La Vendée, by Anthony Trollope

Sentence of Death.

After parting with their companion, de Lescure and Henri were not long in reaching Durbellière; and on the road thither they also learnt that Santerre, and upwards of a hundred blue horsemen, were prisoners in the château, or in the barns, out-houses, or stables belonging to it; and that the whole place was crowded with peasants, guarding their captives. As they entered the château gates, they met Chapeau, who was at the bottom of the steps, waiting for them; and Henri immediately asked after his father.

“Monseigneur is much fatigued,” said Chapeau, “but apparently well; he is, however, still in bed.”

“And my sister?” said Henri.

“Mademoiselle has of course been much fatigued, but she is well; she is with your father, M. Henri.”

“And tell me, Chapeau, is it true, is it really true that M. Denot brought the blues here, and that since he has been here he has treated my sister in the manner they describe?”

“It is true as gospel, M. Henri. I knew that this would be the worst of the whole affair to you. I knew you would sooner the château should have been burnt than have heard this. We are only waiting for you and M. de Lescure, to hang him as a traitor from the big chestnut out on the road-side. You might have seen as you came in, that they have the ropes and everything ready.”

Henri shuddered as he followed his cousin into the house. The steps were crowded with his own followers, who warmly welcomed him, and congratulated him on the safety of his father, his sister, and his property; but he said very little to them; he was thinking of the friend whom he had loved so well, who had so vilely disgraced himself, and whose life he now feared he should be unable to save.

“Where is he?” said he to Chapeau.

“Who — Monseigneur?”

“No — M. Denot.”

“He is in the great salon, with Santerre, and Father Jerome, and the Chevalier, and three or four of the lads from Echanbroignes.”

“Charles,” said he, as he reached the door of the salon, “do you go in. You are better able to say what should be said, and to do what must be done, than I am. I will go up to my father. But, Charles,” and he spoke into his ear, so that no one else should hear him, “save his life — for my sake, save his life. He is mad, and does not know what he has been doing.” De Lescure pressed his cousin’s hand, and as Henri ran up stairs to his father, he entered the room, where the party abovementioned were sitting.

The occupants of the room certainly formed a very remarkable group. The first person whom de Lescure saw was Adolphe Denot; he was seated in a large arm-chair, placed against the wall immediately opposite the door, and between the stove and the folding-doors which opened into the other room. His legs were stretched out to their full length before him his hands were clasped together between his legs; his head was bent down, so that his chin rested on his breast; he was scowling awfully, his eyebrows nearly met above his eyes, and he continued constantly curling and twisting his lips, sometimes shewing his teeth, and sometimes completely covering his under with his upper lip. He had sat twelve hours, since Agatha had left the room in the morning, without speaking a word, or once changing his position. He had refused food when it had been brought to him, with an indignant shake of the head; and when Santerre had once half jocularly told him to keep up his spirits, and prove himself a man, he had uttered a horrible sound, which he had meant for a laugh of derision, such as is sometimes heard to proceed from dark-haired, diabolical, provincial tragedians.

There were three men from Echanbroignes in the room, distinguished by the notable red scarf, acting as guards, to prevent the escape of the prisoners; but as the two objects of their care during the whole day had made no attempt at escaping, the guards had by degrees laid aside the eager watchfulness with which they had at first expressed their readiness to pounce upon their captives, should they by any motion have betrayed an intention to leave their seats, and were now resting on three chairs in a row, each man having his musket between his legs, and looking as though they were peculiarly tired of their long inactive services. Santerre and Father Jerome were seated together on a sofa, and the Chevalier occupied a chair on the other side of a table on which the prisoner and the priest were leaning. When Santerre found that he and his men were in the hands of the royalist peasants, he at first rather lost both his temper and his presence of mind. He saw at once that resistance was out of the question, and that there was very little chance that he would be able to escape; he began to accuse himself of rashness in having accepted from the Convention the very disagreeable commission which had brought him into his present plight, and to wish that he was once more among his legitimate adherents in the Quartier St. Antoine. He soon, however, regained his equanimity. Those whom he had in his rough manner treated well, returned the compliment; and he perceived that, though he would probably be kept a prisoner, his life would not be in danger, and that the royalists were not inclined to treat him either with insult or severity.

