FREEDOM OR DEATH—WHICH?
His thoughts were fathomless.
An unexpected change of opinion had just taken place in him.
The Marquis de Lantenac had been transfigured.
Gauvain had been a witness of this transfiguration.
He would never have believed that such things could result from any complication of events. Never, even in his dreams, had he imagined that anything of the kind could happen.
The unforeseen, that strange, haughty power which plays with man, had seized Gauvain and held him fast.
Gauvain had before him an impossibility become a reality, visible, palpable, inevitable, inexorable.
What did he, Gauvain, think of this?
It was not a matter to be evaded; it must be decided.
A question was asked him; he could not escape from it.
Asked by whom?
And not alone by events.
For when events, which are changeable, ask us a question, justice, which is immutable, calls upon us to reply.
Behind the cloud, which casts a shadow over us, there is a star, giving us a ray of light.
We can no more escape from the light than from the shadow.
Gauvain went through an examination.
He was in the presence of some one.
Before a formidable judge.
His own conscience.
Gauvain felt everything wavering within him. His firmest resolutions, his most carefully made promises, his most irrevocable decisions, everything was swaying in the depths of his will.
There are earthquakes in the soul.
The more he reflected on what he had just seen, the more he was disturbed.
Gauvain, a Republican, believed himself to be, and really was just.
A superior justice had just been revealed to him.
Above Revolutionary justice, there is human justice.
What was taking place was not to be evaded; the fact was solemn; Gauvin was a part of this fact; he was in it, and could not get out of it; and, although Cimourdain had said to him, "this no longer concerns you," he felt something as a tree does when it is pulled up by the roots.
Every man has his base; if this base is shaken it causes a profound disturbance; Gauvain felt this disturbance.
He pressed his head between his hands, as if to press out the truth; to get at the exact bearings of such a situation was not an easy matter, nothing could be more difficult; he had formidable figures before him, of which he must get the sum total; to do the addition of destiny, how bewildering! he undertook it; he tried to give an account of himself; he endeavored to collect his ideas, to discipline the struggling forces which he felt within him, and to recapitulate the facts.
He laid them out before his mind.
Who has never taken a similar account of himself, and questioned himself, in extreme circumstances, on the course to pursue, whether to advance or retreat?
Gauvin had just seen a miraculous spectacle.
A celestial battle had taken place at the same time as the terrestrial.
The battle of good against evil.
A terrific soul had just been vanquished.
Gauvain had just seen a miracle performed in the case of a man full of all that is bad:—violence, error, blindness, unhealthy obstinacy, pride, selfishness.
The victory of humanity over man.
Humanity had conquered the inhuman.
And by what means? in what way? how had it overcome the giant of anger and hatred? What arms had it used? what engine of war? The cradle.
Gauvain had just been dazzled. In the midst of civil war, in the midst of the conflagration of all enmity and all vengeance, in the darkest and maddest moment of the tumult; just as the crime was giving forth all its fire and hatred, all its blackness; at that instant in conflict when everything becomes a projectile, when the struggle is so shrouded in darkness, that justice, honesty, and truth are lost sight of;—suddenly the Unknown, the mysterious monitor of souls, poured forth resplendently, above all human light and darkness, the great light eternal.
Above the dismal encounter, between the false and the relative, out of the depths, the face of truth had suddenly appeared.
All at once, the strength of the weak had intervened.
Three poor beings, almost newborn, unconscious, deserted, orphaned, alone, lisping, smiling, were seen face to face with civil war, retaliation, the frightful logic of reprisals, murder, carnage, fratricide, rage, malice, all the Gorgons, and yet triumphant. He had seen the failure and defeat of an infamous fire, set to commit a crime; he had seen atrocious intentions baffled and frustrated; he had seen the ancient feudal ferocity, the old inexorable disdain, the pretended experience of the necessities of war, the reason of State, all the arrogant determinations of a cruel old age, vanish before the blue eyes of those who had scarcely begun to live; and it was very natural, for one who has not yet lived can have done no harm; it was justice, it was truth, it was purity and the mighty angels of heaven are in little children.
A useful spectacle; advice; a lesson; the frantic participants in a merciless war had suddenly seen, in the face of all the crimes, of all the outrages, of all the fanaticism, of the murderer, of vengeance stirring the funeral pile, of death coming with a torch in his hand, above the enormous legion of sins, arise this all-conquering power, innocence.
And innocence had been victorious.
And one could say: "No, civil war does not exist; barbarity does not exist; hatred does not exist; crime does not exist; darkness does not exist: this aurora, childhood, is sufficient to scatter all these spectres.
Never, in any struggle, had Satan been more visible nor God.
This battle had had a human conscience for its arena.
The conscience of Lantenac.
Now, it was beginning over again, more furious and still more decisive, perhaps, in another conscience.
