La Vendée, by Anthony Trollope

The Bishop of Agra.

On this occasion the meeting of the leaders was kept strictly secret; none were admitted but those who were known to be the chosen chiefs of the Vendeans; it consisted of Cathelineau, de Lescure, Larochejaquelin, d’Elbée, Stofflet, and Father Jerome. They had been closeted together about an hour and a half, when Father Jerome left the room, and rode off towards Thouars, on the best horse which could be found for him; no one seemed to know where or for what he was going, though much anxiety was expressed on the subject. Those who knew him, were well aware that he was not about to desert the cause in its first reverse. In the meantime, the Generals tried to reassure the men. Cathelineau explained to them that they had brought on themselves the evils which they now suffered by their absurd attempt to act without orders; and de Lescure and Larochejaquelin endeavoured to rouse their energies by pointing out to them the necessity of recovering their favourite cannon.

“Ah! M. Henri,” said one of the men from Durbellière, “how can we get her again when we have lost our guns, and have got no powder?”

“How!” said Henri, “with your sticks and your hands, my friends — as your neighbours in St. Florent took her, at first, from the blues; we all think much of the men of St. Florent, because it was they first took ‘Marie Jeanne;’ let us be the men who rescue her from these traitors, and these people will think much of us.”

About two o’clock in the day a closed carriage was driven into Montreuil very fast, by the road from Thouars; the blinds were kept so completely down, that no one could see who was within it; it was driven up to the door of the house in which the council had been held; the doors of the carriage and of the house were opened, and two persons alighted and ran into the house so quickly that their persons could hardly be recognized, even by those who were looking at them.

“That last is Father Jerome, at any rate,” said a townsman.

“Who on earth had he with him?” said another; “he must be some giant,” said a third, “did you see how he stooped going into the door.”

“A giant, stupid;” said a fourth, “how could a giant get out of such a carriage as that; besides, where could Father Jerome find giants in these days.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the other, “but I am sure he was eight feet high; didn’t you see his back as he ran into the house.”

Soon after the mysterious entry into the house, Henri left it, and went out to the fields beyond the town, where most of the men were still resting after the long fatigue of the night; much discontentment had been expressed by them, and many had already declared their intention of returning home. Every measure had been taken to comfort them; they had been supplied with provisions and tobacco from the town, and every effort had been used to renew their hopes and courage. Cathelineau had passed the greater portion of the morning among them, going from one quarter to another, assuring the men that their loss was most trifling, that their future victory was certain — it was nearly in vain; they declared that they could do nothing without ‘Marie Jeanne.’

Henri now went among them, and as he did so, Jacques Chapeau proceeded through the town, imploring all the men who were in it, to go out and join the rest of the army, as a holy man had been sent direct from Rome by the Pope, to tell the people of La Vendée what it was their duty to do.

Henri did not say quite so much as this, but he told the men that a friend of theirs — a bishop of the Church — one especially appointed by the King before he died, to provide for the spiritual comfort of his poor people in the west of France, was now among them, and would soon address them. He directed them to stay where they were till this man of God should be among them, and he besought them strictly to follow any advice which he might give them.

Every one in the town flocked out to the army — men, women and children were soon in the fields, and the report was spread abroad through them all, that the mysterious carriage which had rattled through the streets of Montreuil, had brought to that favoured town a holy bishop, sent expressly by their father the Pope to give good advice to his dear children in La Vendée.

About four o’clock in the afternoon the stranger walked among them. Father Jerome walked on his right hand, and Cathelineau on his left. M. de Lescure followed immediately behind them. He was a very tall man — nearly seven feet high; and his peculiar costume added in appearance to his real height — he was dressed in the gorgeous robes of a bishop of the Church of Rome as he would appear at the altar of his cathedral when about to celebrate high mass; he had his mitre on his head and his crozier in his hand; and as he walked through the crowd, the men and women everywhere kneeled down and bowed their heads to the earth; the people were delighted to have so holy a man among them — to see a bishop in La Vendée. The bells were all rung, and every sign of joy was shewn; the peasants were already beginning to forget their defeat of the previous night.

