chapter II. Gauvain meditating
His reverie was fathomless.
An unheard of change had taken place.
The Marquis de Lantenac had been transfigured, and Gauvain had seen it with his own eyes.
He would never have believed it possible that such a state of things could have come to pass from any complication of events whatsoever. Even in a dream he could not have imagined such a condition of affairs.
The Unforeseen, that inexplicable force that makes a man the plaything of its capricious will, had seized Gauvain and held him fast.
Before his eyes he beheld the realization of the impossible, – visible, palpable, inevitable, inexorable.
And what did he think of it? This was no time for evasion; he must make up his mind. A question had been presented to him; he must meet it fairly.
Who had asked this question?
It had come to him in the course of events, but not through events alone.
For when events, which are ever changing, ask us a question, immutable justice summons us to answer.
Behind the cloud that casts the shadow is the star that sheds the light.
We can no more escape the light than the shadow.
Gauvain was undergoing an interrogatory.
He had been arraigned before a judge.
An awe-inspiring presence.
His own conscience.
His entire being was vacillating within him; his firmest resolutions, his most solemn promises, his most irrevocable determinations, were all shaken to their foundations. The soul has its earthquakes.
The more he reflected upon what he had just witnessed, the more confused he grew.
Gauvain, Republican as he was, believed himself to be and was just; but a superior law had been revealed.
Human law takes a higher stand than the law of revolutions. This affair now in progress could not be evaded; it was a serious matter, and Gauvain formed a part of it; he was involved in it, and could not extricate himself; and however much Cimourdain might say, “This matter no longer concerns you,” he felt all the sensations of a tree torn up by its roots.
Every man has a basis; a shock to this basis produces a serious disturbance; and this was what Gauvain now felt. He pressed his head between his hands, as if to express from it the truth. It was no easy task to gain a clear idea of a situation like his: nothing could be more uncomfortable; he saw before him a formidable array of ciphers to be added up. To add up the columns of human destiny! The bare thought made him dizzy. And yet he was endeavoring to do this; he was trying to explain matters to himself, to collect his ideas, to subdue the resistance that he felt within him, and to review the facts. He revolved them again and again in his mind.
Is there one among us who has not been called upon to consider some important subject in all its bearings, or has not asked himself at a serious crisis which road to follow, – whether to advance or to retreat?
Gauvain had been witness to a miracle.
While the earthly combat was still in progress, a celestial one had begun.
A contest between good and evil.
A merciless heart had just been conquered.
In the man before him, with all the evil inherent to his nature, violence, error, blindness, an unwholesome obstinacy, selfishness, and pride, Gauvain had witnessed a miracle. A victory won by humanity over the man.
The human victorious over the inhuman.
And by what means? How was it achieved? How had it overthrown a colossus of anger and hatred? What weapons had it used? What machinery of warfare? Simply the cradle.
To Gauvain it was positively bewildering. To the very midst of civil war, at the climax of hostility and vengeance, in the darkest and fiercest moment of the tumult, when crime lent all its fires, and hatred all its blackness, at the very crisis of the struggle when anything may serve for a missile, when the mêlée is so direful that man is lost to every sense of justice, honesty, and truth, suddenly from the Unknown, that mysterious monitor of the human soul, overpowering all the lights and shadows of humanity, came one broad flash of the everlasting light.
Above that fatal duel between falsehood and comparative truth, the face of absolute truth had suddenly risen from the depths.
The strength of the weak had suddenly intervened.
The triumph of three poor little beings, but lately born into the world, unconscious of wrong, orphans, forsaken, and alone, lisping and smiling, with all the Gorgons of civil war, retaliation, the terrible logic of reprisals, murder, carnage, fratricide, wrath, and malice, had just been witnessed, together with the failure and defeat of an infamous conflagration kindled with criminal intent; cruelty had been frustrated and baffled; ancient feudal ferocity, inexorable disdain, the professed experience of the necessities of war, reasons of State, all the arrogant resolves of savage old age vanished before the innocent blue eyes of infant life; and what could be more simple? The infant whose little life has just begun, has done no evil; it is the embodiment of justice, truth, and innocence; the highest angels of heaven dwell in little children.
