THE THREE CHILDREN.
PLUS QUAM CIVILIA BELLA.
The summer of 1792 had been very rainy; the summer of 1793 was very hot. In consequence of the civil war, there were, so to speak, no roads in Brittany. People went about there, however, thanks to the beauty of the summer. The best route is dry ground.
At the end of a serene July day, about an hour after sunset, a man on horseback, who came from the direction of Avranches, stopped before the little inn called the Croix-Branchard, at the entrance of Pontorson, and the sign of which bore this inscription, that was still legible a few years ago: "Good cider on draught." It had been hot all day, but the wind was beginning to blow.
This traveller was wrapped in a wide cloak, which covered the horse's back. He wore a broad-brimmed hat with a tricolored cockade, a bold thing to do in this country of hedges and gunshots, where a cockade was a target. His cloak tied at the neck was thrown back to leave his arms free, and underneath was seen a tricolored belt and two pistols sticking out of the belt. A sabre hung down beyond the cloak.
As the horse stopped, the door of the inn opened, and the innkeeper came out with a lantern in his hand. It was just between daylight and darkness; it was light on the road and dark in the house.
The host looked at the cockade.
"Citizen," said he, "do you stop here?"
"Where are you going then?"
"In that case, return to Avranches or stay at Pontorson."
"Because they are fighting in Dol."
"Ah!" said the cavalier.
And he added,
"Give some oats to my horse."
The host brought a bucket, emptied a bag of oats into it and unbridled the horse, which began to snort and to eat.
The conversation continued,—
"Citizens, is this a horse of requisition?"
"Is it yours?"
"Yes. I bought it and paid for it."
"Where do you come from?"
"I knew it, the roads are closed. But the post-wagon still runs."
"As far as Alençon. I left it there."
"Ah! soon there will be no more posts in France. There are no more horses. A horse worth three hundred francs brings six hundred, and fodder is high. I have been post-master, and now I keep a cook-shop. Out of thirteen hundred and thirteen post-masters, two hundred have resigned. Citizen, have you travelled under the new tariff?"
"Of the first of May,—yes."
"Twenty sous per post in a carriage, twelve sous in a cab, five sous in a wagon. Did you buy this horse at Alençon?"
"You have been riding all day, to-day?"
"And the day before."
"I see that. You came by way of Domfront and Mortain?"
"Take my advice and rest yourself, citizen. You must be tired. Your horse is."
"Horses have a right to be tired, but men have not."
The host fixed his eyes again on the traveller. He had a solemn, calm, stern face, framed in gray hair.
The innkeeper glanced along the road, which was deserted as far as he could see, and said,—
"And you are travelling alone like this?"
"I have an escort."
"Where is it?"
"My sabre and my pistols."
The innkeeper went to get a pail of water, and watered the horse, and while the horse was drinking, the host contemplated the traveller, and said to himself, "All the same, he looks like a priest."
The cavalier continued,—
"You say that they are fighting at Dol?"
"Yes. It ought to be beginning this very minute."
"Who are fighting?"
"A ci-devant against a ci-devant."
"What did you say?"
"I say that a ci-devant who is for the Republic is fighting against a ci-devant who is for the king."
"But there is no king now."
"There is the little one. And the strange part of it is that the two ex-nobles are two relatives."
The cavalier listened attentively. The innkeeper went on:
"One is young, the other, old; it is a grand-nephew fighting against his great uncle. The uncle is a Royalist; the nephew, a patriot. The uncle commands the Whites, the nephew commands the Blues. Ah! they will give no quarter, be sure of that. It is war to the death."
"To the death?"
"Yes, citizen. Wait, would you like to see the polite speeches they throw at each other's heads? Here is a notice the old man found a way to have posted up everywhere, on all the houses and all the trees, and which he had stuck up even on my door."
The host held his lantern near a square of paper fastened to one of the leaves of his double-door, and as the notice was in large letters, the cavalier was able to read from his horse,—
"The Marquis de Lantenac has the honor to inform his grand-nephew, Monsieur the Viscount Gauvain, that if Monsieur le Marquis has the good fortune to capture his person, he will have Monsieur le Viscount quietly shot."
"And," continued the innkeeper, here is the reply."
He turned around and threw the light from his lantern on another notice posted opposite the first on the other leaf of the door. The traveller read,—
"Gauvain warns Lantenac that if he takes him he will have him shot."
"Yesterday," said the host; "the first placard was pasted up on my door, and this morning, the second. The reply was not long coming."
The traveller, in an undertone, as if talking to himself, uttered these few words, which the innkeeper heard without taking in their full meaning,—
"Yes, it is more than civil war, it is domestic war. It is necessary, and it is well. The great rejuvenations of peoples are at this price."
And the traveller, raising his hand to his hat and fixing his eyes on the second notice, saluted it.
The host continued,—
"You see, citizen, this is how it is. In the cities and the large towns we are for the Revolution, in the country they are against it; that is to say, in the cities they are French, in the villages they are Breton. It is a war of bourgeois against the peasants. They call us boors, we call them clowns. The nobles and the priests are with them."
"Not all," interrupted the cavalier.
"Beyond a doubt, citizen, for we have here a viscount against a marquis."
And he added in a low voice to himself,—
"And I believe that I am speaking to a priest."
