The raft which Chapeau had made was by degrees enlarged and improved, and the great mass of the Vendeans passed the river slowly, but safely. As soon as the bulk of the people was over, Henri Larochejaquelin left the southern shore, and crossed over to marshal the heterogeneous troops on their route towards Laval, leaving Chapeau and Arthur Mondyon to superintend and complete the transit of those who remained.
It was a beautiful October evening, and as the sun was setting, the two were standing close to the edge of the water, congratulating themselves that their dirty and disagreeable toil was well nigh over. From time to time stragglers were still coming down to the river-side, begging for a passage, and imploring that they might not be abandoned to the cruelty of the blues, and as they came they were shipped off on the raft. There were now, however, no more than would make one fair load, and Chapeau and Arthur were determined that it was full time for them both to leave the Anjou side of the river, and follow the main body of the army towards Laval.
“We might remain here for ever, Chapeau, if we stayed for the very last of all,” said the Chevalier, as he jumped on the raft. “Come, man, get on, we’ve our number now, and we couldn’t take more, if they come. There’s some one hallooing up there, and we’ll leave the little boat for them. Come, I want to get over and have a run on dry land, for I’m as cold as a stone. This living like a duck, half in the water and half out, don’t suit me at all. The next river we cross over, I’ll make Henri get another ferryman.”
Chapeau still lingered on the shore, and putting his hand up to his ear, listened to the voice of some one who was calling from a distance. It was too dark for him to distinguish any one, but the voice of a woman hallooing loudly, but with difficulty, as though she were out of breath with running, was plainly audible.
“If you mean to wait here all night, I don’t,” said the Chevalier, “so good night to you, and if you don’t get on, I’ll push off without you.”
“Stop a moment, M. Arthur, there’s a woman there.”
“I’ve no doubt there is — there are fifty women there — fifty hundred women, I dare say; but we can’t wait while they all drop in one by one. Don’t be a fool, Jacques; is not there the small boat left for them?”
Chapeau still listened. “Stop a moment, M. Arthur, for heaven’s sake stop one moment,” and then jumping on to the raft, he clung hold of the rope, and moored it fast to the shore. “They’re friends of my own, M. Arthur; most particular friends, or I wouldn’t ask to keep you. Don’t go now; after all we’ve gone through together, you won’t leave my friends behind, if I go on shore, will you, M. Arthur?”
“Oh, I’m a good comrade; if they’re private friends, I’ll wait all night. Only I hope there ain’t a great many of them.”
“Only two; I think there are only two,” and Chapeau once more jumped on shore, and ran to meet his friends. He had not far to go, for the party was now close to the water’s edge. As he had supposed, it consisted only of two, an old man and a girl: Michael Stein and his daughter Annot. Annot had been running; and dragging her father by the hand, had hallooed with all her breath, for she had heard from some of those who still dared to trust themselves to the blues, that the last boat was on the point of leaving the shore. The old man had disdained to halloo, and had almost disdained to run; but he had suffered himself to be hurried into a shambling kind of gait, and when he was met by Chapeau, he was almost as much out of breath as his daughter.
“Oh, oh! for mercy’s sake — for heaven’s sake — kind Sir, dear Sir,” sobbed Annot, as she saw a man approaching her; and then when he was near enough to her to be distinguished through the evening gloom, she exclaimed:
“Mercy on us, mercy on us, its Jacques Chapeau!” and sank to the ground, as though she had no further power to take care of herself now that she had found one who was bound to take care of her.
“You’re just in time, Michael Stein; thank God, you’re just in time! Annot, come on, its only a dozen yards to the raft, and we’ll be off at once. Well, this is the luckiest chance: come on, before a whole crowd are down upon us, and swamp us all.”
“Oh me! oh me!” sobbed Annot, still sitting on the ground, as though she had not the slightest intention of stirring another step that night: “to be left and deserted in this way by one’s friends — and one’s brothers — and — and — one’s —” she didn’t finish the list, for she felt sure that she had said enough to cut Chapeau to the inmost heart, if he still had a heart.
“Come, dearest girl, come; I’ll explain it all by-and-bye. We have not a moment to spare. Come, I’ll lift you,” and he stooped to raise her from the ground.
“Thank you, M. Chapeau, thank you, Sir; but pray leave me. I shall be better tomorrow morning; that is, if I’m not dead, or killed, or worse. The blues are close behind us; ain’t they, father?”
“Get up, Annot; get up, thou little fool, and don’t trouble the man to carry thee,” said Michael. “If there be still a boat to take us, in God’s name let us cross the river; for the blues are truly in St. Florent, and after flying from them so far, it would be sore ill luck to be taken now.”
Chapeau, however, would not leave her to herself, but took her up bodily in his arms, and carrying her down to the water’s edge, put her on the raft. He and Michael soon followed, and the frail vessel was hauled for the last time over into the island. The news that the enemy was already in St. Florent soon passed from month to mouth, and each wretched emigrant congratulated himself in silence that he had so far escaped from republican revenge. Many of them had still to sojourn on the island for the night, but there they were comparatively safe; and Arthur, Chapeau, and his friends, succeeded in gaining the opposite shore.
