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- La Vendee - 5/91 -
that they were going to take refuge in the barrack, and determined to drive them utterly out of the town; but, as soon as the soldiers had filed into the barrack yard, another murderous fire was discharged by those who had been left at the station. Then Cathelineau, who was still in front of the crowd, and who was now armed with the bayonet, which he had taken from the point of the musket, remembered the cannon, and he became for a moment pale as he thought of the dreadful slaughter which would take place, if the colonel were able to effect his purpose of playing it upon the town.
"The cannon!" whispered he to Foret, who was still at his side; "they will fall like leaves in autumn, if we don't prevent it."
"Have they it ready?" said Foret.
"Always," said the other, "they have nothing to do but wheel it into the street; and they are at it, you hear the noise of the wheels this moment. We must bear one discharge from it, and the next, if there be a second, shall fall upon the soldiers."
Others, beside Cathelineau, recognized the sound of the moving wheels--and, the cannon, the cannon, they will fire the cannon on us," was heard from side to side among the crowd; but none attempted to run, not one of the whole mass attempted to fly, and when the barrack gates flew open, and the deadly mouth of the huge instrument was close upon them, they rushed upon it, determined at any rate, to preserve their houses, their wives, and their children from the awful destruction of a prolonged firing.
"They must have one shot at us," said a man in a trembling whisper to his neighbour. "God send it were over!" replied the other, as the gates of the barrack-yard were thrown back.
The greater number of the soldiers and the two officers who had returned with them, made good their retreat into the barracks, under the fire of their comrades, who had been left there. Some three or four had been pulled and hustled into the crowd, and their arms were quickly taken from them and they were sent back to the auberge as prisoners. The colonel, as soon as he found himself in his own quarters, gave immediate orders that the gun should be wheeled round to the barrack-yard gate, which had hitherto been kept closed, and that the moment the gates could be got open it should be fired on the crowd. These gates faced directly into the square, and the destruction caused by one shot would have been tremendous. The colonel, moreover, calculated that in the confusion he would have been able to reload. The gun, in its original position, was pointed on the town, but it was immediately seen, that without moving it, it could not be brought to bear upon the crowd congregated round the barracks.
The first attack of the crowd had been at the barrack door, through which the soldiers had retreated; but this was soon changed to the yard gates. The people, however, were unable to knock them down before the wheels of the cannon were heard, as they had been considerably checked by the fire of the reserved party. Both soldiers and towns-people were now anxious to face each other, and the gates soon fell inwards towards the military. Had the men at the gun had their wits about them they would have fired through the gates; but they did not, they waited till they fell inwards across the cannon's mouth, and in his confusion the artillery-sergeant even then hesitated before he put the light to the touch-hole.
He had never time to do more than hesitate. Cathelineau had been close up to the wooden gates, against which he was so closely pressed that he was hardly able to change his bayonet from his right to his left-hand, and to cock the pistol which he had taken from the corporal, who had commenced the day's work. However, he contrived to do so, and when the wood-work fell, he sprang forward, and though he stumbled over the fragments of the timber, he fired as he did so, and the artillery sergeant fell dead beside the cannon; the unextinguished light was immediately seized by his comrade, but he had not time to use it; it was knocked from his hand before it was well raised from the ground, and the harmless piece of cannon was soon entirely surrounded by crowds of the townspeople. They were not content with spiking it in such a way as to make it utterly impossible that it should be discharged; but they succeeded in turning it entirely round, so that the back of the carriage faced towards the town.
The soldiers still continued the fight within the barrack-yard, and from the barrack windows; but they were so completely mixed with the townspeople, that the officers were afraid to order the men to fire from the windows, least they should kill their own comrades. At last the colonel himself was taken prisoner; he was literally dragged out of one of the windows by the people, and soon afterwards the remainder of the troops gave up. One of the three officers and six men were killed; the rest were nearly all more or less wounded, and were all, without exception, made prisoners of war.
Cathelineau and Foret had been in front of the battle all through; but neither of them were wounded. It was to Foret that the colonel had given up his sword, after he had been dragged headforemost through a window, had had his head cut open with a brick-bat, and his sheath and sword-belt literally torn from his side. He had certainly not capitulated before he was obliged to do, and the people did not like him the worse for it.
And now the unarmed soldiery, maimed and lame, with broken heads and bloody faces, were led down in triumph into the square; and after them was brought the great trophy of the day, the cannon, with its awful mouth still turned away from the town. Cathelineau and Foret led the procession, the former still carrying his bayonet, for he had given up both the musket and pistols to some one else, and Foret armed with the Colonel's sword: they were fully recognized as the victorious leaders of the day.