The cavalier continued,—
"And which is winning?"
"The viscount at present. But he has a hard time. The old man is terrible. These people belong to the family of Gauvain, nobles of this country here. It is a family with two branches; there is the large branch, the chief of which is called the Marquis de Lantenac, and the small branch, the chief of which is called the Viscount Gauvain. The two branches are now fighting. Such a thing is not seen among the trees, but it is seen among men. This Marquis de Lantenac is all-powerful in Brittany; among the peasants he is a prince. The day he landed he had eight thousand men in no time; in a week, three hundred parishes were raised. If he had been able to take a corner of the coast, the English would have landed. Fortunately, this Gauvain was there, who is his grand-nephew,—a strange occurrence. He is the Republican commander, and he repulsed his great-uncle. And, then, as luck would have it, this Lantenac, on his arrival, while massacring a lot of prisoners, had caused two women to be shot, one of whom had three children who had been adopted by a battalion from Paris. That made them a terrible battalion. It was called the battalion of Bonnet-Rouge. There are not many of these Parisians left, but they are furious soldiers. They have been incorporated into Commandant Gauvain's division. Nothing withstands them. They are determined to avenge the death of the women, and have the children again. Nobody knows what the old man has done with these little things. That is what enrages the Parisian grenadiers. If these children had not been mixed up in it, I suppose this war would not be what it is. The viscount is a good, brave young man. But the old man is a terrible marquis. The peasants call it the war of Saint Michael against Beelzebub. You know, perhaps that Saint Michael is an angel of this part of the country. He has a mountain in the bay. He is said to have overthrown the devil and to have buried him under another mountain which is near here, and is called Tombelaine."
"Yes," murmured the cavalier, "Tumba Beleni, the tomb of Belus, of Bel, of Belial, of Beelzebub."
"I see that you know about it."
And the host said, aside to himself,—
"He knows Latin, and he is surely a priest."
Then he added: "Well, citizen, for the peasants, it is that war over again. It is evident that to them Saint Michael is the Royalist general, and Beelzebub is the patriot commander; but if there is a devil, it is surely Lantenac, and if there is an angel it is Gauvain. Won't you take something, citizen?"
"I have my gourd and a piece of bread. But you have not told me what is going on in Dol."
"This is it. Gauvain is commanding the exploring column of the coast. Lantenac's aim was to rouse a general insurrection, to strengthen Lower Brittany with Lower Normandy, to open the doors to Pitt, and to increase the great Vendéan army with twenty thousand English and two hundred thousand peasants. Gauvain cut short this plan. He holds the coast, and is driving Lantenac into the interior and the English into the sea. Lantenac was here and he drove him away; he has taken Pont-au-Beau away from him, he has driven him from Avranches, he has driven him from Villedieu, he has prevented him from reaching Granville. He is manœuvring to drive him back into the forest of Fougères and to surround him there. All was going well yesterday. Gauvain was here with his column. Suddenly, there is an alarm. The old man, who is shrewd, makes a point; they learn that he is marching on Dol. If he takes Dol, and if he establishes a battery on Mont-Dol, for he has cannon, there is a point of the coast where the English can land, and all is lost. That is why, as there was not a minute to lose, Gauvain, who is a level-headed man, took counsel with no one but himself; did not ask for orders, nor wait for them, sounded the signal to saddle, put to his artillery, collected his troops, drew his sabre, and that is how, while Lantenac was rushing on Dol, Gauvain was rushing on Lantenac. It is at Dol, that these two Breton heads are going to butt. It will be a proud collision. They are there now."
"How long does it take to go to Dol?"
"For a troop with wagons, at least three hours; but they are there."
The traveller put his hand behind his ear and said,—
"To be sure, it seems to me that I hear the cannon."
The host listened.
"Yes, citizen; and the musketry. The fight has begun. You will have to spend the night here. There is no good in going there."
"I cannot stop. I must continue my journey."
"You are wrong. I don't know your business, but the risk is great, and unless it concerns what you hold dearest in the world——"
"That is just it," replied the cavalier.
"Something like your own son——"
"Very nearly," said the cavalier.
The innkeeper raised his head and said to himself,—
"And yet this citizen seems to me like a priest."
Then, after some thought, he added,—
"After all, a priest may have children."
"Put my horse's bridle back," said the traveller. "How much do I owe you?"
And he paid him.
The host set back the trough and the bucket by the side of the wall, and then came toward the traveller.
"Since you are bound to go on, take my advice. It is clear that you are going to Saint-Malo. Well, don't go through Dol. There are two routes, the road through Dol, and the road along the sea coast. One is as short as the other. The road along by the sea goes through Saint-Georges de Brehaigne Cherrueix, and Hirelle-Vivier. You leave Dol to the south and Cancal to the north. Citizen, at the end of the street, you will find the place where the two roads meet; the one to Dol is to the left, the one to Saint-Georges de Brehaigne is to the right. Listen to me now; if you go through Dol, you will fall in the massacre. That is why you must not take the left; take the right."
"Thank you," said the traveller.
And he spurred on his horse.
It had grown quite dark, he plunged into the night.
The innkeeper lost sight of him.
When the traveller came to the end of the street where the two roads branched off, he heard the innkeepers voice cry out from the distance,
"Go to the right!"
He went to the left.