They now resolved to elect a general-in-chief, and M. de Lescure was the first to propose Cathelineau, the peddler, who had first come forward in the cause. It was a wondrous thing when the nobles, the gentry, and experienced officers who had served in the regular army, all willingly placed themselves under the command of the simple untrained peasant, without a thought of selfishness or of jealousy. Nor did Cathelineau himself show any trace of pride, or lose his complete humility of mind or manner; but by each word and deed he fully proved how wise had been their judgment, and well earned the title given him by the peasants of the 'Saint of Anjou'.
It was now that their hopes were highest; they were more numerous and better armed than they had ever been before, and they even talked of a march to Paris to 'fetch their little king, and have him crowned at Chollet', the chief town of La Vendee. But martyrdom, the highest glory to be obtained on this earth, was already shedding its brightness round these devoted men who were counted worthy to suffer, and it was in a higher and purer world that they were to meet their royal child.
Cathelineau turned towards Nantes, leaving Henri de la Rochejaquelein, to his great vexation, to defend Saumur with a party of peasants. But he found it impossible to prevent these poor men from returning to their homes; they did not understand the importance of garrison duty, and gradually departed, leaving their commander alone with a few officers, with whom he used to go through the town at night, shouting out, 'Long live the king!' at the places where there ought to have been sentinels. At last, when his followers were reduced to eight, he left the town, and, rejoicing to be once more in the open field, overtook his friends at Angers, where they had just rescued a great number of clergy who had been imprisoned there, and daily threatened with death. 'Do not thank us,' said the peasants to the liberated priests; 'it is for you that we fight. If we had not saved you, we should not have ventured to return home. Since you are freed, we see plainly that the good God is on our side.'
But the tide was now about to turn. The Government in Paris sent a far stronger force into the Bocage, and desolated it in a cruel manner. Clisson was burnt to the ground with the very fireworks which had been prepared for the christening of its master's eldest child, and which had not been used because of the sorrowful days when she was born. M. de Lescure had long expected its destruction, but had not chosen to remove the furniture, lest he should discourage the peasants. His family were with the army, where alone there was now any safety for the weak and helpless. At Nantes the attack was unsuccessful, and Cathelineau himself received a wound of which he died in a few days, rejoicing at having been permitted to shed his blood in such a cause.
The army, of which M. d'Elbee became the leader, now returned to Poitou, and gained a great victory at Chatillon; but here many of them forgot the mercy they had usually shown, and, enraged by the sight of their burnt cottages, wasted fields, and murdered relatives, they fell upon the prisoners and began to slaughter them. M. de Lescure, coming in haste, called out to them to desist. 'No, no,' cried M. de Marigny; 'let me slay these monsters who have burnt your castle.' 'Then, Marigny,' said his cousin, 'you must fight with me. You are too cruel; you will perish by the sword.' And he saved these unhappy men for the time; but they were put to death on their way to their own army.
The cruelties of the Republicans occasioned a proclamation on the part of the Royalists that they would make reprisals; but they could never bring themselves to act upon it. When M. de Lescure took Parthenay, he said to the inhabitants, 'It is well for you that it is I who have taken your town; for, according to our proclamation, I ought to burn it; but, as you would think it an act of private revenge for the burning of Clisson, I spare you'.
Though occasional successes still maintained the hopes of the Vendeans, misfortunes and defeats now became frequent; they were unable to save their country from the devastations of the enemy, and disappointments began to thin the numbers of the soldiers. Henri, while fighting in a hollow road, was struck in the right hand by a ball, which broke his thumb in three places. He continued to direct his men, but they were at length driven back from their post. He was obliged to leave the army for some days; and though he soon appeared again at the head of the men of St. Aubin, he never recovered the use of his hand.
Shortly after, both D'Elbee and Bonchamp were desperately wounded; and M. de Lescure, while waving his followers on to attack a Republican post, received a ball in the head. The enemy pressed on the broken and defeated army with overwhelming force, and the few remaining chiefs resolved to cross the Loire and take refuge in Brittany. It was much against the opinion of M. de Lescure; but, in his feeble and suffering state, he could not make himself heard, nor could Henri's representations prevail; the peasants, in terror and dismay, were hastening across as fast as they could obtain boats to carry them. The enemy was near at hand, and Stofflet, Marigny, and the other chiefs were only deliberating whether they should not kill the prisoners whom they could not take with them, and, if set at liberty, would only add to the numbers of their pursuers. The order for their death had been given; but, before it could be executed, M. de Lescure had raised his head to exclaim, 'It is too horrible!' and M. de Bonchamp at the same moment said, almost with his last breath, 'Spare them!' The officers who stood by rushed to the generals, crying out that Bonchamp commanded that they should be pardoned. They were set at liberty; and thus the two Vendean chiefs avenged their deaths by saving five thousand of their enemies!