He by degrees got into conversation with the Chevalier; and before the day was over, even Father Jerome, much as he abhorred a republican, and especially a leader of republicans, and an infidel, as he presumed Santerre to be, forgot his disgust, and chatted freely with the captive Commissioner. The three dined together in the afternoon, and when de Lescure entered the room, wine and glasses were still on the table. A crowd of the royalist peasants followed de Lescure to the door of the salon, and would have entered it with him, had not Chapeau, with much difficulty, restrained them. They were most anxious to hear sentence pronounced on the traitor, who had betrayed their cause, and insulted the sister of their favourite leader; and could not understand why the punishment, which he had so richly merited, should be delayed. All that Chapeau and Father Jerome had ventured to ask of them was to wait till Henri himself should arrive; and now, that he had come, they conceived that judgment should at once be passed, and sentence of death immediately executed.

When de Lescure entered the room, they all, except Denot, rose from their chairs; the three guards stood up, and shouldered their muskets, the Chevalier ran up to him to shake hands with him, and Father Jerome also came out into the middle of the room to meet him. He looked first at Denot, who kept his eyes steadily fixed on the ground; and then at Santerre, whom he had never, to his knowledge, seen before. Santerre, however, knew him, for he immediately called him by his name.

“My soldiers have met with a reverse, General de Lescure,” said he, “which has thrown me and them into the power of your friends. I take the earliest opportunity of thanking you for the kind treatment we have received.”

“If, at some future time, when our soldiers may be in your power, you will remember it; the Marquis de Larochejaquelin will feel himself amply repaid for such attention as he has been able to shew you,” said de Lescure.

“You know we were in General Santerre’s power last night,” said the Chevalier; “and he could have shot us all had he pleased it; indeed we all expected it, when the blues came upon us.”

“They shall not find that we will be less merciful, Arthur,” said de Lescure. “General Santerre knows that the Vendean royalists have never disgraced themselves by shedding the blood of the prisoners whom the chance of war may have thrown into their hands. He knows that they can be brave without being cruel. I grieve to say that the republicans have hitherto not often allowed us to repay mercy with mercy. We shall now be glad to take advantage of the opportunity of doing so.”

“What will you do with him, M. de Lescure,” said Father Jerome in a whisper, pointing to Denot. “I never before saw the people greedy for blood; but now they declare that no mercy should be shown to a traitor.”

“We must teach them, Father Jerome, that it is God’s will that those who wish to be pardoned themselves must pardon others. You have taught them lessons more difficult to learn than this; and I do not doubt that in this, as in other things, they will obey their priest.” And as he spoke de Lescure laid his hand on the Curé‘s shoulder.

“You won’t hang him then?” whispered the Chevalier.

“You wouldn’t have me do so, would you, Arthur?”

“Who — I?” said the boy. “No — that is, I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to have to say that anybody should be hung; but if anybody ever did deserve it, he does.”

“And you, Father Jerome?” said de Lescure, “you agree with me? You would not have us sully our pure cause with a cold-blooded execution?”

The three were now standing at an open window, looking into the garden. Their backs were turned to Santerre and Denot, and they were speaking in low whispers; but nevertheless Denot either guessed or overheard that he was the subject of their conversation. The priest did not immediately answer de Lescure’s appeal. In his heart he thought that the circumstances not only justified, but demanded the traitor’s death; but, remembering his profession, and the lessons of mercy it was his chief business to teach, he hesitated to be the first to say that he thought the young man should be doomed.

“Well, Father Jerome,” said de Lescure, looking into the priest’s face, “surely you have no difficulty in answering me?”

The Curé was saved the necessity of answering the appeal; for while he was still balancing between what he thought to be his duty, and that which was certainly his inclination, Denot himself interrupted the whisperers.

“M. de Lescure,” said he, in the deep, hoarse, would-be solemn voice, which he now always affected to use. De Lescure turned quickly round, and so did his companions. The words of a man who thinks that he is almost immediately about to die are always interesting.

“If you are talking about me,” said the unfortunate wretch, “pray spare yourself the trouble. I neither ask, nor wish for any mercy at your hands. I am ready to die.”

