La Vendée, by Anthony Trollope

The Vendeans at St. Florent.

The reader, it is hoped, will remember St. Florent; it was here that the first scene of this tale opened; it was here that Cathelineau first opposed the exactions of the democratic government and that the Vendeans, not then rejoicing in that now illustrious name, felt the first flush of victory. It was here that ‘Marie Jeanne’ was taken from the troops of the Republic by the valour of the townsmen, and, adorned with garlands by their sisters and daughters, was dragged in triumph through the streets, with such bright presentiments of future success and glory.

The men of St. Florent had ever since that day borne a prominent part in the contest; they felt that the people of Poitou had risen in a mass to promote the cause, which they had been the first to take up; and they had considered themselves bound in honour to support the character for loyalty which they had assumed: the consequence was that many of the bravest of its sons had fallen, and that very few of its daughters had not to lament a lover, a husband, or a father.

St. Florent was now a melancholy careworn place. The people no longer met together in enthusiastic groups to animate each other’s courage, and to anticipate the glorious day when their sovereign should come among them in person, to thank them for having been the first in Poitou to unfurl the white flag. It is true that they did not go back from their high resolves, or shrink from the bloody effects of their brave enterprise, but their talk now was of suffering and death; they whispered together in twos and threes, at their own door-sills, instead of shouting in the market-place. Cathelineau was dead, and Foret was dead, and they were the gallantest of their townsmen. They had now also heard that everything had been staked on a great battle, and that that battle had been lost at Cholet — that Bonchamps and d’Elbée had fallen, and that de Lescure had been wounded and was like to die. They knew that the whole army was retreating to St. Florent, and that the Republican troops would soon follow them, headed by Lechelle, whose name already drove the colour from the cheeks of every woman in La Vendée. They knew that a crowd of starving wretches would fall, like a swarm of locusts, on their already nearly empty granaries; and that all the horrors attendant on a civil war were crowding round their hearths.

It was late in the evening that the news of the battle reached the town, and early on the next morning the landlord of the auberge was standing at his door waiting the arrival of Henri Larochejaquelin and de Lescure. The town was all up and in a tumult; from time to time small parties of men flocked in from Cholet, some armed, and some of whom had lost their arms; some slightly wounded, and some fainting with fatigue, as they begged admission into the houses of the town’s-people. The aubergiste was resolute in refusing admittance to all; for tidings had reached him of guests who would more than fill his house, on whom he looked as entitled to more than all he could give them. It was at his hall door that the first blow had been struck, it was in rescuing his servant that the first blood had been shed; and though the war had utterly ruined him, he still felt that it would ill become him to begrudge anything that remained to him to those who had suffered so much in the cause.

Peter Berrier, his ostler, stood behind him, teterrima belli causa! This man had at different times been with the army, but had managed to bring himself safe out of the dangers of the wars back to the little inn, and now considered himself an hero. He looked on himself in the light in which classic readers look on Helen, and felt sure that the whole struggle had been commenced, and was continued on his account. He was amazed to find how little deference was paid to him, not only by the Vendeans in general, but even by his own town’s-people.

“I shall never be made to understand this business of Cholet,” said he to his master, “never. There must have been sad want there of a good head; aye, and of a good heart too, I fear. Well, well, to turn and run! Vendean soldiers to turn and run before those beggarly blues!”

“You’d have been the first, Peter, to show a clean pair of heels yourself, if you’d been there,” said the landlord.

“Me show a clean pair of heels! I didn’t run away at Saumur, nor yet at Fontenay, nor yet at many another pitched battle I saw. I didn’t run away here at St. Florent, I believe, when a few of us took the barracks against a full regiment of soldiers.”

“You couldn’t well run then, for you were tied by the leg in the stable there.”

“No, I was not; it was only for a minute or two I was in the stable. Would Cathelineau or Foret have turned their backs, think ye? When I was alongside of those two men, I used to feel that the three of us were a match for the world in arms; and they had the same feeling too exactly. Well, two of the three are gone, but I would sooner have followed them than have turned my back upon a blue.”

“You’re a great warrior, Peter, and it’s a pity you didn’t stay with the army.”

