Chapter X. The hostages
July passed away, and August came. A blast, fierce and heroic, had swept over France; two spectres had but just crossed the horizon, – Marat with a dagger in his side, and Charlotte Corday headless: events looked threatening. As to the Vendée, defeated in her grand strategic schemes, she turned her attention to others on a smaller scale, which, as we have already said, were likely to prove more dangerous. This war had now become one monstrous battle scattered about in the woods: the disasters of the grand army, Royal and Catholic, so called, had begun. A decree had been passed to send the army of Mayence into the Vendée; eight thousand Vendeans were killed at Ancenis; they were repulsed from Nantes, dislodged from Montaigu, expelled from Thouars, driven out of Noirmoutier, pitched headlong out of Cholet, Mortagne, and Saumur; they had evacuated Parthenay, abandoned Clisson, and lost ground at Châtillon; at Saint-Hilaire their flag was captured; they were defeated at Pornic, Sables, Fontenay, Doui, Château-d’Eau, and Ponts-de-Cé; they were checkmated at Luçon, retreated from Châtaigneraye, and were routed at the Roche-sur-Yon; at present, while they threatened La Rochelle on the one hand, on the other an English fleet riding in the waters of Guernsey, commanded by General Craig, and carrying several regiments of the English army, together with some of the best officers of the French navy, was only waiting for the signal of the Marquis de Lantenac to disembark, – a descent which might once more turn the tide of victory in favor of the Royalists. Pitt was but a political malefactor. As the dagger to an armament, even so is treason to political warfare. Pitt stabbed our country, and betrayed his own, since to dishonor is to betray. Through his influence and under his administration England waged Punic warfare. She spied, cheated, and deceived. Poacher and forger, she stopped at nothing, stooping to the petty details of hatred. She established a monopoly of tallow that cost five francs a pound. A letter from Prigent, Pitt’s agent in the Vendée, which was seized on the person of an Englishman at Lille, contained the following lines: “I beg you to spare no money. In regard to the assassinations, we hope that prudence will be exercised; disguised priests and women are the most suitable for this work. Send sixty thousand livres to Rouen, and fifty thousand to Caen.” This letter was read by Barère at the Convention on the first day of August. As a retaliation for these acts of treachery witness the cruelties of Parrein, and still later the atrocities of Carrier. The Republicans of Metz and those of the South were eager to march against the rebels. A decree was passed ordering the formation of twenty-four companies of sappers, who were to burn the fences and enclosures of the Bocage. Here was a crisis without parallel. War was suspended in one direction only to break out in another. “No mercy! No prisoners!” was the war-cry of both parties. Dark and terrible shadows fall across the pages of history in these times.
In this very month of August the Tourgue was besieged.
One evening, just as the stars were rising in the calm twilight peculiar to dog-day weather, when not a leaf stirred in the woods, nor a blade of grass quivered on the plain, the sound of a horn was heard through the silence of the approaching night. It came from the summit of the tower.
This peal was answered by the ring of a clarion from below. On the top of the tower stood an armed man, and in the shadow below lay a camp.
In the obscurity around the Tour-Gauvain one could dimly distinguish the moving to and fro of dark figures. This was the bivouac. A few fires had been kindled beneath the forest-trees and among the heather of the plateau, their shining points of light pricking through the darkness here and there, as if earth as well as sky would deck itself out with stars, though it were but with the lurid stars of war. Towards the plateau the bivouac stretched as far as the plain, and in the direction of the forest it extended into the thicket. The Tourgue was invested.
The extent of the besiegers’ bivouac indicated a numerous force.
The camp pressed hard upon the fortress, reaching to the rock in the direction of the tower, and as far as the ravine on the side of the bridge.
Another peal from the horn was heard, followed by a second blast from the clarion.
The horn asked the question, and the clarion made reply.
The horn was the voice of the tower asking the camp, “May we speak with you?” To which the clarion, speaking for the camp, answered, “Yes.”
At that time the Convention did not regard the Vendeans in the light of belligerents, and it being forbidden by a decree to exchange flags of truce with “the brigands,” they supplemented as best they could the usual means of communication which international law authorizes in ordinary warfare, but interdicts in civil conflicts. Consequently in time of need a certain understanding existed between the peasant horn and the military clarion. The first call simply broached the subject; the second asked the question, “Will you listen?” If the clarion made no reply to the second question, it meant refusal. If, on the other hand, the clarion replied, it was consent, and signified a truce for a few minutes.
When the clarion answered this second call, the man who stood on the top of the tower spoke, and these were his words: –
“Be it known to all ye who hear me, I am Gouge-le-Bruant, surnamed Brise-Bleu because I have killed many of your people, and also surnamed the Imânus because I mean to kill many more; in the attack at Granville, while my finger rested on the barrel of my gun, it was chopped off by a sabre-stroke; at Laval you guillotined my father, my mother, and my eighteen-year-old sister Jacqueline. And now you know me.