As de Lescure looked at him, and observed the alteration which a few weeks had made in his appearance — his sunken, sallow cheeks; his wild and bloodshot eyes; his ragged, uncombed hair, and soiled garments — as he thought of his own recent intimacy with him — as he remembered how often he had played with him as a child, and associated with him as a man — that till a few days since he had been the bosom friend of his own more than brother, Henri Larochejaquelin, the tears rushed to his eyes and down his cheeks. In that moment the scene in the council-room at Saumur came to his mind, and he remembered that there he had rebuked Adolphe Denot for his false ambition, and had probably been the means of driving him to the horrid crime which he had committed. Though he knew that the traitor’s iniquity admitted of no excuse, he sympathized with the sufferings which had brought him to his present condition. He turned away his head, as the tears rolled down his cheeks, and felt that he was unable to speak to the miserable man.

Had de Lescure upbraided him, Denot’s spirit, affected and unreal as it was, would have enabled him to endure it without flinching. He would have answered the anger of his former friend with bombast, and might very probably have mustered courage enough to support the same character till they led him out to death. But de Lescure’s tears affected him. He felt that he was pitied; and though his pride revolted against the commiseration of those whom he had injured, his heart was touched, and his voice faltered, as he again declared that he desired no mercy, and that he was ready to die.

“Ready to die!” said the Curé, “and with such a weight of sin upon your conscience; ready to be hurried before the eternal judgment seat, without having acknowledged, even in your own heart, the iniquity of your transgressions!”

“That, Sir, is my concern,” said Denot. “I knew the dangers of the task before I undertook it, and I can bear the penalties of failure without flinching. I fear them not, either in this world or in any other world to come.”

De Lescure, overcome with distress, paced up and down the room tifi Chapeau entered it, and whispered to him, that the peasants outside were anxious to know what next they were to do, and that they were clamorous for Denot’s execution. “They are determined to hang him,” continued Chapeau, who had induced de Lescure to leave the room, and was now speaking to him in the hall. “They say that you and M. Henri may do what you please about Santerre and the soldiers, but that Adolphe Denot has betrayed the cause, insulted Mademoiselle, and proved himself unfit to live; and that they will not leave the château as long as a breath of life remains in his body.”

“And you, Chapeau, what did you say to them in reply?”

“Oh, M. de Lescure, of course I said that that must be as you and M. Henri pleased.”

“Well, Chapeau, now go and tell them this,” said de Lescure: “tell them that we will not consent that this poor wretch shall be killed, and that his miserable life has already been granted to him. Tell them also, that if they choose to forget their duty, their obedience, and their oaths, and attempt to seize Denot’s person, neither I nor M. Henri will ever again accompany them to battle, and that they shall not lay a hand upon him till they have passed over our bodies. Do you understand?”

Chapeau said that he did understand, and with a somewhat melancholy face, he returned to the noisy crowd, who were waiting for their victim in the front of the house. “Well, Jacques,” said one of them, an elderly man, who had for the time taken upon himself the duties of a leader among them, and who was most loud in demanding that sentence should be passed upon Denot. “We are ready, and the rope is ready, and the gallows is ready, and we are only waiting for the traitor. We don’t want to hurry M. Henri or M. de Lescure, but we hope they will not keep us waiting much longer.”

“You need not wait any longer,” said Chapeau, “for Adolphe Denot is not to be hung at all. M. de Lescure has pardoned him. Yes, my friends, you will be spared an unpleasant job, and the rope and the tree will not be contaminated.”

“Pardoned him — pardoned Adolphe Denot — pardoned the traitor who brought Santerre and the republicans to Durbellière — pardoned the wretch who so grossly insulted Mademoiselle Agatha, and nearly killed M. le Marquis,” cried one after another immediately round the door. “If we pardon him, there will be an end of honesty and good faith. We will pardon our enemies, because M. de Lescure asks us. We will willingly pardon this Santerre and all his men. We will pardon everything and anybody, if M. Henri or M de Lescure asks it, except treason, and except a traitor. Go in, Jacques, and say that we will never consent to forgive the wretch who insulted Mademoiselle Larochejaquelin. By all that is sacred we will hang him!”

“If you do, my friends,” answered Chapeau, “you must kill M. de Lescure first, for he will defend him with his own body and his own sword.”

Chapeau again returned to the house, and left the peasants outside, loudly murmuring. Hitherto they had passively obeyed their leaders. They had gone from one scene of action to another. They had taken towns and conquered armies, and abstained not only from slaughter, but even from plunder, at the mere request of those whom they had selected as their own Generals; now, for the first time they shewed a determination to disobey. The offence of which their victim had been guilty, was in their eyes unpardonable. They were freely giving all —-their little property, their children, their blood, for their church and King. They knew that they were themselves faithful and obedient to their leaders, and they could not bring themselves to forgive one whom they had trusted, and who had deceived them. Chapeau returned to the house, but he did not go back to M. de Lescure. He went upstairs to his master, and found him alone with his sister, and explained to them what was going on before the front-door.

