FEUDALISM AND REVOLUTION.
A lamp stood on the flagstones of the crypt, beside the square air-hole of the oubliette.
The jug filled with water, the soldier's bread, and a bundle of straw were also on the floor. As the crypt was hewn out of the rock, the prisoner who had a fancy for setting his straw on fire would have his trouble for his pains; no risk of fire for the prison; certain asphyxiation for the prisoner.
When the door turned on its hinges, the marquis was walking about his dungeon; a mechanical going to and fro, peculiar to all caged wild beasts.
At the noise made by opening and then closing the door, he raised his head, and the lamp on the floor between Gauvain and the marquis shone full on these two men, now face to face.
They looked at each other, and this look was such that it made them both motionless.
The marquis burst out laughing, and exclaimed,—
"Good-morning, sir. It is many years since I have had the good fortune to meet you. You are very kind to come to see me. I thank you. I ask for nothing better than to have a little talk. It was beginning to be tedious. Your friends are losing time, establishing identity, court-martial, all these formalities take a long time. I should be quicker about it. I am at home here. Have the goodness to come in. Well, what do you think of all that is going on? It is original, isn't it? Once there was a king and a queen; the king was the king; the queen was France. They cut off the king's head, and married the queen to Robespierre; this gentleman and this lady had a daughter whom they named the guillotine, and it seems that I am to make her acquaintance to-morrow morning. I shall be charmed to do so,—as I am to see you. Have you come for that? Have you risen in rank? Shall you be the executioner? If it is merely a visit of friendship, I am touched by it. Monsieur le Vicomte, perhaps you no longer know what a nobleman is. Well, here is one; that is, myself. Look at him. It is strange. He believes in God, he believes in tradition, he believes in the family, he believes in his forefathers, he believes in the example of his father, in fidelity, in loyalty, in the duty towards his prince, in respect for old laws, in virtue, in justice; and he would have you shot with pleasure. I beg of you, have the kindness to sit down. On the floor, it is true; for there are no easy-chairs in this drawing-room; but he who lives in the mire can sit on the floor. I do not say this to offend you, for what we call mire, you call the nation. Doubtless, you will not compel me to cry 'Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!' This was once a room in my own house; formerly, the seigneurs put peasants here; now, the peasants put seigneurs here. This nonsense is called a Revolution. It seems that I am to have my head cut off in thirty-six hours. I see no inconvenience in that. But, if they were polite, they would have sent me my snuff-box, which is up in the room of mirrors, where you played when a child, and where I used to trot you on my knee. Sir, I am going to tell you one thing; you are called Gauvain, and, strange to say, you have noble blood in your veins, by Heaven! the same blood as mine, and that blood which makes me a man of honor, makes you a blackguard. Such are circumstances. You will tell me that it is not your fault. Nor mine. By Heaven! one may be a malefactor without being aware of it. It is in the air one breathes; in times like ours, one is not responsible for his acts; the Revolution makes a rascal of everybody; and our great criminals are great innocents. What blockheads! Beginning with yourself. Allow me to admire you. Yes, I admire a boy like you, who, a man of rank, of good position in the State, having noble blood to shed for noble causes, viscount of this Tour-Gauvain, prince of Brittany, a duke by right, and a peer by inheritance, which is nearly all that can be desired here below, by a man of good sense,—amuses himself, being what he is, by being what you are, so that he seems to his enemies like a villain, and to his friends like an idiot. By the way, give my regards to monsieur the Abbé Cimourdain."
The marquis spoke easily, calmly, without emphasizing any of his words, in his social tone of voice, his eye clear and quiet, both hands in his pockets. He stopped speaking, drew a long breath, and went on,—
"I will not conceal from you the fact that I did what I could to kill you. Just as you see me, I have myself personally aimed a cannon at you. A discourteous proceeding, I admit; but it would be depending on a bad maxim to imagine that an enemy in war should try to be agreeable to you. For we are at war, my nephew. Everything is fire and blood. Nevertheless, it is true that the king has been killed. Fine times!"