M. de Bonchamp expired immediately after; but M. de Lescure had still much to suffer in the long and painful passage across the river, and afterwards, while carried along the rough roads to Varades in an armchair upon two pikes, his wife and her maid supporting his feet. The Bretons received them kindly, and gave him a small room, where, the next day, he sent for the rest of the council, telling them they ought to choose a new general, since M. d'Elbee was missing. They answered that he himself alone could be commander. 'Gentlemen,' he answered: 'I am mortally wounded; and even if I am to live, which I do not expect, I shall be long unfit to serve. The army must instantly have an active chief, loved by all, known to the peasants, trusted by everyone. It is the only way of saving us. M. de la Rochejaquelein alone is known to the soldiers of all the divisions. M. de Donnissan, my father-in-law, does not belong to this part of the country, and would not be as readily followed. The choice I propose would encourage the soldiers; and I entreat you to choose M. de la Rochejaquelein. As to me, if I live, you know I shall not quarrel with Henri; I shall be his aide-de-camp.'
His advice was readily followed, Henri was chosen; but when a second in command was to be elected, he said no, he was second, for he should always obey M. de Donnissan, and entreated that the honor might not be given to him, saying that at twenty years of age he had neither weight nor experience, that his valor led him to be first in battle, but in council his youth prevented him from being attended to; and, indeed, after giving his opinion, he usually fell asleep while others were debating. He was, however, elected; and as soon as M. de Lescure heard the shouts of joy with which the peasants received the intelligence, he sent Madame de Lescure to bring him to his bedside. She found him hidden in a corner, weeping bitterly; and when he came to his cousin, he embraced him, saving earnestly, again and again, that he was not fit to be general, he only knew how to fight, he was too young and could never silence those who opposed his designs, and entreated him to take the command as soon as he was cured. 'That I do not expect,' said M. de Lescure; 'but if it should happen, I will be your aide-de-camp, and help you to conquer the shyness which prevents your strength of character from silencing the murmurers and the ambitious.'
Henri accordingly took the command; but it was a melancholy office that devolved upon him of dragging onward his broken and dejected peasants, half-starved, half-clothed, and followed by a wretched train of women, children, and wounded; a sad change from the bright hopes with which, not six months before, he had been called to the head of his tenants. Yet still his high courage gained some triumphs, which for a time revived the spirits of his forces and restored their confidence. He was active and undaunted, and it was about this time, when in pursuit of the Blues, he was attacked by a foot soldier when alone in a narrow lane. His right hand was useless, but he seized the man's collar with his 1eft, and held him fast, managing his horse with his legs till his men came up. He would not allow them to kill the soldier, but set him free, saying 'Return to the Republicans, and tell them that you were alone with the general of the brigands, who had but one hand and no weapons, yet you could not kill him'. Brigands was the name given by the Republicans, the true robbers, to the Royalists, who, in fact, by this time, owing to the wild life they had so long led, had acquired a somewhat rude and savage appearance. They wore grey cloth coats and trousers, broad hats, white sashes with knots of different colours to mark the rank of the officers, and red woolen handkerchiefs. These were made in the country, and were at first chiefly worn by Henri, who usually had one round his neck, another round his waist, and a third to support his wounded hand; but the other officers, having heard the Blues cry out to aim at the red handkerchief, themselves adopted the same badge, in order that he might be less conspicuous.
