Chapter I. The ancestor
A lamp stood on the flags of the dungeon, beside the square air-hole of the oubliette.
There was also to be seen a jug of water, a loaf of army bread, and a truss of straw. As the dungeon was cut out of solid rock, any prisoner who conceived the idea of setting the straw on fire would have had his labor for his pains, – no risk of a conflagration for the prison, and certain suffocation for the prisoner.
When the door turned on its hinges, the Marquis was walking up and down in his prison, with that mechanical pacing to and fro peculiar to caged wild animals.
At the sound of the opening and closing door, he looked up, and the light from the lamp that stood on the floor between Gauvain and himself struck full upon the faces of both men.
They looked at each other with such an expression that each stood there as if transfixed.
The Marquis burst out laughing and exclaimed:
“Good-evening, sir. Many years have passed since I have had the pleasure of meeting you. You honor me by your visit. I thank you. Nothing could please me more than a little conversation, for I was beginning, to be bored. Your friends are wasting their time, – proofs of identity, court-martials, all those ceremonies are tedious. Were it my affair I should proceed more rapidly. I am at home here. Will you be good enough to come in. Well, what do you think of the present state of affairs? It is original, is it not? Once upon a time there was a king and queen in France; the king was the king; France herself was the queen. They have cut off the king’s head and married the queen to Robespierre; and to this pair a daughter has been born, – they call her Guillotine, and it seems that I am to make her acquaintance to-morrow morning. I shall be as pleased to meet her as I am to meet you. Is that perchance the object of your visit? Have you been promoted? Shall you officiate as headsman? But if this be simply a visit of friendship, I feel grateful. You may perhaps have forgotten, Viscount, what a nobleman is? Allow me to present you to one. Behold me; it has become a rare specimen; it believes in God, in tradition, and in the family; it believes in its ancestors, in the example of its father, in fidelity, in loyalty, in its duty towards its princes, in reverence for ancient laws, in virtue and in justice; and it would order you to be shot with much pleasure. Will you do me the favor to take a seat? I must ask you to sit upon the floor, since there is no arm-chair in this salon; but he who dwells in the mire may well sit upon the ground. I do not say this to offend you, for that which is mire in our esteem, represents the nation in your eyes. You will not, of course, require me to shout for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity? This is an old room in my house, where in former times the lords used to imprison their peasants; nowadays, it is the peasants who imprison the lords. And these follies men call revolution! It seems that my head is to be cut off in thirty-six hours. I have no objection to offer; still, had they been well-bred they would have sent me my snuff-box, which is upstairs in the mirror-chamber, where you used to play when you were a child, and where I have dandled you on my knee. Sir, let me tell you one thing: your name is Gauvain, and strange as it may seem, you have noble blood in your veins, – yes, pardieu! the very same blood that flows in mine; and this blood which has made a man of honor of me, has made of you a scoundrel. Such are the idiosyncrasies of the human race! You will tell me that it is not your fault. Nor is it mine. Parbleu! one may be a rascal unconsciously. It depends upon the air one breathes. In times like ours, no man is responsible for what he does; revolution is the scapegoat for all mankind, for your great criminals are supreme innocents. What blockheads! To begin with yourself. Allow me to admire you. Yes, I admire a youth like yourself, who, well-born, with an excellent position in State affairs, possessing noble blood fit to be shed in a noble cause, Viscount of this Tower-Gauvain, Prince of Brittany, a duke in his own right, belonging to the hereditary peerage of France, – which is about all that a sensible man can desire here below, – a youth who, being such as he is, amuses himself by playing a part like yours, until his enemies believe him a scoundrel, and his friends regard him as an idiot! By the way, give my regards to the Abbé Cimourdain.”
Perfectly at his ease, the Marquis spoke slowly and calmly, without emphasis, in his society voice, his eyes clear and tranquil, and with both hands in his waistcoat pockets. He paused, took a long breath, and then continued: –
“I do not conceal from you that I have done all in my power to kill you. As I stand before you, I have three times in person aimed a cannon at you. A discourteous proceeding, I confess, but it would be relying upon a false maxim did we allow ourselves to fancy that in time of war the enemy proposes to make himself agreeable. For we are in a state of war, nephew. Everything is put to fire and sword, and they have killed the king besides. A fine century!”