The conscience of Gauvain.
What a battle-field is man!
We are slaves to these gods, to these monsters, to these giants,—our thoughts.
Often, these terrible combatants trample our souls under foot.
The Marquis de Lantenac, surrounded, blockaded, condemned outlawed; held fast, like the wild beast in the circus, like a snail in pincers; shut up in his home, now become his prison; enclosed on all sides by a wall of iron and of fire,—had succeeded in getting away; he had performed a miracle of escape. He had made that masterstroke, the most difficult of all in such a war, flight. He had taken possession of the forest, to intrench himself there; of the country, to fight in it; of the darkness, to disappear in it. He had again become the terrible one, coming and going; the sinister wanderer; the captain of the invisible; the chief of underground men; the master of the woods. Gauvain had the victory; Lantenac had liberty. Lantenac, henceforth, had security, a boundless course before him, an inexhaustible choice of places of refuge. He was intangible, lost to sight, unapproachable. The lion had been taken in a snare, and had escaped from it.
Well, he had returned to it.
The Marquis de Lantenac had voluntarily, spontaneously, of his own free will, left the forest, darkness, security, liberty, to return undauntedly into the most frightful danger. Once, Gauvain had seen him, when he rushed into the fire at the risk of being swallowed up by it; a second time, when he came down the ladder to give himself up to his enemies—that ladder, a means of safety for others, for him a means of destruction.
And why had he done this?
To save three children.
And now, what was going to be done with him?
He would be guillotined.
Were these three children his own? No. Did they belong to his family? No. To his rank? No. For three poor little ones, foundlings, unknown, in rags, barefooted, this nobleman, this prince, this old man, saved, delivered, a conqueror,—for escape is a triumph,—had risked everything, compromised everything, put all things into doubt; and, while he was delivering the children, he proudly surrendered his life,—his life till then so terrible, now so majestic, he offered it up.
And what were they going to do with it?
The Marquis de Lantenac had the choice between the life of others and his own; in this superb option, he had chosen death.
And they were going to grant it to him.
They were going to kill him.
What a reward for heroism!
To respond to an act of generosity with an act of cruelty!
To give this stab to the Revolution!
What a belittling of the Republic!
While a man of prejudices and slavish ideas, suddenly transformed, was returning to humanity, they, the men of freedom and enfranchisment, clung to civil war, to the routine of blood, to fratricide.
And the lofty divine law of pardon, of abnegation, of redemption, of sacrifice, existed for the combatants of error, and did not exist for the soldiers of truth!
What! not engage in this struggle of magnanimity! Be resigned to this defeat; the stronger to become the weaker, the victors to become murderers, and to have it said that on the side of the monarchy there were those who saved children, and on the side of the Republic those who killed old men!
He would see this great soldier, this powerful octogenarian, this unarmed warrior, stolen rather than taken, captured while doing a good deed, bound with his own permission, with the sweat of a splendid self-sacrifice still on his brow, mount the steps of the scaffold as one mounts the degrees of an apotheosis! And they would put this head, around which would soar in supplication the three souls of the little angels he had saved, under the chopping knife. And before this punishment so infamous for the executioners, a smile would be seen on the face of this man, and on the face of the Republic, a blush!
And this would take place in the presence of Gauvain, the chief!
And, although able to prevent it, he would refrain from doing so! And he could content himself with this haughty dismissal,—"this no longer concerns you! And he was not to perceive that in a deed so monstrous, between the one who accomplishes it and the one who allows it to be done; the one who allows it to be done is the worst, because he is a coward!
But the death of this man, had he not promised it? he, Gauvain, the merciful man, had he not declared that Lantenac was an exception, and that he would give Lantenac up to Cimourdain?
This head, it was his debt. Well, he was paying. That was all.
But was it the same life?
Thus far, Gauvain had only seen in Lantenac the barbarous warrior, the fanatic support of royalty and feudalism, the slaughterer of prisoners, the assassin set loose by war, the deadly man. He had not feared this man; this proscriber, he would proscribe him; this implacable one would find him implacable. Nothing could be more simple, the way was marked out, and dismally easy to follow, everything had been foreseen, they would kill him who killed others, they were in the straight line of horror. This line had been unexpectedly broken, an unforseen turning revealed a new horizon, a metamorphosis had taken place. An unknown Lantenac entered on the scene. A hero came forth from the monster; more than a hero,—a man. More than a soul,—a heart. It was no longer a murderer that Gauvain had before him, but a saviour. Gauvain was overcome by a flood of celestial light. Lantenac had just struck him with a thunderbolt of kindness.
And Lantenac transformed would not transform Gauvain! What! this blow of light would have no counterblow. The man of the past would go ahead, and the man of the future remain behind! The man of cruelty and superstition would spread sudden wings, and would soar above and see crawling under him, in the mire and in the darkness, the man of ideals! Gauvain would remain in the old cruel rut, while Lantenac would rise.