As he walked through the kneeling crowd, he stood still a moment or two, from time to time, and blessed the people; his voice was full and deep, but very musical; his face was supremely handsome, but devoid of all traces of passion. As he lifted his hands to heaven, and implored the Almighty to protect the righteous arms of his poor children in La Vendée, he certainly looked every inch a bishop; the peasants congregated round him, and kissed his garments — if they could even touch the shoes on his feet, they thought themselves happy.

It took the little procession two hours to move in this way through the whole of the army, during which time the bishop’s companions did not speak a word; they merely moved on, with their eyes turned towards the ground. At length they reached a temporary altar, standing on a platform raised five steps above the ground, which had been erected under the care of M. d’Elbe since the arrival of the bishop in Montreuil. Here were collected M. d’Elbée, Stofflet, Larochejaquelin, Adolphe Denot, and the other principal leaders of the army, and as the little procession drew near, they knelt upon the top step of the platform, and Cathelineau, de Lescure and Father Jerome knelt with them. The bishop then blessed them each separately, commencing with Cathelineau; he placed his crozier on the altar, and putting both his hands on the head of the kneeling General, he said in a loud and solemn voice:

“May the Lord bless you, my son! may he enable you to direct the arms of his faithful people, so as to show forth His glory, and magnify His name; may he help your endeavours to restore to a suffering people their Church and their King; may His dear Son preserve you in danger, comfort you in affliction, be near you in the hour of death, and reward you in heaven.” He then went round to them all, and blessed them each, though in a somewhat shorter form; and, at last, standing on the top step, in the front of the whole army, so that every one could see him, he uttered a general benediction on the people, and a prayer for their success; and while he did so, boys dressed in surplices made their way through the crowd, swinging censers filled with burning frankincense, and loading the air with that peculiar scent, which always fills the mind with devotional ideas.

As soon as this was over, and the people had risen from their knees, Cathelineau spoke to them, and told them that the Bishop of Agra had been especially appointed by their King to watch over and protect their spiritual interest; that Monseigneur had heard with great grief of the misfortune which had happened to them the preceding evening, and that he would now tell them how, with God’s assistance, they might hope in future to avoid such calamities.

The bishop then addressed them, and said:

“My children, I rejoice that Providence has given me the privilege of seeing so many of you collected here today. You have been brought together for a great and holy purpose; the enemies of the Almighty God are in your country — enemies who can never prevail to the breath of one hair against His omnipotence; but who may, and who will prevail to the destruction of your families here, and the perdition of your souls hereafter, if you fail in performing the duties which are before you. You are now called, my children — called especially from on high, to deliver your land from these enemies; to go out to the battle, and to fight in God’s name, till you have restored the King to his throne, and your pastors to their churches; and I rejoice to learn that you have so readily undertaken the task which is before you. Till yesterday your success was most wonderful; your career has been glorious. You unhesitatingly obeyed the leaders who commanded you, and they led you from one victory to another: but yesterday you were beaten back — yesterday evening, for the first time, you found your enemy too strong for you; they did not fall beneath your bullets; they did not feel your swords! Why was this, my children? Why was it that on yesterday evening the protecting hand of heaven was withdrawn from you?” Here the bishop paused in his address, as though expecting a reply, and then, after waiting a minute, during which the whole army remained in most perfect quiet, answered the question himself “Because, my children, you yesterday followed no accustomed leader; you obeyed no order; you went out to the battle with self-proud hearts, and a vain confidence in yourselves, rather than in the Almighty. It is not by such efforts as that, that the chosen soldiers of La Vendée can expect to conquer the enemies of France. You were vain in your own conceits; you trusted in your own strength; you were puffed up with worldly glory: and your strength has proved weakness, and your glory has been turned to disgrace. I trust, my children, you will not require another such a lesson; I trust you will not again forget your God and your Saviour, as you did on yesterday evening. Tomorrow morning the General, under whom the hand of Providence has placed you, the good Cathelineau, shall again lead you against your enemies; and, if you confidently trust in God for the result, he shall assuredly lead you to victory.”

The bishop then again blessed the army, and walked off the field, surrounded by the different leaders of the army, and left the town without being again seen by the multitude.

