La Vendée, by Anthony Trollope

Death of Adolphe Denot

Nothing could be more complete than the success of the Vendeans, not only in the town of Laval, but also outside the gate; nor could any error be more fatal than that committed by the republican General, Lechelle. Previous to this day he had never been worsted since he had been sent from Paris with orders to exterminate the Vendeans; he had driven them from Chatillon, their own chosen position in the centre of their own territory across the Loire; and he had rashly conceived that he had only to show himself before Laval again, to scare them from their resting-place, and scatter them farther from their own homes. He had marched his army up to Laval early on the morning of the fight; and his best men, the redoubtable Mayençais, indignant at the treatment which a few of their brethren had received from Denot’s followers on the previous day, marched boldly into the town, conceiving that they had only to show themselves to take possession of it. The result has been told. One half of these veteran troops fell in the streets of Laval — many of the remainder were taken alive; a few only escaped to consummate their disgrace by flying towards Antrâmes at their quickest speed, spreading panic among the republican troops who had not yet come up close to the town.

The news of defeat soon communicated itself; and the whole army, before long, was flying to Antrâmes. The unfortunate Lechelle himself had been one of the first to leave the town, and had made no attempt to stop his men until he had entered Antrâmes. Nor did he long remain there: as the straggling fugitives came up, they told how close and fast upon their track the victorious brigands were coming; and that the conduct of the peasants now was not what it had been when the war commenced, when they were fighting in their own country, and near their own homes. Then they had spared the conquered, then they had shed no blood, except in the heat of battle; now they spared none; they had learnt a bloody lesson from their enemies, and massacred, without pity, the wretches who fell into their hands. Antrâmes was not a place of any strength; it could not be defended against the Vendeans; and Lechelle had hardly drawn his breath in the town, before he again left it, on the road to Château-Gonthier.

Henri and Denot were among the first of the pursuers; indeed, of so desultory a nature was the battle, that the contest was still continued near the gate of the town, while they were far on their road towards Antrâmes. They passed almost in a gallop through that place, and did not stop until they found themselves, towards evening, close to the bridge, leading into Château-Gonthier. Here they perceived that Lechelle had made some little attempt to defend his position. He had drawn out two cannons to the head of the bridge; had stayed the course of a few fugitives, with whom he attempted to defend the entrance into the town; and had again taken upon himself the duties of a General.

The pursuers now amounted to about three hundred horsemen, the very men who had made the first attack on the blues in the streets of Laval, and Henri knew that so soon after their complete and signal success nothing could daunt them, and that, in all probability, no effort of the beaten republicans could turn them back.

“Come,” said he, speaking to those who were nearest to him, “only a few yards farther, and we shall be far enough. It shall never be said that the vanquished slept in the town while their conquerors lay in the fields”; and again he put spurs to his horse, and with a yell of triumph, his men followed him over the bridge.

It would be difficult to say who was first, for Henri, Adolphe, and nearly a dozen others, galloped across the bridge together, and the whole troop followed them pell-mell into the town. The two cannons were soon taken; the irresolute blues, who, with only half a heart, had attempted to defend themselves, were driven from their positions, and Henri at once found himself master of the place.

A few of his gallant followers had fallen on the bridge. It could not be expected but what. this should be the case, for they made their attack in the face of two field-pieces and a discharge of musketry, from a body of men quite as numerous as their own; but Henri had not perceived till he reached the square in the middle of the town, that Adolphe Denot was no longer by his side.

“Did you see M. Denot?” said he to a soldier, who was now standing on the ground at his horse’s head.

“You mean the gentleman who was riding with you all the day, General — he who had lost his cap?”

“Yes, yes, did you see him? he passed over the bridge with me.”

“General,” said the man, “he never passed the bridge. He fell on the very centre of it. I saw him fall, and his horse galloped into the town without a rider.”

Arthur Mondyon soon brought him confirmation of the news. He had been struck by a musket ball on the breast, while they were crossing the bridge, and the whole troop of horsemen, who were behind, had passed over his body. He had, however, been taken up, and brought into the town; whether or no his life was extinct, Arthur could not say, but he had been told that the wound would certainly prove mortal.

Henri’s first duty, even before attending to his friend, was to endeavour to save the lives of such of the blues as were yet in the town, and, if possible, to get the person of Lechelle. It was well known that he had entered the place with the fugitives, and it was believed that he had not since escaped from it. Some few of the republican soldiers had made their way out of the town, on the road towards Ségré, but there was every reason to believe that the General had not been among them. The inhabitants of Château-Gonthier were very favourable to the Vendean cause; Henri received every information which the people could give him, and at last succeeded in tracing Lechelle into a large half-ruined house, in the lower portion of which, a wine shop, for the accommodation of the poorer classes, was kept open. Here they learnt, from the neighbours, that he had been seen to enter the house, and an old woman, who alone kept her position behind the counter, confessed with some hesitation, that a man, answering the description of him they sought, bad entered the shop about an hour since; that he had hastily swallowed a large quantity of brandy, and then, instead of leaving the shop, had rushed through the inner door and gone upstairs.