Poor Annot was truly in a bad state. When they heard that the ladies had left Chatillon, she and. her father, and, indeed, all the inhabitants of Echanbroignes, felt that they could no longer be safe in the village; and they had started off to follow the royalist army on foot through the country. From place to place they had heard tidings, sometimes of one party, and sometimes of another. The old man had borne the fatigue and dangers of the journey well; for, though now old, he had been a hard-working man all his life, and was tough and seasoned in his old age; but poor Annot had suffered dreadfully. The clothes she had brought with her were nearly falling off her back; her feet were all but bare, and were cut and blistered with walking. Grief and despair had taken the colour and roundness from her cheek, and she had lacked time on her mournful journey to comb the pretty locks of which she was generally so proud.
“Oh, Jacques, Jacques, how could you leave us! how could you go away and leave us, after all that’s been between us,” she said, as he bustled about to make some kind of bed for her in the little hut, in which they were to rest for the night.
“Leave you,” said Chapeau, who had listened for some time in silence to her upbraidings; “leave you, how could I help leaving .you? Has not everybody left everybody? Did not M. Henri leave his sister, and M. de Lescure leave his wife? And though they are now here all together, it’s by chance that they came here, the same as you have come yourself. As long as these wars last, Annot dear, no man can answer as to where he will go, or what he will do.”
“Oh, these weary wars, these weary wars!” said she, “will they never be done with? Will the people never be tired of killing, and slaying, and burning each other? And what is the King the better of it? Ain’t they all dead: the King, and the Queen, and the young Princes, and all of them?”
“You wouldn’t have us give up now, Annot, would you? You wouldn’t have us lay down our arms, and call ourselves republicans, after all we have done and suffered?”
Annot didn’t answer. She wouldn’t call herself a republican; but her sufferings and sorrows had greatly damped the loyal zeal she had shown when she worked her little fingers to the bone in embroidering a white flag for her native village. She was now tired and cold, wet and hungry; for Chapeau had been able to get no provisions but a few potatoes: so she laid herself down on the hard bed which he had prepared for her; and as he spread his own coat over her shoulders, she felt that it was, at any rate, some comfort to have her own lover once more near her.
Jacques and the old smith had no bed, so they were fain to content themselves with sitting opposite to each other on two low stools; the best seats which the hut afforded. Jacques felt that it was incumbent on him to do the honours of the place, and that some apology was necessary for the poor accommodation which he had procured for his friends.
“This is a poor place for you, Michael Stein,” he commenced, “a very poor place for both of you, after your own warm cottage at Echanbroignes.”
“It’s a poor place, truly, M. Chapeau,” said the smith, looking round on the bare walls of the little hut.
“Indeed it is, my friend, and sorry am I to see you and Annot so badly lodged. But what then; we shall be in Laval tomorrow, and have the best of everything — that is, if not tomorrow, the day after.”
“I don’t much care about the best of everything, M. Chapeau. I’ve not used myself to the best, but I would it had pleased God. to have allowed me to labour out the rest of my days in the little smithy at Echanbroignes. I never wanted more than the bread which I could earn.”
“You never did, Michael, you never did,” said Chapeau, trying to flatter the old man; “and, like an honest man, you endure without flinching what you suffer for your King. Give us your hand, my friend, we’ve no wine to drink his health, but as long as our voices are left, let us cry: Vive le Roi!”
The old man silently rejected Chapeau’s proposal that he should evince his loyalty just at present by shouting out the Vendean war-cry. “I take no credit, M. Chapeau,” said he, “for suffering for my King, though, while he lived, he always had my poor prayers for his safety. It wasn’t to fight the blues that I left my little home. It was because I couldn’t stay any without fearing to see that girl there in the rude hands of Lechelle’s soldiers, and my own roof in a blaze. It’s all gone now, forge and tools; the old woman’s chair, the children’s cradle; it’s all gone, now and for ever. I don’t wish to curse any one, M. Chapeau, but I am not in the humour to cry Vive le Roi!”
“But Michael Stein, my dear friend,” urged Chapeau, “look what others have lost too. Have not others suffered as much? Look at the old Marquis, turned out of his house and everything lost; and yet you won’t hear a word of complaint fall from his mouth. Look at Madame de Lescure, her husband dying; her house burnt to the ground; without a bed to lie on, or a change of dress and yet she does not complain.”
“They have brought it on themselves by their own doings,” answered the smith; “and they have brought it on me also, who have done nothing.”
“Done nothing! but, indeed, you have, Michael. Have you not made pikes for us, and have not your sons fought for us like brave soldiers?”