At the bottom of the square they met a whole concourse of women, the wives and sisters of the champions--among whom the sister and sweetheart of Peter Berrier were conspicuous; they had come out to thank the townspeople for what they had done for them. With the women were two of the old curés of that and a neighbouring parish--pastors whom the decree of the Convention had banished from their own churches, but whom all the powers of the Convention had been unable to silence. To them this day's battle was a most acceptable sign of better days coming; they foresaw a succession of future victories on behalf of the people, which would surely end in the restoration of the Bourbons to the throne, and of the clergy to their churches. The curés shook hands warmly with those in the front ranks of the people, gave their blessing to Cathelineau and Foret, and then invited the people, with one accord, to give thanks to God for the great success which He had given them.
In one moment the whole crowd were on their knees in the market-place, while the two priests stood among them with their arms raised, uttering thanksgiving to the Lord for his mercy, and praying for the eternal welfare of those who had fallen in the affray. The soldiers of the republic found themselves standing alone as prisoners in the midst of the kneeling crowd; they looked awkward and confused enough, but they could not help themselves; they could not have escaped, even if they had been unanimous in attempting to do so; for they were unarmed, and the people knelt so closely round them, that they could hardly move. It was out of the question that they should also kneel, and join in the thanksgiving for having been so utterly beaten; so there they stood, their wounds stiffening and their blood running, till the priests had finished, and the people had risen.
And then another ceremony was performed; the priests were besought to come and bless the cannon, the first great trophy of the Royalist insurrection; and they did so. The cannon was a lucky cannon, a kind cannon, and a good cannon--a bon enfant, and worthy to be blessed; it had refused to pour forth its murderous fire against the inhabitants of a town that was so friendly to the King. It was decidedly a royalist cannon; it had very plainly declared the side it meant to take; nothing but miraculous interference on its own part could have prevented its having been discharged on he people, when it stood ready pointed on the town, with the torch absolutely glimmering at the touch-hole. It had been brought to St. Florent by republican soldiers, dragged by republican horses, and loaded with republican gunpowder; but it should never be used except in the service of the King, and against the enemies of the throne.
And so the priests blessed the cannon, and the people baptized it, and called it Marie-Jeanne, and the women brought out their little children, and sat them straddle-legged across it, whole rows of them at the same time, till the cannon looked like a huge bunch of grapes on which the fruit clustered thickly. By this time it was dark, and the people lighted huge bonfires through the town, and the children remained up, and as many as could cling on it still sat upon the cannon, and ropes were got and fastened to it, and all the girls of St. Florent dragged Marie-Jeanne round the town, and at last she was dragged into the yard of the auberge, in front of which the fight had commenced, and there she was left for the night, under a strong guard.
While these rejoicings were going on out of doors, Cathelineau and Forte, the two priests, and a few others--the wise men of the town--were collected together within the auberge, and were consulting as to their future proceedings.
"We have done much," said Cathelineau, "and I rejoice at it. Too much, a great deal, for us now to remain idle. We cannot go back. We are now the enemies of the Republic, and we must attack our enemies elsewhere, or they will attack and overwhelm us in our little town."
They then determined that Cathelineau, on the next morning, should address the people from the window of the market-place, and that afterwards he and Forte should go through the neighbouring country and implore the assistance of the people, of the gentry, the priests, the farmers, and the peasants, in opposing the hated levy of the Republican forces; but first they would go to the gentry, and the names of many were mentioned whom it was thought would be sure to join them. The first was that of Henri de Larochejaquelin, and the next that of his friend M. de Lescure. Who loved the people so well as they, and whom did the people love so truly? Yes, they would call on young Larochejaquelin and his friend to be their leaders.
Early on the morrow, the postillion addressed the people from the market-place. He did not seek to himself the honour of doing so, nor, when he was asked to come forward as the leader of the people, did he refuse to do so. He was not covetous of the honour, but he would not refuse the danger. During the whole of the combat every one had looked to him as to the leader. He had not constituted himself the people's general, he had not for a moment thought of assuming the position; but he as little thought of refusing the danger or the responsibility, when the duties of a general seemed, by the will of all, to fall to his lot.
"Friends," said he, addressing them from the market-house, "we have saved ourselves for a while from the grasp of the Republic. But for the battle of yesterday, every one here would have a brother, a son, or a cousin, now enrolled as a conscript in the army of the Convention. Many of yourselves would have been conscripts, and would have this morning waked to the loss of your liberty. We did much yesterday when we bound the hands of the soldiers; but we have much more to do than we have yet done. Already in Nantes and in Angers are they talking of what we
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