“He wasn’t here a minute in all,” said she; “and he said nothing about paying for what he took — and, when I saw him going in there, I thought it best to let him have his own way.”

“And he is there still,” said Chapeau, who had now again joined his master.

“Unless he went out through the window, he is; there is no other way out than what you see there.”

“Go up, Chapeau,” said Henri, “and take two or three with you; if he be there, he must come down; but remember that he is an officer, and in misfortune.”

“I will remember,” said Chapeau, “that he sent us word to Chatillon, that he would not leave alive in La Vendée a father or mother to lament their children, or a child to lament its parents: those were bitter words; maybe he will be sorry to have them brought to his memory just at present.”

“Remember what I tell you, Chapeau,” said his master; “whatever he may have said, it is not now your duty to sit in judgment on him.”

“For God’s sake, gentlemen, don’t do him a harm here,” said the old woman; “for mercy’s sake, Monsieur,” and she turned to Henri, “don’t let them take his life; to tell you the truth, when he begged for some hole to hide in, I bid him to go upstairs; I could do no less. I should have done the same if it had been one of you.”

Henri said what he could to tranquillize her, assuring her that the man should, at any rate, not be killed before her eyes; and this seemed to be sufficient to reassure her. Chapeau and four others had gone upstairs; and those below were not kept waiting long, before the heavy tread of the men descending was heard on the stairs, as though they were carrying down a weight among them. Such was the case: Henri stepped forward and opened the door; and as he did so, the men staggered into the room with their burden, and then gently dropped upon the floor the dead body of the republican General. The unfortunate man had shot himself.

Henri turned out of the shop without saying a word; and as the others prepared to follow him, one of the men knelt down beside the body, and wrenched from the hand, which still held it fast, the fatal pistol which had so lately done its work. “At any rate,” said he,” there is no use in leaving this behind us; I doubt not but I can make a better use of it than General Lechelle has done.”

The Chevalier had said but the truth, in declaring that Adolphe Denot’s wound was mortal; the musket ball had passed right through his lungs, passing out between his shoulders; and his limbs had been dreadfully torn and bruised by the feet of the horses which had passed over him. Still, however, he had been carried alive into the town, had been laid in a settle-bed in the little inn, and had his wounds dressed with such surgical skill as the town afforded. He had spoken once since he fell, and had then begged, in an almost inarticulate whisper, that Henri Larochejaquelin would come to him, and this message had been delivered, and was attended to.

There were not many to watch and attend his bed-side, for many others beside him in the town were in the same position; and though it was known to a few that the Mad Captain of La Petite Vendée had been seen during the whole day riding by the side of their own General, Denot had not yet been recognized by many of the Vendeans, and most of those around him were indifferent to his fate. When Henri reached the room in which he lay, no one was with him, but the poor baker of Laval, who had entered the town with Chapeau, and having heard that his Captain was mortally wounded, had lost not a moment in tendering him his services. The poor man was sitting on a low stool, close by Denot’s head, and in his lap he held a wooden bowl of water, with which, from time to time, he moistened the mouth of the wounded man, dipping his hand into the water, and letting the drops fall from his fingers on to his lips.

“Hush! hush!” he said, as Henri entered the room; “for mercy’s sake, don’t shake him; the black blood gushes out of his mouth with every move he gets.”

The two men did not recognize each other, for they had only met for a moment, and that by the faint light of a rush candle. Plume, therefore, had no idea of giving up his place or his duty to a man whom he conceived was a stranger; and Henri was at a loss to conceive who could be the singular looking creature that seemed to take so tender an interest in his friend.

Henri advanced up to the bed on tiptoe, and gazed into Denot’s face; he had been shocked before, but he now thought that never in his life had he seen so sad a sight: the colour of his skin was no longer pale, but livid; his thin, dry lips were partially open, and his teeth, close set together, were distinctly visible; his eyes were at the moment closed, as though he were in a stupor, and his long black matted hair hung back over the folded cloak on which his head rested: his sallow, bony hands lay by his side, firmly clenched, as though he had been struggling, and his neck and breast, which had been opened for the inspection of the surgeon, was merely covered with a ragged bloody towel.

“Is he asleep?” asked Henri, in a whisper, such as seems to come naturally to every one, when speaking by the bed-side of those who are in great danger, but which is generally much more painfully audible to a sick man than the natural voice.

Denot opened his eyes, and showed, by the slight motion of his head, that he had heard his friend’s voice, but he was at the moment unable to speak.

