THE TWO POLES OF TRUTH.
After a few weeks full of all the vicissitudes of civil war, there was nothing else talked of in the country of Fougères, except two men who were opposed to each other, and who, nevertheless, were doing the same work, that is to say, fighting side by side in the great Revolutionary struggle.
The savage Vendéan duel still continued, but la Vendée was losing ground. In l'Ille-et-Vilaine particularly, thanks to the young commandant who at Dol had so opportunely replied to the daring of six thousand Royalists with the daring of fifteen hundred patriots, the insurrection was, if not extinguished, at least, very much lessened and limited. Several more fortunate strokes had followed this, and, of multiplied successes, a new situation was born.
Things had changed in appearance, but a singular complication had unexpectedly arisen.
In all this part of la Vendée the Republic had the supremacy; this was beyond a doubt; but what Republic? In the triumph which was in prospect, two forms of the Republic were present,—the republic of terror, and the republic of mercy; one wishing to conquer by severity, and the other by gentleness. Which would prevail? These two forms, the conciliatory and the implacable, were represented by two men, each with his own influence and authority; one, a military commander, the other, a civil delegate; which of these two men would carry the day?
One of these two men, the delegate, had formidable support; he had come bringing the menacing watchword of the Commune of Paris to Santerre's battalions. "No mercy, no quarter!" To bring everything under his authority, he had the decree of the Convention carrying "pain of death to any one setting at liberty, or helping to escape a captive rebel chief;" he had full power emanating from the Committee of Public Welfare, and an injunction to obey him, as delegate, signed: Robespierre, Danton, Marat. The other, the soldier, had in his behalf only this force, pity.
He had nothing to aid him but his arms, which conquered the enemy, and his heart, which gave them mercy. As a conqueror, he believed he had the right to spare the vanquished.
Hence, the latent but deep conflict between these two men. They were in different clouds, both fighting the rebellion, and each having his own thunderbolt, one, victory; the other, terror.
Throughout the Bocage, they talked of nothing but them; and what added to the anxiety of the attention everywhere fixed on them, was the fact that these two men, so absolutely opposed to each other, were, at the same time closely united. These two antagonists were two friends. Never were two hearts bound together by a deeper and more profound sympathy; the cruel one had saved the life of the merciful one, and his face bore a scar in consequence. These two were the incarnation, one of death, the other of life; one was the principle of terror; the other the principle of peace; and they loved each other. Strange problem. Let one imagine Orestes compassionate, and Pylades merciless. Let one imagine Ahriman the brother of Ormuzd.
Let us add that the one called "cruel" was at the same time the most brotherly of men; he dressed the wounded, cared for the sick, spent his days and nights in the hospitals, was affected at the sight of barefooted children, had nothing of his own, gave all to the poor. When there was fighting, he was in the midst of it: he marched at the head of the columns, and in the thickest of the battle, armed, for he had a sabre and two pistols in his belt, and unarmed, for he had never been seen to draw his sabre or touch his pistols. He faced the shots, and gave none in return. They said he had been a priest.
One of these men was Gauvain, the other was Cimourdain.
There was friendship between these two men, but hatred between the two principles; it was like one soul cut in two, and divided; Gauvain really had received a half of Cimourdain's soul, but the gentle half. It seemed as if Gauvain had received the white rays, and Cimourdain had kept for himself what might be called the black rays. This caused an intimate discord. It was impossible for this secret war not to burst forth. One morning the battle began.
Cimourdain said to Gauvain,—
"Where are we?"
"You know as well as I do. I have scattered Lantenac's bands. He has only a few men with him. He is driven back into the forest of Fougères. In a week he will be surrounded."
"And in two weeks?"
"He will be captured."
"Have you seen my notice?"
"He will be shot."
"Mercy again. He must be guillotined.
"For my part," said Gauvain, "I am for military death."
"And I," replied Cimourdain, "am for revolutionary death."
He looked Gauvain in the face, and said,—
"Why did you release those nuns of the convent of Saint-Marc-le-Blanc?"
"I am not making war on women," replied Gauvain.
"These women hate the people. And for hatred a woman is equal to ten men. Why did you refuse to send all that flock of old fanatic priests taken at Louvigné, to the Revolutionary tribunal?"
"I am not making war on old men."
"An old priest is worse than a young one. Rebellion is more dangerous when preached by white hairs. People have faith in wrinkles. No false pity, Gauvain. Regicides are liberators. Keep your eye on the tower of the temple."
"The tower of the temple! I would release the dauphin. I am not making war on children."
Cimourdain's eye grew stern.
"Gauvain, know that it is necessary to make war on a woman when her name is Marie Antoinette, on an old man when his name is Pope Pius VI., and on a child, when his name is Louis Capet."
"My master, I am not a politician."
"Try not to be dangerous. Why, when the post of Cossé was attacked, and the rebel Jean Treton, driven back and lost, rushed alone, sword in hand, on the whole column, did you cry, 'Open the ranks—let him pass?'"
