Balzac’s The Chouans

Novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) was a giant of nineteenth–century European literature. In his multivolume The Human Comedy, he investigated the general desire for social advancement in the post–revolutionary world. Although generally supportive of the Revolution, Balzac could also portray those rebels in the Vendée known as Chouans in a sympathetic or even romantic light, as the last flowering of a doomed plant.


Mlle. de Verneuil came out to meet the eyes of those I assembled, leaning upon the arm of the old white-haired priest. It was a profound emotion hidden in the depths of her heart that gave her to her lover's love; she was more beautiful now than on any bygone day, for such a serenity as painters love to give to martyrs' faces had set its seal upon her, and lent grandeur to her face.

She gave her hand to the Marquis, and together they went towards the altar, where they knelt. This marriage which was about to be solemnized two paces from the nuptial couch; the hastily erected altar, the crucifix, the vases, the chalice brought secretly by the priest, the fumes of incense floating beneath the cornices, which hitherto had only seen the steam of everyday meals, the priest, who had simply slipped a stole over his cassock, the altar candles in a dwelling-room,—all united to make a strange and touching scene which completes the picture of those days of sorrowful memory, when civil discord had overthrown the most sacred institutions. In those times religious ceremonies had all the charm of mysteries. Children were privately baptized in the rooms where their mothers still groaned. As of old, the Lord went in simplicity and poverty to console the dying. Young girls received the sacred wafer for the first time on the spot where they had been playing only the night before. The marriage of the Marquis and Mlle. de Verneuil was about to be solemnized, like so many other marriages, with an act forbidden by the new Legislation; but all these marriages, celebrated for the most part beneath the oak trees, were afterwards scrupulously sanctioned by law. The priest who thus preserved the ancient usages to the last was one of those men who are faithful to their principles in the height of the storm. His voice, guiltless of the oath required by the Republic, only breathed words of peace through the tempest. He did not stir up the fires of insurrection, as the Abbé Gudin had been wont to do; but he had devoted himself, like many others, to the dangerous task of fulfilling the duties of the priest towards such souls as remained faithful to the Catholic Church. In order to carry out his perilous mission successfully, he made use of all the pious artifices to which persecution compelled him to resort; so that the Marquis had only succeeded in finding him in one of those underground hiding-places which bear the name of "The Priest's Hole," even in our own day. The sight of his pale worn face inspired such devout feelings and respect in others, that it transformed the worldly aspect of the salon, and made it seem like a holy place. Everything was in readiness for the act that should bring misfortune and joy. In the deep silence before the ceremony began the priest asked for the name of the bride.

"Marie-Nathalie, daughter of Mlle. Blanche de Casteran, late Abbess of Notre-Dame de Seez and of Victor-Amedée, Duc de Verneuil."

"Born?"

"At la Chasterie, near Alençon."

"I should not have thought that Montauran would have been fool enough to marry her," the baron whispered to the count. "The natural daughter of a duke! Out upon it!"

"If she had been a king's daughter, he might have been excused," he Comte de Bauvan said, with a smile, "but I am not the one to blame him. I have a liking for the other, and I mean to lay siege to Charette's Filly now. There is not much coo about her!"

Montauran's designations had been previously filled in, the lovers set their names to the document, and the names of the witnesses followed. The ceremony began, and all the while no one but Marie heard the sound of arms and the heavy even tread of the soldiers coming to relieve the Blues, who were, doubtless, on guard before St. Leonard's Church, where she herself had posted them. She shuddered and raised her eyes to the crucifix upon the altar.

"She is a saint!" murmured Francine.

"Give me saints of that sort, and I will turn deucedly devout," the Count said to himself, in a low voice.

When the priest put the usual question to Mlle. de Verneuil, her answering "Yes" came with a heavy sigh. She leaned over, and said in her husband's ear, "In a while you will know why I break the vow that I made never to marry you."

The rite was over, and those who had been present passed out into the room where dinner had been served when, just as the guests were sitting down, Jeremiah came in in a state of great terror. The unhappy bride rose at once and went up to him, followed by Francine. Then making one of the excuses that women can devise so readily, she begged the Marquis to do the honors of the feast by himself for a few moments; and hurried the servant away before he could commit any blunder, that might prove fatal.

"Oh! Francine," she said. "What a thing it is to feel oneself at the brink of death, and to be unable to say, 'I am dying!'"

