Translated by Aline Delano
During the last days of May, 1793, one of the Parisian battalions introduced into Brittany by Santerre was reconnoitring the formidable La Saudraie Woods in Astillé. Decimated by this cruel war, the battalion was reduced to about three hundred men. This was at the time when, after Argonne, Jemmapes, and Valmy, of the first battalion of Paris, which had numbered six hundred volunteers, only twenty-seven men remained, thirty-three of the second, and fifty-seven of the third,--a time of epic combats. The battalion sent from Paris into La Vendée numbered nine hundred and twelve men. Each regiment had three pieces of cannon. They had been quickly mustered. On the 25th of April, Gohier being Minister of Justice, and Bouchotte Minister of War, the section of Bon Conseil had offered to send volunteer battalions into La Vendée; the report was made by Lubin, a member of the Commune. On the 1st of May, Santerre was ready to send off twelve thousand men, thirty field-pieces, and one battalion of gunners. These battalions, notwithstanding they were so quickly formed, serve as models even at the present day, and regiments of the line are formed on the same plan; they altered the former proportion between the number of soldiers and that of non-commissioned officers.
On the 28th of April the Paris Commune had given to the volunteers of Santerre the following order: "No mercy, no quarter." Of the twelve thousand that had left Paris, at the end of May eight thousand were dead. The battalion which was engaged in La Saudraie held itself on its guard. There was no hurrying: every man looked at once to right and to left, before him, behind him. Kléber has said: "The soldier has an eye in his back." They had been marching a long time. What o'clock could it be? What time of the day was it? It would have been hard to say; for there is always a sort of dusk in these wild thickets, and it was never light in that wood. The forest of La Saudraie was a tragic one. It was in this coppice that from the month of November, 1792, civil war began its crimes; Mousqueton, the fierce cripple, had come forth from those fatal thickets; the number of murders that had been committed there made one's hair stand on end. No spot was more terrible.
The soldiers forced cautiously. Everything was in full bloom; they were surrounded by a quivering wall of branches, whose leaves diffused a delicious freshness. Here and there sunbeams pierced, these green shades. At their feet the gladiolus, the German iris, the wild narcissus, the wood-daisy, that tiny flower, forerunner of the warm weather, the spring crocus,--all these embroidered and adorned a thick carpet of vegetation, abounding in every variety of moss, from the kind that looks like a caterpillar to that resembling a star.
The soldiers advanced silently, step by step, gently pushing aide the underbrush. The birds twittered above the bayonets.
La Saudraie was one of those thickets where formerly, in time of peace, they had pursued the Houicheba,--the the hunting of birds by night; now it was a place for hunting men.
The coppice consisted entirely of birch-trees, beeches, and oaks; the ground was level; the moss and the thick grass deadened the noise of footsteps; no paths at all, or paths no sooner found than lost; holly, wild sloe, brakes, hedges of rest-harrow, and tall brambles; it was impossible to see a man ten paces distant.
Now and then a heron or a moor-hen flew through the branches, showing the vicinity of a swamp. They marched along at haphazard, uneasy, and fearing lest they might find what they sought.
From time to time they encountered traces of encampments,--a burnt place, trampled grass, sticks arranged in the form of a cross, or branches spattered with blood. Here, soup had been made; there, Mass had been said; yonder, wounds had been dressed. But whoever had passed that way had vanished. Where were they? Far away, perhaps; and yet they might be very near, hiding, blunderbuss in hand. The wood seemed deserted. The battalion redoubled its precaution. Solitude, therefore distrust. No one was to be seen; all the more reason to fear some one. They had to do with a forest of ill-repute.
An ambush was probable.
Thirty grenadiers, detached as scouts and commanded by a sergeant, marched ahead, at a considerable distance from the main body. The vivandière of the battalion accompanied them. The vivandières like to join the vanguard; they run risks, but then they stand a chance of seeing something. Curiosity is one of the forms of feminine courage.
Suddenly the soldiers of this little advanced guard received that shock familiar to hunters, which shows them that they are close upon the lair of their prey. They heard something like breathing in the middle of the thicket, and it seemed as if they caught sight of some commotion among the leaves. The soldiers made signs to each other.
When this mode of watching and reconnoitring is confided to the scouts, officers have no need to interfere; what has to be done is done instinctively.
In less than a minute the spot where the movement had been observed was surrounded by a circle of levelled muskets, aimed simultaneously from every side at the dusky centre of the thicket; and the soldiers, with finger on trigger and eye on the suspected spot, awaited only the sergeant's command to fire.
