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- La Vendee - 60/91 -
the Chevalier occupied a chair on the other side of a table on which the prisoner and the priest were leaning. When Santerre found that he and his men were in the hands of the royalist peasants, he at first rather lost both his temper and his presence of mind. He saw at once that resistance was out of the question, and that there was very little chance that he would be able to escape; he began to accuse himself of rashness in having accepted from the Convention the very disagreeable commission which had brought him into his present plight, and to wish that he was once more among his legitimate adherents in the Quartier St. Antoine. He soon, however, regained his equanimity. Those whom he had in his rough manner treated well, returned the compliment; and he perceived that, though he would probably be kept a prisoner, his life would not be in danger, and that the royalists were not inclined to treat him either with insult or severity.
He by degrees got into conversation with the Chevalier; and before the day was over, even Father Jerome, much as he abhorred a republican, and especially a leader of republicans, and an infidel, as he presumed Santerre to be, forgot his disgust, and chatted freely with the captive Commissioner. The three dined together in the afternoon, and when de Lescure entered the room, wine and glasses were still on the table. A crowd of the royalist peasants followed de Lescure to the door of the salon, and would have entered it with him, had not Chapeau, with much difficulty, restrained them. They were most anxious to hear sentence pronounced on the traitor, who had betrayed their cause, and insulted the sister of their favourite leader; and could not understand why the punishment, which he had so richly merited, should be delayed. All that Chapeau and Father Jerome had ventured to ask of them was to wait till Henri himself should arrive; and now, that he had come, they conceived that judgment should at once be passed, and sentence of death immediately executed.
When de Lescure entered the room, they all, except Denot, rose from their chairs; the three guards stood up, and shouldered their muskets, the Chevalier ran up to him to shake hands with him, and Father Jerome also came out into the middle of the room to meet him. He looked first at Denot, who kept his eyes steadily fixed on the ground; and then at Santerre, whom he had never, to his knowledge, seen before. Santerre, however, knew him, for he immediately called him by his name.
"My soldiers have met with a reverse, General de Lescure," said he, "which has thrown me and them into the power of your friends. I take the earliest opportunity of thanking you for the kind treatment we have received."
"If, at some future time, when our soldiers may be in your power, you will remember it; the Marquis de Larochejaquelin will feel himself amply repaid for such attention as he has been able to shew you," said de Lescure.
"You know we were in General Santerre's power last night," said the Chevalier; "and he could have shot us all had he pleased it; indeed we all expected it, when the blues came upon us."
"They shall not find that we will be less merciful, Arthur," said de Lescure. "General Santerre knows that the Vendean royalists have never disgraced themselves by shedding the blood of the prisoners whom the chance of war may have thrown into their hands. He knows that they can be brave without being cruel. I grieve to say that the republicans have hitherto not often allowed us to repay mercy with mercy. We shall now be glad to take advantage of the opportunity of doing so."
"What will you do with him, M. de Lescure," said Father Jerome in a whisper, pointing to Denot. "I never before saw the people greedy for blood; but now they declare that no mercy should be shown to a traitor."
"We must teach them, Father Jerome, that it is God's will that those who wish to be pardoned themselves must pardon others. You have taught them lessons more difficult to learn than this; and I do not doubt that in this, as in other things, they will obey their priest." And as he spoke de Lescure laid his hand on the Curé's shoulder.
"You won't hang him then?" whispered the Chevalier.
"You wouldn't have me do so, would you, Arthur?"
"Who--I?" said the boy. "No--that is, I don't know. I wouldn't like to have to say that anybody should be hung; but if anybody ever did deserve it, he does."
"And you, Father Jerome?" said de Lescure, "you agree with me? You would not have us sully our pure cause with a cold-blooded execution?"
The three were now standing at an open window, looking into the garden. Their backs were turned to Santerre and Denot, and they were speaking in low whispers; but nevertheless Denot either guessed or overheard that he was the subject of their conversation. The priest did not immediately answer de Lescure's appeal. In his heart he thought that the circumstances not only justified, but demanded the traitor's death; but, remembering his profession, and the lessons of mercy it was his chief business to teach, he hesitated to be the first to say that he thought the young man should be doomed.
"Well, Father Jerome," said de Lescure, looking into the priest's face, "surely you have no difficulty in answering me?"
The Curé was saved the necessity of answering the appeal; for while he was still balancing between what he thought to be his duty, and that which was certainly his inclination, Denot himself interrupted the whisperers.