“I speak to you in the name of my master, Monseigneur le Marquis Gauvain de Lantenac, Vicomte de Fontenay, Breton Prince, and owner of the Seven Forests.
“It is well for you to learn that before shutting himself up in this tower, where you hold him blockaded, Monsieur le Marquis distributed the command among six chiefs, his lieutenants. To Delière he assigned the country between the woods of Brest and Erneé; to Treton, that which lies between the Roë and Laval; to Jacquet, called Taillefer, the border of the Haut-Maine; to Gaulier, called Grand-Pierre, Château-Gontier; to Lecomte, Craon; to Monsieur Dubois-Guy, Fougères; and to Monsieur de Rochambeau, all Mayenne; so that the capture of this fortress by no means ends the war for you, and even were Monsieur le Marquis to die, the Vendée of God and the king will still live.
“I say this for your information. Monseigneur is here beside me; I am but his mouthpiece. Silence, besiegers!
“It will be well for you to consider my words.
“Remember that the war you are waging against us is unjust; we are men living in our own land and fighting honestly. Submissive to the will of God, we are as simple and upright as the grass beneath the dew. It is the Republic who has attacked us: she comes to trouble us in our fields; she has burned our houses and our harvests and destroyed our farms, and our women and children have been forced to run barefoot in the woods while the hedge-sparrow was still singing.
“You who are down there listening to me, – you have pursued us through the forest and surrounded us in this tower; you have killed or scattered our allies; you have cannon, and you have added to your division the garrisons and the posts of Mortain, Barenton, Teilleul, Landivy, Evran, Tinténiac, and Vitré, – which gives you four thousand five hundred men with which to attack us.
“We, who are nineteen for the defence, are supplied with provisions and munitions.
“You have succeeded in undermining and blowing up a part of our rock and wall, thus making a breach at the foot of the tower, through which you can enter, although it is not open, while the tower stands strong and upright, forming an arch above it.
“Now you are preparing for the assault.
“And we – first of all, Monseigneur le Marquis, who is a Breton prince and the secular prior of the Abbey of Sainte-Marie de Lantenac, where a daily Mass was instituted by Queen Jeanne, and the other defenders of this tower, who are: Monsieur l’Abbé Turmeau, whose military name is Grand-Francoeur; my comrades, Guinoiseau, captain of the Camp-Vert; Chante-en-Hiver, captain of the camp of Avoine; Musette, captain of the camp Fourmis; and myself, a peasant, born in the town of Daon, through which runs the brook Moriandre, – we have one thing to tell you.
“Listen, now, ye men at the foot of this tower!
“We hold three prisoners, – the same children who were adopted by one of your battalions, and they are yours. We offer to give them back to you on one condition, – that we be allowed to go free.
“If you refuse, – listen to this. There are but two points of attack, – either the breach or the bridge, according as you advance from the fortress or the plateau. There are three stories in the building on the bridge; in the lower one I, the Imânus, who speak to you, have placed six casks of tar and one hundred bundles of dry heather; there is straw in the upper, and there are books and papers in the middle story; the iron door communicating with the tower is closed, and monseigneur carries the key on his person; I have made a hole under the door, through which is passed a sulphur slow-match; one end of it is in a cask of tar, and the other within reach of my hand, inside the tower; I can set it on fire whenever I choose. If you refuse to let us go free, the children will be placed on the second floor of the bridge, between the story where the sulphur-match ends in the barrel and the one which is filled with straw, and the iron door will be closed on them. If you attack us by way of the bridge, you will be the ones to set the building on fire; if by the breach, it will be left to us; and if you attack us from both sides at once, we shall both be kindling the fire at the same instant; at all events, the three children will perish.
“It rests with you, now, either to accept or refuse.
“If you accept, we depart; if you refuse, the children die.
“I have finished,”
And the man who had been speaking from the top of the tower was silent.
“We refuse!” cried a voice from below, in tones abrupt and severe. Another voice, quite as firm, although less harsh, added, –
“We give you twenty-four hours to surrender at discretion.”
A silence ensued, and then the same voice continued, –
“If to-morrow at this hour you have not surrendered, we begin the assault.”
“And give no quarter,” resumed the first speaker; and then a voice from the top of the tower made reply to the savage one. Between two battlements a tall figure, in which, by the light of the stars, one might have recognized the awe-inspiring form of the Marquis de Lantenac, leaned forward; his glance, piercing the shadows, seemed searching for some one.
“Ah, it is thou, priest!” he cried.
“Yes, it is I, traitor!” replied the harsh voice from below.