“Perhaps it is, perhaps it is. Perhaps I shouldn’t have left it; but I was driven away by little jealousies. Even great men have their failings. But they certainly made some queer selections when they chose the twelve captains at Saumur. There’s not one of them left with the army now but M. Henri, and what’s he but a boy?”

“He has done a man’s work at any rate!”

“He’s brave, there’s no denying that. He’s very brave, but what then; there’s that impudent puppy of a valet of his, Chapeau; he’s brave too: at least they say so. But what’s bravery? Can they lead an army? is there anything of the General about them? Can they beat the blues?

“Didn’t he manage to beat the blues at Amaillou and at Coron, and at Durbellière? Faith, I think he has done nothing but beat them these three months.”

“There’s nothing of the General in him, I tell you. Haven’t I seen him in battle now; he’s quite at home at a charge, I grant you; and he’s not bad in a breach; but Lord bless you, he can’t command troops.”

The landlord and his servant were still standing at the door of the inn, when the party for whom they were waiting made its appearance in the square of the town. It consisted of a waggon, in which the wounded man was lying, of three or four men on horseback, among whom were Henri Larochejaquelin and the little Chevalier, and a crowd of men on foot, soldiers of the Vendean army, who had not left the side of their General since he had fallen at Cholet.

During the latter part of his journey, de Lescure had been sensible, and had suffered dreadfully both in mind and body. He had never felt so confident of success as Henri and others had done, and had carried on the war more from a sense of duty than from a hope of restoring the power of the crown. He now gave way to that despondency which so often accompanies bodily suffering. He felt certain that his own dissolution was near, and on that subject his only anxiety was that he might see his wife before he died. He had, since the power of speech had been restored to him, more than once asserted that the cause of the royalists was desperate, and had, by doing so, greatly added to the difficulties by which Henri was now surrounded. He did not, however, despair; nothing could make him despondent, or rob him of that elastic courage which, in spite of all the sufferings he had endured, gave him a strange feeling of delight in the war which he was waging.

An immense concourse of people gathered round the waggon, as de Lescure was lifted from it and carried up to the bedroom, which had been prepared for him; and they showed their grief at his sufferings, and their admiration of his character as a soldier, by tears and prayers for his recovery. The extreme popularity of M. de Lescure through the whole war, and the love which was felt for him by all the peasants concerned in it, proved their just appreciation of real merit; for he had not those qualities which most tend to ingratiate an officer with his men. He could not unbend among them, and talk to them familiarly of their prowess, and of the good cause, as Henri did. He had the manners of an austere, sombre man; and though always most anxious for the security and good treatment of the prisoners, had more than once severely punished men among his own followers for some breach of discipline. He had, on one occasion, threatened to leave the army entirely if he was not obeyed with the same exactness, as though he actually bore the King’s commission; and the general feeling that he would most certainly keep his word, and that the army could not succeed without him, had greatly tended to repress any inclination towards mutiny.

“God bless him, and preserve him, and restore him to us all!” said a woman who had pushed her way through the crowd, so as to catch a glance at his pale wasted face, one side of which was swathed in bandages, which greatly added to the ghastliness of his appearance. “We have lost our husbands, and our sons, and our sweethearts; but what matters, we do not begrudge them to our King. The life of Monseigneur is more precious than them all. La Vendée cannot afford to lose her great General.”

De Lescure heard and understood, but could not acknowledge, the sympathy of the people; but Henri, as he tenderly raised his cousin’s head, and bore him in his arms from the waggon, spoke a word or two to the crowd which satisfied them; and Arthur Mondyon remained among them a while to tell them how bravely their countrymen had fought at Cholet, against numbers more than double their own, before they would consent to own themselves beaten.

There was an immense deal for Henri Larochejaquelin to do. In the first place he had to collect together the fragments of the disbanded army; to separate the men who were armed from those who had lost their arms, and to divide the comparatively speaking small number of the former, into such bands or regiments as would make them serviceable in case of need.

De Lescure was unable to give him any actual assistance in his work; but his thoughtful brain, reflecting on all the difficulties of Henri’s situation, conceived how much they would be increased by the want of any absolute title to authority; he therefore determined, ill as he was, to invest him with the command-inchief of the shattered army.

