The French Revolution pitted brother against brother

July 25, 2011

There lived at Nantes two brothers, of whom the revolution found one a fencing master, and the other a student in a seminary, destined for the ecclesiastical state. The former became a Jacobin, and the latter joined the flag of the insurrection in La Vendée. In one of the successful engagements of the Vendeans, the Jacobin fell into the hands of a party of peasants who had sworn to be revenged for the ruthless massacre of their families the night before. He was brought before the officer for trial before execution. The wretched man hung down his head, in anticipation of his approaching doom. “Hand him over to the chaplain,” said the judge; “perhaps in a few days he will convert him.” At the sound of the officer’s voice, the criminal looked up and caught his eye. The two brothers recognized each other. In a moment the royalist forgot the difference of party, and embraced his brother; but the Blue repulsed him, saying, in a low voice, “Do not pretend to love me; you hate me, and I detest you.” “I swear by our mother that I love you,” said the other. “Then prove it by sending me back to Nantes.” “So I will,” said the royalist. “Let him die, let him die,” said the peasants; “get out of the way, commandant, and let us shoot him.” “Not before you have shot me,” returned the officer: “It shall never be said there was a Cain in our ranks.” At that moment came up Bernier the chaplain: “Why are you resting on your arms?” said he to the peasants. “We want to finish with that man. He is one of those who massacred our wives and children. We will avenge them.” “You cannot do it, my children, without crime.” “We have sworn it,” they cried. “Is it by this that you have sworn?” replied the priest, drawing a crucifix from his bosom; “have you sworn by the cross not to have mercy?” The Vendeans were mute, and laid down their arms. “God bless you!” said the officer; “you have saved my brother.” “I did not know he was your brother,” said Bernier; “I only saw in him a wretched man condemned to death. What have I to do in the camp but to preach forbearance? There are enough here who cry vengeance; I always cry mercy.” The peasants took up the word, and the men who a moment before had been foremost in demanding the death of the prisoner, now exclaimed, “Mercy! Mercy!” The republican was astonished; but his pride revolted at the indignity of being saved by a priest, and no word of thanks passed his lips. And on being released he departed without embracing his brother, or acknowledging his debt to the Abbé Bernier.

Abbé Bernier

Time passed on, and the fortune of war brought about the annihilation of the grand army at Savenay. The royalist officer was one of those who had shared the dangers of the expedition up to that point; and at the close of the day he and three others were all that remained of the company of Lyrot. The latter were bent on regaining their village in the Bocage: he resolved to seek an asylum at Nantes. He walked all night, taking advantage of the darkness to approach the town. In the daytime he hid among the thick bushes on the roadside, and when evening came set forth again. “If my mother were alive,” said he, “with what tenderness she would receive me! But I have no friends. I have a brother; to him I will go. I once saved his life; he will now save mine.” This hope sustained his courage in the midst of the darkness and cold and rain of a December night; yet with a beating heart he knocked at his brother’s door. The republican opened it himself. “O my brother,” said the fugitive, “I am come to ask an asylum.” “An asylum?” said he with a sneer; “O, then, you fierce Vendeans, who were going to upset the Republic, have had to fly? Well, come in!” The royalist entered. “Wait here till I have got my hat and cloak.” “Whither will you take me?” said the unhappy Vendean. “Don’t you want an asylum? Follow me, I will take you to one.” “But why not here, my brother? I am weak and faint.” “Never mind; follow me, and ask no questions.” The poor wretch obeyed. His brother seized his arm, and dragged him along at a rapid pace. At length they stopped at a vast hotel. At a word from the republican, the porter let them pass, and they entered; they ascended by a superb staircase, leading to a bed-chamber luxuriously furnished. Two women were preparing a bath near the bed. On their entrance the women retired, and a man came in. It was Carrier. In an imperious tone, he asked what they wanted at that hour.

Jean-Baptiste Carrier

“This,” said the fugitive’s brother, “is a brigand, a friend of priests, and a captain in the Catholic army.” “Who gave him up to you?” “Himself.” “And how do you know?” “He is my brother.” “Your brother?” “Yes, I have brought him; he came from Savenay just now to ask an asylum.” “And what do you want me to do with him?” “Put him to death.” At these words Carrier, wretch as he was, started back, and cried: “What, your own brother?” “Yes, my brother. I denounce him. I have done my duty; now do yours.” Carrier knew what these words meant: that if he hesitated, he should be himself denounced. His natural thirst for blood aided his resolution; and he called the guards, and gave orders that the Vendean should be taken off to the Boufay; “and,” added he to the unnatural informer, “be at the place of execution tomorrow morning, and you shall see if I let the foes of the Republic live.” The unhappy royalist had no need of these last words to know the fate that was in store for him; but he only said to his brother, “Is it so you repay me? You, who owe your life to me, give me up to death? Adieu! Tomorrow you shall see my blood flow.” He spent the night in the dungeon, praying God to have mercy on the murderer, and to give him grace to pardon him from the heart. When he was conducted to the scaffold, the very crowd were filled with horror at his brother’s crime. Before laying his head down, he said, “For our mother’s sake, and for the sake of God, I pardon you.” “And I,” replied the fratricide, “curse you. Go into nothingness; and let me hear no more of your God.” The next moment the Vendean died, praying with his last breath for the unnatural brother who was the cause of his death.

George J. Hill, The Story of the War in La Vendée and the Little Chouannerie (New York: D. & J. Sadlier & Co. n.d.), pp. 134-137.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 94

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