Meanwhile, the vivandière ventured to peer through the underbush; and just as the sergeant was about to cry, "Fire!" this woman cried, "Halt!"
And turning to the soldiers, "Do not fire!" she cried, and rushed into the thicket, followed by the men.
There was indeed some one there.
In the thickest part of the copse on the edge of one of those small circular clearings made in the woods by the charcoal-furnaces that are used to burn the roots of trees, in a sort of hole formed by the branches,--a bower of foliage, so to speak, half-open, like an alcove,--sat a woman on the moss, with a nursing child at her breast and the fair heads of two sleeping children resting against her knees.
This was the ambush.
"What are you doing here?" called out the vivandière.
The woman raised her head, and the former added angrily,--
"Are you insane to remain there!"
She went on,--
"A little more, and you would have been blown to atoms!" Then addressing the soldiers, she said, "It's a woman."
"Pardieu! That's plain to be seen," replied a grenadier.
The vivandière continued,--"To come into the woods to get oneself massacred. Can you conceive of any one so stupid as that?"
The woman, surprised, bewildered, and stunned, was gazing around, as though in a dream, at these muskets, sabres, bayonets, and savage faces. The two children awoke and began to cry.
"I am hungry," said one.
"I am afraid," said the other.
The baby went on nursing.
The vivandière addressed it.
"You are the wise one," she said.
The mother was dumb with terror.
"Don't be afraid," exclaimed the sergeant, "we are the battalion of the Bonnet Rouge."
The woman trembled from head to foot. She looked at the sergeant, of whose rough face she could see only the eyebrows, moustache, and eyes like two coals of fire.
"The battalion formerly known as the Red-Cross," added the vivandière.
The sergeant continued,--
"Who are you, madam?"
The woman looked at him in terror. She was thin, young, pale, and in tatters. She wore the large hood and woollen cloak of the Breton peasants, fastened by a string around her neck. She left her bosom exposed with the indifference of an animal. Her feet, without shoes or stockings, were bleeding.
"It's a beggar," said the sergeant.
The vivandière continued in her martial yet womanly voice,--a gentle voice withal,--
"What is your name?"
The woman stammered in a scarce audible whisper:
Meanwhile the vivandière stroked the little head of the nursing baby with her large hand.
"How old is this midget?" she asked.
The mother did not understand. The vivandière repeated,--"I ask you how old it is?"
"Oh, eighteen months," said the mother.
"That's quite old," said the vivandière; "it ought not to nurse any longer, you must wean it. We will give him soup."
The mother began to feel more at ease. The two little ones, who had awakened, were rather interested than frightened; they admired the plumes of the soldiers.
"Ah, they are very hungry!" said the mother.
And she added,--
"I have no more milk."
"We will give them food," cried the sergeant, "and you also. But there is something more to be settled. What are your political opinions?"
The woman looked at him and made no reply.
"Do you understand my question?"
"I was put into a convent when I was quite young, but I married; I am not a nun. The Sisters taught me to speak French. The village was set on fire. We escaped in such haste that I had no time to put my shoes on."
"I ask you what are your political opinions?"
"I don't know anything about that."
The sergeant continued,--
"There are female spies. That kind of person we shoot. Come, speak. You are not a gypsy, are you? What is your native land?"
She still looked at him as though unable to comprehend.
The sergeant repeated,--
"What is your native land?"
"I do not know," she said.
"How is that? You do not know your country?"
"Ah! Do you mean my country? I know that."
"Well, what is your country?"
The woman replied,--
"It is the farm of Siscoignard, in the parish of Azé."
It was the sergeant's turn to be surprised. He paused for a moment, lost in thought; then he went on,--
"What was it you said?"
"You cannot call that your native land."
"That is my country."
Then after a minute's consideration she added,--
"I understand you, sir. You are from France, but I am from Brittany."
"It is not the same country."
"But it is the same native land," exclaimed the sergeant.
The woman only replied,--
"I am from Siscoignard."
"Let it be. Siscoignard, then," said the sergeant. "Your family belong there, I suppose?"
"What is their business?"
"They are all dead. I have no one left."
The sergeant, who was quite loquacious, continued to question her.
"Devil take it, every one has relations, or one has had them! Who are you? Speak!"
The woman listened bewildered; this "or one has had them" sounded more like the cry of a wild beast than the speech of a human being.
The vivandière felt obliged to interfere. She began to caress the nursing child, and patted the other two on the cheeks.
"What is the baby's name? It's a little girl, isn't it?"
The mother replied, "Georgette."
"And the oldest one? For he is a man, the rogue!"
