La Vendée, by Anthony Trollope

Commissioners of the Republic

The taking Saumur frightened the Convention much more than any of the previous victories of the Vendeans. The republicans lost a vast quantity of military stores, arms, gunpowder, cannons, and soldiers’ clothing; and, which was much worse than the loss itself these treasures had fallen into the hands of an enemy, whose chief weakness consisted in the want of such articles. The royalists since the beginning of the revolt had always shewn courage and determination in action; but they had never before been collected in such numbers, or combated with forces so fully prepared for resistance, as those whom they had so signally conquered at Saumur. The Convention began to be aware that some strong effort would be necessary to quell the spirit of the Vendeans. France at the time was surrounded by hostile troops. At the moment in which the republicans were flying from the royalists at Saumur, the soldiers of the Convention were marching out of Valenciennes, that fortified city having been taken by the united arms of Austria and England. Condé also had fallen, and on the Rhine, the French troops who had occupied Mayence with so much triumph, were again on the point of being driven from it by the Prussians.

The Committee of Public Safety, then the repository of the supreme power in Paris, was aware that unless the loyalty of La Vendée was utterly exterminated, the royalists of that district would sooner or later join themselves to the allies, and become the nucleus of an overpowering aristocratic party in France. There were at the time thousands, and tens and hundreds of thousands in France who would gladly have welcomed the extinction of the fearful Republic which domineered over them, had not every man feared to express his opinion. The Republic had declared, that opposition to its behests, in deed, or in word, or even in thought, as far as thoughts could be surmised, should he punished with death; and by adhering to the purport of this horrid decree, the voice of a nation returning to its senses was subdued. Men feared to rise against the incubus which oppressed them, lest others more cowardly than themselves should not join them; and the Committee of Public Safety felt that their prolonged existence depended on their being able to perpetuate this fear. It determined, therefore, to strike terror into the nation by exhibiting a fearful example in La Vendée. After full consideration, the Committee absolutely resolved to exterminate the inhabitants of the country — utterly to destroy them all, men, women, and children — to burn every town, every village, and every house — to put an end to all life in the doomed district, and to sweep from the face of the country man, beast, and vegetable. The land was to be left without proprietors, without a population, and without produce; it was to be converted into a huge Golgotha, a burial-place for every thing that had life within it; and then, when utterly purged by fire and massacre, it was to be given up to new colonists, good children of the Republic, who should enjoy the fertility of a land soaked with the blood of its former inhabitants. Such was the deliberate resolution of the Committee of Public Safety, and no time was lost in commencing the work of destruction.

Barrère, one of the members of the Committee, undertook to see the work put in a proper train, and for this purpose he left Paris for the scene of action. Westerman and Santerre accompanied him, and to them was committed the task of accomplishing the wishes of the Committee. There was already a republican army in La Vendée, under the command of General Biron, but the troops of which it was composed were chiefly raw levies, recruits lately collected by the conscription, without discipline, and, in a great degree, without courage; but the men who were now brought to carry on the war, were the best soldiers whom France could supply. Westerman brought with him a legion of German mercenaries, on whom he could rely for the perpetration of any atrocity, and Santerre was at the head of the seven thousand men, whom the allied army had permitted to march out of Valenciennes, and to return to Paris.

It was in the beginning of July that this worthy triumvirate met at Angers, on their road to La Vendée. Cathelineau had driven the republican garrison out of this town immediately after the victory at Saumur, but the royalists made no attempt to keep possession of it, and the troops who had evacuated it at their approach, returned to it almost immediately. It was now thronged with republican soldiers of all denominations, who exercised every species of tyranny over the townspeople. Food, drink, forage, clothes, and even luxuries were demanded, and taken in the name of the Convention from every shop, and the slightest resistance to these requisitions, was punished as treason to the Republic. The Vendeans, in possession of the same town only a fortnight before, had injured no one, had taken nothing without paying for it, aid had done everything to prevent the presence of their army being felt as a curse; and yet Angers was a noted republican town; it had shown no favours to the royalists, and received with open arms the messengers of the Convention. Such was the way in which the republicans rewarded their friends, and the royalists avenged themselves on their enemies.