Plume made a signal to Henri to be quiet, and he therefore sat himself down at the other side of the bed, to watch till Adolphe should gain strength to speak to him, or till the breath should have passed from his body. Plume, in the meantime, continued his occupation, causing a few drops of water to fall from time to time between those thin shrivelled lips; and in this way a long half-hour passed over them.

At last Henri heard his name scarcely pronounced by the dying man, and the dull eyes opened, though it was evident that the film of death had nearly hidden all objects from their view; still it was evident that he knew who it was that sat by his bed-side, and he faintly returned the pressure of the hand which grasped his own. Henri stooped down his ear to catch the words which might fall from his lips; but for a while he made no farther attempt to speak — an inexpressible look of confused trouble passed across his face and forehead, as he attempted to collect his disordered thoughts, and again he closed his eyes, as though the struggle was useless; at last he again muttered something, and Henri caught the words ‘de Lescure,’ and ‘bridge of Saumur.’

“Yes, yes, he shall,” said Henri, trying to comfort him, but still not understanding what it was that weighed so heavily on his breast; he felt, however, that a promise of compliance would give him comfort. “He shall, indeed; I will tell him, and I know he will.”

Again the eyes were closed, and the struggle to speak was discontinued. Plume gave over his task, for it was evident that no care of his could any longer be of avail, and he walked away from the bed, that he might not overhear the words which his Captain strove to speak to his friend; but Henri remained, still holding Denot’s hand: then a thought struck him, which had not earlier occurred to him, and beckoning to Plume to come to him, he dismissed him, in a whisper, to endeavour to find a priest, without the loss of another moment, and bring him to the aid of the dying man.

Though Denot’s sight and speech were almost gone, the sense of hearing was still left to him, and he understood what Henri said. He again moved his head in token of dissent; again pulled his friend towards him by the hand, and again muttered out a word, the last that he ever attempted to utter; that one word Henri heard as plainly as though it had been spoken with the full breath of a strong man — it was his sister’s name.

Adolphe Denot survived this last effort of his troubled spirit, but a few moments; the sepulchral rattle in his throat soon told the sad tale of his dissolution; and Plume hurrying up to the bed-head, assisted Henri in composing the limbs of the dead man.

For three months Denot and Plume had consorted together; they had been a strange fantastic pair of comrades, but yet not altogether ill-matched: nothing could be more dissimilar than they had been in age, in birth, and previous habits, but they had met together with the same wishes, the same ambition, the same want of common sense, and above all the same overweening vanity; they had flattered each other from the moment of their first meeting to the present day, and thus these two poor zealous maniacs, for in point of sanity the Lieutenant was but little better than his Captain, had learnt to love each other.

And now Plume, having carefully completed what the exigencies of the moment required, gave way to his sincere grief, and bewailed his friend with no silent sorrow. Henri, who had totally forgotten the little that he had heard of the martial baker, was at a loss to conceive who could be the man, a stranger to himself who found cause for so much sorrow in the death of Adolphe Denot. As for himself, he had tenderly loved Denot as a brother; he had truly forgiven him his gross treachery; and he had determined to watch over him, and if possible protect him from farther sorrow: but after the interview he had had with him, he could not conceal from himself that Adolphe was still insane; and he felt that death had come to him in an honourable way, atoning for past faults, and relieving him from future sufferings. He could not grieve that his friend had fallen in battle, bravely doing his duty in the cause to which he was bound by so many ties.

“He was the bravest man, and the best soldier, and the most honourable gentleman in the whole army,” said Plume, sobbing; “and now there’s no one left but myself,” and then recovering himself he made to the manes of the departed warrior a loyal promise, which he fully determined to keep. “Thou art gone, my brave commander, my gallant commander,” he said, standing suddenly upright, and stretching his long arms over the corpse, “thou art gone, and I doubt not I shall follow thee: but till that moment shall come, till a death, as honourable as thine own, shall release me from my promise, I swear that I will not disgrace the high station which thy departure obliges me to fill. It was thou who first tutored my unaccustomed arm to wield the sword; it was thou who badest me hear unmoved the thunder of an enemy’s artillery; it was thou who taughtest me all I know of military tactics, and the art of war. Rest in peace, dear friend, dearest of instructors, I will not disgrace thy precepts.” And so finishing, he stooped down, kissed the face of the dead body which he apostrophized, made a cross on the bosom, and muttered a fervent prayer for the welfare of the departed soul.

If Henri was surprised before, he was now perfectly astounded; nothing could be less poetical, less imposing, or have less of military grandeur about it than the figure of poor Auguste Plume. What could he mean by saying that he was now called on to fill a high station? Who could it be that confessed to owe so deep a debt of gratitude to the dead man?

“Had you known M. Denot long?” asked Henri, when he conceived that Plume was sufficiently composed to. hear and answer a question.

“What’s that you say his name was?” said Plume, eagerly, pricking up his ears. “I beg your pardon, Sir, I didn’t exactly catch the word.”

