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Honore De Balzac - The Chouans (1829)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The "Chouans" were the French royalists of Maine and Brittany who revolted against the French conventions in 1792. Chouan signifies an owl, and may have been a nickname of Jean Cottereau, who led the insurgents, or perhaps the hoot of an owl was used to summon the men to their rendezvous. The romantic side of this movement was utilized by Balzac, and his plot was subsequently dramatized, Madame Modjeska, the Polish actress, enacting the role of the heroine. This novel was the first to be published under Balzac's name, with the title Le Dernier Chouan ("The Last Chouan").

TOWARD the end of September, 1799, a hundred or more conscripts, in charge of a detachment of a hundred and fifty soldiers, were slowly climbing the Pilgrim Hill, in Brittany, half-way between Fougeres and Ernee, a little town used by travelers as a half-way house. Among them were a few townspeople, but the greater part were barefooted peasants, with no garments but a large goatskin, which covered them from neck to knee, and breeches of the coarsest white linen. The straight locks of their long hair falling on their shoulders mingled with the goatskin and so hid their faces that they might easily be confounded with the animals whose spoils served to clothe them. They were the contingent extracted with great difficulty from the district of Fougeres to fill the levy ordered by the Directory of the French Republic. The Government had asked for a hundred millions of money and a hundred thousand men, to reenforce its armies, then in process of defeat by the Austrians in Italy, by the Prussians in Germany, and by Suwaroff and his Russians in Switzerland.

Brittany was divided at the time into two hostile camps, the adherents and the opponents of the Government. The latter, called in the Bas Breton dialect Chouans (" screech-owls "), from their peculiar cry of recognition, were made up chiefly of peasantry who, driven to rebellion by heavy taxes, by persecution of their religion, or by fear of being enrolled in the armies of the Republic, supported the royalist party, but often, under pretense of waging war for the King, infested the roads, pillaged villages, and committed all sorts of depredations. The Bretons were therefore strongly averse to military service, and the Commandant of the Blues, as the troops of the Republic were called, from their blue uniforms faced with red, was anxious to reach Alencon with his levies, so as to he in a more populous district. Before quitting Fougeres, Commandant Hulot had secretly provided his soldiers with ammunition and with rations for the whole party; and he had resolved not to halt at Ernee, the usual resting-place, for fear that his contingent might open communication with the Chouans, who were doubt-less spread over the neighboring country. In going up the hill the conscripts had lagged so in their march that they had put two hundred paces between them and their escort. When Commandant Hulot observed this, he cried, in a voice deepened by the hardships of war:

"Why the devil do they not come on?" .

"You want to know why?" answered a voice.

The Commandant turned sharply around as if a sword-point had pricked him, and saw, two paces off, a figure odder than any of the others—a short, stoutly-built man with broad shoulders, a head nearly as large as a bull's, with blubber lips, flapping ears, and red hair, which made him seem akin rather to cattle than to mankind. His long hair fell on each side of his face and mingled with that of the shaggy goatskin, and his feet were hidden in huge wooden shoes. Instead of the knotty stick borne by the conscripts he carried a large whip, the plaited lash of which seemed twice the length of an ordinary whip-lash. Hulot, surprised at the man's arrival, scanned him from head to foot, and repeated in a mechanical fashion, "Yes; why do they not come on? do you know, man?"

"The reason," replied his sinister interlocutor, in an accent showing that he spoke French with difficulty, "the reason is," and he pointed with his huge rough hand to Ernee, "that there is Maine, and here Brittany ends."

Hulot looked at him with piercing eyes, and asked, " Whence come you?"

"From the country of the Gars."

"Your name?"

"Marche-a-Terre."

"Why do you use your Chouan name in spite of the law?"

But Marche-a-Terre stared with such an air of imbecility that the Commandant thought he had not understood him.

"Are you one of the Fougeres contingent?"

