A PEASANT'S MEMORY IS WORTH A CAPTAIN'S KNOWLEDGE
The provisions in the boat were not useless.
The two fugitives, obliged to take a very circuitous route, were thirty-six hours in reaching the shore. They passed a night on the sea; but the night was fine, with too much moon, however, for people who were trying to escape.
They were obliged first to keep away from France, and to reach the open sea towards Jersey.
They heard the final cannonade of the battered corvette, like the final roar of a lion killed by hunters in the woods. Then silence fell over the sea.
This corvette, the "Claymore," died in the same way as the "Vengeur," but glory has ignored it. He who fights against his country is never a hero.
Halmalo was a marvellous mariner. He worked miracles of skill and intelligence; this improvised journey amid the reefs, the billows, and the enemy's watch, was a masterpiece. The wind had decreased and the sea become smoother.
Halmalo avoided the Caux des Minquiers, passed the "Chausée-aux-Boeufs," and, in order to rest a few hours, took shelter in the little creek situated to the north at low tide, and then rowing back to the south found a way to pass between Granville and the Chausey islands, without being detected either from the lookout at Chausey or at Granville. He entered the bay of Saint-Michael, a bold venture on account of the vicinity of Cancale, an anchorage for the cruisers.
On the evening of the second day, about an hour before sunset, he left Mount Saint-Michael behind him, and started to land on a beach which is always deserted, because its shifting sands are unsafe.
Fortunately, the tide was high.
Halmalo pushed the boat as far up as he could, tried the sand, found it firm, ran aground, and jumped ashore.
The old man stepped over the side of the boat after him, and examined the horizon.
"Monseigneur," said Halmalo, "we are at the mouth of the Couesnon. There is Beauvoir to starboard, and Huisnes to port. The bell tower in front of us is Ardevon."
The old man bent down over the boat, took a biscuit out of it and put it in his pocket, and said to Halmalo,—
"Take the rest."
Halmalo put what remained of the meat, with the rest of the biscuits, in a bag, and threw it over his shoulder. Having done this, he said,—
"Monseigneur, shall I lead the way or follow you."
Halmalo looked in amazement at the old man.
The old man continued: "Halmalo, we are going to separate. It will not do for us to be together. There must be a thousand or only one."
He paused and drew out of one of his pockets a bow of green silk, very like a cockade, in the centre of which was embroidered a fleur-de-lis, in gold. He continued,—
"Can you read?"
"Very good. A man who can read is a nuisance. Have you a good memory?"
"Good. Listen, Halmalo. You must go to the right, and I will go to the left. I shall go in the direction of Fougères, and you must go towards Bazouges. Keep your bag, which gives you the appearance of a peasant. Conceal your weapons. Cut a stick for yourself in the hedges. Creep through the rye, which is high. Crawl behind the fences. Climb over the hedges, and go across the fields. Keep at a distance from those you meet. Avoid the roads and bridges. Do not enter Pontorson. Ah! you will have to cross the Couesnon. How will you do that?"
"Good. And then there is a ford. Do you know where it is?"
"Between Ancey and Vieux-Viel."
"Good. You really belong to the country."
"But night is coming on. Where will monseigneur sleep?"
"I will take care of myself. But where will you sleep?"
"There are hollow-trees. Before I was a sailor, I was a peasant."
"Throw away your sailor cap; it will betray you. You will easily find a carapousse somewhere."
"Oh, a tarpaulin.—I can find that anywhere. The first fisherman I see will sell me his."
"Good. Now, listen. You know the woods."
"All over the country?"
"From Noirmoutier to Laval."
"Do you know their names too?"
"I know the woods, I know their names, I know all about them."
"You will not forget anything?"
"Good. Now, pay attention. How many leagues can you walk a day?"
"Ten, fifteen, eighteen, twenty, if necessary."
"It will be necessary. Don't lose a word of what I am going to tell you. You must go to the woods of Saint-Aubin."
"Yes. On the edge of the ravine between Saint-Rieul, and Plédélica there is a great chestnut-tree. You must stop there. You will see nobody."
"Which does not prove that nobody will be there, I know."
"You must make the call. Do you know how to make the call?"
Halmalo puffed out his cheeks, turned toward the sea, and the "to-who," of an owl was heard.
It seemed to come from the depths of night; it was a perfect imitation and uncanny.
"Good," said the old man. "You have it."
He handed the green silk bow to Halmalo,
"Here is my badge of command. Take it. It is important that nobody should know my name at present. But this bow will be enough. The fleur-de-lis was embroidered by Madame Royale, in the Temple prison."
Halmalo put one knee on the ground. He received the embroidered bow with trembling, and touched it to his lips; then, stopping, as if afraid to kiss it,—
"May I?" he asked.
"Yes, since you kiss your crucifix."
Halmalo kissed the fleur-de-lis.
"Get up," said the old man.
Halmalo rose and placed the knot in his breast. The old man continued: "Listen carefully to this. This is the order: 'Rise in revolt. No quarter.' Then on the edge of the woods of Saint-Aubin give the call. You must give it three times. The third time you will see a man come out of the ground."