The effect which this singular visit had upon the people was almost miraculous. Their faith was so perfect, that it never occurred to them to doubt the truth of anything which fell from consecrated lips. The word of a priest with them was never doubted, but the promises of a bishop were assurances direct from heaven: they would consider it gross impiety to have any doubt of victory, when victory had been promised them by so holy a man as he who had just addressed them. After the Bishop of Agra had left the town, Larochejaquelin and de Lescure went through the army, talking to the men, and they found them eager to renew the attack on the camp of Varin. Though Varin was nearly three leagues from them, and though they had been up nearly the whole previous night, they would willingly have returned to the attack that evening, had they been allowed to do so.

This was not considered expedient: but it was resolved that the attack on the camp should be renewed as early as possible on the following morning, as it was considered that the republicans would not expect so quick a return of an army which had been completely routed; and might, therefore, to a certain extent, be taken by surprise.

“We must run fast, friends,” said Chapeau to his allies from Durbellière and Echanbroignes, “for the first men who reach Varin, will retake ‘Marie Jeanne;’ we will have a share in her, as well as the men of St. Florent.”

With sunrise the next morning, the army was again on the move towards Saumur: it was arranged that Cathelineau, de Lescure, Denot, and Larochejaquelin should lead the men through the trenches and into the camp; and that d’Elbe should remain on the road, prepared, if necessary, to second the attack, but ready should the first attempt be successful, to fall on the republicans as they retreated from the camp to the town, and, if possible, to follow them within the walls. Stofflet was to lead a division of fifteen hundred men past the camp, between the heights of Bournan and the town, so as to intercept the republicans, should they attempt from that position, to relieve their comrades when retreating from the camp. There was a bridge over the Thoué, close to the town of Saumur, called the bridge of Fouchard. This bridge was between Bournan and the town, as also between the camp and the town, and the possession of this bridge would be of great advantage to the royalist army. Stofflet was charged to obtain this advantage, if he did not find that the cannons from the town prevented him.

About four o’clock the army was on the move from Montreuil, and by eight they were again in front of the camp at Varin; the portion of the road which they had passed in such confusion the night but one before, and where they had left their cannon and their waggons, was now stripped of all signs of the encampment, which had been made there, nothing but the deep ruts, made by the cannon wheels, were to be seen; everything which they had brought with them, the trophies of all their victories, the white flags which the ladies of La Vende had worked for them; the provisions, the wine and meat, which the kindness of their landlords had sent with them, were all gone — were in the hands of the republicans; these reflections served to rouse the anger of the peasants, and made them determined to get back what they had lost, though they pulled down the walls of Saumur with their nails.

At a few moments after eight, the attack commenced; the first assault was headed by Cathelineau, who rushed into the trenches, accompanied by the Curé of St. Laud. Father Jerome held a large crucifix in his hands, and as he followed Cathelineau, he lifted it high above his head, to encourage the men who were about to make the assault; hundreds of them were on the verge of the trench as he did so; others were following them closely; they were already within fire of the republican batteries, the balls from which were falling among them; but, regardless of the firing, they all fell on their knees, with their faces towards the earth, as soon as they saw the crucifix in the hands of their priest; and there, on the very field of battle, offered up a prayer that they might that day be victorious.

“They will be cut down like grass, simpletons that they are,” said Stofflet; “besides, the first moment is everything; two hundred should by this time have been within the camp.”

“Let them alone,” said M. d’Elbée, “they are quite right as they are; they will not fight the worse for saying their prayers.”

As he finished speaking, the men rose again, and rushed against the earth-work.

Their attempt of the preceding evening had had one good effect — it had taught the peasants that those who hesitated were in five times more imminent danger than those who at once got into the trench; and that the men climbing up the embankment, or at the top of it, were not nearly so liable to be struck, as the men at the bottom of the trench, or as those beyond it; they therefore eagerly stuck their hands and feet into the earth, and made the best of their way into the encampment.

It had been expected by the republicans that the next attack of the royalists would probably be made at Bournan, and they had consequently moved most of the cuirassiers from Varin to strengthen that important place; the men left in the encampment, consisted chiefly of those tribes of republicans who were enrolled into the French army under the name of Marseillaise — men who were as ferocious in the hour of victory, as they were prone to fly at the first suspicion of defeat — men who delighted in bloodshed, but who preferred finding their victims ready bound for the slaughter. It was the abject cowardice of these troops, which gave so wonderful a career of success to the Vendeans; it was their diabolical cruelty which has made the sufferings of the royalists more notorious even than their bravery.