"And the younger one? For he is a man too, and a chubby one into the bargain."
"Gros-Alain," replied the mother.
"They are pretty children," said the vivandière. "They look already as if they were somebody."
Meanwhile the sergeant persisted.
"Come! Speak, madam! Have you a house?"
"I had one once."
"Where was it?"
"Why are you not at home?"
"Because my house was burned."
"Who burned it?"
"I do not know. There was a battle."
"Were do you come from?"
"From over there."
"Where are you going?"
"I do not know."
"Come, to the point! Who are you?"
"I do not know."
"Don't know who you are?"
"We are people running away."
"To what party do you belong?"
"I do not know."
"To the Blues, or the Whites? Which side are you on?"
"I am with my children."
There was a pause. The vivandière spoke.
"For my part I never had any children. I have not had time."
The sergeant began again.
"But what about your parents? See here, madam, tell me the facts about your parents. Now, my name is Radoub. I am a sergeant. I live on the Rue Cherche-Midi. My father and my mother lived there. I can talk of my parents. Tell us about yours. Tell us who your parents were."
"Their name was Fléchard. That's all."
"Yes. The Fléchards are the Fléchards, just as the Radoubs are the Radoubs. But people have a trade. What was your parents' trade? What did they do, these Fléchards of yours?"
"They were laborers. My father was feeble and could not work, on account of a beating which the lord, his lord, our lord, gave him: it was really a mercy, for my father had poached a rabbit, a crime of which the penalty is death; but the lord was merciful and said, 'You may give him only a hundred blows with a stick;' and my father was left a cripple."
"My grandfather was a Huguenot. The curé had him sent to the galleys. I was very young then."
"My husband's father was a salt smuggler. The king had him hung."
"And what did your husband do?"
"He used to fight in those times."
"For the king."
"And after that?"
"Ah! For his lord."
"For the curé."
"By all the names of beasts!" cried the grenadier. The woman jumped in terror.
"You see, madam, we are Parisians," said the vivandière, affably.
The woman clasped her hands, exclaiming,--
"Oh, my God and Lord Jesus!"
"No superstitions here!" rejoined the sergeant.
The vivandière sat down beside the woman and drew the oldest child between her knees; he yielded readily. Children are quite as easily reassured as they are frightened, with no apparent reason. They seem to possess instinctive perceptions. "My poor worthy woman of this neighborhood, you have pretty little children, at all events. One can guess their age. The big one is four years, and his brother is three. Just see how greedily the little rascal sucks. The wretch! Stop eating up your mother! Come madam, do not be frightened. You ought to join the battalion. You should do as I do. My name is Housarde. It's a nickname, but I had rather be called Housarde than Mamzelle Bicorneau, like my mother. I am the canteen woman, which is the same as saying, she who gives the men to drink when they are firing grape-shot and killing each other. The devil and all his train. Our feet are about the same size. I will give you a pair of my shoes. I was in Paris on the 10th of August. I gave Westerman a drink. Everything went with a rush in those days! I saw Louis XVI. guillotined,--Louis Capet, as they call him. I tell you he didn't like it. You just listen now. To think that on the 13th of January he was roasting chestnuts and enjoying himself with his family! When he was made to lie down on what is called the see-saw, he wore neither coat nor shoes; only a shirt, a quilted waistcoat, gray cloth breeches, and gray silk stockings. I saw all that with my own eyes. The fiacre which he rode in was painted green. Now then, you come with us; they are kind lads in the battalion; you will be canteen number two; I will teach you the trade. Oh, it's very simple! You will have a can and a bell; you are right in the racket, amid the firing of the platoons and the cannons, in all that hubbub, calling out, 'Who wants a drink, my children?' It is no harder task than that. I offer a drink to all, you may take my word for it,--to the Whites as well as to the Blues, although I am a Blue, and a true Blue at that. But I serve them all alike. Wounded men are thirsty. People die without difference of opinions. Dying men ought to shake hands. How foolish to fight! Come with us. If I am killed you will fill my place. You see I am not much to look at, but I am a kind woman, and a good fellow. Don't be afraid."
When the vivandière ceased speaking, the woman muttered to herself,--
"Our neighbor's name was Marie-Jeanne, and it was our servant who was Marie-Claude."
Meanwhile Sergeant Radoub was reprimanding the grenadier.
"Silence! You frighten madam. A man should not swear before ladies."
"I say this is a downright butchery for an honest man to hear about," replied the grenadier; "and to see Chinese Iroquois, whose father-in-law was crippled by the lord, whose grandfather was sent to the galleys by the curé, and whose father was hung by the king, and who fight,--zounds!--and who get entangled in revolts, and are crushed for the sake of the lord, the curé, and the king!"