"I don't know," replied the man, in a tone which arrests further inquiry in despair. He calmly seated himself by the roadside, drew from his smock some pieces of black buckwheat cake, and began to eat with a stolid nonchalance.

Hulot now noticed that the man's hair, smock, and goat-skins were covered with thorns and scraps of leaves, as if he had made a long journey through dense thickets. He whispered to Gerard, his adjutant, "We came for wool, and we shall go home shorn."

"Are we then really in danger?" asked Gerard.

"Hist!" said the Commandant. "We are in the wolf's throat. Luckily, we hold the top of the ridge. Friends," he continued, speaking in low tones to Captain Merle and Adjutant Gerard, "I have private information of the mess we are in. Fouche has found out that Louis XVIII has sent here a man full of talent and vigor, a ci-devant, whose hope is to unite Vendeans and Chouans. The fellow has actually landed in Morbihan. He calls himself ' the Gars.' For all these cattle fit themselves with names that would give an honest patriot the stomach-ache if he bore them. Moreover, our man is about here; and the appearance of this Chouan shows me that he is upon us. But they don't teach tricks to an old monkey."

Hulot now sent scouts ahead to examine the woods on each side of the road, set two men to watch Marche-a-Terre, with orders to shoot him at any suspicious movement, and drew up his men in battle array. The, conscripts were huddled together thirty paces in the rear, and ten paces back of them was a squad of soldiers under Lieutenant Lebrun. Just then an owl hooted afar off. Hulot took his eyes off Marche-a-Terre for an instant. The Chouan whistled in a way to send the sound to a great distance, and before his watchers could take aim at him, he struck both down with his whip and disappeared in the thicket. As he ran his sabots dropped off, and all could see on his feet the hobnailed shoes worn by the " King's Hunts-men," as the royalists called themselves.

At the Chouans' signal the whole gathering of conscripts dashed into the wood like a flock of birds. At the same time cries or rather savage howls arose, and a heavy volley from the wood at the top of the slope laid low seven or eight soldiers. Hulot sent two detachments, under Gerard and Merle, to take the Chouans on the flanks. Three hundred of the enemy debouched from the wood and formed in a disorderly way across the road in front of the Blues, and would probably have succeeded in surrounding the little company if the wings had not raked their rear with several volleys, which almost equalized their numbers. The Blues then dashed on them with the bayonet, and both sides gave themselves up to the furious zeal which made this war unique, each in silence broken only by the clash of arms and the crunching of the gravel.

Hulot soon distinguished among the Chouans a man who, surrounded by a few picked followers, seemed to be their leader. Beside him stood Marche-a-Terre, whose rifle was always active, repeating his orders in a harsh tone. The young leader, slender and well proportioned, seemed to Hulot to be not more than twenty-five years old. He wore a green cloth shooting-coat, and the Commandant thought he saw on his half-opened waistcoat a broad red ribbon. Of his features, he could distinguish only sparkling eyes, fair hair, and a finely cut profile. His bearing was marked at once by elegance and strength, making him a pleasing type of the French noblesse, in strong contrast with the Republican leader.

Victory might have remained undecided for hours, if the sound of a drum had not announced the coming of the National Guard of Fougeres, for which Hulot had despatched a messenger. On hearing the approach of reenforcements for the Blues, the Chouans sullenly fell back, fighting every inch of ground, and finally disappeared over the ridge as the men of Fougeres came on a run to the battle-field.

Some time after this engagement, Commandant Hulot received orders to escort the mail-coach containing two ladies from Mayenne to Mortagne. As the Chouans were about the latter place, he took two companies and his trusty officers, Merle and Gerard.

"May they make a noble of me," he exclaimed, "if I under-stand a word of my despatches. But I dare say I am only a fool. Don't these Paris dandies request us to show the greatest respect to their d ___ d females? Look at the First Consul: there's a man for you; no women about him, always attending to his business."