"M. de Lescure," said he, in the deep, hoarse, would-be solemn voice, which he now always affected to use. De Lescure turned quickly round, and so did his companions. The words of a man who thinks that he is almost immediately about to die are always interesting.
"If you are talking about me," said the unfortunate wretch, "pray spare yourself the trouble. I neither ask, nor wish for any mercy at your hands. I am ready to die."
As de Lescure looked at him, and observed the alteration which a few weeks had made in his appearance--his sunken, sallow cheeks; his wild and bloodshot eyes; his ragged, uncombed hair, and soiled garments--as he thought of his own recent intimacy with him--as he remembered how often he had played with him as a child, and associated with him as a man--that till a few days since he had been the bosom friend of his own more than brother, Henri Larochejaquelin, the tears rushed to his eyes and down his cheeks. In that moment the scene in the council-room at Saumur came to his mind, and he remembered that there he had rebuked Adolphe Denot for his false ambition, and had probably been the means of driving him to the horrid crime which he had committed. Though he knew that the traitor's iniquity admitted of no excuse, he sympathized with the sufferings which had brought him to his present condition. He turned away his head, as the tears rolled down his cheeks, and felt that he was unable to speak to the miserable man.
Had de Lescure upbraided him, Denot's spirit, affected and unreal as it was, would have enabled him to endure it without flinching. He would have answered the anger of his former friend with bombast, and might very probably have mustered courage enough to support the same character till they led him out to death. But de Lescure's tears affected him. He felt that he was pitied; and though his pride revolted against the commiseration of those whom he had injured, his heart was touched, and his voice faltered, as he again declared that he desired no mercy, and that he was ready to die.
"Ready to die!" said the Curé, "and with such a weight of sin upon your conscience; ready to be hurried before the eternal judgment seat, without having acknowledged, even in your own heart, the iniquity of your transgressions!"
"That, Sir, is my concern," said Denot. "I knew the dangers of the task before I undertook it, and I can bear the penalties of failure without flinching. I fear them not, either in this world or in any other world to come."
De Lescure, overcome with distress, paced up and down the room tifi Chapeau entered it, and whispered to him, that the peasants outside were anxious to know what next they were to do, and that they were clamorous for Denot's execution. "They are determined to hang him," continued Chapeau, who had induced de Lescure to leave the room, and was now speaking to him in the hall. "They say that you and M. Henri may do what you please about Santerre and the soldiers, but that Adolphe Denot has betrayed the cause, insulted Mademoiselle, and proved himself unfit to live; and that they will not leave the château as long as a breath of life remains in his body."
"And you, Chapeau, what did you say to them in reply?"
"Oh, M. de Lescure, of course I said that that must be as you and M. Henri pleased."
"Well, Chapeau, now go and tell them this," said de Lescure: "tell them that we will not consent that this poor wretch shall be killed, and that his miserable life has already been granted to him. Tell them also, that if they choose to forget their duty, their obedience, and their oaths, and attempt to seize Denot's person, neither I nor M. Henri will ever again accompany them to battle, and that they shall not lay a hand upon him till they have passed over our bodies. Do you understand?"
Chapeau said that he did understand, and with a somewhat melancholy face, he returned to the noisy crowd, who were waiting for their victim in the front of the house. "Well, Jacques," said one of them, an elderly man, who had for the time taken upon himself the duties of a leader among them, and who was most loud in demanding that sentence should be passed upon Denot. "We are ready, and the rope is ready, and the gallows is ready, and we are only waiting for the traitor. We don't want to hurry M. Henri or M. de Lescure, but we hope they will not keep us waiting much longer."
"You need not wait any longer," said Chapeau, "for Adolphe Denot is not to be hung at all. M. de Lescure has pardoned him. Yes, my friends, you will be spared an unpleasant job, and the rope and the tree will not be contaminated."
"Pardoned him--pardoned Adolphe Denot--pardoned the traitor who brought Santerre and the republicans to Durbellière--pardoned the wretch who so grossly insulted Mademoiselle Agatha, and nearly killed M. le Marquis," cried one after another immediately round the door. "If we pardon him, there will be an end of honesty and good faith. We will pardon our enemies, because M. de Lescure asks us. We will willingly pardon this Santerre and all his men. We will pardon everything and anybody, if M. Henri or M de Lescure asks it, except treason, and except a traitor. Go in, Jacques, and say that we will never consent to forgive the wretch who insulted Mademoiselle Larochejaquelin. By all that is sacred we will hang him!"
"If you do, my friends," answered Chapeau, "you must kill M. de Lescure first, for he will defend him with his own body and his own sword."
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