And truly it was an edifying sight; these frenzied combatants in a merciless war had, in the face of all their evil deeds, their crimes, fanaticism, and murder, vengeance fanning the funeral piles, death advancing torch in hand, suddenly seen Innocence rise in its omnipotence above this countless legion of crimes.
And Innocence had won the day.
One might well say, No; civil war has no existence; there are no such evils as barbarism, hatred, or crime; there is no darkness; the divine dawn of infancy has but to rise, and all these spectres will straightway vanish.
Never in any struggle had the presence of Satan and of Almighty God been more plainly visible.
A conscience had furnished the arena for this combat. It was the conscience of Lantenac.
And again it was renewed, more desperate, and possibly more decisively than ever, in another conscience, – in the conscience of Gauvain.
What a battle-field is the mind of man!
Our thoughts, like gods, monsters, or giants, hold us in their power.
Sometimes those terrible wrestlers trample our very soul beneath their feet.
Gauvain was thinking.
The Marquis de Lantenac, hemmed in, blockaded, condemned, outlawed, confined like a wild beast in a circus, held like a nail in a vice, immured in his own home that had changed into a prison, encompassed on every side by a wall of iron and fire, had eluded his enemies and stolen away. He had effected a miraculous escape. He had achieved a masterpiece, – the most difficult of all accomplishments in a war like this, – flight. He had regained possession of the forest to intrench himself therein, of the district where he would renew the combat, and of the impenetrable shadows among which he might vanish from sight. Once more he had become formidable, ever on the wing, a knight-errant whose presence boded evil; the captain of invisible forces, the leader of men who dwell beneath the ground, the master of the woods. Gauvain was victorious, but Lantenac was free. Henceforth Lantenac was safe, his career unfettered, asylums without number from which to choose. He was intangible, unapproachable, inaccessible. This lion, caught in a snare, had forced his way out, and now behold he had come back to it.
The Marquis de Lantenac had voluntarily, impelled only by his free will, left the shades of the forest, where safety and freedom awaited him, to return to the most frightful danger; first, Gauvain had seen it himself, rushing with fearless spirit into the flames that threatened to engulf him, and again descending that ladder that was to deliver him into the hands of his enemies, – the same ladder that offered escape to others, but to him absolute ruin.
And why had he done this?
To save three children.
And what were they now about to do with this man?
And so, this man, for the sake of three children, – his own? No; of his kin perhaps? Not at all; belonging to his own rank in life? By no means; for three little beggars, chance children, foundlings, unknown to him, ragged and barefooted, this nobleman, this prince, this old man, who had made his escape, who was both a free man and a victor, for escape is a triumph in itself, – had risked everything, compromised his own safety, imperilled the cause, and while restoring the children, he offered up his own head, this head hitherto terrible, but now august.
And what were they about to do with it?
To accept it.
The Marquis de Lantenac had had the opportunity to choose between the life of others and his own; and when this splendid option lay before him, he chose his death.
And it was to be granted him.
They would put him to death.
What a reward for heroism! – To return a generous action by a deed of barbarity!
To cast this reproach upon the Revolution!
Thus to humiliate the Republic!
While he, a man still in the bondage of prejudices and slavery, suddenly assumed another form and re-entered the lists of humanity, they, the champions of deliverance and freedom, would still remain plunged in civil war, with its routine of blood and fratricide!
And they who fought on the side of error respected the supreme law of divine forgiveness, of abnegation, of redemption, and of sacrifice, while for the soldiers of truth it had apparently ceased to exist!
What! Was there to be no rivalry in magnanimity? Were they, who were now in the ascendant, to resign themselves to defeat, to acknowledge their weakness, to take advantage of their victory, to commit murder, and to allow men to say that while the defenders of monarchy save little children, Republicans kill old men!
This grand soldier, this powerful octogenarian, this disarmed warrior, betrayed rather than captured, seized in the very act of doing a good deed, bound by his own consent, with the moisture of a superb devotion still upon his brow, would be seen mounting the steps of the scaffold as if borne upward in an apotheosis; and they would offer to the knife that head round which the three souls of the little angels he had saved would hover in supplication! And standing face to face with a death so infamous for the executioners, a smile would be seen on the face of that man, while a blush of shame would overspread that of the Republic!