One company of the escort preceded the coach and one followed it. The two travelers were Mademoiselle de Verneuil and her maid Francine. They were apparently accompanied by Monsieur Corentin, a thin, dried-up little man, who rode sometimes before and sometimes behind the carriage, but no one ever saw him address the ladies. His costume, in the fashion which called forth the caricatures of the Incroyables, roused Hulot's ire and caused some uncomplimentary remarks to his officers.

At Alencon the coach stopped at the Three Moors, an inn in the High Street, for breakfast.

As the travelers were evidently of importance, and time was precious, the innkeeper suggested that they should join a party, the Citizen du Gua Saint-Cyr and his mother, Madame du Gua, who had breakfast ready to be served in a private room upstairs. As he made this suggestion, a short, thick-set man came noiselessly in, touched the innkeeper with his whip, and whispered in his ear: "You know what any imprudence or any tale-bearing means?" With this he made a gesture which caused the land-lord to turn pale. Francine, the lady's maid, thought she recognized the speaker, and, to make sure, ran to a window and watched him as he went to the stable. From his walk and gestures she knew him to be the Chouan called Marche-a-Terre. Her curiosity was excited, but she determined to keep her discovery to herself and watch events.

Just then a young man, who stood on the staircase and had seen the travelers come in, said, looking at Mademoiselle de Verneuil, "If it is this young citizeness that you mean to give us as a guest, in my mother's absence I accept."

The speaker wore the blue coat and black gaiters of the students of the Ecole Polytechnique, but Mademoiselle de Verneuil distinguished at a glance under this sober costume an elegant form and the marks of native nobility. She bent her head gracefully, smiled coquettishly, and darted one of those velvet glances which would rekindle a heart dead to love, with her long lashes drooping over her almond-shaped black eyes, and said in her most melodious tones, "We are very much obliged to you, sir." She and Francine then disappeared up the stairs, leaving the young man to settle with himself whether her reply implied. acceptance or refusal.

"Who is the woman?" he asked of the host.

"'Tis the Citizeness Verneuil," replied Corentin, in a sour tone, scanning the young man jealously, "and she is a ci-levant. What do you want with her?"

The student, who was humming a Republican song, lifted his head haughtily. The two glared at each other, and the glance was the seed of a mutual and eternal hatred.

"That fellow," whispered the young man to the hostess, "is a spy of Fouche's. Police is written on his face." Then, to a lady who entered the room, "Dear mamma, I have mustered some guests in your absence."

"Guests!" she exclaimed; "what madness!"

"'Tis Mademoiselle de Verneuil," he replied, in a low tone. "She perished on the scaffold after the affair at Savenay," said his mother sharply.

"You mistake, Madame," said Corentin gently, "there are two Demoiselles de Verneuil."

Corentin, who had been privately studying her, saw a lady with a dazzling skin and luxuriant black hair, with a face that showed mental power, but he did not believe that she could be the mother of the young man. He noted too that her mantle was of English stuff, and that the shape of her bonnet was foreign.

"If she is his mother," thought he, "then I am the Pope! I have got hold of some Chouans; let us make sure of what their quality is."

At the breakfast, which passed off pleasantly, though each endeavored in vain to find out the other's political preferences, Mademoiselle de Verneuil, learning that the destination of the strangers was the same as her own, invited them to share her coach and escort. While they were discussing this, Commandant Hulot entered and stood agape at the sailor, whom he considered with extraordinary attention.

"What's the matter, Commandant? Do you happen to know me?" asked the young man.

"Perhaps so," answered the Republican. "What is your family name?"

"Du Gua Saint-Cyr."

"And have you got papers?"

"Perhaps you want to read them?" said the sailor in an impertinent tone.

"Does a young monkey like you think to make a fool of me?" exclaimed Hulot angrily. "Your papers, or off with you!" "Who are you?"

"The Commandant of the department. Come, your papers!"

