Chapter I. Plus quam civilia bella
The summer of 1792 had been a very rainy one; but that of 1793 was so extremely warm that, although the civil war had gone far towards ruining the roads in Brittany, the people – thanks to the fine weather – were able to travel from place to place, for a dry soil makes the best road.
At the close of a clear July day, about an hour after sunset, a man on horseback, riding from the direction of Avranches, stopped before the little inn called the Croix-Blanchard, situated at the entrance of Pontorson. For some years its sign had borne the following inscription: “Good cider obtained here.” The day had been a very warm one, but now the wind was beginning to rise.
The traveller was wrapped in an ample cloak that fell over his horse’s back. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, ornamented with a tricolored cockade, which was rather a bold thing to do in a country like this, with its hedges and sharpshooting, for which a cockade offered an excellent target. The cloak fastened around his neck was pushed back, leaving his arms free, and revealing at the same time a tricolored belt and the butts of two pistols protruding from it, while a sabre hung down below the cloak. At the sound of the horses hoofs stopping before the inn the door opened, and the landlord came out, holding a lantern in his hand. It was just at twilight, when it is still light out of doors, although dark within.
The host glanced at the cockade.
“Do you mean to stop here, citizen?”
“Where are you going, then?”
“In that case, you would do better to return to Avranches, or else remain at Pontorson.”
“Because they are fighting at Dol.”
“Ah!” said the rider; then he continued, “Give my horse some oats.”
The host, having brought the trough and poured the oats into it, proceeded to unbridle the horse, which began at once snuffing and champing, while the dialogue went on.
“Is this one of the requisition horses, citizen?” “No.”
“Does it belong to you?”
“Yes. I bought him and paid for him.”
“Where do you come from?”
“I should say not. The roads are blocked; but the post still runs.”
“As far as Alençon. I left it there.”
“Ah, it will not be long before we shall have no more posts in France. The horses are all gone; one worth three hundred francs costs six hundred, and the price of fodder is beyond all reason. I used to be a postmaster; and now, you see, I keep a tavern. Out of thirteen hundred and thirteen postmasters, two hundred have resigned. Have you been travelling according to the new tariff, citizen?”
“You mean the tariff of the 1st of May? Yes.”
“Twenty sous a post for a carriage, twelve for a gig, five for a van. Did you not buy this horse at Alençon?”
“And you have been travelling all day?”
“Yes, since dawn.”
“And the day before.”
“I should think so. You came by the way of Domfront and Mortain.”
“You had better take my advice, and rest, citizen. Are you not tired? Your horse certainly is.”
“Horses may be tired, but men have no right to give way to fatigue.”
Again the host gazed at the traveller, whose face, grave, calm, and severe, was framed by gray hair.
Casting a glance along the road, that was deserted as far as the eye could reach, he said, –
“And so you are travelling alone.”
“I have an escort.”
“Where is it?”
“My sabre and pistols.”
The innkeeper went for a pail of water; and while he was watering the horse he contemplated the traveller, saying to himself, “He looks like a priest, all the same.”
The rider continued, –
“You say there is fighting at Dol?”
“Yes. They are just about ready to begin.”
“Who is fighting?”
“One ci-devant against another.”
“How is that?”
“I mean that the ci-devant who is a Republican is fighting against another who takes sides with the king.”
“But there is no longer a king.”
“There is the little fellow. But the strangest part is that the two ci-devants are related to each other.”
Here the rider listened attentively, while the innkeeper continued: –
“One is a young man, and the other an old one. It is the grand-nephew fighting against his great-uncle. The uncle is a Royalist, while the nephew is a patriot; the uncle commands the Whites, the nephew the Blues. Ah! they will show no mercy to each other, you may be sure! It is a war to death!”
“Yes, citizen. Perhaps you might like to see the polite speeches they fling at each other’s head. Here is a placard, which the old man has managed to post on all the houses and trees, and which I found had been stuck on my very door.”
The host held up his lantern to a square bit of paper glued upon one of the panels of his door, and as it was written in very large characters, the rider was able to read it as he sat in his saddle: –
“The Marquis de Lantenac has the honor to inform his grand-nephew the Viscount Gauvain that if the Marquis is so fortunate as to take him prisoner, M. le Viscount may rest assured that he will be speedily shot.”
“And here is the reply,” continued the innkeeper.
He turned so as to throw the light of his lantern upon a second placard on the other panel of the door, directly opposite the first one.
“Gauvain warns Lantenac that if he catches him he will have him shot.”
“Yesterday the first placard was posted on my door,” said the host, “and this morning came the second. He was not kept waiting for his answer.”
The traveller, in an undertone, as though speaking to himself, uttered certain words which the innkeeper caught without fully understanding their meaning: –
“Yes, this is more than waging war against one’s native land; it is carrying it into the family. And it must needs be done; great regenerations are only to be purchased at this price.”
And the traveller, with his eyes still riveted to the second placard, lifted his hand to his hat and saluted it.
The host continued: –
“You see, citizen, this is the way matters stand. In the cities and in larger towns we are in favor of revolution, but in the country they are opposed to it; which amounts to saying that we are Frenchmen in the cities, and Bretons in the villages. It is a war between the peasants and the townspeople. They call us patauds, and we call them rustauds. They have the nobles and the priests on their side.”
“Not all of them,” interrupted the rider.
“That is true, citizen, for here we have a Viscount fighting against a Marquis; and I verily believe,” he added aside, “that I am speaking to a priest at this minute.”