“And didn’t you know the name of the friend, whom you seem to have valued so highly?”

“Indeed, to tell you the truth, Sir, I did not. We two used to have a good deal of talk together: for hours and hours we’ve sat and talked over this war, and he has told me much of what he used to do in Poitou, when he served with the Vendeans; but I could never get him to tell me his name. It was a question he didn’t like to be asked; and yet I am sure he never did anything to disgrace it.”

“His name was Adolphe Denot,” said Henri.

“Adolphe Denot — Adolphe Denot! well, I am very glad I know at last. One doesn’t like not to know the name of the dearest friend one ever had; especially after he’s dead. But wasn’t he Count Denot, or Baron Denot, or something of that sort?”

“No, he had no title; but yet he was of noble blood.”

“I suppose then we must call him General Denot — simple General; it sounds as well as Count or Marquis in these days. Was he a General when you knew him in La Vendee?”

“I have known him all my life,” replied Henri.

“Indeed!” said Plume: and then gazing at his companion, from head to foot, he continued, “An’t you the gentleman that came with Chapeau to see him last night? An’t you the Commander-inChief of the Vendeans?”

Henri gave him to understand that he was.

“Then this meeting is very lucky,” said Plume, “most exceedingly fortunate! I am now the Commander-inChief of La Petite Vendée. We must unite our forces. I am not ambitious — at least not too ambitious; you shall be the chief, I will be next to you. Chapeau, I am sure, will be contented to be third. here, over the body of our friend, let us concert our measures for utterly exterminating the republicans. We have now been victorious, proudly, grandly victorious; my voice shall be for a march to Paris. Come, General, give me your hand. Hand in hand, like true comrades, let us march to Paris, and thunder at the doors of the Convention.”

As he spoke, Auguste Emile Septimus held out his hand to the young Commander; and Henri could not refuse the proffered grasp. He now remembered Chapeau’s description of the martial baker; and as he underwent the merciless squeeze which Plume inflicted on him, the young Marquis meditated, with something like vexation, on the ridiculous figure and language of him who now claimed his friendship and confidence. He had before been on terms of perfect equality with men equally low in station with poor Plume. Cathelineau had been a postillion; Stofflet, a game-keeper; but he had admired the enthusiastic genius of Cathelineau, he had respected the practical iron energy of Stofflet — he could neither admire nor respect Auguste Plume — and yet he could not reject him.

He endeavoured, in as few words as he could, to make his companion understand, that highly as he appreciated his disinterested offer, he could not, at the present moment, accede to it. That many officers, high in the confidence of the whole army, must be consulted before any important step was taken; that, as for himself his duty required him to hurry back to Laval as quick as he could. That, as regarded him, Plume, he advised him to return to his own men, and endeavour to organize them into a regular corps, in doing which he promised him that practical assistance should not be wanting; and that, as regarded the body of their mutual friend, he, Henri, would give orders for its immediate burial; and having said so much as quickly as he could speak, Henri Larochejaquelin hurried from the room, leaving the unfortunate Plume to renew his lamentations over his friend. He had cause to lament; the only man likely to flatter his vanity was gone. He would never again be told that he was born for great achievements — never again promised that bravery, fidelity to his commander, and gallant demeanour among his comrades, would surely lead him to exalted duties. Such were the precepts with which the insanity of Denot had inflamed the mad ambition of his poor follower. He now felt — not his own unfitness, for that he could not suspect — but the difficulty, the impossibility to get his talents and services acknowledged; and he again sat down to weep, partly for his friend, and partly for himself.

Henri passed the remainder of the night in Château-Gonthier, and early on the next morning he returned towards Laval. The road was covered with swarms of Vendeans, now returning from the pursuit in which they had nearly exterminated the unfortunate army which had followed them across the Loire. They had crossed that river panic-stricken and hopeless; now they were shouting with triumph, and exulting with joy, confident of success. None of those who returned were without some token of success; some carried back with them the muskets of the republican infantry; others, the sabres of the cavalry; and others, more joyful in their success than any, were mounted on their horses. They all loudly greeted Henri as he passed, and declared that nothing should ever conquer them, now that they had the General over them, whom they themselves had chosen.

Henri, though he well knew the difficulties which were before him, could not but be triumphant as he listened to the cheers of his followers; he had certainly been pre-eminently successful in the first attempts which had been made under his own sole command; and it is not surprising that this, joined to the confidence of youth, should have made him feel himself equal almost to any enterprise. Then another subject of joy filled his heart; Marie had promised that if the Vendeans were now successful, if they could look forward to spending one quiet week in Laval, she would no longer refuse to join her hand to his and become bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh — that promise she would now realize; and therefore as he rode back through the gate of Laval, Henri felt happier than he had done for many a long, weary, tedious day.

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