Mlle. de Verneuil did not return. An excuse for her absence could be found in the ceremony that had just been concluded. When the meal came to an end, and the Marquis's anxiety had risen to its height, Marie came back in all the splendor of her bridal array. She looked calm and happy; while Francine, who returned with her bore traces of such profound terror on all her features that those assembled seemed to see in the faces of the two women some such strange picture as the eccentric brush of Salvator Rosa might have painted, representing Death and Life holding each other by the hand.

"Gentlemen," she said, addressing the priest, the Baron, and the Count, "you must be my guests tonight. Any attempt to leave Fougères would be too hazardous. I have given orders to this good girl here to conduct each of you to his own room. No resistance, I beg," she said, as the priest was about to speak; "I hope that you will not refuse to obey a bride on her wedding day."

An hour later she was alone with her lover in the bridal chamber that she had made so fair. They stood at last beside the fatal couch where so many hopes are blighted as by the tomb, where the chances of an awakening to a happy life are so uncertain, where love dies or comes into being according to the power of the character that is only finally tested there. Marie looked at the clock, and said to herself, "Six hours to live!"

"So I have been able to sleep!" she exclaimed when, as morning drew near, she woke with the shock of the sudden start that disturbs us when we have agreed with ourselves on the previous evening to wake at a certain hour. "Yes, I have slept," she repeated, as she saw by the candlelight that the hand on the dial of the clock pointed to the hour of two. She turned and gazed at the Marquis, who was sleeping with one hand beneath his head, as children do, while the other hand grasped that of his wife. He was half smiling, as though he had fallen asleep in the midst of a kiss. "Ah!" she murmured to herself, "he is slumbering like a child! But how could he feel mistrust of me, of me who owe him unspeakable happiness?"

She touched him gently, he awoke and smiled in earnest. He kissed the hand that he held, and gazed at the unhappy woman before him with such glowing eyes, that she could not endure the passionate light in them, and slowly drooped her heavy eyelids as if to shut out a spectacle fraught with peril for her. But while she thus veiled the growing warmth of her own eyes, she so provoked the desire to which she appeared to refuse herself, that if she had not had a profound dread to conceal, her husband might have reproached her with too much coquetry. They both raised their charming heads at the same moment, with a sign full of gratitude for the pleasures that they had experienced. But after a moment's survey of the exquisite picture presented by his wife's face, the Marquis, thinking that Marie's brow was overshadowed by some feeling of melancholy, said to her softly—"Why that shade of sadness, love?"

"Poor Alphonse, whither do you think I have brought you?" she asked, trembling.

"To happiness."

"Nay, to death."

Quivering with horror, she sprang out of bed, followed by the astonished Marquis. His wife led him to the window. A frenzied gesture escaped Marie as she drew back the curtains and pointed to a score of soldiers in the square. The fog had dispersed, and the white moonlight fell on their uniforms and muskets, on the imperturbable Corentin, who came and went like a jackal on the lookout for his prey, and on the commandant, who stood there motionless with folded arms, with his head thrown back, and his mouth pursed up, in an alert and uneasy attitude.

"Let them be, Marie, and come back."

"Why do you laugh, Alphonse? It was I who posted them there!"

"You are dreaming."

"Nay."

For a moment they looked at each other, and the Marquis understood it all. He clasped her in his arms. "What of that?" he said; "I love you for ever."

"All is not lost, even now!" cried Marie. "Alphonse!" she said, after a pause, "there is yet hope!"

Just then they distinctly heard the stifled cry of a screech-owl, and Francine suddenly entered from the dressing-room.

"Pierre is there!" she cried, in almost frenzied joy.

The Marquise and Francine dressed Montauran in a Chouan's costume with the marvelous quickness that women alone possess. When Marie saw that her husband was busy loading the firearms that Francine had brought for him, she quickly slipped away, making a sign to her faithful Breton maid. Francine led the Marquis into the adjoining dressing-room. At the sight of a number of sheets securely knotted together, the young chief could appreciate the alert activity with which the Breton girl had done her work, as she sought to disappoint the watchfulness of the soldiers.

"I can never get through," the Marquis said, as he made a survey of the narrow embrasure of the round window. But the circular opening was just then blocked up by a great dark countenance; and the hoarse voice, that Francine knew so well, cried softly, "Quick, general! Those toads of Blues are on the move!"

"Oh! one more kiss," said a sweet and trembling voice.

