Dol, a Spanish town of France in Brittany, as it is termed in the old charters, is not a town but a street. A grand old gothic street, all bordered on the right and on the left by houses with pillars, standing irregularly and making angles and corners in the street, which is everywhere wide. The rest of the town is nothing but a network of lanes running into this large street from opposite directions, and ending there like brooks in a river. The town, without gates or walls, open, overshadowed by Mont-Dol, could not withstand a siege; but the street could withstand one. These promontories of houses that could still be seen there fifty years ago, and the two-pillared galleries which bordered them, formed a very solid battle-ground, capable of great resistance. There were as many fortresses as there were houses, and it was necessary to take one after another. The old market house was very nearly in the middle of the street.
The innkeeper of the Croix-Branchard had told the truth, a furious conflict filled Dol at the time he was speaking. A nocturnal duel between the Whites who had reached there in the morning, and the Blues who had unexpectedly arrived there in the evening, had suddenly burst forth in the town. The forces were unequal, the Whites numbered six thousand, the Blues fifteen hundred, but their fury was equally divided. Strange to say, the fifteen hundred attacked the six thousand.
On one side, a riotous crowd; on the other, a phalanx. On one side, six thousand peasants with sacred hearts on their leather jackets, white ribbons on their round hats, Christian devices on their brassarts, rosaries hanging from their belts, armed with more pitchforks than sabres, and carbines without bayonets, dragging cannons by means of ropes, poorly equipped, badly disciplined, meanly armed, full of frenzy; on the other side, fifteen hundred soldiers wearing three cornered hats with the tricolored cockade, coats with full skirts and wide lappels, shoulder belts crossed, copper-hilted swords, guns with long bayonets, erect, well-trained, docile, and fierce, knowing how to obey like people who know how to command, volunteers, too, but volunteers for their country, in rags, moreover, and shoeless. For the monarchy, paladin peasants; for the republic, barefooted heroes. And the soul of each of these two troops was its chief: that of the royalists, an old man; of the republicans, a young man. On one side, Lantenac; on the other, Gauvain.
Besides gigantic young figures, such as Danton, Saint-Just, and Robespierre, the Revolution had young figures which were ideal, like Hoche and Marceau. Gauvain was one of these figures.
Gauvain was thirty years old, with Herculean form, a prophetic, serious eye, and the laugh of a child. He did not smoke, he did not drink, he did not swear. He carried a toilet case throughout the war, he took great care of his nails, his teeth, and his hair which was brown and abundant; during halts he himself shook his military clock, riddled with bullets and white with dust. Although he always rushed recklessly into the midst of the battle, he had never been wounded. His very gentle voice had, when necessary, a sharp tone of command. He set the example of sleeping on the ground, in wind, in rain, in snow, rolled up in his cloak, and his graceful head resting on a stone. He was a soul both heroic and innocent. The sword in his hand transfigured him. He had that effeminate appearance which in battle is terrible.
At the same time, he was a thinker and a philosopher—a young sage; Alcibiades to look at, Socrates to listen to.
This young man had at once become a leader in this great improvisation, the French Revolution.
His division, formed by himself, like the Roman legion, was a sort of complete little army; it was composed of infantry and cavalry; it had scouts, pioneers, sappers, pontooniers; and just as the Roman legion had catapults, this had cannons. Three pieces drawn by horses strengthened the column, and at the same time left it easily handled.
Lantenac also was a warrior and still more formidable. He was both more reflective and more daring. The real old heroes have more coolness than the young men because they are farther from the sunrise, and more audacious because they are nearer death. What have they to lose? so little! Hence, Lantenac's rash movements, which were at the same time so skillful. But in the main, in this obstinate hand-to-hand conflict, Gauvain almost always had the advantage. It was more good fortune than anything else. All good luck, even good luck which is terrible, belongs to youth. Victory is in some respects like a young girl.
Lantenac was incensed against Gauvain; first because Gauvain was opposed to him, then because he was his relative. What right had he to be a Jacobin! this Gauvain! this scamp! his heir, for the marquis had no children; a grand-nephew, almost a grandson! "Ah," said this quasi grandfather, "if I get my hand on him, I will kill him like a dog!"
Besides the Republic had reason to be troubled about this Marquis de Lantenac. He had hardly landed when he made them tremble. His name had run through the Vendéan insurrection like a train of powder, and Lantenac became at once the centre. In a revolt of this kind, where all are jealous of each other, and each has his bush or his ravine, the coming of a superior rallies the scattered chiefs, who are equals among themselves. Almost all the captains of the woods joined Lantenac, and from far and near, they obeyed him. One alone had left him; he had been the first to join him,—Gavard. Why? Because he was a man of trust. Gavard had known all the secrets, and adopted all the plans of the old system of civil warfare, that Lantenac came to supplant and replace. One cannot follow in the steps of a man of trust; the shoe of la Rouarie did not fit Lantenac. Gavard had gone to join Bonchamp.