He stopped again, then went on,—
"To think that none of these things would have happened if Voltaire had been hanged and Rousseau had been sent to the galleys! Ah! People of intelligence, what a shame! Ah, what do you reproach this monarchy with? It is true, they sent the Abbé Pucelle to his abbey in Corbigny, giving him the choice of an equipage, and all the time he wished in which to make the journey; and, as for your Monsieur Titon, who, if you please, had been a very dissipated man, and who frequented the houses of loose women before taking part in the miracles of Deacon Pâris,—he, I say, was transferred from the castle of Vincennes to the castle of Ham in Picardy, which is, I confess, a pretty detestable place. There were grievances; I remember very well; I have also protested in my time; I was as stupid as you are!"
The marquis felt in his pocket, as though searching for his snuff-box, and went on,—
"But not so bad. We talked for the sake of talking. There was also a meeting in the way of investigations and petitions; and then came these philosophers, but they burned their works instead of their bodies; and court intriguers got themselves mixed up in it. We had all those boobies,—Turgot, Quesnay, Malesherbes, the physiocrats, etc.,—and the quarrel began again. It was all the fault of these scribblers and poetasters. The Encyclopædia! Diderot! d'Alembert! Ah, those rascally good-for-nothings! The idea of a man of good birth like the King of Prussia getting taken in by them. If I had been he, I should have squelched all paper scratchers. Ah! we Gauvains used to be great lovers of justice in old days! Here, on the wall, you can see the marks left by the quartering- wheels! We did not allow any nonsense, No, no; no scribblers. As long as there are men like Arouët, there will be Marats. As long as there are low fellows who use their pens, there will be knaves who use their daggers; as long as there is ink, there will be blots; as long as the paw of man holds the goose quill, frivolous stupidities will engender cruel stupidities. Books cause crimes. The word 'chimæra' has two meanings: it signifies 'dream' and it signifies 'monster.' How dear we have to pay for trash. What is the meaning of your song about 'rights'? Rights of man! rights of the people! All that is empty enough, stupid enough, imaginary enough, senseless enough! Now, when I say: 'Havaise, sister of Conan II., brought the County of Brittany to Hoël, Count de Nantes, and Cornwall, who left the throne to Alain Fergant, uncle to Bertha, who married Alain le Noir, Seigneur of la Roche-sur-Yon, and had by him Conan le Petit, grandfather of Guy or Gauvain de Thouars, our ancestor,' I make a definite statement, and there is a right for you. But your idiots, your knaves, your miserable wretches, what do they call their rights? Deicide and regicide. Ah! how hideous it all is! Ah, the scoundrels! I am sorry for you, sir; for you are of the proudest blood of Brittany; you and I have for our grandfather Gauvain do Thouars; we have, moreover, among our ancestors that great Duc de Montbazon, who was a peer of France, and honored with the Collar of the Orders, who attacked the suburb of Tours and was wounded at the battle of Arques, and died. Master of the Hounds, in his own house of Couziéres in Touraine, at the age of eighty-six. I might name to you also the Duc de Landunois, son of the Lady of la Garnache, of Claude de Lorraine, Due de Chevreuse and of Henri de Lenoncourt, and of Françoise de Laval-Boisdauphin. But what is the use? Monsieur has the honor of being an idiot, and he claims the right of being the equal of my groom. Know this: I was an old man when you were still a brat. I have wiped your nose for you, and I could do it still. In growing to the stature of a man, you have succeeded in belittling yourself. Since we last met, we have each gone in our own way: I, in the direction of honesty; you, in the opposite direction. Ah! I do not know how all this will end: but these gentlemen, your friends, are noble beggars! Ah! yes; it is fine; I am in perfect sympathy with all these splendid signs of progress; in the army, the punishment of giving the drunken soldier a pint of cold water for three days running has been abolished; you have your maximum, your convention, your Bishop Gobel, your Monsieur Chaumette and Monsieur Hébert, and you have wiped out all the past at one fell swoop, from the Bastille to the Almanach. You are putting vegetables in place of saints. All right, citizens, be our masters, rule, take your ease, do what you please, do not stand on ceremony. But it will not in the least prevent religion from being religion, or royalty from filling fifteen hundred years of our history, and the old French nobles, even after you have cut off their heads, from standing higher than you.
