as she said, she was indifferent to life, and felt herself too old to move from the spot where she had passed so many years, she resolutely held her purpose to await the coming of the republicans. “They will hardly put forth their strength to crush such a worm as me,” she said; “and if they do, it will be for the better.”

Agatha then offered her money, but this she refused, assuring her that she did not want it.

“You shall give me one thing though, if you will, sweet lady, that I may think of you often, and have something to remind me of you; nay, you shall give me two things — one is a lock of your soft brown hair, the other is a kiss.”

Agatha undid the braid which held up her rich tresses, and severing from her head a lock of the full length to which her hair grew, tied it in a portion of the braid, and put it into the old woman’s hand; then she stooped down and kissed her skinny lips, and having blessed her, and bid her cherish the memory of her son with a holy love, as she herself did and always would, Agatha. Larochejaquelin left the cabin, and returned to her father.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43