“I have done the work for which I was paid, as a good smith should; and as for the boys, they took their own way. No, Jacques Chapeau, I have taken no part in your battles. I have neither been for nor against you. As for King or Republic, it was all one to me; let them who understand such things settle that. For fifty years I have earned my bread, and paid what I owed; and now I am driven out from my home like a fox from its hole. Why should I say Vive le Roi! Look at that girl there, with her bare feet bleeding from the sharp stones, and tell me, why should I say Vive le Roi!”
Chapeau was flabbergasted, for all this was rank treason to him; and yet he didn’t want to quarrel with the smith; so he sat still and gazed into his face, as though he were struck dumb with astonishment.
“I remember when you came to my cottage,” continued the old man, “and told me that the wars were all over, that the King was coming to Durbellière, and that you would marry Annot, and make a fine lady of her. I told you then what I thought of your soldiering, and your fine ladies. I told you then what it would come to, and I told you true. I don’t throw this in your teeth to blame you, M. Chapeau, for you have only served those you were bound to serve; but surely they who first put guns and swords into the hands of the poor people, and bade them go out for soldiers, will have much to answer for. All this blood will be upon their heads.”
“You don’t mean to blame M. Henri and M. de Lescure, and the good Cathelineau, for all that they’ve done?” said Chapeau, awe-struck at the language used by his companion.
“It’s not for me to blame them; but look at that girl there, and then tell me, mustn’t there be some great blame somewhere?”
Chapeau did look at the girl, and all the tenderness of his heart rose into his eyes, as the flickering light of the fire showed him her tattered and draggled dress.
“Thank God! the worst of it is over now, Michael. You’re safe now, at any rate, from those blood-hounds; and when we reach Laval, we shall all have plenty.”
“And where’s this Laval, M. Chapeau?”
“We’re close to it — it’s just a league or so; or, perhaps, seven or eight leagues to the north of us.”
“And how is it, that in times like these, such a crowd of strangers will find plenty there?”
“Why, the whole town is with us. There’s a blue garrison in it; but they’re very weak, and the town itself is for the King to the backbone. They’ve sent a deputation to our Generals, and invited us there; and there are gentlemen there, who have come from England, with sure promises of money and troops. The truth is, Michael, we never were really in a position to beat the blues as they ought to be beat till we. got to this side of the river. We never could have done anything great in Poitou.”
“I’m sorry they ever tried, M. Chapeau; but I remember when you came back, after taking Saumur, you told me the war was over then. You used to think that a great thing.”
“So it was, Michael; it was well done. The taking of Saumur was very well done; but it was only a detail. We’ve found out now that it won’t do to beat them in detail; it’s too slow. The Generals have a plan now, one great comprehensive plan, for finishing the war in a stroke, and they’re only waiting until they reach Laval.”
“It’s a great pity they didn’t hit on that plan before,” said Michael Stein.
The two men laid themselves down on the ground before the fire, and attempted to sleep; but they had hardly composed themselves when they were interrupted by a loud rumour, that there was a vast fire, close down on the opposite side of the river. They both jumped up and went out, and saw that the whole heavens were alight with the conflagration of St. Florent — the blues had burnt the town. The northern bank of the river was covered with the crowd of men and women, gazing at the flames, which were consuming their own houses; and yet, so rejoiced were they to have escaped themselves from destruction, that they hardly remembered to bewail the loss of their property. The town of St. Florent was between three or four miles from the place where they were congregated, and yet they could plainly see the huge sparks as they flew upwards, and they fancied they felt the heat of the flames on their upturned faces.
Early on the following morning, the whole army was on its march towards Laval. The Vendean leaders were well aware that the republicans were now on their track, and they were truly thankful that some unaccountable delay in the movement of the enemy, had enabled them to put a great river between themselves and their pursuers. The garrisons, which the Convention had thrown into the towns of Brittany, were very insufficient, both in numbers and spirit, and the blues abandoned one place after another as the Vendeans approached. They passed through Candé, Segré, and Château-Gonthier without having to fire a shot, and though the gates of the town of Laval were closed against them, it was only done to allow the republican soldiers time to escape from the other side of the town.
The inhabitants of Laval flocked out in numbers to meet the poor Vendeans, and to offer them hospitality, and such comfort as their small town could afford to so huge a crowd. They begrudged them nothing that they possessed, and spared neither their provisions nor their houses. It seemed that Chapeau’s promise was this time true; and that, at any rate, for a time, they all found plenty in Laval. Henri established his head-quarters in a stone house, in the centre of the town, and here also he got accommodation for the three ladies and M. de Lescure. Nor did Chapeau forget to include Annot Stein in the same comfortable establishment, under the pretext that her services would be indispensable.
M. de Lescure had suffered grievously through the whole journey, but he seemed to rally when he reached Laval, and the comparative comfort of his quiet chamber gave him ease, and lessened his despondency. The whole party recovered something of their usual buoyancy, and when Henri brought in word, in the evening, that if the worst came to the worst, he could certainly hold out the town against the republican army until assistance reached them from England, they were all willing to hope that the cause in which they were engaged might still prosper.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01