In the meantime a few days' rest at Laval had at first so alleviated the sufferings of M. de Lescure, that hopes were entertained of his recovery; but he ventured on greater exertions of strength than he was able to bear, and fever returned, which had weakened him greatly before it became necessary to travel onwards. Early in the morning, a day or two before their departure, he called to his wife, who was lying on a mattress on the floor, and desired her to open the curtains, asking, as she did so, if it was a clear day. 'Yes,' said she. 'Then,' he answered, 'I have a sort of veil before my eyes, I cannot see distinctly; I always thought my wound was mortal, and now I no longer doubt. My dear, I must leave you, that is my only regret, except that I could not restore my king to the throne; I leave you in the midst of a civil war, that is what afflicts me. Try to save yourself. Disguise yourself, and attempt to reach England.' Then seeing her choked with tears, he continued: 'Yes, your grief alone makes me regret life; for my own part, I die tranquil; I have indeed sinned, but I have always served God with piety; I have fought, and I die for Him, and I hope in His mercy. I have often seen death, and I do not fear it I go to heaven with a sure trust, I grieve but for you; I hoped to have made you happy; if I ever have given you any reason to complain, forgive me.' Finding her grief beyond all consolation, he allowed her to call the surgeons, saying that it was possible he might be mistaken. They gave some hope, which cheered her spirits, though he still said he did not believe them. The next day they left Laval; and on the way, while the carriage was stopping, a person came to the door and read the details of the execution of Marie Antoinette which Madame de Lescure had kept from his knowledge. It was a great shock to him, for he had known the Queen personally, and throughout the day he wearied himself with exclamations on the horrible crime. That night at Ernee he received the Sacrament, and at the same time became speechless, and could only lie holding his wife's hand and looking sometimes at her, sometimes toward heaven. But the cruel enemy were close behind, and there was no rest on earth even for the dying. Madame de Lescure implored her friends to leave them behind; but they told her she would be exposed to a frightful death, and that his body would fall into the enemy's hands; and she was forced to consent to his removal. Her mother and her other friends would not permit her to remain in the carriage with him; she was placed on horseback and her maid and the surgeon were with him. An hour after, on the 3rd of November, he died, but his wife did not know her loss till the evening when they arrived at Fongeres; for though the surgeon left the carriage on his death, the maid, fearing the effect which the knowledge might have upon her in the midst of her journey, remained for seven hours in the carriage by his side, during two of which she was in a fainting fit.
When Madame de Lescure and Henri de la Rochejaquelein met the next morning, they sat for a quarter of an hour without speaking, and weeping bitterly. At last she said 'You have lost your best friend,' and he replied, 'Take my life, if it could restore him.'
Scarcely anything can be imagined more miserable than the condition of the army, or more terrible than the situation of the young general, who felt himself responsible for its safety, and was compelled daily to see its sufferings and find his plans thwarted by the obstinacy and folly of the other officers, crushed by an overwhelming force, knowing that there was no quarter from which help could come, yet still struggling on in fulfillment of his sad duty. The hopes and expectations which had filled his heart a few months back had long passed away; nothing was around him but misery, nothing before him but desolation; but still he never failed in courage, in mildness, in confidence in Heaven.
At Mans he met with a horrible defeat; at first, indeed, with a small party he broke the columns of the enemy, but fresh men were constantly brought up, and his peasants gave way and retreated, their officers following them. He tried to lead them back through the hedges, and if he had succeeded, would surely have gained the victory. Three times with two other officers he dashed into the midst of the Blues; but the broken, dispirited peasants would not follow him, not one would even turn to fire a shot. At last, in leaping a hedge, his saddle turned, and he fell, without indeed being hurt, but the sight of his fall added to the terror of the miserable Vendeans. He struggled long and desperately through the long night that followed to defend the gates of the town, but with the light of morning the enemy perceived his weakness and effected their entrance. His followers had in the meantime gradually retired into the country beyond, but those who could not escape fell a prey to the cruelty of the Republicans. 'I thought you had perished,' said Madame de Lescure, when he overtook her. 'Would that I had,' was his answer.
He now resolved to cross the Loire, and return to his native Bocage, where the well-known woods would afford a better protection to his followers. It was at Craon, on their route to the river, that Madame de Lescure saw him for the last time, as he rallied his men, who had been terrified by a false alarm.
She did not return to La Vendee, but, with her mother, was sheltered by the peasants of Brittany throughout the winter and spring until they found means to leave the country.
The Vendeans reached the Loire at Ancenis, but they were only able to find two small boats to carry them over. On the other side, however, were four great ferry boats loaded with hay; and Henri, with Stofflet, three other officers, and eighteen soldiers crossed the river in their two boats, intending to take possession of them, send them back for the rest of the army, and in the meantime protect the passage from the Blues on the Vendean side. Unfortunately, however, he had scarcely crossed before the pursuers came down upon his troops, drove them back from Ancenis, and entirely prevented them from attempting the passage, while at the same time Henri and his companions were attacked and forced from the river by a body of Republicans on their side. A last resistance was attempted by the retreating Vendeans at Savenay, where they fought nobly but in vain; four thousand were shot on the field of battle, the chiefs were made prisoners and carried to Nantes or Angers, where they were guillotined, and a few who succeeded in escaping found shelter among the Bretons, or one by one found their way back to La Vendee. M. de Donnissan was amongst those who were guillotined, and M. d'Elbee, who was seized shortly after, was shot with his wife.
