Ninety-three/3.2.3

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Ninety-three by Victor Hugo
Small Armies and Great Battles.

CHAPTER III.

SMALL ARMIES AND GREAT BATTLES.

On reaching Dol, the peasants, as we have just seen, were scattered through the town, each working his own pleasure, as it happens when people "obey out of friendship," as the Vendéans expressed it. The sort of obedience which makes heroes but not troopers. They had stowed away their artillery with the baggage under the arches of the old market house, and weary, drinking, eating, telling their beads, they lay down helter-skelter through the great street, which was rather blocked up than guarded. As night came on, most of them fell asleep, with their heads on their sacks, some with their wives beside them; for the peasent women often follow the peasants; in Vendée, pregnant women served as spies. It was a mild July night; the constellations shone brilliantly in the deep blue black of the sky. All this bivouac, which was more like the halt of a caravan than the encampment of an army, was beginning to sleep peacefully. Suddenly, in the glimmering twilight, those who had not yet closed their eyes saw three cannons pointed at the end of the great street.

It was Gauvain. He had surprised the main guards, he was in the town, and he held the head of the street with his column.

A peasant jumped up, cried "Qui vive?" and fired off his gun, a cannon shot gave answer. Then a furious discharge of musketry burst forth. The entire drowsy multitude leaped to their feet; a rude awakening. They had gone to sleep under the stars and woke under fire.

The first moment was terrible, there is nothing so tragic as the swarming of a bewildered multitude. They pounced on their arms, they screamed, they ran, many fell. The peasant boys assaulted in this way, did not know what to do and began to shoot each other. The people, astounded, rushed out of their houses, went back, came out again, and wandered about in the confusion, like maniacs. Families called out to each other. A dismal fight with women and children intermingled. Hissing bullets streaked through the darkness. There was firing from every dark corner. Everything was smoke and tumult. The entanglement of the baggage wagons and carts added to it. The horses kicked. The people trampled on the wounded. Shrieks rose from the ground. Some from horror, others from amazement. Soldiers and officers were looking for one another. In the midst of all this, there were some gloomily indifferent. A woman nursing her new-born babe, was sitting by a portion of a wall, against which leaned her husband, whose leg had been broken, and while his blood was flowing, he was calmly loading his carbine and shooting at random, killing those before him in the darkness. Men lying on their bellies shot through the wheels of the wagons. Occasionally, arose an uproarious shouting. The great voice of the cannon drowned everything else. It was frightful.

It was like the felling of trees; they all lay one above another. Gauvain, in ambush, fired with a steady shot and lost few of his men.

However, the intrepid disorder of the peasants ended in an attempt to defend themselves; they retreated under the market-house, a vast, dark redoubt, a forest of stone pillars. There they regained a footing; anything resembling a wood gave them confidence. L'Imânus did his best to make up for the absence of Lantenac. They had cannon, but, much to Gauvain's astonishment, they made no use of it; this was because the artillery officers had gone with the marquis to investigate Mont Dol, and the peasants only understood the culverines and eight-pounders; but they riddled with bullets the Blues who cannonaded them. The peasants answered the grapeshot with musketry. They were now under shelter. They had piled up the drays, the carts, the baggage, all the barrels in the old market, and improvised a high barricade with openings through which they passed their carbines. Their shooting through these holes was deadly. All this was quickly accomplished. In a quarter of an hour, the market had an impenetrable front.

This became serious for Gauvain. This market, suddenly transformed into a citadel, was unlooked for. The peasants were there in a solid mass. Gauvain had been successful in surprising them and failed in routing them. He had dismounted. Holding his sword in his hand, under his crossed arms, he stood in the flare of a torch which lighted up his battery, watching all this darkness attentively.

His tall figure in this bright light made him visible to the men behind the barricade. He was their aim, but he was not aware of it.

The discharge of bullets sent from the barricade fell all around Gauvain, who was absorbed in thought.

But against all these carbines he had the cannon. The cannon ball always gets the advantage. He who has artillery has victory. His battery, if made good use of, assured him the superiority.

Suddenly, there was a flash of lightning from the market so full of darkness, something like a peal of thunder was heard, and a cannon ball went through a house above Gauvain's head.

The barricade answered cannon shot with cannon shot.

What had happened? Something new. The artillery was no longer on one side alone.

A second cannon ball followed the first and buried itself in the wall near Gauvain. A third knocked off his hat.

These balls were of large calibre. They came from a sixteen-pounder.

"They are aiming at you, commandant," cried the artillery-men. And they put out the torch. Gauvain, as if in a dream, picked up his hat.

Some one indeed was aiming at Gauvain; it was Lantenac.

The marquis had just entered the barricade from the opposite side.

L'Imânus ran toward him.

"Monseigueur, we have been surprised."

"By whom?"

"I do not know."

"Is the road open from Dinan?"

"I think so."

"We must begin a retreat."

"It has begun. Many have already escaped."

"We mustn't escape; we must retreat. Why haven't you used the artillery?"

"They lost their heads, and then the officers were not here."

"I will attend to it."

"Monseigneur, I have sent all that I could of the baggage, the women, and everything of no use, towards Fougères. What is to be done with the three little children?'

"Ah! those children?"

"Yes."

"They are our hostages. Have them taken to la Tourgue."

Having said this, the marquis went to the barricade. The coming of the chief put a new face on the matter. The barricade was badly constructed for artillery, as there was room for but two cannon; the marquis put in position two sixteen-pounders, for which they made embrasures. As he was leaning over one of the cannons, looking at the battery of the enemy through the embrasure, he noticed Gauvain.

"It is he!" he cried out.

Then he took the sponge and rammer himself, loaded the piece, adjusted the sight, and aimed.