And that was to take place in the presence of Gauvain, the chief!
And he, possessing the power to prevent this, – was he to hold his peace? Was he to content himself with that haughty dismissal, “You have no further concern in this matter,” and not to realize that in a case like this, abdication of authority was equivalent to complicity? And could he not see that in a deed so outrageous, the coward who allows the act is worse than the man who commits it? But had he not promised that this death should take place? Had not he, Gauvain the merciful, declared that Lantenac was to be excluded from mercy, and that he would deliver him to Cimourdain?
This head was a debt which he owed, and he paid it That was all.
But was this indeed the same head?
Hitherto Gauvain had seen in Lantenac nothing but a barbarous warrior, enslaved by the fanaticisms of royalty and feudality, the murderer of prisoners, an assassin let loose by war, a man of blood, – and of that man he felt no fear; this proscriber of others he would himself proscribe; this relentless man would find him relentless also. Nothing could be more simple; the road was already mapped out and terribly plain to follow; all had been anticipated; he who had killed others was now to suffer the same fate; they were in the direct path of the horrible. Suddenly this straight line changed; an unlooked for turn revealed a new horizon, a transformation had been effected. Lantenac had appeared on the scene in an unexpected character. A hero had come forth from the monster; yea, one greater than a hero, – a man. Something higher than a mind, – a heart. He stood before Gauvain no longer a murderer, but a saviour. Gauvain was overwhelmed by a flood of celestial light. Lantenac had felled him to the ground by a thunderbolt of virtue.
And had not this transfigured Lantenac in his turn the power to transfigure Gauvain? What! Was this flood of light to meet with no responsive flash? Was the man of the past to lead the van of progress, and the man of the future to fall back to the rear? Was the man of barbarism and superstition suddenly to spread his wings and soar upward, all the while gazing down at the man with the lofty ideal, groping below him in the mire amid the murky shadows of the night? Gauvain would lie prostrate in the savage old rut, while Lantenac soared higher and higher in his new career!
And another thing must be considered, – the family!
This blood that he was about to shed, – for to allow its shedding amounted to the same as shedding it himself, – was not this his own blood? His grandfather was dead, it is true, but his great-uncle still lived in the person of the Marquis de Lantenac. Would not he, who already rested in the grave, rise to bar the entrance against his brother? Would he not lay his command upon his grandson henceforth to pay the same veneration to that crown of white hair as to his own halo? Would not the indignant glance of a departed spirit rise between Gauvain and Lantenac?
Was it then the object of Revolution to destroy the natural affections, to sever all family ties, and to stifle every sense of humanity? Far from it. The dawn of ’89 came to affirm those higher truths, and not to deny them. The destruction of bastilles signified the deliverance of humanity; the overthrow of feudalism was the signal for the building up of the family. Since authority takes rise from and is centred in its author, there can be no real authority save in fatherhood; thus we see the legitimacy of the queen-bee who gives birth to her subjects and combines the mother with the queen; and also the absurdity of the king-man, who not being the father, has no right to be the master; hence the suppression of the king, and the rise of the Republic. And what is the meaning of all this? It is family, humanity, revolution. Revolution is the accession of the people, and in reality The People is Man.
It had now become important to ascertain whether, since Lantenac had returned to humanity, Gauvain would return to the family.
The question was whether the uncle and the nephew would meet again in the higher light, or whether the decline of the nephew would correspond to the progress of the uncle.
In this pathetic struggle between Gauvain and his conscience the question thus presented itself, and the answer seemed instinctive, – Lantenac must be saved.
Yes – but France?
Here the puzzling problem suddenly assumed a different aspect.