Henri, with his few companions, when driven from the banks of the Loire, dismissed the eighteen soldiers, whose number would only have attracted attention without being sufficient for protection; but the five chiefs crossed the fields and wandered through the country without meeting a single inhabitant—all the houses were burnt down, and the few remaining peasants hidden in the woods. At last, after four-and-twenty hours, walking, they came to an inhabited farm, where they lay down to sleep on the straw. The next moment the farmer came to tell them the Blues were coming; but they were so worn out with fatigue, that they would not move. The Blues were happily, also, very tired, and, without making any search, laid down on the other side of the heap of straw, and also fell asleep. Before daylight the Vendeans rose and set out again, walking miles and miles in the midst of desolation, until, after several days, they came to Henri's own village of St. Aubin, where he sought out his aunt, who was in concealment there, and remained with her for three days, utterly overwhelmed with grief at his fatal separation from his army, and only longing for an opportunity of giving his life in the good cause.
Beyond all his hopes, the peasants no sooner heard his name, than once more they rallied round the white standard, as determined as ever not to yield to the Revolutionary government; and the beginning of the year 1794 found him once more at the head of a considerable force, encamped in the forests of Vesins, guarding the villages around from the cruelties of the Blues. He was now doubly beloved and trusted by the followers who had proved his worth, and who even yet looked forward to triumphs beneath his brave guidance; but it was not so with him, he had learnt the lesson of disappointment, and though always active and cheerful, his mind was made up, and the only hope he cherished was of meeting the death of a soldier. His headquarters were in the midst of a forest, where one of the Republican officers, who was made prisoner, was much surprised to find the much-dreaded chieftain of the Royalists living in a hut formed of boughs of trees, dressed almost like a peasant, and with his arm still in a sling. This person was shot, because he was found to be commissioned to promise pardon to the peasants, and afterwards to massacre them; but Henri had not learnt cruelty from his persecutors, and his last words were of forgiveness.
It was on Ash Wednesday that he had repulsed an attack of the enemy, and had almost driven them out of the wood, when, perceiving two soldiers hiding behind a hedge, he stopped, crying out, 'Surrender, I spare you.' As he spoke one of them leveled his musket, fired, and stretched him dead on the ground without a groan. Stofflet, coming up the next moment, killed the murderer with one stroke of his sword; but the remaining soldier was spared out of regard to the last words of the general. The Vendeans wept bitterly, but there was no time to indulge their sorrow, for the enemy were returning upon them; and, to save their chieftain's corpse from insult, they hastily dug a grave, in which they placed both bodies, and retreated as the Blues came up to occupy the ground. The Republicans sought for the spot, but it was preserved from their knowledge; and the high-spirited, pure-hearted Henri de la Rochejaquelein sleeps beside his enemy in the midst of the woodlands where be won for himself eternal honor. His name is still loved beyond all others; the Vendeans seldom pronounce it without touching their hats, and it is the highest glory of many a family that one of their number has served under Monsieur Henri.
Stofflet succeeded to the command, and carried on the war with great skill and courage for another year, though with barbarities such as had never been permitted by the gentle men; but his career was stained by the death of Marigny, whom, by false accusations, he was induced to sentence to be shot. Marigny showed great courage and resignation, himself giving the word to fire—perhaps at that moment remembering the warning of M. de Lescure. Stofflet repented bitterly, and never ceased to lament his death. He was at length made prisoner, and shot, with his last words declaring his devotion to his king and his faith.
Thus ends the tale of the Vendean war, undertaken in the best of causes, for the honor of God and His Church, and the rescue of one of the most innocent of kings, by men whose saintly characters and dauntless courage have seldom been surpassed by martyrs or heroes of any age. It closed with blood, with fire, with miseries almost unequalled; yet who would dare to say that the lives of Cathelineau, Bonchamp, Lescure, La Rochejaquelein, with their hundreds of brave and pious followers, were devoted in vain? Who could wish to see their brightness dimmed with earthly rewards?
And though the powers of evil were permitted to prevail on earth, yet what could their utmost triumph effect against the faithful, but to make for them, in the words of the child king for whom they fought, one of those thorny paths that lead to glory!