When precaution and mistrust dominate the bravest man

The year VI of the French Republic, a man was walking with great difficulty, in the last rays of the setting sun which fell diagonally on the dark forest of Cérisy. We were entering a heatwave, and although it was nearly seven in the evening, the heat, unbearable all day, was overwhelming.[Pg 63] The orb of the sun, red and swarming like an inferno, looked like, leaning towards the horizon, a ton of smashed fire, which had been half-poured on the earth. The air was windless, and in the dull atmosphere no tree moved, from trunk to stem. To borrow from Maître Tainnebouy (whom I will often recall in this story) an energetic and familiar expression: we cooked in our own juice. The man who was advancing to the edge of the forest seemed broken with fatigue. He had perhaps walked since morning and heaped upon him the heavy influences of that long and consuming day. Whatever the case may be in this regard, in the eyes of any person accustomed to the facts of that time and who had informed this stranger, he would not have been an ordinary traveler, armed, as a precaution, to walk along the edges of this forest, reputed to be so dangerous that public cars did not cross it without a gendarmerie escort. By his turn, his costume, that je ne sais quoi that rises like a voice from the mute form of a man, it was easy, if not to recognize, at least to suspect who he was, while astonished to see him wandering alone at an hour in the evening when the day was still so high. Indeed, it must have been a Chouan! His clothes were a similar gray astonishing to see him wandering alone at an hour in the evening when the day was still so high. Indeed, it must have been a Chouan! His clothes were a similar gray astonishing to see him wandering alone at an hour in the evening when the day was still so high. Indeed, it must have been a Chouan! His clothes were a similar gray[Pg 64] to the plumage of the owl, a color that the Chouans had, as we know, adopted to disorient the eyes and the rifles of the stars when in moonlight or in the dark, they lined up against an old wall, or flattened in a ditch like a heap of dust that the wind would have carried there. These very simple clothes were cut much like those I had seen at Maitre Tainnebouy. Only, instead of the footless boot of our herder, the stranger wore tawny leather gaiters which reached above the knee, and his large hat, folded down like a tank blanket , almost entirely covered his face.

According to the custom of these thicket guerrillas, who recognized each other by mysterious names of war like slogans, in order to offer the enemy only anonymous prisoners, nothing, in the setting of the unknown, did not indicate that he was a leader or a soldier. A belt of the leather of his gaiters supported two pistols and a strong hunting knife, and in his right hand he held a blunderbuss. Usually, the Chouans, who hardly went on an expedition except at night, did not appear on the roads by day with their weapons. But, since no one knew better than them[Pg 65] the state of the country, and as they could have said how many travelers and carriages had to pass in an hour on a certain road, this is what doubtless gave this Chouan, if he was one, his security. The diligence, with its gendarme scarf, had passed in a flood of dust around five o’clock, its usual time. He therefore only exposed himself to encountering a few carts drawn by their four oxen and their two horses, or a few farmers and their wives, mounted on their bidets., and returning quietly from neighboring markets. That was pretty much it. The roads did not resemble what they are today; they were not, as now, incessantly crisscrossed with elegant and rapid cars. Terrified of civil war, the country no longer had those communications which are the circulation of a powerful life. The castles, the pride of hospitable France, were in ruins or abandoned. Luxury was lacking. There were cars only public cars. When we think back to this curious period, we remember the sensation caused, even in Paris, by the famous white carriage of M. de Talleyrand, the first which, I believe, reappeared after the revolution. Besides, to come back to our traveler, at the first suspicious noise,[Pg 66] at the first sight of bad omen, he had only a slight jump to make and he entered the forest.

But if he had thought of all this, calculated it all, it hardly seemed. When precaution and mistrust dominate the bravest man, we can see it in his walk and even in the slightest of his movements. Now, the Chouan, who dragged himself between the two edges of the forest of Cérisy, leaning on his blunderbuss like a beggar leans on his forked and shod stick, not only had the slowness of a terrible fatigue, but the most complete indifference to any present or remote danger. He did not search the thicket with his eyes. He did not strain his neck to listen to the noise of the horses in the distance. He stepped forward recklessly, as if he hadn’t been aware of his own audacity. And, in fact, he didn’t have it. The obsession with a cruel thought or the an immense fatigue prevented him from feeling the throbbing of danger so dear to men of courage. So, in cold blood, he committed great imprudence. He stopped and sat down on the back of the ditch that separated the wood from the road; and there he took off his hat and threw it on the grass, like a man overcome by heat and who wants to breathe.