What! France, at the last extremity, betrayed, exposed to attack on all sides, dismantled! Her moat was gone; Germany could cross the Rhine: her walls were overthrown; Italy might leap over the Alps, and Spain over the Pyrenees. All that was left to her was the ocean, whose infinite abyss was on her side. She could lean against it, and, giantess as she was, supported by the expanse of the sea, fight the whole world, – an invincible position one might well call it. But no: she was on the point of losing this position. The ocean was no longer her own: England lay in this sea, though she knew not how to cross it. Well, there stood a man ready to throw a bridge across, to lend her a helping hand, – a man who was about to say to Pitt, to Cornwallis, to Dundas, to the pirates, “Come!” a man who would cry out, “England, come over and seize upon France!” and this man was the Marquis de Lantenac, whom they now held in their grasp.
After three months of an eager, passionate chase they had finally seized him. The hand of Revolution had swooped down upon the accursed one, the clenched fist of ’93 grasped the Royalist murderer by the collar; and by one of those mysterious dispensations of Providence which enter into human affairs, it was in his own family dungeon that the parricide now awaited his punishment, – the feudal lord lay in the feudal oubliette; the stones of his own castle had risen and closed upon him. Thus he who would have betrayed his country was himself betrayed by his own castle. God had visibly ordained all this; the hour of doom had struck, and Revolution had turned the key upon the public enemy. He could no longer fight, neither could he struggle nor work further harm. Of that Vendée, where there was no lack of arms, his alone was the brain: his death would be the signal for the close of the war, – tragic climax ardently desired. After all the massacre and carnage he had caused, the murderer was in their power, and doomed in his turn to die.
And was there a man who could wish to save him?
Cimourdain in the person of ’93 held Lantenac, or, as one might call him, the spirit of monarchy; and could a man be found to snatch that prey from these brazen talons? Lantenac, around whose name was bound that sheaf of scourges which men call the past, the Marquis de Lantenac, was in the tomb; the heavy door of eternity had closed upon him, and would one appear from without to draw back the bolt? This social malefactor was dead, and with him had perished revolt, the fratricidal struggle, the brutal war; and conceive of a man who would bring him back to life!
Oh, how that death’s-head would laugh!
The spectre would exclaim, “Good! I am still alive, you fools.”
With what zeal he would begin his hideous work all over again! With what implacable rejoicing would he plunge again into the abyss of hatred and war! Not a day would pass before houses would be in flames, prisoners massacred, the wounded slain, women shot.
And, after all, was it not possible that Gauvain exaggerated the deed that so fascinated his imagination?
Three children were in danger of death: Lantenac had saved them.
But who had imperilled their lives?
Was it not Lantenac?
Who had put their cradles in the fire?
Was it not the Imânus?
Who was the Imânus?
The lieutenant of the Marquis.
It is the chief who bears the responsibility.
Hence Lantenac was both the incendiary and the assassin.
Why then was his deed so admirable?
He had simply desisted from evil, – nothing more.
Having conceived the crime, he had recoiled before its presence; he was horrified at himself. The mother’s shriek had stirred within him the dregs of human pity, – the deposit of universal life which exists in every soul, even in the most cruel. At this cry he had retraced his steps; from the darkness towards which he was plunging he had turned back towards the light. Having committed the crime, he made haste to retrieve it. He had not continued a monster to the very end; herein lay all his merit.
And in return for so small a thing was all to be restored to him, – his liberty, the fields and plains, the open air, daylight, the forest, which he would use for brigandage; his own freedom, that he might use it to plunge others into slavery; his own life, which he would devote to the death of his fellow-men?
As for trying to come to an understanding with him, as for attempting to treat with this arrogant soul, offering to save his life under conditions, to ask him whether he would agree, provided his life were spared, to abstain henceforth from hostility and revolt, – what a mistake would such an offer be, what an advantage it would give him, with what scorn would he greet the proposal, how he would scourge the question by the answer! Hear him exclaim: “Keep such indignities for yourselves! For my part, give me death!”
Nothing could be done with such a man; he must either be set free or put to death. His was a rugged, inaccessible nature; ready for flight, ready for sacrifice, – it mattered not which. His strange soul displayed the characteristics of the eagle as well as of the precipice.
To kill him? Dreadful to contemplate! To set him free? What a responsibility!