He paused again, then continued: –
“And when one thinks that none of these things would have happened if they had hung Voltaire and sent Rousseau to the galleys! Ah, those men of intellect! What a scourge they were! For what crime did you reproach the Monarchy? The Abbé Pucelle was sent to his Abbey of Corbigny, it is true, allowing him the choice of conveyance and as much time as he required in the journey; and as for your Monsieur Titon, who was – begging your pardon – a wretched libertine, who visited abandoned women before going to the miracles of Deacon Pâris, he was transferred from Vincennes to the fortress of Ham in Picardy, which is, I admit, rather a disagreeable place. Those are your grievances; I remember them, for I too inveighed against them in my day. I have been as stupid as you.”
The Marquis fumbled in his pocket as though he expected to find his snuff-box; then he continued:
“But not so wicked. We talked for the sake of talking. There was, moreover, the mutiny of demands and petitions; and then those gentlemen the philosophers appeared upon the scene, whose works they burned, – they would have done better had they burned the authors: Court intrigues were mixed up in the affair. Then came all the dunces, Turgot, Quesnay, Malesherbes, the physiocratists, and so forth, and the wrangling began. All this was the work of scribblers and rhymsters. The Encyclopædia! Diderot! D’Alembert! Ah! the malicious scamps! Fancy a well-born man like the King of Prussia joining hands with them! I would have made short work with all those paper-scribblers. Ah! we know how to administer justice; you can see here, on this wall, the mark of the quartering-wheels. There was no jesting in the matter. No, no; let us abolish scribblers! So long as there are Arouets there will be Marats. So long as there are men who scribble, there will be wretches who murder; while there is ink, there will be black stains; so long as men’s claws can hold a goose-quill, frivolous nonsense will engender atrocious follies. Books are the authors of crime. The word ‘chimera’ has a double signification, – it means a dream and it means a monster. What a price one pays for all this idle nonsense! What is it you keep repeating to us about your rights, – the rights of man, the rights of the people! Has it any sense whatever? Could anything be more stupid, utterly imaginary, and devoid of meaning! When I state the fact that Havoise, the sister of Conan II., brought the Comté of Bretagne to Hoël, Count of Nantes and of Cornwall, from whom the estate descended to Alain Fergant, the uncle of that Bertha who married Alain le Noir, lord of Roche-sur-Yon, and bore unto him Conan le Petit, grandfather of Guy or Gauvain de Thouars our ancestor, – I make a plain statement, and claim my rights. But the knaves, the rascals, the scoundrels of your party, what rights do they claim? Deicide and regicide. Is it not frightful? Ah! the ragamuffins! I am sorry for you, sir; still, you come of that proud Breton blood; you and I have a Gauvain de Thouars for our grandfather, and furthermore we have an ancestor in that famous Duke de Montbazon, a peer of France and decorated with the Grand Collar, who attacked the Faubourg de Tours and was wounded at the battle of Arques, and who died Grand-veneur of France in his house of Couzières in Touraine at the age of eighty-six. I could tell you of the Duke of Laudunois, son of the Lady de la Garnache, of Claude de Lorraine, of the Duke de Chevreuse, of Henri do Lenoncourt, and of Françoise de Laval-Boisdauphin. But to what purpose? Monsieur has the honor of being an idiot, and he delights to lower himself to the level of my groom. Learn this: I was already an old man when you were still a nursing infant. I watched you, and I would watch you still. As you grew up you succeeded in degrading yourself. Since we ceased to meet, each of us has followed his inclinations; mine have led me in the direction of honesty, while your course has been the very reverse. Ah! I know not how all this will end; but your friends are consummate villains. Oh, yes, I acknowledge it is all very fine, the progress is marvellous; they have done away in the army with the punishment of the pint of water, inflicted for three days in succession, on drunken soldiers; they have the maximum, the Convention, Bishop Gobel, Monsieur Chaumette, and Monsieur Hébert; there has been a wholesale extermination of the past, from the Bastille to the calendar. The saints are replaced by vegetables. Very well, citizens; be our masters if you will, reign over us, take your ease, act your good pleasure, stand upon no ceremony. All that will not prevent religion from being religion, nor alter the fact that royalty has occupied fifteen hundred years of our history, and that the old French nobility, even though beheaded, stands higher than you. And as to your sophistries concerning the historical right of royal races, what care we for that matter? Chilpéric was really nothing but a monk by the name of Daniel; it was Rainfroi who invented Chilpéric to annoy Charles