Chapter I. The forests
There were in Brittany at that time seven much-dreaded forests. The Vendean war was a rebellion among priests, and the forest was their auxiliary. The spirits of darkness help one another.
The seven Black Forests of Brittany were the forest of Fougères, which bars the passage between Dol and Avranches; the forest of Princé, eight miles in circumference; the forest of Paimpont, abounding in ravines and brooks, and almost inaccessible in the direction of Baignon, with an easy retreat towards Concornet, which was a Royalist town; the forest of Rennes, whence could be heard the tocsin of the Republican parishes, always numerous in the neighborhood of cities, – there it was that Puysaye lost Focard; the forest of Machecoul, where Charette dwelt like a wild beast; the forest of La Garnache, belonging to the Trémoilles, the Gauvains, and the Rohans; and the forest of Brocéliande, that had been appropriated by the fairies.
One nobleman in Brittany was called the Seigneur des Sept-Forêts, and he was the Viscount de Fontenay, a Breton prince.
For the Breton prince was a creation quite distinct from the French prince. The Rohans were Breton princes. Gamier de Saintes, in his report to the Convention of the 15th Nivôse, year II., thus describes the Prince de Talmont, – “That Capet of brigands, the sovereign of Maine and Normandy.”
The events that transpired in Breton forests from 1792 to 1800 would form a history in themselves, blending like a legend with the stupendous affair of the Vendée.
There is truth in legend as well as in history, but the nature of legendary truth differs from that of historic truth. The former may be invention; but its result is reality. Both, however, have the same aim, inasmuch as each strives to depict the eternal type of mankind under the transitory specimen.
The Vendée cannot be fully understood unless legend is allowed to supplement history; history must present the total effect, legend describe the details.
We cannot refuse to acknowledge that the Vendée is well worth the trouble, for it is a prodigy.
That War of the Ignorant, so dull and yet so splendid, so detestable and at the same time so magnificent, was at once the despair and the pride of the nation. In the act of wounding France, the Vendée covered her with glory. There are times when human society presents enigmas whose meaning becomes evident to the wise, while for the ignorant it remains obscure, signifying nothing more than violence and barbarism. A philosopher is slow to accuse. He takes into consideration the disturbances caused by these problems, which never pass without casting a shadow like a cloud.
He who would understand the Vendée must picture the antagonism of the French Revolution on the one hand, and the Breton peasant on the other.
Face to face with these unparalleled events, – this tremendous promise of every advantage at once, this fit of rage on the part of civilization, this excess of infuriated progress, to be accompanied by an improvement that could neither be measured nor understood, – stands this serious and peculiar savage, this man with the keen eyes and long hair, who lives on milk and chestnuts; whose ideas are bounded by his roof, by his hedge, and by his ditch; who can distinguish each village by the sound of its bells; who drinks nothing but water, yet wears a leather waistcoat worked with silken arabesques, – a man uncultivated, dressed in embroidered garments, who tattoes his clothes as his ancestors the Celts used to tattoo their faces; who respects his master in the person of his executioner; who speaks a dead language, which is equivalent to keeping his mind in a tomb, goading his oxen, sharpening his scythe, hoeing his black grain, kneading his buckwheat cake; reverencing, first his plough, and secondly his grandmother; believing in the Blessed Virgin, and in the White Lady no less; worshipping before the altar, and also before the tall mysterious stone set up in the midst of the moor, – a laborer in the plain, a fisherman on the coast, a poacher in the thicket, devoted to his kings, his priests, his lords, and to his very lice; a man of pensive mood, often standing motionless for hours on the wide deserted shore, listening gloomily to the sounding sea.
Is it then strange that this blind man failed to appreciate the light?