[Pg 67]

It was then that those who saw him would have understood his carelessness for all possible dangers, had they been gathered around him, and ambushed behind every tree in the forest, which stood on both sides of the path. . Rid of his big hat, his face, which he no longer hid, said more than the most eloquent of languages ​​would have done. Never, perhaps, since Niobe, had the sun illuminated such a poignant image of despair. The most horrible of the pains of the life had encrusted there its last anguish. Handsome, but marked with a fatal seal, the face of the stranger seemed carved in green marble, he was so pale and this greenish and bruised pallor stood out harshly under the band which encircled his temples, for he wore the handkerchief tied around it. of the head, like all Chouans who slept under the stars, and this handkerchief, the corners of which hung behind their ears, was a culvert scarf, smuggled in, as they were beginning to export from Jersey to the coast of France. Glimpsed from below this band of a harsh brilliance, the eyes of the Chouan, surrounded by two circles of an inky black, and whose white appeared whiter by the effect of the contrast, shone with that deep and exasperated fire that ‘light in the eyes[Pg 68] human beings the funereal idea of ​​suicide. They were really scary. For anyone who knows the physiognomy, it was obvious that this man was going to kill himself. In all probability, he was one of those who had taken part in an engagement of republican troops and Chouans, which had taken place in the vicinity of Saint-Lô, that very morning; one of those vanquished from the Pit, who was really the pit of more than one brave man and the last hope of the King’s Hunters. His forehead bore the sinister glow of a disaster greater than the misfortune of a single man. Half upright on his side, like a brave wolf downed, this isolated man had, in the dust of this ditch, an incomparable grandeur, it was the grandeur of the supreme instant … He turned towards the evening sun, who, like a tender executioner, seemed to reckon with melancholy the few moments that remained to him to live, a look of haughty slowness; and his eyes, which he was about to close forever, struggled, without limping, with the ruby ​​disc of the star still dazzling, as if he had sought on this flaming dial if the hour had finally struck on which it was. he was sworn in his soul that he would stop breathing. Who knows? vs’Bras-de-violin happily opened onto a barn’s threshing floor[Pg 69] that intrepid ball of wounded and escaped fire that he led all night long with his shattered arm. Only, for these merry accomplices with eternal hope, and for him, this hour did not have the same stamp. He did not accept his defeat so lightly. Judging by the depth of his grief, he must have been one of the highest leaders of his party, for one only identifies so well with a lost cause, to perish with it, only when one holds on to it by the chain. of command. Resolved therefore to share its destiny, he had opened the vest strictly buttoned on his chest, and, under the shirt stuck to the skin by the clots of coagulated blood, he had taken a sealed parchment which doubtless contained important instructions. ; for, having torn it with his teeth like a cartridge, he ate all the pieces. In his sublime preoccupation, he did not even return his eagle eye to the wound in her breast, which began to flow again … When, on the evening of the battle of the Thirty, Beaumanoir Drinks-de-ton-sang in order to quench his thirst, it was certainly very beautiful, and History has not forgotten this great and fierce spectacle; but perhaps he was less imposing than this solitary Chouan, of whom the ungrateful and ignorant History will not speak, and who, before dying, chewed and swallowed the dispatches soaked in the blood of his[Pg 70] chest, the better to hide them by burying them with him.