Early on the morning after their arrival he begged that all such men as had acted as chief officers among the Vendeans, and who were now in St. Florent, would form themselves into a council in his room, and that it might be proclaimed to the army that they were about to nominate a General-inChief. The council was not so numerously attended as that which on a former occasion was held at Saumur. As Peter Berrier had said, most of those who then sat around that council table were now dead, or were, at any rate, hors-de-combat. Only four of the number were now present. De Lescure was lying on his bed, and was a spectacle dreadful to look upon. The hair had been all cut from his head. His face was not only pale, but livid. The greater portion of it had been enveloped in bandages, which he had partly removed with his own hand, that his mouth might be free, so that he could use his weak voice to address his comrades, perhaps for the last time. He uttered neither complaint or groan, but the compressed lips, careworn cheeks, and sunken eyes, gave too certain signs of the agony which he suffered. Henri was there, but he knew the proposal which his cousin was about to make, and he felt, not only that he was unequal to the heavy task which was about to be put on his shoulders, but also that there were still some among their number who were superior to him in skill, rank, and age, and who were to be excluded from the dangerous dignity by the partial admiration which was felt for himself He sat apart in a corner of the room, with his face buried in his handkerchief; his manly heart was overcome; and while de Lescure named him as the only person possessed of sufficient nerve and authority to give the Vendeans a chance of an escape from utter ruin, he was shedding tears like a child.

D’Autachamps and the Prince de Talmont were there also; men, who throughout the war had lent every energy to its furtherance. At another time, and under other circumstances, they might have expressed indignation at being called on to serve under a man so much their junior; but de Lescure’s position checked, not only the expression of any such feeling, but the feeling itself. They could not differ from a man who had lost so much in the cause, and vas now sealing his devotion with his life. There were five or six others in the room; officers who were now well known in the army, whose courage history has not forgotten to record, but whose names are unnecessary to our tale.

“Gentlemen,” said de Lescure to them, as soon as he saw them seated round his bed, and had contrived to get himself so propped up with pillows as to be able to address them, “you all know why I have wished to see you here; you all know the paramount importance of that duty which requires us to provide, as far as may be possible, for the security of the unfortunate peasants who have followed us with such courage, who have shown so much generous loyalty, so much true patriotism. Our first step must be to name some one whom we can all obey. We all know that the army cannot act in unison without one absolute Commander. He who was lately our Commander has fallen in the performance of his duty. Our dear friend Bonchamps is no more. Had I escaped from that awful battle unwounded, it is not improbable that you might have chosen me to undertake the now unenviable duty of guiding a broken army. You will not accuse a dying man of vanity in saying so; but, gentlemen, you all see that such a chance is now impossible. My wound is mortal. A few days, perhaps a few hours, and I shall be removed from this anxious, painful, all but hopeless conflict, in which you, my friends, must still engage; in which some of you will probably fall. I cannot suffer with you future reverses, or lead you to future triumphs; but, if you will allow me, I will use my last breath in naming to you one, whom, I believe, every peasant in La Vendée, and every gentleman engaged in the cause, will follow, if it be necessary, to death. Henri Larochejaquelin is the only man whom all the peasants, all the soldiers, all the officers, know intimately; and the last duty I can perform in the service of my King is to implore you to put him at the head of your troops. He is young, and you will assist his youth with your counsel. He is diffident of himself, and you will encourage him with your assurance and obedience; but he is brave, he is beloved, he is trusted; and above all, he possesses that innate aptitude for war, that power of infusing courage into the timid and lending strength to the weak, which is the gift of God alone, and without which no General can command an army.”

Henri had promised his cousin that he would neither interrupt him, or raise any objection to the proposition about to be made. He kept his word as long as de Lescure was speaking, but when he had finished he could not restrain himself from expressing his own sense of his unfitness for the duties they were calling on him to perform. He came forward, and leaning against the head of the wounded man’s bed, put his hand upon his shoulder, and speaking almost in a whisper, like a young girl pleading for delay before her lover, he said, “Charles, you forget, I am but one-and-twenty.”

No one, however, seconded his objection. No other voice was raised to counteract the wishes of the man who had suffered so much in the cause, and who, had he been spared, would have been at once chosen to guide their future movements.