"Silence in the ranks!" exclaimed the sergeant.
"One may be silent, sergeant," continued the grenadier; "but it is all the same provoking to see a pretty woman like that running the risk of getting her neck broken for the sake of a calotin."
"Grenadier," said the sergeant, "we are not in the Pike Club. Save your eloquence!" And turning to the woman, "And your husband, madam? What does he do? What has become of him?"
"Nothing; since he was killed."
"Where was that?"
"In the hedge."
"Three days ago."
"Who killed him?"
"I do not know."
"How is that? You don't know who killed your husband?"
"Was it a Blue, or a White?"
"It was a bullet."
"Was that three days ago?"
"In what direction?"
"Towards Ernée. My husband fell. That was all."
"And since your husband died, what have you been doing?"
"I have been taking my little ones along."
"Where are you taking them?"
"Where do you sleep?"
"On the ground."
"What do you eat?"
The sergeant made that military grimace which elevates the moustache to the nose. "Nothing?"
"Well, nothing but sloes, blackberries when I found any left over from last year, whortle-berries, and fern-shoots."
"Yes, you may well call it nothing."
The oldest child, who seemed to understand, said:
"I am hungry."
The sergeant pulled from his pocket a piece of ration bread, and handed it to the mother.
Taking the bread, she broke, it in two and gave it to the children, who bit into it greedily.
"She has not saved any for herself," growled the sergeant.
"Because she is not hungry," remarked a soldier.
"Because she is a mother," said the sergeant.
The children broke in.
"Give me something to drink," said one.
"To drink," repeated the other.
"Is there no brook in this cursed wood?" said the sergeant.
The vivandière took the copper goblet suspended at her belt together with a bell, turned the cock of the can that was strapped across her shoulder, and pouring several drops into the goblet, held it to the children's lips.
The first drank and made a grimace.
The second drank and spit it out
"It is good, all the same," said the vivandière.
"Is that some of the old cut-throat?" asked the sergeant.
"Yes, some of the best. But they are peasants."
She wiped the goblet.
"And so, madam, you are running away?" resumed the sergeant.
"I couldn't help it."
"Across the fields? With no particular object?"
"Sometimes I run with all my might, and then I walk, and once in a while I fall."
"Poor countrywoman!" said the vivandière.
"They were fighting," stammered the woman. "I was in the middle of the firing. I don't know what they want. They killed my husband,--that was all I know about it."
The sergeant banged the butt of his musket on the ground, exclaiming,--
"What a beast of a war! In the name of all that is idiotic!"
The woman continued,---
"Last night we went to bed in an émousse. "
"All four of you?"
"Went to bed?"
"Went to bed."
"Then you must have gone to bed standing." And he turned to the soldiers.
"Comrades, a dead tree, old and hollow, wherein a man can sheathe himself like a sword in a scabbard, is what these savages call an émousse. But what would you have? All are not obliged to be Parisians."
"The idea of sleeping in the hollow of a tree,--and with three children!" exclaimed the vivandière.
"And when the little one bawled, it must have seemed queer to the passers-by, who could see nothing, to hear the tree calling out, 'Papa! mamma!'"
"Fortunately, it is summer-time," said the woman, with a sigh.
She looked down resigned, with an expression in her eyes of one who had known surprising calamities.
The silent soldiers surrounded this wretched group. A widow, three orphans, flight, desolation, solitude, the rumblings of war on the horizon, hunger, thirst, no food but herbs, no roof but the sky.
The sergeant drew near the woman and gazed upon the nursing infant. The baby left the breast, turned her head, and looked with her lovely blue eyes on the dreadful hairy face, bristling and fierce, that was bending over her, and began to smile.
The sergeant drew back, and a large tear was seen to roll down his cheek, clinging to the end of his moustache like a pearl.
He raised his voice.
"Comrades, I have come to the conclusion that this battalion is about to become a father. Are you willing? We adopt these three children."
"Hurrah for the Republic!" shouted the grenadiers.
"So be it!" exclaimed the sergeant; and he stretched out both hands over the mother and the children.
"Behold the children of the battalion of the Bonnet-Rouge!" he said.
The vivandière jumped for joy.
"Three heads under one cap!" she cried.
Then she burst out sobbing, and embraced the widow excitedly, saying,--
"She looks like a rogue already, that little girl!"
"Hurrah for the Republic!" repeated the soldiers.
"Come, citizeness," said the sergeant to the mother.