One hot July evening, five men were seated in a parlour of the Mayor’s house in Angers, but the poor Mayor himself was not allowed, nor probably did he wish, to be one of the party. Glasses were on the table before them, and the empty bottles, which were there also, showed, that however important the subjects might be which they were discussing, they still considered that some degree of self-indulgence was compatible with their duties. The air of the room was heavy with tobacco smoke, and one or two of the number still had cigars between their lips. They were all armed, though two of them were not in uniform, and the manner in which they had their arms disposed, showed that they did not quite conceive themselves to be in security in these their convivial moments. The men were Barrère, Westerman, and Santerre, and two of the republican Generals, Chouardin and Bourbotte.

Westerman and the two latter were in uniform, and the fact of their having arms, was only in keeping with their general appearance: but the other two were in plain clothes, and their pistols, which were lying among the glasses on the table, and the huge swords which stood upright against their chairs, gave a hideous aspect to the party, and made them look as though they were suspicious of each other.

Barrère alone had no sword. His hand was constantly playing with a little double-barrelled pistol, which he continually cocked and uncocked, the fellow of which lay immediately before him. He was a tall, well built, handsome man, about thirty years of age, with straight black hair, brushed upright from his forehead; his countenance gave the idea of eagerness and impetuosity, rather than cruelty or brutality. He was, however, essentially egotistical and insincere; he was republican, not from conviction, but from prudential motives; he adhered to the throne a while, and deserted it only when he saw that it was tottering; for a time he belonged to the moderate party in the Republic, and voted with the Girondists; he gradually joined the Jacobins, as he saw that they were triumphing over their rivals, and afterwards was one of those who handed over the leaders of the Reign of Terror to the guillotine, and assisted in denouncing Robespierre and St. Just. He was one of the very few who managed to outlive the Revolution, which he did for nearly half a century.

His face was hardly to be termed prepossessing, but it certainly did not denote the ruthless ferocity which the nature of the task he had undertaken would require, and which he exercised in its accomplishment. Nature had not formed him to be a monster gloating in blood; the Republic had altered the disposition which nature had given him, and he learnt among those with whom he had associated, to delight in the work which they required at his hands. Before the Reign of Terror was over, he had become one of those who most loudly called for more blood, while blood was running in torrents on every side; it was he who demanded the murder of the Queen, when even Robespierre was willing to save her. It was he who declared in the Convention that the dead were the only enemies who never returned; and yet this same man lived to publish a pamphlet, in which he advocated the doctrine, that under no circumstances could one human being be justified in taking the life of another.

He was dressed in a blue dress-coat, which in spite of the heat of the weather, was buttoned close round his body; he was rather a dandy in his costume, for his tightly-fitted breeches were made to show the form of his well-formed leg, and his cravat was without a wrinkle. Before the Revolution, Barrère had been a wealthy aristocrat.

Santerre, who sat next to him, was in every respect unlike the ci-devant nobleman. He was a large, rough, burly man, about forty years of age; his brown hair was long and uncombed, his face was coarse and hot, and the perspiration was even now running down it, though drinking and smoking was at present his hardest work; his lips were thick and sensual, and his face was surrounded by huge whiskers, which made him look uncouth and savage; his cravat was thrown off, and his shirt was open at the neck, so as to show his brown throat and brawny chest; a huge horse pistol lay before him close to his glass, and a still huger sword stood up against his chair. He was drinking hard and talking loudly, and was evidently quite at ease with his company; he was as completely at home in the Mayor’s parlour at Angers, as when rushing into the Tuilleries at the head of his fellow citizens from the faubourg St. Antoine.