Still another thing.
This blood that he was going to shed,—for to allow it to be shed was the same as shedding it himself. Was it not his own blood, Gauvain's? his grandfather was dead, but his great-uncle was alive; and this great-uncle was the Marquis de Lantenac. Would not the brother who was in the grave rise to prevent the other from entering it? would he not order his grandson henceforth to respect that crown of white hair, sister to his own halo? had there not passed between Gauvain and Lantenac the indignant glance of a spectre?
Was the aim of the Revolution then to pervert man's nature? had it been brought about to destroy the family, to stifle humanity? far from it. It was to affirm these supreme realities, and not to deny them that '89 had arisen. Overthrowing the bastilles was delivering humanity; abolishing feudalism was founding the family. The author being the starting-point of authority, and authority being included in the author, there can be no other authority than fraternity; hence the legitimacy of the queen bee who creates her people, and, being mother, is queen; hence the absurdity of the man king who, as he is not the father, cannot be the master; hence the suppression; hence the Republic. What is all this? it is the family, it is humanity, it is the Revolution. The Revolution is the accession of the people, and at bottom the people is man.
The question was whether, when Lantenac had just returned to humanity. Gauvain would return to the family.
The question was whether the uncle and the nephew would be united in the superior light, or whether the nephew would respond to the uncle's progress by taking a backward step.
The question, in this pathetic debate between Gauvain and his conscience stood thus, and seemed to solve itself: to save Lantenac.
Yes, but France?
Here the face of the perplexing problem suddenly changed.
What! France at bay! France betrayed, opened, dismantled! She was without a moat, Germany had crossed the Rhine; she was without a wall, Italy had passed the Alps, and Spain, the Pyrenees. She had the great gulf, the ocean, left. She had that in her favor. She could depend on that, and, a giantess, supported by the mighty sea, could fight against the whole earth. An impregnable situation after all.
Well, no, this situation would fail her. This ocean was no longer hers. In this ocean there was England. England, it is true, did not know how to cross it. Well, a man was going to throw a bridge across to her, a man was going to hold out his hand to her, a man was going to say to Pitt, to Craig, to Cornwallis, to Dundas, to the pirates:
"Come!" A man was going to cry: "England, take France!"
And this man was the Marquis de Lantenac!
They held this man. After three months of chasing, of pursuit, of desperation, they had finally captured him. The hand of the Revolution had just been laid on the wretch; the clenched hand of '93 had taken the royalist murderer by the collar; through one of the effects of that mysterious premeditation from on high which mingles with human affairs, this parricide was now awaiting punishment in his own family-dungeon; the feudal man was in the feudal oubliette; the stones of his own castle rose against him and closed over him, and he who wished to betray his own country was betrayed by his own house.
God had evidently planned all this; the hour of justice had come, the Revolution had taken this public enemy prisoner; he could no longer wage war, he could no longer fight, he could no longer do any harm; in this Vendée where there were so many arms, he was the only man with brains; to put an end to him was to put an end to the civil war; they had possession of him; tragic but fortunate catastrophe; after so much massacre and carnage, he was there, the man who had killed others, and whose turn it was to die.
And if he should find some one to save him!
Cimourdain, that is to say '93, held Lantenac, that is to say the monarchy, and if he should find some one to snatch its prey from this claw of bronze! Lantenac, the man in whom concentrated that sheaf of scourges called the past, the Marquis de Lantenac was in the tomb, the heavy, eternal door was closed on him, and if some one should come from outside to slide the bolt! this social malefactor was dead, and with him the revolt, the fratricidal contest, the beastly war, and if some one should bring him back to life!
Oh! how this death's head would laugh!
How this spectre would say, "Very good, here I am alive; idiots!"
How be would set himself to his hideous work again! How Lantenac would plunge again, implacable and full of delight, into the gulf of hatred and of war! The very next day how the people would again see houses burning, prisoners massacred, the wounded finished, women shot!
And, after all, did not Gauvain exaggerate this deed which fascinated him so?
Three children were lost; Lantenac had saved them.
But who was the cause of their being lost?
Was it not Lantenac?
Who had put those cradles into the fire?
Was it not l'Imânus?
Who was l'Imânus?
The lieutenant of the marquis.
The general is the one responsible.
So the incendiary and the assassin was Lantenac.
What had he done that was so admirable?
He had not carried out his purpose—nothing more.
After having planned the crime he had retreated from it. It had seemed to him too horrible. The mother's cry had awakened in him those inmost depths of human pity, a sort of storehouse of universal life, which exists in all souls, even the most hardened. At this cry he had retraced his steps. From the night into which he had plunged, he had gone back towards the daylight. After having done the crime, he undid it. All his merit lay in this, that he had not been a monster at the very last.