Just as the measured tread of soldiers was heard in the street, the young man offered some papers, which Hulot read slowly. During the reading an owl's hoot was heard. The Commandant, handing back the papers, said: "That is all very well, but you must come with me to the district office."

"Why do you take him there?" asked Mademoiselle de Verneuil.

"Young woman," replied Hulot, "that is no business of yours."

Mademoiselle de Verneuil's face flushed and her eyes sparkled. "Tell me," she asked, "has this young man complied with the law's demands?"

"Yes, in appearance," said Hulot ironically.

"Then, you will be good enough to let him alone in appearance," said she. "What do you mean to do with him?"

"Nothing but cool his head with a little lead," said the Commandant ironically. "Come, my fine fellow, come along!"

"Do not stir," said the girl to the young man, with a dignified gesture. Then from her bodice she drew a letter and handed it to Hulot.

"Read that," she said, with a sneer.

Hulot read with stupefaction a letter bearing the ministerial countersign, commanding all authorities to obey the bearer.

Then he drew his sword, broke it across his knee, and threw down the fragments.

"Mademoiselle," said he, "I am not good at obeying where pretty girls command. My resignation shall be sent to the First Consul to-night."

"Colonel," said the fair Parisian, "though your beard is rather long, you may kiss this, for you are a man."

"I hope so, Mademoiselle," said he, depositing clumsily a kiss on her hand. "As for you, my fine fellow, you have had a nice escape."

"For whom did you take my son?" asked Madame du Gua.

"For the Gars, the chief sent to the Chouans and the Vendeans by the London Cabinet—the Marquis de Montauran."

The Commandant abruptly left the room, but Mademoiselle de Verneuil followed, stopped him in the passage, and asked gravely :

"Have you really strong reasons for suspecting this man of being the Gars?"

"God's thunder! Mademoiselle, the fellow who travels with you told me that the travelers Du Gua Saint-Cyr had been assassinated by the Chouans."

"Oh! if Corentin is at the bottom of it," said she, with a contemptuous gesture, "I am surprised at nothing."

As soon as Mademoiselle de Verneuil had left the room, Madame du Gua said to her companion : "Women will certainly be your ruin. Why did you allow her to breakfast with us? She is one of the loose women by whose aid Fouche hopes to seize you, and the letter she showed was given to her in order to command the services of the Blues against yourself."

The result of the foregoing was that the young man, who really was the Gars, and Mademoiselle de Verneuil, who was employed by the Government to entrap him, fell mutually in love. They all traveled together on the way to Fougeres, but night fell before they reached their destination, and, at the invitation of him who called himself Du Gua Saint-Cyr, who gave his word of honor for the safety of all, including the Republican guard, they stopped for the night at the Chateau de la Vivetiere.

To Mademoiselle de Verneuil's astonishment, she found herself, at supper, among a large number of Chouan and Vendean chiefs, met here at an important conference. The Marquis explained to them that he was indebted for his life to the young lady, and that she and her escort were present on his parole, and must be received as friends. Notwithstanding this, Madame du Gua recalled to them that, although their friends in Paris had warned them of just such a snare, Montauran had fallen in love with the girl who, she believed, had stolen a great name in order to disgrace it, and that he appeared to be ready to sacrifice all their interests to satisfy his own love of pleasure. In consequence of her machinations, the entire escort of Blues, numbering sixty-five men, were surrounded in the courtyard by Marche-a-Terre and his men, and butchered, with their officers, Merle and Gerard. At the sound of the firing, everyone rose from the table save Madame du Gua.

"Do not be alarmed," said she; "'tis nothing. Our folks are only killing the Blues!" But as soon as she saw that the Marquis had left the room, she arose and dashed at Mademoiselle de Verneuil like a flash of lightning. " This young lady here," she cried, "came to carry off the Gars from us. She came to try to give him up to the Republic." She tore open her dress and snatched from her bosom a paper. "Here," she cried, "is an order, signed Laplace, and countersigned Dubois. And this is its tenor: `Citizen commandants of the forces of all ranks, district administrators, procurators, syndics, and so forth, in the revolted departments, and especially those of the places where the ci-devant Marquis de Montauran, brigand-chief, surnamed the Gars, may be found, are to afford succor and help to the Citizeness Marie Verneuil, and to obey any orders which she may give them, each in such matters as concern him, etc., etc.'"