And when he had fulfilled this duty of far-sighted fidelity, when of the parchment devoured all that remained between his fingers was the large seal of purple wax, which closed him and which he had respected, an idea, sad as a hope finished, crossed his intrepid soul. Strange and touching at the same time! we saw him dreamily contemplating, and with the adoration wet with tears of boundless love, this stamp with a deep imprint, as if he wanted to engrave a little further in his soul the portrait of a mistress whose would have been idolatrous. What could be more moving than these troubled lions, than these tears falling from their proud eyes which go, rolling on their manes, like the night dew on the fleece of Gideon! And yet, there was no portrait on the frozen wax. It does There was only the escutcheon which usually sealed all dispatches from the House of Bourbon. It was quite simply the crest of the monarchy, the three fleur-de-lis, beautiful as spearheads, with which France had been crowned for so many centuries, and which her rebellious brow no longer wanted! In the eyes of this Chouan, such a sign was the holy emblem of the cause for which he had fought in vain. So he kissed her several times, such a sign was the holy emblem of the cause for which he had fought in vain. So he kissed her several times, such a sign was the holy emblem of the cause for which he had fought in vain. So he kissed her several times,[Pg 71] as the expiring Bayard kissed the cross with his sword. But if the passion of his kisses was as pious as that of the Blameless Knight, it was also more sorry, for the cross spoke of hope, and the arms of France no longer spoke of it! When he had thus appeased the tenderness of his last hour, he who did not have on his sword the sign of divine martyrdom which even orders the heroes to resign themselves and to suffer, he seized near him his companion, his blunderbuss, hot. more of so many deaths that she had given that very morning, and, still silent and without a word or a sigh coming to tremble his lips, tanned by the powder of the cartridge, he leaned the weapon against his male face and kicked the trigger. The blow went off. The Cérisy forest repeated its detonation in bursts which followed one another and rebounded in its roaring echoes. The sun had just disappeared. They had both fallen at the same time, one behind the life, the other behind the horizon.

It was truly a beautiful evening. The air had resumed its silence, and the breeze that rises when the sun is down, as the ball hisses when it has passed, began to gently shake the leaves of the forest and could caress with its breaths the open forehead of the[Pg 72] suicide. A good woman, who prowled by there and who picked up sticks, slowly ascended this ditch which a creature of God had just filled with his clay. Completely occupied with her work, deaf perhaps, or, if she had heard the heart-rending blunderbuss, having taken it for the rifle of some retarded hunter, she accidentally struck the body of the murderer with her hoof. As one can well imagine, she was initially afraid of this corpse; but she had her son at the Chouans. More a mother than a woman, she ended by bowing her old head, thinking of her son, towards the body of the disfigured Chouan, and she put her hand on his heart. Who would’ve believed that? he was still beating. So this old woman did not hesitate any longer. She looked worriedly at the road, the thicket, the clearing; but everywhere seeing no one, and the shadow coming, she loaded the Chouan on her back, in spite of her old age, like a bundle she would have stolen, and she carried it to her hut, located against the edge of the wood. Having laid him down on her pallet, she washed all night long, in the smoky glow of her stifle , the horrible wounds of that head with broken bones and dangling flesh. There were several that crossed in the face of the suicide like inextricable furrows. The blunderbuss was loaded with five or six bullets. Coming out of this flared barrel, they had[Pg 73] radiated in various directions, and it is, without a doubt, to this circumstance that the Chouan owed to not having died instantly. However, the good woman dressed, as best she could, this dreadful bloody mummy, from which all human form had disappeared. Expert in misery, the soul stronger than any disgust, she devoted herself to the task of pity that God sent her at the end of her day, as to the good Samaritan on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho. She was a tough Christian, a woman from a very different time than ours. She had kept that faith of the coalman, which makes virtue effective, encourages good works, and makes charity pass from the heart to the muscles of the hand. She did not imagine that the man who was the object of her pious solicitude had turned against himself an impious violence. A sign, which she found on this man, would have torn her away from the horror of this thought, if she had been able to conceive it. Royalist, because she honored God, she did not doubt that blue bullets had made the wounds she was healing, and this was a new reason for her to treat them with a devotion and more warm and tender. You had to see her, this hospitable suffering! When she had finished sponging, bathing and closing with the shreds of her poor shirts and this was a new reason for him to take care of them with a more warm and tender devotion. You had to see her, this hospitable sufferer! When she had finished sponging, bathing and closing with the shreds of her poor shirts and this was a new reason for him to take care of them with a more warm and tender devotion. You had to see her, this hospitable suffering! When she had finished sponging, bathing and closing with the shreds of her poor shirts[Pg 74] torn to pieces, these terrible wounds, she knelt before an image of the Virgin, and prayed for this Chouan, torn with pain. Was the Virgin Mother answering him? … Still, the wounded was slow to die.