“They will never go away, Mademoiselle, as long as the breath is in the man’s body. They are angry now, and they care for no one, not even for M. Henri himself; and it’s no wonder for them to be angry. He that was so trusted, and so loved; one of the family as much as yourself, M. Henri. Why, if I were to turn traitor, and go over to the republicans, it could hardly be worse. If ever I did, I should expect them to pinch me to pieces with hot tweezers, let alone hanging.”

“I will go down to them,” said M. Henri.

“It will be no use,” said Chapeau, “they will not listen to you.”

“I will try them at any rate, for they have never yet disobeyed me. I know they love me, and I will ask for Adolphe’s life as a favour to myself: if they persist in their cruelty, if they do kill him, I will lay down my sword, and never again raise it in La Vendée.”

“If it were put off for a week, or a day, M. Henri, so that they could get cool; if you could just consent to his being hung, but say that he was to have four-and-twenty hours to prepare himself, and then at the end of that time they wouldn’t care about it: mightn’t that do? Wouldn’t that be the best plan, Mademoiselle?”

“No,” said Henri. “I will not stoop to tell them a falsehood; nor if I did so, would they ever believe me again.” And he walked towards the passage, intending to go down to the front-door.

“Stop, Henri, stop a moment!” said Agatha, “I will go down to them. I will speak to them. They are not accustomed to hear me speak to them in numbers, as they are to you, and that of itself will make them inclined to listen to me. I will beg them to spare the unfortunate man, and I think they will not refuse me.”

She got up and walked to the door, and her brother did not attempt to stop her.

“Let me go alone, Henri,” said she. “You may, at any rate, be sure that they will not hurt me.” And, without waiting for his reply, she descended the stairs, and walked into the hall. When Chapeau left them, the crowd were collected immediately in the front of the house and on the steps, but none of them had yet forced their way into the château; since he had gone upstairs, however, they had pushed open the door, and now filled the hall; although their accustomed respect for the persons and property of those above them, had still kept them from breaking into the room, in which they knew were M. de Lescure and Adolphe Denot. The foremost of them drew back when they saw Agatha come among them, and as she made her way to the front-door, they retreated before her, till she found herself standing on the top of the steps, and surrounded by what seemed to her a countless crowd of heads. There was a buzz of many voices among them, and she stood there silent before them a moment or two, till there should be such silence as would enable them to hear her.

Agatha Larochejaquelin had never looked more beautiful than she did at this time. Her face was more than ordinarily pale, for her life had lately been one of constant watching and deep anxiety; but hers was a countenance which looked even more lovely without than with its usual slight tinge of colour. Her beautiful dark-brown hair was braided close to her face, and fastened in a knot behind her head. She was dressed in a long white morning wrapper, which fell quite down over her feet, and added in appearance to her natural high stature. She seemed to the noisy peasants, as she stood there before them, sad-looking and sorrowful, but so supremely beautiful, to be like some goddess who had come direct from heaven to give them warning. and encouragement. The hum of their voices soon dropped, and they stood as silent before her, as though no strong passion, no revenge and thirst for blood had induced them, but a moment before, all but to mutiny against the leaders who had led them so truly, and loved them so well.

“Friends, dear friends,” she began in her sweet voice, low, but yet plainly audible to those whom she addressed; and then she paused a moment to think of the words she would use to them, and as she did so they cheered her loudly, and blessed her, and assured her, in their rough way, how delighted they were to have saved her and the Marquis from their enemies.

“Dear friends,” she continued, “I have come to thank you for the readiness and kindness with which you have hurried to my protection — to tell you how grateful I and mine are for your affection, and at the same time to ask a favour from your hands.”

