PART FIRST.—AT SEA.
THE WOODS OF LA SAUDRAIE.
During the last of May, 1793, one of the Parisian battalions led into Brittany by Santerre was scouring the terrible woods of La Saudraie in Astillé. The battalion had only three hundred men left, for it had been decimated by the cruel war. It was at the time when after Argonne, Jemmapes, and Valmy, there remained of the first battalion of Paris, originally numbering six hundred volunteers, twenty-seven men; of the second battalion, thirty-three men; and of the third, fifty-seven. It was a time of epic conflicts.
The battalions sent from Paris to La Vendeé numbered nine hundred and twelve men. Each battalion had three pieces of cannon. The troops had been quickly raised. On the twenty-fifth of April, Gohier being minister of justice, and Bouchotte minister of war, the section of the Bon Conseil, had proposed to send battalions of volunteers to La Vendée. Lubin, member of the commune, had made the report: the first of May, Santerre was ready to send out twelve thousand soldiers, thirty field-pieces and a battalion of gunners. These battalions organized hastily were so well organized, that they serve as models to-day; the companies of the line are made up on the principle governing them; the only change has been in the proportion between the number of soldiers and non-commissioned officers.
On the twenty-eighth of April the commune of Paris gave this order to Santerre's volunteers: "No mercy, no quarter." At the end of May, of the twelve thousand Parisian troops, two-thirds were dead.
The battalion engaged in the woods of La Saudraie was proceeding cautiously. They took their time. They looked to the right and to the left, in front of them and behind them at the same time. Kléber has said: "The soldier has an eye in his back." They had been marching for hours. What time could it be? What part of the day was it? It would have been difficult to say, for there is always a sort of twilight in such wild thickets, and it is never light in these woods.
The forest of La Saudraie was tragic. It was in these woods that the civil war began its crimes in the month of November, 1792. The ferocious cripple, Mousqueton, had come out of these gloomy depths; the number of murders committed there made one's hair stand on end. There was no place more frightful. The soldiers penetrated there cautiously. Everywhere was abundance of flowers; one was surrounded with a trembling wall of branches, from which hung the charming freshness of the foliage; sunbeams here and there made their way through the green shade; on the ground the gladiolus, the yellow swamp flag, the meadow narcissus, the gênotte, the herald of fine weather, and the spring crocus formed the embroidery and decoration of a thick carpet of vegetation, luxuriant in every kind of moss, from that resembling velvet, to that like stars. The soldiers advanced step by step in silence, noiselessly pushing aside the underbrush. The birds warbled above their bayonets.
La Saudraie was one of those thickets where formerly in times of peace they used to hold the Houicheba,—hunting birds at night; now they were hunting men there.
The wood was full of birch trees, beeches, and oaks; the ground flat; the moss and thick grass deadened the sound of the marching men; every path lost itself abruptly among the holly, wild sloe, ferns, hedges of rest-harrow, tall briers; it was impossible to see a man ten feet away.
Occasionally, a heron or a waterfowl passed through the branches, showing that there were swamps near by.
They marched on. They went at haphazard, full of anxiety, and fearing to find whatsought. From time to time they came across traces of encampments, burnt places, trodden-down grass, sticks in the form of a cross, bloody branches. There soup had been made, there mass had been said, there wounds had been dressed. But those who had passed this way had disappeared. Where were they? Far away, perhaps. Perhaps close by, concealed, gun in hand. The woods seemed deserted. The battalion redoubled its precaution. Solitude and suspicion. There was nobody to be seen; the more reason for fearing somebody. They had to do with a forest of ill-repute. An ambuscade was probable.
Thirty grenadiers, detached as scouts and commanded by a sergeant, were marching in advance at a considerable distance from the main body of the troop. The vivandière of the battalion accompanied them. The vivandières join the vanguards from choice. They run a risk, but they expect to see something. Curiosity is one form of feminine bravery.
Suddenly the soldiers in this little squad experienced that thrill familiar to huntsmen, which indicates that they have reached their prey. They had heard something like a whisper in the midst of a thicket, and it seemed that some one had just seen a movement among the leaves. The soldiers made signs to each other.
In the sort of watch and search entrusted to scouts, the officers do not need to take part; whatever must be done is done of itself.
In less than a minute, the spot where the movement had been seen was surrounded; a circle of pointed muskets enclosed it, the obscure centre of the thicket was aimed at from all sides at once, and the soldiers with fingers on the trigger and eyes on the suspected place, only waited for the sergeant's command to riddle it with bullets. The vivandière, however, ventured to look through the brambles, and at the instant when the sergeant was about to cry: "Fire!" this woman cried: "Halt!"