"From a hole under the trees, I know."
"This man is Planchenault, also called Cœur-de-Roi. Show him this knot. He will understand. Then go, whatever way you can, to the woods of Astillé; you will find there a knock-kneed man surnamed Mousqueton, and who shows pity to nobody. You will tell him that I love him, and that he is to stir up his parishes. You will then go to the woods of Couesbon, which is one league from Ploërmel. Make the call of the owl; a man will come, out of a hole; it will be M. Thuault, seneschal of Ploërmel, who has belonged to what is called the Constitution Assembly, but on the good side. Tell him to arm the castle of Couesbon, belonging to the Marquis de Guer, a refugee. Ravines, groves, uneven ground, good place. M. Thuault is an upright man, and a man of sense. Then go to Saint-Guen-les-Toits, and speak to Jean Chouan, who is, in my eyes the real chief. Then go to the woods of Ville-Anglose, where you will see Guitter, called Saint-Martin. Tell him to have an eye or a certain Courmesnil, son-in-law of old Goupil de Préfeln, and who leads the Jacobins of Argentan. Remember all this well. I write nothing because nothing must be written. La Rouarie wrote out a list, but that lost everything. Then go to the woods of Rougefeu, where Miélette is, who leaps ravines, balancing himself on a long pole."
"That is called a leaping-pole."
"Do you know how to use it?"
"Should I be a Breton, and should I be a peasant, if I didn't? The leaping-pole is our friend. It makes our arms large and our legs long."
"That is to say, it makes the enemy small and the distance short. A good machine."
"Once with my ferte I held out against three excise men armed with sabres."
"When was that?"
"Ten years ago."
"Under the king?"
"Indeed it was."
"Did you fight under the king then?"
"Indeed I did."
"Faith, I don't know. I was a salt smuggler."
"They called that fighting against the gabelles. Are the gabelles the same thing as the king?"
"Yes, no. But it isn't necessary for you to understand that."
"I beg pardon of monseigneur, for having asked monseigneur a question."
"Let us go on. Do you know la Tourgue?"
"Do I know la Tourgue! I come from there."
"How is that?"
"Because I am from Parigné."
"To be sure, la Tourgue adjoins Parigné."
"Do I know la Tourgue! The big round castle which belongs to my seigneur's family. There is a great iron door separating the new building from the old; it couldn't be burst open with a cannon. In the new building is the famous book about Saint Bartholomew, that people come to see out of curiosity. There are frogs in the grass. I played with the frogs there when I was a little boy. And the underground passage! I know. There is, perhaps, no other person but myself who knows it."
"What underground passage? I don't know what you mean."
"It was made for other days, for the times when la Tourgue was besieged. The people inside could escape by passing through a tunnel under the ground which comes out in the forest."
"To be sure there is a subterranean passage of this kind from the castle of "la Jupellière," and one from the castle of la Hunaudaye, and from the tower of Champéon; but there is nothing of the kind at la Tourgue."
"Yes, there is, monseigneur. I don't know the passages which monseigneur mentions. I know the one at la Tourgue, because I belong to that country. And besides, there is nobody but myself who knows this way. It is never spoken of. It has been forbidden, because this passage served Monsieur de Rohan, in times of war. My father knew the secret, and he showed it to me. I know the secret of entering it, and the secret of getting out. If I am in the forest I can go into the tower, and if I am in the tower I can go into the forest, without being seen. And when the enemy enters, there is nobody there. That is what la Tourgue is. Ah! I know it." The old man remained silent for a moment.
"You are evidently mistaken; if there were such a secret there, I should know it."
"Monseigneur, I am sure of it. There is a turning stone there."
"Oh, yes! You peasants believe in turning stones, in singing stones, in stones which go to drink in the night from a neighboring brook. All sheer nonsense."
"But as I have made it turn, the stone—"
"As others have heard them sing, comrade. La Tourgue is a strong, secure fortress, easy to defend; but he who counted on getting out through an underground passage would be a simpleton."
The old man shrugged his shoulders.
"We have no time to lose. Let us talk business."
This peremptory tone put an end to Halmalo's persistence.
The old man continued,—
"Let us go on. Listen. From Rougefeu, go to the woods of Montchevrier, where Bénédicité is,—the chief of the Twelve. He is another good man. He says his benedicite while he is having people shot. In war, no sentimentality. From Montchevrier go to——"
He stopped short.
"I am forgetting the money."
He took from his pocket a purse and a pocketbook and placed them in Halmalo's hands.
"In this pocketbook there are thirty thousand francs in assignats, something like three livres, ten sous: to be sure the assignats are counterfeit, but the genuine ones are worth no more; and in this purse,—pay attention,—there are one hundred louis d'or. I give you all that I have. I do not need anything here. Besides, it is better that no money should be found on my person. To go back again. From Montchevrier go to Antrain, where you will see Monsieur de Frotté. From Antrain go to la Jupellière, where you will see Monsieur de Rochecotte; from la Jupellière to Noirieux, where you will see the Abbé Baudonin. Can you remember all that?"