Santerre was of Flemish descent, and by trade a brewer. He was possessed of considerable wealth, which he freely spent among the poor, while famine pressed sore upon them; he was consequently loved, followed, and obeyed. He was the King of the Faubourgs; and though the most ruthless in his animosity to the royalists, he was not altogether a bad man, neither was he by nature absolutely cruel. He had adopted the Revolution from a belief that the great mass of the people would be better off in the world without kings, nobility, or aristocrats; and having made himself firm in this belief, he used to the utmost his coarse, huge, burly power in upsetting these encumbrances on the nation. His love of liberty had become a fanaticism. He had gone with the current, and he had no fine feelings to be distressed at the horrid work which he had to do, no humanity to be shocked; but he was not one of those who delighted in bloodshed and revelled in the tortures which he inflicted on others. He had been low in the world’s esteem, and the Revolution had raised him to a degree of eminence; this gratified his ambition, and made him a ready tool in the hands of those who knew how to use his well-known popularity, his wealth, his coarse courage and great physical powers.

Westerman sat at the window a little away from the others. He was a man of indomitable courage and undying perseverance. He was a German, who had been banished from Prussia, and having entered the French army as a private soldier had gradually risen to be an officer. A short time before the storming of the Tuilleries he had foreseen that the democratic party was prevailing, and he had joined it. Danton and Santerre had discovered and appreciated his courage and energy, and he soon found himself a leader of the people. It was he who directed the movements of the populace on the 10th of August, when the Tuilleries was sacked, and the Swiss guards were massacred on the steps of the King’s palace. Since that time Westerman had been a successful soldier in the republican army, not that he was by any means a vehement democrat: his object had been military success, and that only. He had neither political theories or political ambition. Chance had thrown him in the way of the Republic, and he had become a republican. He was then attached to the army of Dumourier as aide-de-camp to that General, and was in the confidence of him and of Danton, at the moment that Dumourier was endeavouring to hand over the armies of the Republic to the power of Prussia and of Austria. He again, however, was wise in time. Dumourier calculated too entirely on the affection of the army to himself and failed; but before he failed, Westerman had left him. He was now again a trustworthy servant of the Republic, and as such was sent to assist in the fearful work which the tyranny of the democrats required.

His unnatural ruthlessness and prompt obedience were of no avail to him. Soon after his return from the western provinces he perished under the guillotine.

“And so the good Cathelineau is dead,” said Santerre. “The invincible, the invulnerable, the saint! ha, ha! What sweet names these dear friends of ours have given themselves.”

“Yes,” said General Bourbotte; “the messenger who told me had come direct from their hospital; Cathelineau breathed his last the day before yesterday at St. Laurent.”

“Let us drink to his health, gentlemen; his spiritual health,” said Santerre; “and to his safe journey;” and the brewer raised his glass to his lips, and drank the toast which he had proposed.

“Bon voyage, my dear Cathelineau,” said Bourbotte, following his example.

“Cathelineau was a brave man,” said Chouardin. “I am glad he died of his wounds; I should have been sorry that so gallant a fellow should have had to submit his neck to the sharp embraces of Mademoiselle Guillotine.”

“That is hardly a patriotic sentiment, citizen General,” said Barrère. “Gallantry on the part of an insurgent royalist is an inspiration of the devil, sent to induce man to perpetuate the degradation and misery of his fellow-men. Such gallantry, or rather such frenzy, should give rise to anything but admiration in the breast of a patriot.”

“My fidelity to the Republic will not be doubted, I believe,” said Chouardin, “because, as a soldier, I admire high courage when I find it in a soldier.”

“If your fidelity be unimpeachable, your utility will be much questioned, if you wish to spare a royalist because he is a brave man,” said Barrère. “By the same argument, I presume, you would refrain from knocking an adder on the head, because he rose boldly in your path.”

“Who talked of sparing?” said Chouardin. “I only said that I would sooner that a brave enemy should die in battle than be handled by an executioner. Talk as you will, you cannot disgrace such a man as Cathelineau.”

“Cannot I, indeed, citizen General?” said Westerman, rising from his seat and coming into the middle of the room. “I do then utterly despise, scorn, and abominate him, and all such as him. I can conceive nothing in human form more deplorably low, more pitiably degraded, than such a poor subservient slave as he was.”