"As to your quibbles about the historic right of royal families, we shrug our shoulders at it. Chilpéric, in reality, was only a monk named Daniel; Rainfroi set up Chilpéric to annoy Charles Martel. We know these things as well as you do. That is not the point. This is the question: to be a great Kingdom, to be the ancient France, to be this magnificent land of system, according to which first the sacred person of the monarch, absolute lord of the state, is regarded, then the princes, then the crown officers in charge of the army on land and sea, of the artillery, and the direction and superintendence of finances. Then came the judges of the higher and lower courts, followed by the officials engaged in the revenues and receipts of custom, and lastly the police of the kingdom in its three orders. There was something fine and noble in this system. You have destroyed it. You have destroyed provinces, like the miserable ignoramuses that you are, without having an idea of what the provinces were. The genius of France is made up of the very genius of the continent, and each one of the provinces of France represented a virtue of Europe. The ingenuousness of Germany was in Picardy; the generosity of Sweden, in Champaign; the industry of Holland, in Burgundy; the activity of Poland, in Languedoc; the sobriety of Spain, in Gascony; the wisdom of Italy, in Provence; the subtility of Greece, in Normandy; the fidelity of Switzerland, in Dauphiné.
"You knew nothing of all that. You have broken, shattered, smashed, destroyed, and you have been blindly acting like brutes. Ah! you will have no more nobility. Very well, your wishes will be gratified. Mourn for them. You will have no more paladins, no more heroes. Farewell, grandeur of old! Find me an Assas now! You are all afraid for your skins! You will have no more chevaliers like Fontenoy, who saluted before dealing the deathblow. You will have no more combatants like those who fought in silk stockings at the siege of Lérida; you will have no more of those proud tournaments when plumes flashed by like meteors; you are a people which has run its course; you will indure invasion, which is a rape. If Alaric II. returned from the dead he would not find himself confronting Clovis; if Abdérame came back he would not find Charles Martel to face him. If the Saxons came back they would not find Pepin. You will have no more heroes like Agnadel, Rocroy, Lens, Staffarde, Nerwinde, Steinkirk, La Marsaille, Raucoux, Lawfeld, Mahon. You will no longer have a Marignan with François I.; no longer Bouvines, with Philippe-Auguste taking prisoner with one-hand Renaud, Count of Bologna, and with the other, Ferrand, Count of Flanders. You will have Azincourt, but you will have no Sieur de Bacqueville, grand bearer of the oriflamme, wrapping himself in his banner, to meet his death. Go! go! do your work! Be the new men! Become pigmies!"
The marquis was silent for a moment and then continued,—
"But leave us great. Kill the kings, kill the nobles, kill the priests, slaughter, destroy, massacre, trample everything under foot; grind the ancient maxims under your heels, trample on the throne, stamp down the altar, blot out God, dance on the ruins! That is your affair. You are traitors and cowards, incapable of devotion and sacrifice. I have spoken. Now have me guillotined, monsieur le vicomte. I have the honor to be your most humble servant."
And he added,
"Ah! I tell you the truth about yourself! What difference will it make to me? I am dead."
"You are free," said Gauvain.
And Gauvain stepped towards the marquis, took off his commander's cloak, threw it over Lantenac's shoulders and pulled the hood down over his eyes. They were of the same height.
"Well, what is this that you are doing?" said the marquis.
Gauvain raised his voice and cried: "Lieutenant, open the door!"
The door opened. Gauvain said: "Take care to close the door behind me." And he pushed the astonished marquis outside.
The lower hall changed to a guardroom, as will be remembered, was lighted only by a horn lantern making objects dimly visible, and the darkness there was more powerful than the light. In this faint glimmer, those of the soldiers who were not asleep saw walk through their midst towards the entrance a tall man wearing the braided cloak and hood of the commander-in-chief; they gave the military salute, and the man passed on.
The marquis slowly crossed the guardroom, made his way through the breach, hitting his head more than once, and went out.
The sentinel, thinking it was Gauvain, presented arms.
When he was outside, with the grass of the fields under his feet, two hundred paces from the forest, with space, night, liberty, life, before him, he stopped and stood still for a moment like a man who has offered no resistance, who has yielded to surprise, and having taken advantage of an open door, tries to find out whether he has acted well or ill, hesitates before going farther, and listens to a last thought. After a few moments of careful reflection, he raised his right hand, snapped his thumb and middle finger, and said: "Ma foi!"
And he went on his way.
The door of the dungeon had closed again. Gauvain was inside.