De Lescure, Larochejaquelin, and Adolphe Denot led their men further along the road to the point at which Henri had been standing when he first saw the crowd of royalists coming towards him on the former evening, and from thence they also got into the encampment. As has been said, they had no powder; the men who commenced the assault were armed with muskets and bayonets, but the greater number of the assailants had no bayonets at all, and many of them nothing but sticks; still they forced their way into the centre of the camp; here a very strong opposition was made to them; the republicans were so well armed, that the royalists were unable to disperse them when any number of them made a stand together; when they moved from their ground, however, the Vendeans uniformly succeeded in driving them before them.

Cathelineau’s men also made their way through the camp, and there Cathelineau and Larochejaquelin met each other.

“Well done, my friend; well done,” said Henri, seizing the postillion by the hand, “this is a glorious meeting; the blues are beaten; we have only now to drive them into the river.”

“Or into the road,” said Jacques, who as usual was close to his master, “when once there, M. d’Elbée will not be long in handing them over to providence.”

“Once more, my children, once more said the priest, “drive them out, drive them out, vive le roi quand même!” and as he spoke, he brandished the crucifix over his head like a tomahawk; the sacred symbol was covered with gore, which appeared to have come from the head of some unfortunate republican.

“Ah, my friends!” hallaoed Cathelineau, advancing on before the others, “look — look there; there is our ‘Marie Jeanne;’ hurry then, hurry;” and there, immediately before them, was their own sacred trophy; their favourite cannon: they wanted no further incentive; the men who had followed Larochejaquelin, and the men of St. Florent who had come with Cathelineau, saw it at the same time, and vieing with each other, rushed onwards to gain the prize.

The republicans were amazed at the impetuosity of their enemies, and at last fled before them; when once these newly-levied troops were turned, their officers found it impossible to recover them; it was then sauve qui peut, and the devil take the hindmost. The passage from the camp towards the town was still open; no attack having been made from that quarter; and through the wooden gate, which had been erected there, the valiant Marseillaise rushed out as quick as their legs could carry them; the officers of the Vendeans offered quarter to all who would throw down their arms, and many of them did so, but most of them attempted to gain the town; they knew that if once they could cross the bridge at Fouchard they would be within the protection afforded by the castle guns — but not one of them reached the bridge.

M. d’Elbée had found that he could not himself take the position which had been pointed out to him, as, had he done so, his men would have been cut to pieces by the cannons from the castle, but he effectually prevented any one else from doing so; not thirty men from the whole encampment got into the town of Saumur, and those who did so, made their way through the river Thoué.

The success of the Vendeans, as far as it went, was most complete; they recovered their baggage and their cannons — above all, their favourite ‘Marie Jeanne;’ they took more prisoners than they knew how to keep; they armed themselves again, and again acquired unmeasured confidence in their own invincibility; they wanted immediately to be led out to attack the walls of Saumur, but Cathelineau and de Lescure knew that this would be running into useless danger. They had now once more plenty of ammunition; they had artillery, and were in a position to bombard the town; they would at any rate make a breech in the walls before they attempted to enter the streets; it was therefore decided that they would that evening remain where they were, and commence the attack on the citadel itself with daylight on the following morning.

“It grieved me to think,” said Jacques Chapeau, as he pulled the huge baskets down from the carts, from which the republicans had not yet had time to move them, “it grieved my very heart to think, M. Henri, that this good wine from the cellars of Durbellière should have gone down republican throats; the thoughts of it lay heavy on my heart last night, so that I could not sleep. Thank heaven, I am spared that disgrace.”

It was with the utmost difficulty that Cathelineau and de Lescure were able to get sentries to remain at the necessary positions during the night; the peasants had gained the battle, and were determined to enjoy themselves that evening; they would be ready they said to fight again, when the sun rose the next morning. The officers themselves had to act as sentinels; and after having been the first during the day to rush into every danger, and after having led the attack and the pursuit, and having then arranged the operations for the morrow, they had to remain on the watch during the night, lest the camp should be sacrificed by an attack from the republican forces, stationed at Bournan, or in the town — such is the lot of those who take upon themselves the management of men, without any power to ensure obedience to their orders.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01