However, about ten days had passed since Marie Hecquet (that is the name of our good wife) had picked up the expiring Chouan. Isolated on the edge of this lonely wood, having neither neighbors nor neighbors, she was not exposed to any awkward or enemy questioning. On this side, at least, she was quiet. But as in a time of civil unrest, one cannot exaggerate prudence, she had buried the weapons and the clothes of Chouan in a corner of her cottage, ready to trick if the Blues passed, and to tell them that this wounded man who was dying was his son. She did not fear some noble imprudence from him. His injuries did not allow him to articulate a single word.

“That if the Blues, she thought, had seen him sometimes in the smoke of gunpowder and in face to face combat, they certainly could not!” not recognize him, because his mother, his mother herself, if this man still had one, would not have recognized him. ”

Everything seemed to favor his work of[Pg 75] pious charity; but the urn of destiny is more treacherous than that of Pandora. We believe we have emptied it of all the misfortunes of life, that we realize that there is still a double bottom and that it is quite full!

It was an evening, like the day of the suicide, a long, orange, silent evening. Marie Hecquet, at the threshold of her open door, through which came to the wounded man that air of the woods which carries life in its perfumed emanations, was washing in a tub placed in front of her the linen reddened with several strips. Like all those plebeians who are so easily heroic when they have a heart, like all those Marthe de l’Évangile who always act, but in whom action does not stifle thought, any more than work in the fields stifles and does not breeze child they will often carry within them the mother Hecquet watched his patient, though her hands plunged in the brewbloody from her soap and that she seemed absorbed in what she was doing. A little bell, which could not be seen, tinkled quite near there. It was not the faint bell of one of those sparkling hermit chapels, once built in the depths of the woods, for the churches were not yet reopening. It was the tinterelle of some clog-maker hut which marked the hours and the end of work and of the day.[Pg 76] But for Marie Hecquet, this ancient woman, remained firm of heart in the religion of her fathers and in the memories of her cradle, these seven o’clock striking, anywhere, had remained the blessed hour which once descended from the steeples, in silent present, in the countryside, and who invited to evening prayer. So, as soon as she heard them, she let fall to the bottom of the tub the linen which she was twisting and which she was going to spread on the neighboring hazel tree, and carrying her old wet hand to this forehead yellow as boxwood in the eyes of men, but pure as gold in the sight of God, she began, the noble good woman, to recite her Angelus .

What should save us can ruin us. This sign of the cross was his misfortune.

Five Blues, stealthily out of the forest opposite, had stopped on the edge of the path. Leaning on their rifles, awake, silent, their eyes plunging in all directions of the road, they watched here and there, like dogs beating the bush and raising game. Their game was human! They were hunting in Chouan. They hoped to seize, after their recent defeat, some of these bold partisans, scattered in the country. For a few minutes now they had been showing each other by signs,[Pg 77] the open cottage of Mother Hecquet, whose clay the evening reddened, and that poor woman who soaped at her threshold. When she straightened her body bent over her work to make the sign of Redemption, at this sign they had been taught to curse, they no longer doubted that she was a Chouanne, and they advanced on her, pushing shouts.

-Alas! they are drivers, she said. Jesus! have mercy on us!

“Brigande,” said the head of the troop, “we saw you muttering your prayer; you must have Chouans hidden in your kennel.

“I only have my son who is dying,” she said, “and who injured his head when he came back from hunting. And she followed them, pale and trembling, for they had rushed into the house as a band of savages would have done.

They went to bed first, discovered with their brutal hands the wounded man devoured with fever, and almost stepped back when they saw that swollen, hideous, enormous head, masked with bands and dried blood.