“With this exception,” said the Prince de Talmont; “your case we know is doubtful, but should you recover, should you again be able to come among us before the war be over, Larochejaquelin shall then give place to you.”

“There is little chance of that, Prince,” said de Lescure, smiling sadly; “but should it occur, there will be no quarrel between me and Henri. I will serve with him as his aide-de-camp.”

Henri Larochejaquelin now found himself General-inChief of the Vendean army. As he himself had said, he was but one-and-twenty, and yet never was greater energy, firmness, and moral courage required from a General, than was required from him at this moment. Eighty thousand people were on that day told to look to him as the man who was to save them from famine and from the enemy’s sword, to protect their lives and the lives of all whom they loved, and eventually to turn their present utter misery and despair into victory and triumph.

Eighty thousand people were there collected in and around St. Florent, men, women, and children; the old and infirm, the maimed and sick, the mutilated and the dying. Poor wretches who had gotten themselves dragged thither from the hospitals, in which they feared to remain, were lying in every ditch, and under every wall, filling the air with their groans. Everything was in confusion; no staff existed competent to arrange their affairs, and to husband the poor means at their disposal. Food was wasted by some, while hundreds were starving. Some houses in the town were nearly empty, while others were crowded almost to suffocation. There was very much to be done, yet every one was idle.

The great work to be accomplished was to transport the Vendean multitude over to the other side of the Loire. It had been at first feared by some that the men of Brittany would be unwilling to receive the beaten royalist army, flying from the bloody vengeance of the republicans, but their neighbours did not prove so unhospitable. A thousand welcomes were sent over to them, and many a happy messenger of good tidings came, assuring Henri that the people of Poitou should find arms, food, clothing, and shelter on the other side of the water.

Henri sat himself to work in earnest. His first difficulty was to get vessels or rafts sufficient to carry the people over. All he could obtain was seven or eight little boats, each capable of holding about six persons, besides the two men who rowed. Timber there was none of size sufficient to make a raft; and though he sent messengers for leagues, both up and down the river, he could not get a barge. He put the small boats to work, but the passage of the river was so tedious that it seemed to him that it would be impossible for him to take over all those who crowded on the banks. The river is broad at St. Florent, and between the marshes which lie on the southern side and the northern bank there is a long island. Between St. Florent and the island the water is broad and the stream slow, but between the island and the other shore the narrow river runs rapidly. Henri at first contented himself with sending the women and children, together with the sick and aged, into the island, thinking that there they would be at any rate for a time safe from the blues, and that some effort might probably be made from the other shore to convey them across the narrow passage. Gradually, however, the island became full, and he was obliged to send his boats round to take the people from thence to the main land.

All day the work continued, and when the dark night came on, the boats did not for a moment cease to ply. Immediately after sunset, the rain began to fall in torrents, and as the anxious wretches did not like to leave the close vicinity of the river, which they had spent the whole day in struggling to attain, thousands of them remained there wet and shivering until the morning. Mothers during the darkness were parted from their children, and wives from their husbands. Those who, worn out with fatigue and weakness, were forced to lie down upon the ground, were trodden upon by others, who pressed on, to reach the river. Some were pushed into the water and screamed aloud that they were about to drown, and when the dawn of the morning came, misery, wretchedness, and fear were to be seen on every face.

During the whole day and night, Henri was either on the bank, or passing between it and the town. He had, early in the day, stripped himself of his coat, and when the evening came, he could not find it. Wet through, in his shirt sleeves, this young generalissimo passed the first night of his command, guarding the entrance into his little vessels; prohibiting more than eight from embarking at a time; striving to his uttermost that none but the weak and aged should be taken over; solacing the sufferings of those near him; bidding the wretched not to despair, and pointing to the opposite shore as the land of hope, where they would soon again find plenty, comfort, and triumph.

He was still at the same duty on the following morning, reckoning up, with something like despair, the small number of those who had as yet passed over, and the multitude who were yet to pass, when the young Chevalier came down to him with the news that Madame de Lescure, and her sister-inlaw were in St. Florent. Even the work, on which he was so intent, could not keep him from those respecting whom he was so anxious, and he hurried into town for an hour or two, leaving the Chevalier in his place.

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