"As well as my Pater."
"You will see Monsieur Dubois-Guy at Saint Brice-en-Cogle, M. de Turpin at Morannes, which is a fortified town, and the Prince de Talmont at Château Gonthier."
"Will a prince speak to me?"
"If I speak to you."
Halmalo took off his cap.
"Everybody will receive you well when they see Madame Royale's fleur-de-lis. Do not forget that you will have to go to places where there are montagnards and patards. You must disguise yourself. That is easy enough. These republicans are so stupid, that with a blue blouse, a three-cornered hat and a tricolored cockade, you can go anywhere. There are no longer regiments, there are no longer uniforms, the companies are not numbered; everybody wears whatever rag he pleases. Go to Saint-Mhervé. There you will see Gaulier, called Grand-Pierre. Go to the district of Parmé, where the men blacken their faces. They put gravel and a double charge of powder in their guns in order to make more noise. They do well; but tell them above all to kill, to kill, to kill. Go to the camp of La Vache Noire, which is on a height, in the midst of the wood of La Charnie, then to the camp of L'Avoine, then to the camp of Vert, then to the camp of the Fourmis. Go to the Grand-Bordage, also called the Haut-du-Pré, which is inhabited by a widow whose daughter Treton, called the Englishman, married. The Grand-Bordage is in the parish of Quelaines. You must go to Epineux-le-Chevreuil, Sillé-le-Guillaume, Parannes, and all the men in every wood. You will find friends, and you must send them to the border of the upper and the lower Maine; see Jean Treton in the parish of Vaisges, Sans-Regret at Bignon, Chambord at Bonchamps, the Corbin brothers at Maisoncelles, and Petit-Sans-Peur at Saint-Jean-sur-Erve. He is the same as Bourdoiseau. Having done all this, and given the word of command 'Revolt! No quarter!' you must rejoin the grand army, the royal, catholic army, wherever it may be. You will see MM. d'Elbée, de Lescure, de la Rochejaquelein, all the chiefs who are still alive. Show them my badge of command. They will know what it means. You are only a sailor, but Cathelineau is only a carter. Tell them this from me: 'It is time to unite the two wars, the great and the small.' The great one makes more noise, the small one does more work. La Vendée is good, La Chouannerie is worse, and in civil war the worse is the better. The success of a war is measured by the amount of harm that it does."
He stopped speaking.
"Halmalo, I am telling you all this. You do not understand the words, but you understand the meaning. You won my confidence by the way you managed the boat; you do not know geometry, but you work marvels of skill on the water: he who can steer a boat, can pilot an insurrection; from the way you managed the intricacies of the sea, I am sure that you will be successful in carrying out all my commissions. To return. Tell all this to the chiefs, as near as you can, in your own words, but it will be all right,—
"'I prefer war in the forest to war in the open field; I do not intend to draw up a hundred thousand peasants in line before the shot of the Blues, and Monsieur Carnot's artillery; before the end of a month, I want five hundred thousand slaughterers in ambush in the woods. The republican army is my game. Poaching is waging war. I am the strategist of the thickets.' Well, there is another word that you will not understand; never mind, you will take in this: No quarter! and ambuscades everywhere! I want a guerilla warfare in Vendée. Add that the English are on our side. Let us place the republic between two fires. Europe will help us. Let us put an end to the Revolution. Kings will war against it with kingdoms, let us war against it with parishes. Say that. Do you understand?"
"Yes. We must have fire and blood everywhere."
"Not for anybody. That's it."
"I am to go everywhere."
"And be on your guard. For in this country it is an easy matter to put a man to death."
"Death doesn't concern me. He who takes his first step may be wearing his last shoes."
"You are a brave man."
"And if I am asked the name of monseigneur?"
"It must not be known yet. Say that you do not know it and that will be the truth."
"Where shall I see monseigneur again?"
"Where I shall be."
"How shall I know it?"
"Because everybody will know it. Before the end of a week, I shall be talked about. I shall make examples; I shall avenge the king and religion, and you will know that it is I of whom they are talking."
"Have no fear."
"Start now. God be with you. Go."
"I will do all that you have told me. I will go. I will speak the word. I will obey. I will command."
"And if I succeed—"
"I will make you chevalier de Saint-Louis."
"Like my brother; and if do not succeed, you will have me shot?"
"Like your brother."
The old man bowed his head and seemed lost in deep reverie. When he raised his eyes, he was alone. Halmalo was only a black speck on the horizon.
The sun had just set. The gulls and the hooded seamews were flocking in from the sea outside.
That sort of restlessness just before night was felt in the air; the tree-frogs croaked, the kingfishers flew up whistling from the pools of water, the gulls, the rooks, the carabins, made their evening commotion; the birds on the shore called to each other; but not a human sound. It was a profound solitude. Not a sail in the bay, not a peasant on the land. As far as the eye could reach, a desert expanse. The great sand-thistles rustled. The white sky of twilight cast a broad pale gleam over the beach. The ponds in the distance, scattered over the dark plain, looked like sheets of pewter spread out on the ground. The wind blew from the sea.