July passed, August came, a blast of heroism and cruelty blew over France; two spectres had just crossed the horizon, Marat with a dagger in his side, Charlotte Corday headless; everything was becoming terrible.
As for la Vendée, beaten in great strategic measures, she took refuge in small ones, more frightful, as we have already said; this war was now an immense skirmish in the woods.
The disasters to the great army called Catholic and Royal were beginning; a decree sent the army of Mayence to la Vendée; eight thousand Vendéans were killed at Ancenis; the Vendéans were repulsed at Nates, driven out of Montaigu, expelled from Thouars, driven from Noirmoutier, thrown headlong from Cholet, Mortagne, and Saumur; they evacuated Parthenay; they abandoned Clisson; they lost ground at Châtillon; they lost a flag at Saint-Hilaire; they were defeated at Pornic, at the Sables, at Fontenay, Doué, the Château d'Eau, the Ponts-de-Cé; they were held in check at Luçon; retreated from Châtaigneraye; were routed at Roche-sur-Yon: but, on the one hand, they were threatening la Rochelle, and, on the other, in the Guernsey waters, an English fleet, commanded by General Craig, carrying several English regiments together with the best officers of the French marine, was only waiting for a signal from the Marquis de Lantenac, to disembark.
This disembarkation might give back victory to the royalist insurrection. But Pitt was a State malefactor; treason is to statesmanship what the dagger is to the panoply; Pitt stabbed our country and betrayed his own; betraying his country was dishonoring it; England under him, and through him, waged a Punic war. She spied, cheated, lied. A poacher and a forger, no means were scorned by her; she even descended to the minutiæ of hatred. She caused a monopoly of tallow, which cost five francs a pound; a letter from Prizant, Pitt's agent in Vendée, was taken from an Englishman at Lille, containing these lines,—
"I beg you not to be sparing of money. We hope that the assassinations will be done with prudence; disguised priests and women are the suitable persons for this undertaking. Send sixty thousand livres to Rouen, and fifty thousand livres to Caen."
This letter was read by Barér to the Convention the first of August. This treachery was answered by Parrein's cruelties, and later on by Carrier's atrocities. The Republicans of Metz and the Republicans of the South asked permission to march against the rebels. A decree ordered the forming of twenty-four companies of pioneers to burn the hedges and fences of the Bocage. An unprecedented crisis. The war only ceased in one direction to begin again in another. "No mercy! no prisoners!" was the cry of both parties. History was full of a terrible darkness.
In this month of August, la Tourgue was besieged.
One evening, as the stars were beginning to shine, in the quiet of a dog-day twilight, when not a leaf trembled in the forest, not a blade of grass stirred on the moor, through the silence of the approaching darkness, the sound of a horn was heard. The sound of this horn came from the top of the tower.
This horn was answered by a trumpet, which sounded from below.
At the top of the tower there was an armed man; below, in the darkness, there was a camp.
A swarm of black figures could be made out in the dim light around the Tour-Gauvain. This swarm was a bivouac. Fires were beginning to be lighted under the trees in the forest and in the heather on the plateau, piercing the darkness here and there with bright points of light, as if the earth wished to shine with stars as well as the sky, Gloomy stars,—those of war! The bivouac, in the direction of the plateau, reached as far as the plains, and in the direction of the forest, it extended into the thicket. La Tourgue was blockaded.
The extent of the besieger's bivouac indicated a numerous force.
The camp was situated close to the fortress, and on the side of the tower, reached to the rock, and on the side of the bridge, to the edge of the ravine.
There was a second blast from the horn, followed by a second blowing of the trumpet.
This horn questioned, and the trumpet gave answer.
The horn was the tower asking the camp, "Can we speak to you?" And the trumpet replied, "Yes."
At this period, as the Vendéans were not considered warriors by the Convention, and as a decree had forbidden the exchange of flags of truce with "these brigands," they supplied, as best they could, the means of communication which the right of nations authorizes in ordinary warfare, and forbids in civil warfare. So on occasion, there was a certain understanding arranged between the peasant's horn and the soldier's trumpet. The first call was only to attract attention, the second call put the question, "Will you listen?" If after this second call the trumpet was silent, it meant refusal; if the trumpet answered, it meant consent. This signified a few moments' truce.
The trumpet having replied to the second call, the man on the top of the tower spoke, and these were his words,—
"Ye men who hear me, I am Gouge-le-Bruant, called Brisebleu, because I have put an end to so many of your men; and called also l'Imânus, because I shall kill still more than I have killed; I had my finger cut off by a sabre stroke on the barrel of my gun, during the attack at Granville, and you had my father and mother, and my sister Jacqueline eighteen years old, guillotined at Laval;—this is who I am.