And turning towards the soldiers: "Don't shoot, comrades!"
She rushed headlong into the thicket. They followed her.
There was, indeed, some one there.
In the densest part of the thicket, on the edge of one of those little round clearings made in the woods by the charcoal furnaces in burning roots of trees, in a sort of recess among the branches, a kind of leafy chamber, half open like an alcove, a woman was sittingthe moss, with an infant at the breast, and in her lap the blond heads of two sleeping children.
This was the ambuscade.
"What are you doing here?" cried the vivandière.
The woman raised her head.
The vivandière added fiercely,—
"Are you mad to be here!"
And she continued,—
"A little more and you would have been killed!"
And addressing the soldiers, she added,—
"It is a woman."
"By Jove, we see it is indeed!" said a grenadier.
The vivandière continued,—
"Come into the woods to be massacred! Did ever anybody imagine such stupidity as that?"
The woman stupefied, frightened, petrified, saw all about her as in a dream; these guns, these sabres, these bayonets, these fierce faces.
The two children woke up and began to cry.
"I'm hungry," said one.
"I'm afraid," said the other.
The little one went on nursing.
The vivandière spoke to it.
"You are quite right," she said.
The mother was dumb with fright.
The sergeant cried out to her,—
"Don't be afraid, we are the battalion of the Bonnet-Rouge."
The woman trembled from head to foot. She looked at the sergeant, whose rough face showed only his eyebrows, his moustache, and two coals which were his two eyes.
"Formerly the battalion of the Croix-Rouge," added the vivandière.
And the sergeant continued,—
"Who are you, madame?"
The woman looked at him, terrified. She was thin, young, pale, and in rags; she wore the large hood of the Breton peasant, and the woollen cloak fastened at the neck with a string. She let her bare breast be seen with utter indifference. Her feet without stockings or shoes were bleeding.
"She is poor," said the sergeant.
And the vivandière in her soldierly and feminine voice, tenderly withal, resumed,—
"What is your name?"
The woman stammered almost indistinctly,—
Meanwhile the vivandière caressed the little head of the nursing child with her large hand.
"How old is this baby?" she asked.
The mother did not understand. The vivandière persisted.
"I asked you the age of the child."
"Ah!" said the mother, "eighteen months."
"It is too old," said the vivandière. "It ought not to nurse any longer. You must wean it. We will give it some soup."
The mother began to grow calmer. The two little ones which had awakened were more curious than frightened. They admired the plumes.
"Ah!" said the mother, "they are very hungry."
And she added: "I have no more milk."
"They shall have something to eat," cried the sergeant, "and you too. But that is not all. What are your political opinions?"
The woman looked at the sergeant, but gave no answer.
"Did you hear my question?"
She stammered: "I was placed in a convent when very young, but I am married, I am not a nun. The sisters taught me to speak French. The village was set on fire. We escaped in such haste that I did not have time to put on my shoes."
"I ask what are your political opinions?"
"I don't know."
The sergeant continued,—
"There are spies about. If caught, spies are shot. You see. Speak. You are not a gypsy. What is your country?"
She still looked at him, evidently without understanding.
The sergeant asked once more: "What is your country? "
"I do not know," she said.
"What, you don't know your own country."
"Ah! my country, yes, indeed."
"Well, what is your country?"
The woman answered: "It is the farm of Siscoignard, in the parish of Azé."
It was the sergeant's turn to be amazed. He remained lost in thought for a moment, then replied,—
"What did you say?"
"But that is not a country."
"It is my country."
And, after a moment of reflection, the woman added,—"I understand, sir. You are from France. I am from Brittany."
"It is not the same country."
"But it is the same fatherland!" exclaimed the sergeant.
The woman merely replied,—
"I am from Siscoignard!"
"Have it Siscoignard, then," replied the sergeant.
"Does your family belong there?"
"What do they do?"
"They are all dead. I have no relatives now."
The sergeant, who was clever with his tongue, continued to question her.
"People have parents, you devil, or have had them! Who are you? Speak!"
The woman heard in amazement this ou on en a eu, which sounded more like the cry of a wild-beast than human speech.
The vivandière felt the need of coming to her aid. She renewed her caresses to the nursing child, and patted the cheeks of the other two.
"What do you call the baby? " she asked; "I see it is a girl,"
The mother answered: "Georgette."
"And the oldest? he is a man, the scamp."