-That! your son! said the one who had already spoken. For your son, his hands are very white, he added, lifting with the scabbard of his sword one of the Chouan’s hands which was hanging out of bed. By keeping my lighter, you lie, old lady! It’s some wounded from the pit[Pg 78] who will have dragged himself here after the debacle. Why didn’t you let him die? You deserve that I had you shot right now, or that my comrades and I roast with the planks of your tub the broom handles that serve as your legs! Pick up such cattle! Lucky for your skin that the brigand is devilishly ill. Our comrades have arranged it in the beautiful way, it seems. A thousand heads of a king! what the head of a slaughtered boar! It is not worth the bullet that sleeps in the barrels of our rifles. We will spare our powder and let it die on its own. We have our sabers well; but it will not be said that we have come here to shorten his sufferings by finishing him at once. No, in hell! Come on, the old goat! give us a drink! Do you have cider? that we can drink to the Republic, while watching that brigand dying!

Unhappy Marie Hecquet felt her fingernails darken with terror at such words; but pushing back her emotions, she went to draw from a small cask, placed at the foot of her bed, the cider requested by Blue. She placed it in a pewter pot, with buckets of Monroc, her humble crockery, on a table that the ax had barely trimmed. The five requisitioners of the Republic sat down on the[Pg 79] bench which always surrounds the poorest Norman tables, and the pot, circulating, fills up ten times. They cared little about running out of the old woman’s supply; and she, too happy to see, at this price, their distracted attention, went back and forth in the cottage, sometimes sweeping the threshing floor, sometimes reviving the ashes of the hearth, to make the water warm , like the poet’s Baucis.necessary for the dressing of the evening, when his terrible hosts were gone. The speeches of the Blues, who were getting more and more excited by talking and drinking, further increased Marie Hecquet’s first fears. From time to time he mingled with these speeches the disastrous names of Rossignol and Pierrot, especially of Pierrot, this Cacus whose ferocities had the grandiose of his strength, and who amused himself by breaking, as he had broken a branch of a tree. tree, the kidneys of his prisoners on his knee. Such speeches were well worthy, moreover, of soldiers irritated like them by the fanaticism and the resistance of civil wars, whose character is to be pitiless like all that depends on convictions. Depraved by these relentless wars, these five Blues were none of those noble soldiers of Hoche or Marceau whom the soul of their generals seemed to animate. Every wine has its lees, every army its goujats. They[Pg 80] were those horrible rascals that one finds in the depths of any war, that inevitable race of jackals that come to stain the blood they lapped after the lions have passed! In short, they were stragglers belonging to those bands of drivers then so dreaded in the West, who, by the excess of their barbarities, had called, it must be admitted, for cruel reprisals. Marie Hecquet had often heard of these bandits from travelers and farmers. She even remembered a dreadful story that her son, a clog maker in the forest, and who sometimes came to see her between two nocturnal expeditions, had recently told her with the indignation of a rebellious Chouan soul. It was the story of this lord of Pontécoulant (I believe) whose, in the morning, in thedawn sun , they had found their heads cut off and placed — filthy and insulting mockery! —in a chamber pot, on one of the windows placed at the rising of his devastated castle [3] .


Such stories, such memories cast their reflection on these sinister Blues and made her shudder, she who was neither weak nor mad, at each atrocious joke of these men, drinking with a cannibal’s joy, beside the[Pg 81] Chouan torture bed. “Maybe it’s the assassins of Pontécoulant,” she thought. Night was advancing. Was it the influence of these shadows and these shadows, for the night smolders the crimes in villainous hearts, was it rather the overheating of drunkenness, or even the odious remorse that rises in souls? perverse, when they suspended the accomplishment of a crime or left some dreadful plan there, who knows? … but as the night fell darker on the cottage, the thoughts of vengeance and blood resumed these Blues and rose in their hearts. The Chouan, overturned on his pallet, expired without even being able to cry out in pain. The bandages that bound his shattered face pressed a silence as heavy as a wall against his mouth. He wasn’t moaning, but his breathing was cut short,

“This Chouan annoys me at the end with his groan! said the leader of the Five, and temptation[Pg 82] takes to send it to hell, before you go!