Suppose Lantenac were saved, it would simply be a return to the beginning of the Vendée, like a struggle with a hydra, whose head is not yet severed. In the twinkling of an eye, like the flash of a meteor, all the flames which expired when this man vanished, would be rekindled. Lantenac would never rest until he had effected his detestable plan, – to establish Monarchy like the lid of a tomb over the Republic, and to give England control over France! He who would save Lantenac must sacrifice France; Lantenac’s life would be death to a multitude of innocent creatures, – men, women, and children, – who would again become the prey of civil war; it meant the landing of the English, the Revolution retarded, the cities sacked, the inhabitants distracted, Brittany tom and bleeding; in short, it would be like tossing back his prey to the tiger’s claws. And Gauvain, amid all this uncertain glimmering of cross-lights, – Gauvain, in-his reverie, caught a vague glimpse of the problem as it gradually took form in his mind: the setting at liberty of a tiger.
And then the question resumed its former aspect; the stone of Sisyphus, which is nothing less than the conflict of man with his own conscience, recoiled upon him. Was Lantenac then a tiger?
Once he may have been; but was he a tiger still? Gauvain grew dizzy with conflicting thoughts, – thoughts which coiled themselves around one another after the fashion of a snake. Could one, after mature consideration, really deny the devotion of Lantenac, his stoical self-abnegation, his sublime disinterestedness? What! after he had shown his humanity in the very jaws of civil war? What! when in the conflict between inferior truths he had shown forth the truth that stands above all others? What! when he had proved that the deep tenderness of human nature, the protection that strength owes to weakness, the duty which binds every man who is saved to lend a helping hand to his perishing brother, the fatherhood which every old man owes to every little child, are above all principalities and revolutions, above all earthly questions whatsoever, – when he had proved the truth of all these grand things, and proved it by the gift of his own head? What! general as he was, to have renounced strategy, battle, and revenge? What! he, being a Royalist, had taken the scales, and placing in one end the King of France, the monarchy fifteen centuries old, the restoration of ancient laws and the re-establishment of an old society, and in the other, three little unknown peasants, and had found the king, the throne, the sceptre, and the fifteen centuries of monarchy out-weighed by those innocent creatures?
Could it be possible that all this was to count for nothing? Was he who had done this to remain a tiger and be treated like a wild beast? No, no, no! He was no monster, the man whose divine action had just illumined the abyss of civil war! The sword-bearer had been transformed into a messenger of light. The infernal Satan had become once more the heavenly Lucifer. Lantenac had expiated all his cruel deeds by one act of sacrifice; his moral salvation had been attained by way of his material ruin; he had returned to a state of innocence; he had signed his own pardon. Does Hot the right of self-forgiveness exist? Henceforth he was an object for veneration.
Lantenac had just proved himself a remarkable man. It was now Gauvain’s turn to make fitting response.
The struggle between the passions of good and evil was fast converting the world into chaos; Lantenac, dominating this same chaos, had set humanity free, and now it was left for Gauvain to assert the rights of the family.
What was he about to do?
Was he to betray God’s trust?
No. And he muttered to himself: Lantenac must be saved.
Well, then, go your way; connive with the English, desert your country, ally yourself with her enemy! Save Lantenac and betray France!
Here he shuddered.
Dreamer that thou art, this is no solution! and Gauvain fancied he saw in the shadow the baleful smile of the sphinx.
This combination of circumstances was like a platform whereon conflicting truths had taken their stand, ready for the encounter, and where the three loftiest principles of mankind – humanity, family, and country – stood face to face.
Each of these voices spoke in turn, and each one spoke the truth. How was a man to choose? Each one by turns seemed to have discovered the point of union between justice and wisdom, and said, “Act thus.” Must he obey this voice? Yes. No. Reason suggested one thing, sentiment another; and their counsels were diametrically opposed. Logic is nothing more than reason; sentiment is often the voice of the conscience: the one comes from man, the other from above.
Hence the perceptions of sentiment are less clear, but wield a stronger influence.
But what a power dwells in stern reason!
Two abysses opened before Gauvain, – to destroy the Marquis, or to save him? Into one or the other he must needs plunge. Towards which of these two did duty call him?