“God bless you, Mademoiselle. We will do anything for Mademoiselle Agatha. We all know that Mademoiselle is an angel. We will do anything for her,” said different voices in the crowd. “Anything but pardon the traitor who has insulted her,” said the man who had been most prominent in demanding Denot’s death. “Anything at all — anything, without exception. We will do anything we are asked, whatever it is, for Mademoiselle Agatha,” said some of the younger men among the crowd, whom her beauty made more than ordinarily enthusiastic in her favour. “Mademoiselle will not sully her beautiful lips to ask the life of a traitor,” said another. “We will do anything else; but Denot must die.” “Yes, Denot must die,” exclaimed others. “He shall die; he is not fit to live. When the traitor is hung, we will do anything, go anywhere, for Mademoiselle.”

“Ah! friends,” said she, “the favour I would ask of you is to spare the life of this miserable young man. Hear me, at any rate,” she continued, for there was a murmur among the more resolute of Denot’s enemies. “You will not refuse to hear what I say to you. You demand vengeance, you say, because he has betrayed your cause, and insulted me. If I can forgive the insult, if my brother can, surely you should do so too. Think, dear friends, what my misery must be, if on my account you shed the blood of this poor creature. You say he has betrayed the cause for which you are fighting. It is true, he has done so; but it is not only your cause which he has betrayed. Is it not my cause also? Is it not my brother’s? Is it not M. de Lescure’s? And if we can forgive him, should not you also do so too? He has lived in this house as though he were a child of my father’s. You know that my brother has treated him as a brother. Supposing that you, any of you, had had a brother who has done as he has done, would you not still pray, in spite of his crimes, that he might be forgiven? I know you all love my brother. He deserves from you that you should love him well, for he has proved to you that he loves you. He — Henri Larochejaquelin — your own leader, begs you to forgive the crime of his adopted brother. Have we not sufficient weight with you — are we not near enough to your hearts, to obtain from you this boon?”

“We will, we will,” shouted they; “we will forgive — no, we won’t forgive him, but we’ll let him go; only, Mademoiselle, let him go from this — let him not show himself here any more. There, lads, there’s an end of it. Give Momont back the rope. We will do nothing to displease M. Henri and Mademoiselle Agatha,” and then they gave three cheers for the inhabitants of Durbellière; and Agatha, after thanking them for their kindness and their courtesy, returned into the house.

For some days after the attack and rescue, there was great confusion in the château of Durbellière. The peasants by degrees returned to their own homes, or went to Chatillon, at which place it was now intended to muster the whole armed royalist force which could be collected in La Vendée. Chatillon was in the very centre of the revolted district, and not above three leagues from Durbellière; and at this place the Vendean leaders had now determined to assemble, that they might come to some fixed plan, and organize their resistance to the Convention.

De Lescure and Henri together agreed to give Santerre his unconditional liberty. In the first place, they conceived it to be good policy to abandon the custody of a man whom, if kept a prisoner, they were sure the Republic would make a great effort to liberate; and who, if he ever again served against them at all, would, as they thought, be less inclined to exercise barbarity than any other man whom the Convention would be likely to send on the duty. Besides, Agatha and the Marquis really felt grateful to Santerre, for having shown a want of that demoniac cruelty with which they supposed him to have been imbued; and it was, therefore, resolved to escort him personally to the northern frontier of La Vendée, and there set him at liberty, but to detain his soldiers prisoners at Chatillon; and this was accordingly done.

They had much more difficulty in disposing of Denot. Had he been turned loose from the château, to go where he pleased, and do what he pleased, he would to a certainty have been killed by the peasantry. De Lescure asked Santerre to take charge of him, but this he refused to do, saying that he considered the young man was a disgrace to any party, or any person, who had aught to do with him, and that he would not undertake to be responsible for his safety.

Denot himself would neither say or do anything. Henri never saw him; but de Lescure had different interviews with him, and did all in his power to rouse him to some feeling as to the future; but all in vain. He usually refused to make any answer whatever, and when he did speak, he merely persisted in his declaration that he was willing to die, and that if he were left alive, he had no wish at all as to what should become of him. It was at last decided to send him to his own house at Fleury, with a strong caution to the servants there that their master was temporarily insane; and there to leave him to his chance. “When he finds himself alone, and disregarded,” said de Lescure, “he will come to his senses, and probably emigrate: it is impossible for us now to do more for him. May God send that he may live to repent the great crime which he has attempted.”

Now again everything was bustle and confusion at Durbellière. Arms and gunpowder were again collected. The men again used all their efforts in assembling the royalist troops, the women in preparing the different necessaries for the army. The united families were at Durbellière, and there was no longer any danger of their separation, for at Clisson not one stone was left standing upon another.

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