Lantenac, as a soldier, belonged to the school of Fredderick II.; he knew how to combine the greater war with the less. He wished to have neither a "confused mass," like the great catholic and royal army, a multitude destined to be destroyed; nor a scattering in the thickets and copses, good for harrassing, powerless to overthrow. The guerilla does not terminate, or terminates unfortunately; it begins by attacking a Republic, and ends by robbing a stage coach. Lantenac did not intend to carry on this Breton war either wholly in the open field, as La Rochejaquelin had done, or wholly in the forest, like Jean Chouan; neither Vendée nor Chouannerie; he wanted real war; to make use of the peasant, but to support him with the soldier. He wished to have bands of men for strategy, and regiment for tactics. He found these village armies, able to disappear so suddenly, excellent for attack, ambuscade and surprise; but he felt that they were too fluid; they were like water in his hand; he wished to create a solid point in this wavering and scattered war; he wished to add to this wild forest army, regular troops, which would be the pivot of the peasants' manœuvres. A profound and awful thought; if it had succeeded, la Vendée would have been impregnable.
But where could he find regular troops? where find soldiers? where find regiments? where find an army ready made? In England. This was Lantenac's determination: to land the English. Thus party conscience capitulates; the white cockade concealed from his sight the red coat. Lantenac had but one thought: to get possession of a point of the sea-coast, and to give it up to Pitt. That is why, seeing Dol without defence, he rushed on it, in order, through Dol, to have Mont-Dol; and through Mont-Dol, the coast.
The place was well chosen. The cannon on Mont-Dol would sweep le Fresnois on one side, and Saint-Brelade on the other; would keep the cruisers from Cancale at a distance, and would make the coast from Raz-sur-Couesnon to Saint-Mêloir-des-Ondes, open to invasion.
To make this decisive move successful, Lantenac had brought with him a little more than six thousand men, the stoutest among the bands at his disposal, and all his artillery, ten sixteen-pound culverins, one eight-pounder, and a four-pounder. He proposed to establish a strong battery on Mont-Dol, on this principle, that a thousand shots from ten cannons would accomplish more than fifteen hundred shots with five cannons.
Success seemed certain. He had six thousand men. He had nothing to fear in the direction of Avranches but Gauvain and his fifteen hundred men, and in the direction of Dinan, only Léchelle. Léchelle, it is true, had twenty-five thousand men, but he was twenty leagues away. Lantenac was confident of success with regard to Léchelle, on account of the great distance against the great number; and, with regard to Gauvain, on account of the small number against the short distance. We may add that Léchelle was an idiot, and later on he allowed his twenty-five thousand men to be destroyed on the moors of la Croix-Bataille; a defeat which he paid for with suicide.
So Lantenac felt perfectly secure. His entrance into Dol was sudden and severe. The Marquis de Lantenac had a hard reputation; he was known to be merciless. No resistance was attempted. The terrified inhabitants shut themselves up in their houses. The six thousand Vendéans took up their quarters in the town with boorish confusion; it was almost a fair ground, without quartermasters, without definite camp, bivouacking at haphazard, cooking in the open air, scattering about in the churches, leaving their guns for their rosaries. Lantenac hastened with some artillery officers to reconnoitre Mont-Dol, leaving the lieutenancy to Gouge-le-Bruant, whom he had appointed field-sergeant.
This Gouge-le-Bruant has left a faint trace in history. He had two nicknames "Brise-bleu," on account of his slaughtering of patriots, and "l'Imânus," because he had in him something strangely, unutterably horrible. "Imânus," derived from immanis, is an old word of Low Norman origin, expressing the superhuman and quasi-divine ugliness, in the frightful, in devils, satyrs, and ogres. An ancient manuscript said: "d'mes daeux iers j'vis l'imanus." The old men of the Bocage, to-day have no knowledge of Gouge-le-Bruant, nor of the meaning of Brise-bleu; but they have a confused idea of l'Imânus. L'Imânus is connected with local superstition. They still speak of l'Imânus at Trémorel and Plumaugat, two villages where Gouge-le-Bruant left the print of his ominous foot. In la Vendée, others were savage. Gouge-le-Bruant was barbarous. He was a kind of cacique, tatooed with rude letters and fleurs-de-lis; in his face shone the hideous and almost superhuman glare of a soul unlike any other human being. He was infernally brave in battle, and atrocious afterward. He had a heart full of tortuous intricacies, ready for every kind of devotion, inclined to all sorts of madness. Did he reason? Yes, but as serpents crawl: in circles. He left heroism to come to murder. It was impossible to guess whence arose his resolutions, often magnificent on account of their monstrosity. He was capable of every unexpected horror. He had an epic ferocity.
Hence this misshapen nickname, "l'Imânus."
The Marquis de Lantenac had confidence in his cruelty.
It was a fact that l'Imânus excelled in cruelty; but in strategy and tactics he was less superior, and perhaps the marquis was wrong to make him field-sergeant. However that may be, he left l'Imânus behind him, with orders to take his place and watch everything.
Gouge-le-Bruant, more of a warrior than a soldier, was more fit to slaughter a clan than to guard a city, but yet he stationed main guards.
When evening had come, as the Marquis de Lantenac was on his way back to Dol, after having decided on the situation of the projected battery, he suddenly heard the cannon. He looked. A red smoke was rising from the great street. There was a surprise, an irruption, an attack; they were fighting in the town.
Although it was hard to astonish him, he was stupefied. He was not expecting anything of the kind. Who could be there? Evidently, it was not Gauvain. It would be foolish to attack with one against four. Was it Léchelle? But what a forced march to have made! Léchelle was improbable; Gauvain, impossible.
Lantenac spurred on his horse; on his way he met the inhabitants in flight; he questioned them, they were mad with fear. They cried: "The Blues! The Blues!" and when he reached the town, the situation was desperate.
This is what had happened.