“There, Westerman, you are grossly wrong,” said Santerre. “Your cowardly Marquis, run-fling from the throne which he pretends to reverence, but does not dare to protect; whose grand robes and courtly language alone have made him great; who has not heart enough even to love the gay puppets who have always surrounded him, or courage enough to fight for the unholy wealth he has amassed: this man I say is contemptible. Such creatures are as noxious vermin, whom one loathes, and loathing them destroys. You no less destroy the tiger, who ravages the green fields which your labour has adorned; who laps the blood of your flocks, and threatens the life of your children and servants, but you do not despise the tiger; you keep his hide, as a monument of your victory over a brave and powerful enemy. Cathelineau was the tiger, who was destroying, before it had ripened, the precious fruit of the Revolution.”

“The tiger is a noble beast,” said Westerman. “He is hungry, and he seeks his prey; he is satisfied, and he lays down and sleeps; but Cathelineau was a mean jackal, who strove for others, not for himself. I can understand the factious enmity of the born aristocrat, who is now called upon to give up the titles, dignities, and so-called honours, which, though stolen from the people, he has been taught to look upon as his right. He contends for a palpable possession which his hand has grasped, which he has tasted and long enjoyed. I know that he is a robber and a spoiler of the poor; I know, in short, that he is an aristocrat, and as such I would have him annihilated, abolished from the face of the earth. I would that the aristocrats of France had but one neck, that with a grasp of my own hand, I might at once choke out their pernicious breath,” and the republican laid upon the table his huge hand, and tightly clenched his fingers as though he held between them the imaginary throat of the aristocracy of France; “but,” continued he, “much as I hate a gentleman, ten times more strongly do I hate, despise, and abhor the subservient crew of spiritless slaves who uphold the power of the masters, who domineer over them, who will not accept the sweet gift of liberty, who are kicked, and trodden on, and spat upon, and will not turn again; who will not rise against their tyrants, even when the means of doing so are brought to their hands; who willingly, nay, enthusiastically, lay their necks in the dust, that their fellow-creatures may put their feet upon them. Of such was this Cathelineau, and of such I understand are most of those who hound on these wretched peasants to sure destruction. For them I have no pity, and with them I have no sympathy. They have not the spirit of men, and I would rejoice that the dogs should lick their blood from off the walls, and that birds of prey should consume their flesh.”

“Westerman is right,” said Barrère; “they are mean curs, these Vendeans, and like curs they must be destroyed; the earth must be rid of men who know not how to take possession of their property in that earth which nature has given them. Believe me, citizen General, that any sympathy with such a reptile as Cathelineau is not compatible with the feeling which should animate the heart of a true republican, intending honestly and zealously to do the work of the Republic.”

General Chouardin made no reply to the rebuke which these words conveyed; he did not dare to do so; he did not dare to repeat the opinion that there was anything admirable in the courage of a royalist. Much less than had now been said had before this been deemed sufficient to mark as a victim for the revolutionary tribunal some servant of the Republic, and few wished to experience the tender mercies of Fouquier Tinville, the public accuser. Even Santerre was silenced; despite his popularity, his well-known devotion to the cause, his hatred of the aristocrats, and his aversion to royalty, so horridly displayed at the execution of the King, even he felt that it might not be safe for him to urge that the memory of Cathelineau was not despicable.

“His death must have much weakened them,” said Bourbotte. “I know them well, the miscreants! I doubt if they will follow any other leader, that is, in great numbers. The fools looked on this man as a kind of god; they now find that their god is dead. I doubt whether there is another leader among them, who can induce them to leave their parishes.”

“If they won’t come to us,” said Barrère, “we must go to them; they have gone too far now to recede. Whether they return to their homes, or again take up arms, matters little; they must all be destroyed, for blood alone can establish the Republic on a basis which can never be overturned.”

“The name of a royalist shall be as horrible in men’s ears as that of a parricide,” said Santerre.

“But what will you do if you find no army to oppose you?” said Bourbotte. “You cannot well fight without an enemy.”

“Never fear,” said Westerman, “your muskets shall not grow rusty for want of use. We will go from parish to parish, and leave behind us dead corpses, and burning houses.”

“You will not ask soldiers to do the work of executioners?” said Bourbotte.

“I expect the soldiers to do the work of the Convention,” said Barrère; “and I also expect the officers to do the same: these are not times in which a man can be chary as to the work which he does.”