"To think of an opera-girl taking an illustrious name to soil it with such infamy!" she added.

Then, not perceiving that the Marquis had come, in, she said to a Chouan: "Take her away, Pille Miche; she is my share of the spoil, and I give her to you. Do with her whatever you like."

Mademoiselle de Verneuil, her eyes flashing fire, darted to the door, where the Marquis was standing. With a glance of hall-irrational hatred, she seized Merle's sword, which had been left there, and drove it on him up to the hilt. But the blade passed between his arm and his side; the Gars caught her by the waist and, aided by Pille Miche, dragged her from the room. At this, Francine, uttering piercing cries, followed her mistress, shrieking "Pierre! Pierre!"

When they led her into the yard and she saw the corpses of the Blues stretched on the straw, she cried with a shudder, "The faith of a gentleman! ha! ha! ha! A happy day!"

"Yes, a happy one," answered the Marquis, "and one with-out a morrow."

He turned bruskly away, leaving Pille Miche his victim. "Marquis!" she said, "God will hear me, and I shall pray Him to give you a happy day without a morrow!"

Madame du Gua did not have her revenge. Francine, whose lover Pierre was the Chouan called Marche-a-Terre, persuaded Pille Miche to sell her mistress, and the two women were hurried into the coach and driven at headlong speed to Fougeres. When Commandant Hulot came to her the next day to demand account of his soldiers, she said : "I shall avenge them. I will lure this young noble into my embraces, and he shall quit them only to take his death journey. The wretch has pronounced his own sentence, `A day without a morrow!' "

To secure this end she went again among the Chouans and attended a ball given by the chiefs at their headquarters at St. James, a little town in Brittany named by the English in the fourteenth century. She made her peace with the Marquis, who, again infatuated with her, accompanied her back until in sight of Fougeres.

They afterward met by stealth at places near the town, and once the Marquis was nearly caught by Hulot and his Blues. At last he offered her his hand and name and promised to risk everything to secure her love.

"The day after to-morrow, if in the morning you see smoke on the rocks of Saint-Sulpice, that evening I shall be at your house as lover, as husband, whichever you will. I shall have put all to the touch!"

"Then, Alphonse, you really love me," she cried with transport, "that you risk your life thus before you give it to me?"

He answered not, but looked at her. Her eyes fell; but he read on the passionate countenance of his mistress a madness equal to his own, and he held out his arms to her.

On the evening of the day set, the Marquis de Montauran, accompanied by a priest, and by two witnesses, the Count de Bauvan and the Baron du Garlic, appeared at the house of Mademoiselle de Verneuil in Fougeres. At the end of the salon an altar had been improvised, and the white-haired priest was arrayed in his sacerdotal garments.

"Leave me alone with the priest," said Mademoiselle de Verneuil.

When the gentlemen had withdrawn, she said: "Father, in my childhood, an old man frequently repeated to me that, with a lively faith, man can obtain everything from God. Is this true?"

"It is true," answered the priest. "Everything is possible to Him who has created everything."

Mademoiselle de Verneuil threw herself on her knees with wonderful enthusiasm. "O God!" said she in her ecstasy, "my faith in Thee is equal to my love for him! Inspire me now: let a miracle be done, or take my life!"

" Your prayer will be heard," said the priest.

And it was answered. Before morning, both their forms, shot to death by Hulot's Blues, lay side by side on a camp-bed in the guard-house.

The dying girl, recognizing her husband, murmured in an almost stifled voice :

" A Day without a Morrow. God has heard my prayer too well!"



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