"Because one does not set fifteen hundred men to kill a single man."
"Why, at the Cailleterie d'Astillé, when you saw that your soldiers were going to kill the Vendéan, Joseph Bézier, who was wounded and dragging himself along, did you cry: 'Forward, march! I will attend to him!' and shoot your pistol into the air?"
"Because one does not shoot a man who is down."
"And you did wrong. Both are to-day chiefs of bands; Joseph Bézier is Moustache, and Jean Treton is Jambe d'Argent. In saving these two men, you gave two enemies to the Republic."
"Certainly, I should like to make friends for it and not give it enemies."
"Why did you not have your three hundred peasant prisoners shot after the victory of Landéan?"
"Because as Bonchamp had pardoned the Republican prisoners, I wished to have it said that the Republic pardoned the Royalist prisoners."
"But if you take Lantenac will you pardon him?"
"Why not, since you pardoned three hundred prisoners?"
"The peasants are ignorant; Lantenac knows what he is doing."
"But Lantenac is a relative of yours?"
"France is the great relative."
"Lantenac is an old man."
"Lantenac is a foreigner. Lantenac has no age. Lantenac is summoning the English. Lantenac is invasion. Lantenac is the enemy of the country. The duel between him and me can only end in his death or mine."
"Gauvain, remember your words."
"My promise is given."
There was a silence and both looked at each other.
"This year of '93 in which we are living will be a bloody date."
"Take care!" exclaimed Cimourdain. "Terrible duties are before us. Accuse no one who is not at fault. How long has the malady been the fault of the physician? Yes, that which characterizes this tremendous year is that it is pitiless. Why? Because it is the great revolutionary year. This present year is the incarnation of the Revolution. The Revolution has an enemy, the Old World, and is pitiless to it, just as the surgeon has an enemy, gangrene, and is pitiless to it. The Revolution exterminates royalty in the king, aristocracy in the noble, despotism in the soldier, superstition in the priest, barbarity in the judge; in short, everything tyrannous in everything which tyrannies. The operation is frightful, but the Revolution works with a sure hand. As to the amount of sound flesh that it sacrifices, ask Bœrhave what he thinks about it. What tumor can be removed without involving a loss of blood? What fire can be extinguished without requiring a part of the fire? These terrible necessities are the very condition of success. A surgeon resembles a butcher; a healer may give the effect of an executioner. The Revolution devotes itself to its fatal work. It mutilates, but it saves. What! you ask mercy for the virus! you wish it to show clemency toward what is venomous! It does not listen. It holds what has passed, it will finish it. It makes a deep incision in civilization, out of which will emerge the health of the human race. You suffer? Without doubt. How long will it last? during the operation. Then you will live. The Revolution is amputating the world. Hence this hemorrhage, '93."
"The surgeon is calm," said Gauvain, "and the men I see are violent."
"The Revolution," replied Cimourdain, "needs ferocious workmen to assist it. It rejects every hand that trembles. It has faith only in the inexorable. Danton is terrible, Robespierre is inflexible, Saint-Just is immutable, Marat is implacable. Be on your guard, Gauvain. These names are necessary. They are worth whole armies to us. They will terrify Europe."
"And perhaps also the future," said Gauvain.
He stopped and then added,—
"Besides, my master, you make a mistake; I accuse nobody. In my opinion, the chief characteristic of the Revolution is its irresponsibility. No one is innocent, no one is guilty. Louis XVI. is a sheep thrown among lions; he wants to flee, he wants to escape; he tries to defend himself; he would bite if he could. But not every one can be a lion. This desire of his passes for a crime. This sheep, in anger, shows his teeth. 'The traitor!' say the lions, and they devour him. Having done this, they fight among themselves."
"The sheep is a beast."
"And the lions, what are they?"
This reply made Cimourdain thoughtful. He raised his head and said,—
"These lions are consciences, these lions are ideas, these lions are principles."
"They cause the terror."
"Some day the Revolution will be the justification of the terror."
"Fear lest the terror be the calumny of the Revolution."
And Gauvain added,—
"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, these are dogmas of peace and harmony. Why make them appear frightful? What is it that we wish for? To subject the people to one common Republic. Well, let us not make them afraid. What is the good of intimidation? People are no more attracted by scare-crows than birds are. It is not necessary to do evil in order to accomplish good. The throne is not overturned to leave the scaffold standing. Death to kings and life to nations! Let us knock off the crowns, let us spare the heads! The Revolution is concord and not fright. Gentle ideas are not subserved by pitiless men. Amnesty is in my opinion the most beautiful word in human speech. I will shed blood only while risking my own. Besides, I only know how to fight, and I am only a soldier. But if one cannot pardon, it is not worth while to conquer. During battle, let us be the enemies of our enemies, and after the victory, their brothers."
"Take care!" repeated Cimourdain, for the third time, "Gauvain, you are more to me than a son. Take care!"
And he added, thoughtfully,—
"In times like ours, pity may be one form of treason."
Hearing these two men talk was like hearing the conversation of the sword and the axe.