Martel, – we know that as well as you. That is not the question. The question is this: that there shall be a great kingdom, old France, a well-regulated country, where men consider first the sacred person of the monarchs, absolute rulers of the State, then the princes, then the officers of the crown, naval and military, as well as the controllers of finance. Then there are the officers of justice of the different grades, followed by those of the salt-tax and the general receipts, and finally the police of the kingdom in its three orders. All this was fine and well-regulated; you have destroyed it. You have destroyed the provinces, without even understanding – so great was your ignorance, – what the provinces were. The genius of France was made up from that of the entire continent, and each of its provinces represents a special virtue of Europe; the frankness of Germany is to be found in Picardy, the generosity of Sweden in Champagne, the industry of Holland in Burgundy, the activity of Poland in Languedoc, the grave dignity of Spain in Gascony, the wisdom of Italy in Provence, the subtlety of Greece in Normandy, the fidelity of Switzerland in Dauphiny. You knew nothing of all this; you have broken, shattered, crushed, demolished, behaving like stupid beasts of the field. So you wish to have no more nobles? Very well, you shall have none. Prepare your mourning. Your paladins and heroes have departed. Bid farewell to all the ancient glories. Find me a D’Assas at the present time, if you can! You are all trembling for your skins. You will have no more Chevaliers de Fontenoy who saluted the enemy before killing him; you will have no more combatants in silk stockings like those at the siege of Lérida; you will have no more of those days of military glory when plumes flashed by like meteors; your days are numbered; the outrage of invasion will descend upon you. If Alain II. were to return, he would no longer find a Clovis to confront him; if Abdérame were to come back, he would encounter no such foe as Charles Martel; neither would the Saxons find a Pépin waiting for them. You will have no Agnadel, Rocroy, Lens, Staffarde, Nerwinde, Steinkerque, La Marsaille, Raucoux, Lawfeld, Mahon; you will never have another Marignan with Francis I.; nor a Bouvines with Philip-Augustus, who took Renaud, Count of Boulogne, prisoner with one hand, while with the other he held Ferrand, Count of Flanders. You will have Agincourt, but you will not have the great standard-bearer, the Sieur de Bacqueville, wrapping himself in his banner to die. Go on, go on, accomplish your work! Be the new men. Dwarf yourselves!”
Here the Marquis paused a moment; then he continued: –
“But leave to us our greatness. Kill the kings, kill nobles and priests, if you will; sow broadcast over the land destruction, ruin, and death; trample all things under foot; set your heel upon the ancient laws, overthrow the throne, stamp upon the altar of your God, and dance over the ruins. All rests with you, cowards and traitors as you are, incapable of self-devotion and sacrifice. I have said all that I have to say. Now have me guillotined, Monsieur le Vicomte. I have the honor to be your most humble servant.”
Then he added, –
“It is but the truth. What difference can it make to me? I am dead.”
“You are free,” said Gauvain.
And he advanced towards the Marquis, unfastened his commander’s-cloak, and throwing it over the shoulders of the latter, he drew the hood down over his eyes. Both men were of the same height.
“What is this that you are doing?” said the Marquis.
Gauvain raised his voice and called out, –
“Lieutenant, open to me!”
The door was opened.
Gauvain cried, –
“You will be careful to close the door behind me.”
And he pushed the astonished Marquis across the threshold.
It must be remembered that the low hall which had been turned into a guard-room was lighted by a horn lantern, whose dim rays served only to deepen the shadows; it threw an uncertain glimmer on the surrounding objects, and in this indistinct light those of the soldiers who were not sleeping saw a tall man walk past them towards the entrance, wrapped in the cloak and braided hood of the commander-in-chief. The soldiers saluted him as he passed out.
The Marquis slowly crossed the guard-room and the breach, – not without hitting his head more than once, – and went out. The sentinel, supposing that it was Gauvain whom he saw, presented arms.
Once outside, within two hundred steps of the forest, feeling the turf beneath his feet, and space, the protecting night, liberty, and life before him, he paused and stood for a moment motionless, like a man who has allowed himself to be influenced, has been overcome by surprise, and who, having taken advantage of an open door, asks himself whether he has acted nobly or ignobly, and hesitates before going on, – giving ear, as it were, to an afterthought. After some moments of deep reverie, he raised his right hand, and snapping his thumb and finger, cried, –
And he went on.
The door of the prison had closed again, and this time it was upon Gauvain.