Tope! said another, perhaps the most repulsive of the troop: a crushed and livid head, with the temples of a viper, emerging from an enormous wine-colored tie, transformed for the moment into a suitcase, for it contained a spare, stolen the day before from a priest; this man was the horrible and the buffoon combined. Tope, sergeant! he repeated in a hoarse voice, that is speaking like a man. Let’s kill this Chouan after this pint, because we can’t drink here until tomorrow morning. But how to kill him? You said it earlier, citizen sergeant, the torches of the Infernal Columns did not come here to shorten the sufferings of a chouanaille who is enjoying at this moment all the tastes of hell, if there is has one. It would be necessary to invent an agony for him which would give him, before the final tumble,

“By the devil and his horns!” You are right, Whistle-de-robeur. — Le Bleu, in fact, had his nose cut in this amiable form, and from it he drew his nom de guerre. — He must be killed, as Captain Morisset says, with intelligence of the thing . I train you in council of war, citizens, to deliberate on the kind of death that should be inflicted on this brigand!

[Pg 83]

And they filled their five buckets with Monroc as if to be inspired.

The unfortunate Marie Hecquet wanted to intervene in the name of all the natural feelings aroused in her heart. She implored, with words of fire and tears, these five men deaf to all pity. It was as though she had told them at first, that she was the mother of the injured man, she was so pathetic in her speeches, her action, her way of begging them! But all was in vain.

“Will you be silent, brigand!” one of them said, sending him a blow with the butt of his rifle in the back.

“Get hold of that old witch, Sans-Façon,” continued the sergeant, “and give her a gag with the hilt of your saber so that she does not disturb the deliberations of the council of war with her cries!”

But the woman of the people, which is not afraid his sentence, and who knows how, as they say, the hands-on , had in Marie Hecquet a last movement of energy, betrayed, alas! through old age. When she saw the Blue coming to her she wanted to take a burning brand from the hearth, to defend herself against the outrageous aggression, but before she could seize the weapon she was looking for, he had already knocked it down. , and it contained it.

[Pg 84]

“Now, citizens,” said the sergeant, “let’s deliberate.

And they deliberated. Ten different kinds of death were proposed; ten frightful varieties of martyrdom!

The pen refuses to trace this chaos of thoughts of delirious executioners, this puzzle of appalling proposals which mingled and shocked each other. The leader of these bandits was disgusted with the hideous verve and anarchy of his council, where, as in any council, every opinion wanted to prevail.

“We are fools! he cried, closing the discussion with a punch on the table. All in all, I was never in favor of killing this Chouan who, as he is, would be too happy to die. But here are my farewells to his damned carcass. Look!

He walked to the bed of the Chouan, and seizing with his nails the ligatures of his face, he tore them with such force that they cracked, broke, and had to bring back to their broken sections pieces of living flesh, removed from the wounds. that were starting to close. All this was heard rather than seen, for it was quite dark, but it was something so dreadful to hear that Marie Hecquet fainted.

A hoarse roar that had nothing left[Pg 85] from the man came, no longer from the wounded man’s chest, but as from the depths of his flanks. It was the power of life forced by pain into its last lair and uttering a last cry.

“And now,” said the execrable sergeant of the Infernal Columns, “show the Chouan with fire!”

And the five of them took red embers from the blazing hearth, and they sprinkled it over that face, which was no longer a face. The fire was extinguished in the blood, the red embers disappeared in these wounds as if it had been thrown into a sieve.

“Let him live now, if he can live,” said the sergeant, “and let the old woman do her laundry if she wants.” Leave them as they are, to the devils! Here is the night; you can’t see your fist in front of you in this hut, since we took the fire to cook the grill of this Chouan. We must go. Raise your guns, comrades, and go ahead! …

And they went away. What happened after they left? such a detail hardly matters to this story. Let it be known only that the disfigured Chouan did not die. The beams of the blunderbuss had saved his life. The swelling of the face, which hid his eyes when the Blues powdered his wounds with fire, the[Pg 86] saved from blindness [4] . After the Chouannerie war, and when the churches were reopened, we saw him one day stand in a stall, at Blanchelande vespers, wrapped in a black hood. He was the former monk of the devastated abbey: the famous abbot of Croix-Jugan.