“Which of the two is likely to gain the day?”
“I should say the Viscount, so far. But he has a hard time of it. The old man is a tough customer. They belong to the Gauvains, a noble family in these parts, of which there are two branches; the Marquis de Lantenac is the head of the older, and the Viscount Gauvain of the younger branch. To-day the two branches are fighting each other. You never see this among trees, but often among men. This Marquis de Lantenac is all-powerful in Brittany; the peasants regard him as a prince. On the very day he landed he rallied eight thousand men; in a week three hundred parishes had risen. If he had only been able to establish a foothold on the coast, the English would have made a descent. Luckily Gauvain, who, strange to say, is his grand-nephew, was on the spot. He is a Republican commander, and has got the upper hand of his great-uncle. And then, as good luck would have it, this Lantenac at the time of his arrival, when he was massacring a multitude of prisoners, gave orders to have two women shot, one of whom had three children, who had been adopted by a Paris battalion. This roused the rage of the battalion, which is called the Bonnet-Rouge. There are but few of the original Parisians left, but they are desperate fighters. They have been incorporated into Commandant Gauvain’s division. Nothing can resist them. Their great object is to avenge the women and recapture the children. No one knows what the old Marquis did with the little ones, and that is what infuriates the Parisian grenadiers. Had not these children been mixed up in it, this war would not have been what it is. The Viscount is a good and brave young fellow; but the old man is a terrible Marquis. The peasants call this the war of Saint Michel against Beelzebub. You know, maybe, that Saint Michel is the patron of these parts. There is a mountain named after him in the middle of the bay. They give him credit for conquering the Devil and burying him under another hill not far away, called Tombelaine.”
“Yes,” murmured the rider. “Tumba Beleni, – the tomb of Belenus, Belus, Bel, Belial, Beelzebub.”
“I see that you are well informed.” And the host said to himself, –
“He knows Latin; surely he must be a priest.” Then he added: –
“Well, citizen, this war is beginning all over again for the peasants. No doubt they think the Royalist general is Saint Michel, and the patriot commander Beelzebub; but if there is a devil it is Lantenac, and Gauvain is an angel if there ever was one. Will you take nothing, citizen?”
“I have my gourd and a bit of bread. But you have not told me what is going on at Dol.”
“To be sure; well, Gauvain is in command of the exploring division of the coast. Now, Lantenac’s plan was to stir up a general insurrection, to bring Lower Normandy to the aid of Lower Brittany, to throw open the door to Pitt, and to lend a helping hand to the great Vendean army in the shape of twenty thousand English and two hundred thousand peasants. Gauvain has checkmated this plan. He holds the coast and drives Lantenac back into the interior and the English into the sea. Lantenac was here, but Gauvain dislodged him, recaptured Pont-au-Beau, drove him out from Avranches and Villedieu, and prevented him from reaching Granville. He is manoeuvring now to force him to retreat into the forest of Fougères, and there to surround him. Yesterday everything was favorable, and Gauvain was here with his division. All at once, mind you, the old man, who is a shrewd one, made a point; the news came that he had marched on Dol. If he should take it, and succeeds in establishing a battery on Mont-Dol, – for he has artillery, – that will give the English a chance to land, and then all is lost. That is the reason why Gauvain, who has a head on his shoulders, knowing there was not a moment to be lost, consulted no one; nor did he wait for orders, but giving the signal to saddle, and harnessing his artillery, he collected his troops, drew his sabre, and while Lantenac is hurrying towards Dol, Gauvain is all ready to pounce upon Lantenac; and Dol is to be the place where these two Breton heads will clash, and a famous crash it will be. They are at it now.”
“How long does it take to reach Dol?”
“For troops with artillery carriages, at least three hours; but they are there now.”
The traveller, as he listened, said, –
“You are right; I think I can hear the cannon.” The host, too, was listening.
“Yes, citizen, and the firing is steady. You had better spend the night here. There is nothing to be gained by going over there.”
“I cannot stop. I must continue my journey.”
“You are wrong. I do not know anything about your business, but the risk is great, and unless all that you hold dearest in the world is at stake – “
“That is precisely the state of things,” replied the rider.
“Now, supposing your son – “
“You are very near the truth,” said the rider.
The innkeeper raised his head as he said to himself, –
“And yet I thought this citizen was a priest.” Then, after a moment’s reflection, he added: “But a priest may have children, after all.”
“Put the bridle back on my horse,” said the traveller. “How much do I owe you?”
After receiving his pay, the host put the trough and bucket against the wall, and came back to the traveller.
“Since you are determined to go, take my advice. You must be going to Saint-Malo. Now, then, do not go by the way of Dol. There are two roads, – one leading through Dol, and the other along the coast. There is very little difference in their length. The road along the coast passes through Saint-Georges-de-Brehaigne, Cherrueix, and Hirelle-Vivier. You leave Dol to the south, and Cancale to the north, and at the end of this street, citizen, you will come to a place where the two roads fork, – that of Dol to the left, that of Saint-Georges-de-Brehaigne to the right. Mark my words: if you go to Dol, you will plunge headlong into the massacre; so do not take the left-hand turning, but keep to the right.”
“Thank you,” said the traveller.
And he set spurs to his horse.
As it was now quite dark, he soon vanished in the gloom, and the innkeeper lost sight of him.
When the traveller reached the end of the street where the two roads forked, he heard the voice of the innkeeper calling to him from the distance, –
“Turn to your right!”
He turned to the left.