"And the younger one? He is a man, too, and a chubby-faced fellow besides."
"Gros-Alain," said the mother.
"They are pretty little things," said the vivandière; "you seem to be somebody."
Meanwhile, the sergeant persisted in talking.
"Tell me, madame. Have you a house?"
"I had one."
"Where was it?"
"Why are you not in your house?"
"Because it is burned."
"Who burned it?"
"I don't know. There was a battle."
"Where did you come from?"
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know."
"Come to the point. Who are you?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know who you are?"
"We are people who have escaped."
"To what party do you belong?"
"I don't know."
"Do you belong to the Blues? Do you belong to the Whites? Whom are you with?"
"I am with my children."
Here was a pause. The vivandière said,—
"I never had any children. I didn't have time."
The sergeant began again,—
"But your parents. Come, madame, tell us about your parents. My name is Radoub; I am a sergeant, I belong in rue du Gherche-Midi; my father and mother belonged there, too. I can tell you about my parents. Tell us about yours. Tell us who your parents were."
"They were the Fléchards."
"Yes; the Fléchards are the Fléchards, as the Radoubs are the Radoubs. But people have some occupation. What was the occupation of your parents? What did they do? What did they make? What did they fledge these Fledghards of yours?"
"They were farmers. My father was infirm and unable to work, because he had been cudgelled by the seigneur, his seigneur, our seigneur, which was a kindness, for my father had poached a rabbit, and the penalty for this offence was death; but the seigneur had mercy and said; 'Give him only a hundred blows,' and my father was made a cripple."
"My grandfather was a Huguenot. The priest had him sent to the galleys. I was very young."
"My husband's father was a salt smuggler. The king had him hanged."
"And your husband, what does he do?"
"At the present time he is fighting."
"For the king."
"For whom else?"
"Why, for his seigneur?"
"For whom else?"
"Why, for the priest."
"The accursed names of brutes!" exclaimed a grenadier.
The woman shook with fear.
"You see, madame, we are Parisians," said the vivandière kindly.
The woman clasped her hands and cried: "Oh, my Lord Jesus!"
"No superstitions," resumed the sergeant.
The vivandière sat down beside the woman and drew to her the oldest of the children, who made no resistance. Children feel confidence just as they feel afraid, without knowing why. They have a monitor within.
"My poor good woman, you have some pretty brats, at any rate. I can guess their ages. The largest is four years old, his brother three. Indeed that nursing kid is a famous greedy-gut. You see, madame, you have nothing to fear. You shall join the battalion. You can do as I do. I call myself Houzarde; it is a nickname. But I prefer to be called Houzarde rather than Mamzelle Bicomeau, like my mother. I am the vivandière or canteen-woman, as the one is called who serves out the drink when any one is shot or killed. The devil and his train! Our feet are nearly the same size, I will give you some of my shoes. I was in Paris the tenth of August. I gave Westermann a drink. He was walking. I saw Louis XVI., Louis Capet they call him, guillotined. He didn't like it. Why, just listen. They say that the thirteenth of January he was having chestnuts cooked, and laughing with his family! When they forced him to lie down on the bascule, as they call it, he had on neither coat nor shoe; he wore only his shirt, a quilted vest, gray cloth breeches, and gray silk stockings. I saw that myself. The carriage he was brought in was painted green. You see, come with us, we have good boys in the battalion; you shall be vivandière number two; I will teach you the profession. Oh! it is very simple! You have your can and your little bell, you go about in the tumult, in the midst of the firing of the platoons, among the cannon shots, in the uproar, shouting: "Who wants a drink, children?" It is no more difficult than that. I give everybody a drink. Yes, indeed. The Whites as well as the Blues; although I am a Blue, and a good Blue too. But I give everybody a drink. The wounded are thirsty. People die without regard for opinions. When people are dying you ought to press their hands. How silly it is to fight! Come with us. If I am killed you will be my successor. You see, that is the way I seem; but I am a good woman and a brave man. Don't have any fear."
When the vivandière had stopped speaking, the woman murmured: "Our neighbor's name was Marie-Jean, and our servant's Maria-Claude."
In the meantime the Sergeant Radoub was reprimanding the grenadier,—
"Hold your tongue. You have frightened the woman. You mustn't swear before ladies."
"All the same, as far as an honest man can understand it, it is a genuine massacre," replied the grenadier. "The idea of these Chinese peasants having their father-in-law crippled by the seigneur, their grandfather sent to the galleys by the priest, and their father hung by the king, and then insist on fighting. In the name of common sense! And they thrust themselves into a revolt and let themselves be crushed for the seigneur the priest and the king!"