Three times he aimed at Gauvain, and missed him. The third shot only succeeded in knocking off his hat.

"Stupid!" muttered Lantenac. "A little lower and I should have had his head."

Suddenly the torch went out, and he had nothing before him but darkness.

"So be it," he said.

And turning toward the peasant gunner, he cried,—

"Fire away!"

Gauvain, on his side, was no less in earnest. The situation grew more serious. A new phase of the struggle presented itself. The barricade had begun to make use of cannon. Who knew but it might pass from the defensive to the offensive? He had before him, not counting the dead and those who had fled, at least five thousand combatants, and he himself had only twelve hundred able men left. What would become of the Republicans, if the enemy should notice their small number? The rôles would be reversed. They were attacking, they would be attacked. If the barricade were to make a sortie all would be lost.

What was to be done? attacking the barricade front was not to be dreamed of; to attempt at main force would be risky; twelve hundred men could not drive out five thousand. To hasten matters was impossible, to wait would be fatal. They must come to an end. But how?

Gauvain belonged to the country, he knew the town; he knew that back of the old market, where the Vendéans were embattled, was a maze of narrow, winding lanes.

He turned to his lieutenant who was that brave Captain Guéchamp, famous later for clearing the forest of Concise, where Jean Chouan was born, and for preventing the taking of Bourgneuf, by barring the rebels from the dyke of the pond of la Chaîne.

"Guéchamp," he said, "I leave you in command. Fire with all your might. Riddle the barricade with cannon balls. Keep all those people busy."

"I understand," said Guéchamp.

"Mass the whole column with arms loaded, and hold them ready for attack."

He spoke a few words additional in Guéchamp's ear.

"I understand," said Guéchamp.

Gauvain continued,—

"Are all our drummers on hand?"

"Yes."

"We have nine. Keep two, give me seven."

The seven drummers ranged themselves silently before Gauvain.

Then Gauvain cried,—

"Battalion of Bonnet-Rouge!"

Twelve men, with a sergeant, left the main body of the troops.

"I ask for the whole battalion," said Gauvain.

"Here we are!" replied the sergeant.

"Twelve of you!"

"There are twelve of us left."

"Very good," said Gauvain.

This sergeant was the rough, but kind-hearted, trooper Radoub, who had adopted in the name of the battalion the three children found in the woods of La Saudraie.

Only half a battalion, it will be remembered, had been exterminated at Herbe-en-Pail, and Radoub had the good luck not to form a part of it.

A forage wagon was near; Gauvain pointed it out to the sergeant.

"Sergeant, have your men make ropes of straw and twist them around their guns to prevent any sound if they knock against each other."

In a moment's time the order had been executed, in silence and darkness.

"It is done," said the sergeant.

"Soldiers, take off your shoes," added Gauvain.

"We haven't any," said the sergeant.

That made, with the seven drummers, nineteen men; Gauvain was the twentieth.

He cried,—

"Follow me in single file. The drummers behind me, the battalion next. Sergeant, you will command the battalion."

He took the head of the column, and, while the cannonading continued on both sides, these twenty men, gliding along like ghosts, plunged into the deserted lanes.

They marched some time in this way, winding along by the houses. Everything seemed dead in the town; the citizens were crouching in the cellars. There was not a door which was not barred, not a blind which was not closed. No light anywhere.

The great street was making a furious din in the midst of this silence; the cannonading still continued; the Republician battery and the Royalist barricade were angrily spitting out all their volleys.

After twenty minutes of winding about, Gauvain, who led the way with certainty in the darkness, reached the end of a lane running into the principal street; only it was on the other side of the market.

The position was reversed. On this side there was no intrenchment,—such is the everlasting imprudence of those who build barricades,—the market was open and they could enter under the arches, where some baggage wagons were harnessed ready for departure. Gauvain and his nineteen men had before them the five thousand Vendéans, but they were behind the Vendéans' backs and not in front of them.

Gauvain spoke in a low voice to the sergeant; they removed the straw from their guns; the twelve grenadiers stationed themselves in order of battle behind the corner of the lane, and the seven drummers held their drumsticks in readiness for orders.

The discharge of artillery was intermittent. Suddenly, in an interval between two reports, Gauvain raised his sword, and, in a voice which sounded like a trumpet in the silence, cried out,—

"Two hundred men to the right, two hundred men to the left, the rest in the centre!"

The twelve guns fired, the seven drums beat the charge.

And Gauvain uttered the terrible cry of the Blues,—

"Charge bayonets!"

The effect was wonderful.

This entire mass of peasants felt that they were surprised from the rear, and imagined that there was a new army behind them. At the same time, the column holding the head of the street and commanded by Guéchamp, hearing the drums, moved forward, beating the charge in return, and rushed in double-quick time on the barricade; the peasants saw that they were between two fires.

A panic exaggerates everything; in a panic, a pistol shot makes as much noise as a cannon, and sounds are magnified by the imagination, and the baying of a hound seems like the roar of a lion. We may add that the peasant takes fear as the thatch takes fire, and peasant's fear increases to defeat, as easily as the burning thatch grows to a conflagration. Their flight was beyond description.

In a few moments, the market was empty, the terrified peasant boys scattered, in spite of the officers. L'Imânus killed two or three of the deserters to no purpose; this cry was heard above everything else: "Escape, if you can!" and this army fled through the streets of the town as though it were a sieve, out into the country, with the swiftness of clouds driven by a storm.

Some escaped in the direction of Chateauneuf, some toward Plerguer, and others toward Antrain.

The Marquis de Lantenac saw this defeat. He spiked the cannons with his own hand, then retired, the last, slowly and coolly, saying,— "The peasants are not to be depended upon, most decidedly. We must have the English."