“We must not leave a royalist alive in the west of France,” said Westerman. “You may be assured, Generals, that our soldiers will obey us, however slow yours may be to obey you.”

“Perhaps so,” said Bourbotte; “my men have not yet been taught to massacre unarmed crowds.”

“It is difficult to know what they have been taught,” said Westerman. “Whenever they have encountered a few peasants with clubs in their hands, your doughty heroes have invariably ran away.”

Westerman as he spoke, stood leaning on the back of a chair, and Bourbotte also rose as he answered him.

“I have yet to learn,” aid he, “that you yourself ever were able to make good soldiers out of country clowns in less than a month’s time. When you have done so, then you may speak to me on the subject without impertinence.”

“I give you my word, citizen General,” answered Westerman, “I shall say to you, then and now, whatever I, in the performance of my duty, may think fits and if you deem me impertinent, you may settle that point with the Convention, or, if you prefer it, with myself.”

“Westerman, you are unfair to General Bourbotte,” said Santerre; “he has said nothing which need offend you.”

“It is the General that is offended, not I,” said Westerman; “I only beg that he may not talk mawkish nonsense, and tell us that his fellows are too valiant, and too noble to put to the sword unarmed royalists, when everybody knows they are good for nothing else, and that they would run and scatter from the fire of a few muskets, like a lot of plovers from a volley of stones.”

“I grant you,” said Bourbotte, “that my soldiers are men and not monsters. They are, as yet, French peasants, not German cut-throats.”

“Now, by Heaven, Bourbotte,” said the Prussian, “you shall swallow that word,” and he seized a pistol from off the table. “German cut-throat! and that from you who have no other qualities of a soldier than what are to be found in a light pair of heels. You shall, at any rate, have to deal with one German, whether he be a cut-throat or not.”

“In any way you please,” said Bourbotte, “that is, in any open or honest way.” And as he spoke, he stepped back one step, and took his sword out of the scabbard.

The pistol which Westerman had taken from the table belonged to Santerre, and when he saw it in the hand of his friend, he leapt up and seized hold of the German’s arm.

“Are you mad Westerman,” said he; “do you wish to fight here in the Mayor’s house? I tell you, you were wrong, in taunting him as you did; sit quiet till I make peace between you.”

“Taunting him! now, by Heaven, that is good. I will leave it to Barrère to say who first taunted the other. Nonsense, Santerre, leave hold of me I say: you do not think I am going to murder the man, do you?”

General Chouardin also got up and put himself between the two armed men. “Put up your sword, Bourbotte,” whispered he, leading him off to the further window of the room; “you are no match for him here: if Barrère chooses he will have you recalled to Paris, and your neck will then not be worth a month’s purchase.”

“Gentlemen,” said Barrère, “this will never do. You can neither of you serve the nation well if you persist in quarrelling between yourselves. General Bourbotte, you should apologize to our friend Westerman for the insult which you offered to his countrymen.”

“My country is the country of my adoption,” said Westerman. “I ceased to be a German when I took up the arms of France; but my soldiers are my children, and an insult to them is an injury to myself.”

“If your anger can wait till the revolt in La Vendée has been quelled,” said Chouardin, “my friend Bourbotte will be ready enough to satisfy your wishes as a citizen. Barrère truly says, this is no time for private quarrels.”

“So be it,” said Westerman. “Let General Bourbotte remember that he owes me an apology or redress.”

“You shall have any redress, which any arms you may be pleased to name can give you,” said Bourbotte.

“By my honour then, you are two fools,” said Santerre; “two egregious fools, if you cannot at once forget the angry words which you each have used. Have your own way, however, so long as you do not fight here.”

As the brewer was yet speaking, a servant knocked at the door, and said that a young man wished to say a few words to citizen Santerre on especial business, and on the service of the Republic.

“On the service of the Republic?” said Santerre. “Show him in here then; I have no official secrets from my colleagues.”

The servant, however, stated that the young man would not make his appearance in the room where the party were sitting, and he declared he would go away if he could not see Santerre alone. The republican at length yielded, and followed the servant into a small sitting-room, where he found our friend, Adolphe Denot.

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