And for so little give him back everything! give him back space, the fields, the flames, the air, daylight; give him back the forest, which he would use to protect his bandits; give him back liberty, which he would use for servitude; give him back life, which he would use for death!
As for trying to come to an understanding with him, as for any desire to treat with this proud soul, as for proposing to give him his liberty conditionally, as for asking him to consent, provided his life was saved, to abstain henceforth from all hostility and all revolt,—what a mistake such an offer would be, what an advantage they would give him, what scorn they would strike against, as he would buffet the question with his reply, as he would say: "Keep your shame for yourselves! Kill me!"
There was really nothing to be done with this man but to kill him or to set him free. There was no way of access to this man.
He was always ready to take flight or to sacrifice himself; he was his own eagle and his own precipice. A strange soul.
Kill him? What an anxiety! Set him free? What a responsibility!
If Lantenac should be saved, the war with la Vendée would have to be begun all over again, as with a hydra, as long as its head is not cut off. In a twinkling, and with the swiftness of a meteor, the flame, extinguished by the disappearance of this man, would blaze forth again. Lantenac would not rest until he had realized that execrable plan of placing, like the cover of a tomb, the monarchy over the Republic, and England over France. To save Lantenac was to sacrifice France; Lantenac's life meant the death of a multitude of innocent beings, men, women, and children, taken in the toils of domestic war; it meant the landing of the English, the retreat of the Revolution, towns plundered, the people slaughtered, Brittany bleeding, the prey given back to the lion's claws. And Gauvain, in the midst of all sorts of uncertain glimmerings and contradictory lights, saw dimly outlined in his thoughts this problem rising before him: setting the tiger at liberty.
And then the question came back again under its first aspect; the stone of Sisyphus, which is nothing but the quarrel of man with himself, fell down again: Was Lantenac this tiger?
Perhaps he had been, but was he any longer? Gauvain went through those winding mazes of the mind coiling about itself, which make thought resemble an adder. Really, even after examination, could he deny Lantenac's devotion, his stoic abnegation, his superb disinterestedness; What! In the presence of all the open mouths of civil war to testify to humanity! What! in the conflict of inferior truths to bring in truth superior! what! to prove that above royalties, above revolutions, above earthly questions, there is the immense emotion of the human soul? the protection due to the weak from the strong; safety due to those who are lost, from those who are safe; paternity due to all children, from all old men! To prove these magnificent things, and prove them by the gift of his life! What! to be a general, and renounce strategy, battle, revenge! What! to be a royalist, to take the scales, to place on one side the king of France, a monarchy of fifteen centuries, the reëstablishing of old laws, the restoration of ancient society, and on the other, three little insignificant peasants, and to find the king, the throne, the sceptre, and the fifteen centuries of monarchy tip the beam, against this weight of three innocent children! What! all that go for nothing! What! one who had done that remain a tiger and deserve to be treated like a wild beast!
No! no! no! it was not a monster of a man who had just illuminated civil war with the light of a divine action! The sword-bearer had been metamorphosed into an angel of light. Infernal Satan had returned as the celestial Lucifer. Lantenac had been redeemed from all his barbarities by an act of sacrifice; in losing himself materially, he had saved himself morally; he had become innocent; he had signed his own pardon. Does not the right to pardon one's self exist? Henceforth, he would be worthy of worship.
Lantenac had just been extraordinary, it was now Gauvain's turn.
Gauvain was called upon to respond to him.
The struggling of good and evil passions at this moment were turning the world into chaos; Lantenac, ruling over this chaos, had just freed humanity from it; it was now for Gauvain to free the family from it.
What was he going to do?
Would Gauvain disappoint trust in God?
No. And he stammered in his inmost heart: "We must save Lantenac."
Well, that is good. Go on, help the English. Be a deserter. Pass over to the enemy. Save Lantenac and betray France.
And he shuddered.
Thy solution is no solution at all, oh dreamer! Gauvain saw in the darkness the ominous smile of the sphinx.
This situation was a sort of terrible meeting of roads, where struggling truths come to an end and confront each other, and where man's three highest ideas, humanity, the family, the fatherland, look each other steadily in the face.
Each of these voices in turn began to speak, and each in turn spoke the truth. How to choose? Each in turn seemed to find the union of wisdom and justice, and said: "Do this." Was this what he ought to do? Yes. No. Reason said one thing, sentiment said another; the two counsels were contrary. Reasoning is only reason; sentiment is often conscience; one comes from man, the other from above.
That is why sentiment has less clearness and more power.
But what strength in stern reason!
Two abysses opened in front of Gauvain. To destroy the marquis? or to save him? It would be necessary to plunge into one or the other.
Which of these two abysses was duty?