"Silence in the ranks," cried the sergeant.
"We'll be silent, sergeant," continued the grenadier, "but that won't prevent its being a pity for a pretty woman like that to run the risk of having her neck broken for the handsome eyes of a priest."
"Grenadier," said the sergeant, "we are not in the Club des Piques at Paris. None of your eloquence."
And he turned towards the woman.
"And your husband, madame? What is he doing? What has he become?"
"He hasn't become anything, because he has been killed."
"In the hedge."
"Three days ago."
"Who killed him?"
"I don't know."
"What, you don't know who killed your husband?"
"Was it a Blue? Was it a White?"
"It was a bullet."
"And three days ago?"
"From which direction?"
"From Ernée. My husband fell. There!"
"And since your husband is dead, what are you going to do?"
"I am carrying away my children."
"Where are you carrying them?"
"Where do you sleep?"
"On the ground."
"What do you get to eat?"
The sergeant made up the military face of touching his nose with his moustache.
"That is to say wild plums, mulberries in the brambles, if there are any left from last year, myrtle seeds, fern shoots."
"Yes. As much as to say nothing."
The oldest of the children, seeming to understand, said: "I'm hungry."
The sergeant took a piece of soldier's bread out of his pocket and handed it to the mother. The mother broke the bread in two pieces, and gave them to the children. The little ones eagerly devoured it.
"She hasn't kept any for herself," muttered the sergeant.
"It is because she isn't hungry," said a soldier.
"It's because she is their mother," said the sergeant. The children interrupted them.
"I want a drink," said one.
"I want a drink," repeated the other.
"Is there no brook in these devilish woods?" said the sergeant.
The vivandière took the copper cup hanging from her belt beside her bell, turned the spigot of the keg which hung from her shoulder by a strap, let a few drops run into the cup, and held it to the children's lips.
The first drank and made up a face.
The second one drank and spit it out.
"Why, it's good," said the vivandière.
"Is it Coupe-Figure?" asked the sergeant.
"Yes, and of the best. But they are peasants."
And she wiped the cup.
The sergeant continued,—
"And you are making your escape in this way?"
"I am obliged to."
"Across the country in a bee line."
"I ran with all my might, and then I walked, and then I fell down."
"Poor creature!" said the vivandière.
"People are fighting everywhere," stammered the woman. "I am surrounded on all sides with gunshot. I don't know what it all means. They have killed my husband. I only understand that."
The sergeant thumped the ground with the butt of his musket, and exclaimed,—
"In the name of a jackass, what a beastly war this is!"
The woman continued: "Last night we slept in an émousse."
"All four of you?"
"All four of us."
"Then," said the sergeant, "you slept standing."
And he turned to the soldiers.
"Comrades, a great, old, hollow trunk of a tree, that a man would have to squeeze himself into as if 'twere a knife-case, these shy creatures call that an émousse. What do you think about it? They are not obliged to be Parisians."
"Slept in the trunk of a hollow tree!" said the vivandière; "and with three children!"
"And when the little ones bawled," the sergeant went on to say, "it must have been funny enough for those who were passing and saw nothing at all, to hear a tree crying: 'Papa! Mamma!'"
"Fortunately, it is summer-time," sighed the woman.
She looked on the ground, resigned, with an expression in her eyes of that astonishment which comes from sudden misfortune.
The soldiers quietly formed a circle around the pitiful group.
A widow, three orphans, flight, desertion, solitude, mutterings of war all around the horizon, hunger, thirst, no food but grass, no roof but the heavens.
The sergeant approached the woman and looked at the nursing child. The little one left the breast, turned her head gently, looked with her beautiful blue eyes at the frightful hairy face, rough and tawny, which bent over her, and began to smile.
The sergeant straightened himself up, and a great tear was seen to roll down his cheek and rest on the end of his moustache like a pearl.
He raised his voice,—
"After all this, it is my opinion that the battalion ought to become a father. Is it agreed? Let us adopt these three children."
"Long live the Republic!" cried the grenadiers.
"Done," said the sergeant.
And he extended his hands above the heads of mother and children.
"Behold," he said, "the children of the battalion of Bonnet-Rouge."
The vivandière leaped for joy.
"Three heads in one bonnet!" she cried.
Then she burst into sobs, embraced the poor widow effusively, and said to her,—
"The baby already looks like a general!"
"Long live the Republic!" repeated the soldiers.
And the sergeant said to the mother,—