"I speak to you in the name of Monseigneur the Marquis Gauvain de Lantenac, Viscount de Fontenay, Prince of Brittany, seigneur of the seven forests, my master.
"Know first, that before Monseigneur le Marquis shut himself up in this tower where you have blockaded him, he distributed the war among six chiefs, his lieutenants; he gave to Delière the country between the road to Brest and the road to Ernée; to Treton, the country between la Roë and Laval; to Jacquet, called Taillefer, the boundary of the Upper Maine; to Gaulier, called Great Peter, Château-Gontier; to Leconte, Craon; Fougères to Monsieur Dubois-Guy; and all la Mayenne to Monsieur de Rochambeau; in order that you might accomplish nothing by taking this fortress, and that even if Monseigneur le Marquis should die, la Vendée of God and the king should not die.
"Know this, that what I tell you is to warn you.
"Monseigneur is here by my side. I am the mouth through which his words pass. Ye men, who besiege us, keep silence.
"This is what it is important for you to hear,—
"Do not forget that the war that you are waging against us is unjust. We are people living in our own country, and we are fighting honestly, and we are simple and pure beneath the will of God, as the grass beneath the dew. The Republic has attacked us; it came to disturb us in our fields, it has burned our houses and our crops, and cannonaded our farms, and our women and children have been obliged to flee barefooted into the woods while the winter birds were still singing.
"You, who are present and hear what I say, have driven us into the forest, and you are surrounding us in this tower; you have killed or scattered those who were united to us; you have cannon; you have joined to your column, the garrisons and posts of Mortain, Barenton, Teilleul, Landivy, d'Evran, Tinteniac and Vitré, and the result is that you are attacking us with four thousand five hundred soldiers, and we have but nineteen men for our defence.
"We have provisions and ammunition.
"You have succeeded in contriving a mine and in blowing up a piece of our rock and a piece of our wall.
"That made a hole at the foot of the tower, and this hole is a breach, through which you can enter, although it is not open to the sky, and the tower, still strong and firm, forms an arch above it.
"Now you are preparing to attack us.
"And we, first, monseigneur le marquis, who is Prince of Brittany and secular Prior of the abbey of Saint-Marie de Lantenac, where daily mass was established by Queen Jeanne; and next, the other defenders of the tower, among whom are Monsieur l'Abbé Turmeau, in war, Grand-Francœur; my comrade Guinoiseau, captain of Camp-Vert; my comrade, Chante-en-Hiver, captain of the camp of l'Avoine; my comrade, la Musette, captain of the camp of the Fourmis; and myself, a peasant, who was born in the market-town of Daon, through which the brook Moriandre flows,—we all of us have one thing to say to you.
"Men who are at the foot of this tower, listen.
"We have in our hands three prisoners, three children. These children were adopted by one of your battahons, and they are yours. We offer to give up these three children to you.
"On one condition.
"That is that you will let us go free.
"If you refuse, listen attentively. You can attack us in only two ways; by means of the breach, from the side of the forest; or by means of the bridge, from the side of the plateau. The building on the bridge is three stories high; in the lower story, I, l'Imânus, I who speak to you, have had six tons of tar and one hundred fagots of dried heath placed there; in the upper story, there is straw; the middle story is full of books and papers; the iron door leading from the bridge to the tower is closed, and monseigneur has the key; and I have made an opening under the door, and through this opening passes a sulphur slow-match, one end of which is in the hogsheads of tar, and the other within my reach, inside the tower; I shall set fire to it whenever it seems good to me. If you refuse to let us out, the three children will be placed in the second story of the bridge, between the story where the sulphur match ends and where the tar is, and the story filled with straw, and the iron door will be fastened on them. If you attack by the bridge you will be the ones to set fire to the building; if you attack by the breach, we shall be the ones; if you attack by the breach and the bridge at the same time, the fire will be set by you and by us; and in any case the children will perish.
"Now, accept or refuse.
"If you accept, we leave.
"If you refuse, the children die.
"I have said my say."
The man who spoke from the top of the tower was silent.
A voice from below cried out,—
This voice was short and stern. Another voice, less harsh, but firm, added,—
"We give you twenty-four hours to surrender at discretion."
Silence ensued, and the same voice continued,—
"To-morrow at this hour, if you do not surrender, we shall begin the attack."
And the first voice added,—
"And then, no quarter."
To this savage voice, another replied from the top of the tower. Between two battlements a tall shadow bent forward, in which, by the light of the stars, could be made out the formidable face of the Marquis de Lantenac, and this face which looked into the darkness as if trying to find some one, cried,—
"Hold, it is you, priest!"
"Yes, it is I, traitor!" replied the harsh voice from below.