Montauran's feet were set on the ladder by which he was to escape, but he had not yet extricated himself from the window, and felt himself clasped in a desperate embrace. He uttered a cry, for he saw that his wife had dressed herself in his clothes, and tried to hold her fast, but she tore herself hastily from his arms, and he was obliged to descend the ladder. In his hand he kept a scrap of some woven material, and a sudden gleam of moonlight showed him that it must be a strip of the waistcoat that he had worn on the previous evening.

"Halt! Fire by platoons!"

Hulot's words spoken broke the deep stillness that had something hideous about it, and snapped the charm that seemed hitherto to have prevailed over the place and the men in it. The sound of a salvo of balls at the base of the tower in the valley bottom followed hard upon the firing of the Blues upon the Promenade. Volley succeeded volley without interruption; the Republicans kept up their fire, mercilessly; but no sound was uttered by the victims—there was a horrible silence between each discharge.

Corentin, however, suspected some trap, for he had heard one of the men, whom he had pointed out to the commandant, drop from his lofty position at the top of the ladder.

"Not one of those animals makes a sound," he remarked to Hulot. "Our pair of lovers are quite capable of keeping us amused by some sort of trick, while they themselves are perhaps escaping in another direction."

The spy, in his eagerness to obtain light on this mystery, sent Galope-Chopine's child to find some torches. Hulot had caught the drift of Corentin's suspicions so aptly that the old soldier, who was preoccupied with the sounds of an obstinate encounter that was taking place before the guardhouse in St. Leonard's Gate, exclaimed, "True, there cannot be two of them," and rushed off in that direction.

"We have given him a leaden shower-bath, commandant," so Beau-Pied greeted his commandant, "but he has killed Gudin, and wounded two more men. Ah! the madman. He had broken through three lines of our fellows, and would have got away into the open country, if it had not been for the sentry at St. Leonard's Gate, who spitted him on his bayonet."

The commandant hurried into the guardhouse on hearing this piece of news, and saw a bloodstained body stretched out upon the camp-bed where it had just been laid. He went up to the man whom he believed to be the Marquis, raised the hat that covered his face, and dropped into a chair.

"I thought so," he cried vehemently, as he folded his arms. "Sacre tonnerre! she had kept him too long."

The soldiers stood about, motionless. The commandant's movement had uncoiled a woman's long dark hair.

The silence was suddenly broken by the sounds of a crowd of armed men. Corentin came into the guardhouse, followed by four men, who had made a kind of stretcher of their muskets, upon which they were carrying Montauran, whose legs and arms had been broken by many gunshots. They laid the Marquis on the camp-bed beside his wife. He saw her, and found strength sufficient to take her hand in a convulsive clasp. The dying girl turned her head painfully, recognized her husband, and a sudden spasm shook her that was terrible to see, as she murmured in a nearly inaudible voice, "A day without a morrow! God has heard me indeed!"

"Commandant," said the Marquis, summoning all his strength to speak, while he still held Marie's hand in his, "I depend upon your loyalty to send word of my death to my young brother in London. Write to him, and tell him that if he would fain obey my last wishes, he will not bear arms against France; but he will never forsake the service of the King."

"It shall be done," said Hulot, pressing the hand of the dying man. "Take them to the hospital nearby," cried Corentin.

Hulot grasped the spy by the arm in such a sort that he left the marks of his nails in the flesh as he said to him—"Since your task here is ended, be off! And take a good look at the face of Commandant Hulot, so that you may never cross his path again, unless you have a mind to have his cutlass through your body."

The old soldier drew his saber as he spoke.

"There is another of your honest folk who will never make their fortunes," said Corentin to himself, when he was well away from the guardhouse.

The Marquis was still able to thank his enemy by a movement of the head, expressing a soldier's esteem for a generous foe.

In 1827 an old man, accompanied by his wife, was bargaining for cattle in the market of Fougères. Nobody took any special heed of him, though in his time he had killed more than a hundred men. No one even reminded him of his nickname of Marche-à-Terre. The person to whom valuable information concerning the actors in this drama is owing saw the man as he led a cow away; there was that look of homely simplicity about him which prompts the remark, "That is a very honest fellow!"

As for Cibot, otherwise called Pille-Miche, his end has been witnessed already. Perhaps Marche-à-Terre made a vain attempt to rescue his comrade from the scaffold, and was present in the market place of Alençon at the terrific riot that occurred during the famous trials of Rifoel, Bryond, and La Chanterie.

Source: Honoré de Balzac, The Chouans, trans. Ellen Marriage (London: J. M. Dent, 1895), 362–70.