While my childhood was rolling by peacefully, the storm of
revolution which had been growling in the distance, drew ever nearer,
and it was not long before it broke. We were in 1789.
The assembly of the States General stirred up all manner of
passions, destroyed the tranquillity enjoyed by the province in which
we lived and introduced divisions into all families, particularly
into ours; for my father, who for a long time had railed against the
abuses to which France was subjected, accepted, in principle, the
improvements which were mooted, without foreseeing the atrocities to
which these changes were going to lead; while his three
brothers-in-law and all his friends rejected any innovation.
This gave rise to animated discussions, of which I understood nothing, but
which distressed me because I saw my mother in tears as she tried to
keep the peace between her brothers and her husband. For my part,
although I did not understand what was going on, I naturally took
sides with my father.
The Constituent Assembly had revoked all feudal rents. My father
possessed some of these which his father had purchased. He was the
first to conform to the law. The peasantry who had been waiting to
make up their minds until my father gave them a lead, refused to
continue paying these rents once they knew what he had done.
Shortly after this, France having been divided into departments,
my father was named administrator for the Corrèze and then a member
of the Legislative Assembly.
My mother's three brothers, and nearly all the nobility of the
county had hurriedly emigrated. War seemed to be imminent, so, to
persuade all citizens to take up arms, and also, perhaps, to find out
up to what point they could count on the populace, the government
arranged for the rumour to be spread throughout all the communes of
France, that the "Brigands" led by the émigrés, were coming to
destroy all the new institutions.
The tocsin was rung by all the
churches; everyone armed themselves with whatever they could lay
hands upon; a National Guard was organised; the country turned into
an armed camp while it waited for these imaginary "Brigands" who, in
every commune, were said to be in the one next door. Nothing ever
appeared, but the effect remained: France found herself in arms and
had shown that she was prepared to defend herself.
We children were then alone in the country with our mother. This
alert, which was called "The day of fear" surprised me and would
probably have alarmed me, had I not seen my mother remain so calm. I
have always thought that my father had discreetly warned her of what
was about to happen.
All went well at first, without any excess on the part of the
peasants, who, in our part of the country, retained much respect for
the ancient families; but soon, stirred up by demagogues from the
towns, the country-dwellers invaded the houses of the nobles, under
the pretext of looking for hidden émigrés, but in fact to exact money
and to seize the title deeds of feudal rents, which they burned in a
From the height of our terrace, we saw these ruffians,
torches in their hands, running towards the Château d'Estresse, from
which all the men had emigrated and which was occupied only by women.
These were my mother's best friends, and so she was greatly upset by
this spectacle. Her anxiety was redoubled by the arrival of her own
aged mother, who had been driven out of her château, which was
declared national property because of the emigration of her three
Up until then, my father's property had been respected; largely
because his patriotism was known, and because, to give further proof
of it, he had taken service in the army of the Pyrenees as captain in
the Chasseurs des Montagnes, at the end of his term in the
But the revolutionary torrent swept over everyone; the house at St. Céré, which my father had bought ten years
before, was confiscated and declared national property because the
deed of sale had been signed privately and the seller had emigrated
before ratifying the deal before a notary. My mother was given a few
days to remove her linen, then the house was put up for auction and
was bought by the president of the district who had himself arranged
for its confiscation !
At last, the peasants, stirred up by some agitators from Beaulieu,
came in a body to my father's château and insisted, though with some
politeness, that they had to burn the deeds of feudal rents which we
still had, and make sure that émigrés were not concealed in the
My mother received them with fortitude, handed over the deeds and
pointed out to them that, knowing her brothers to be sensible people,
they should not suppose that they would emigrate only then to come
back to France and hide in her château.
They accepted the correctness of this line of reasoning, ate and
drank and having burned the deeds in the centre of the courtyard,
they left without doing any further damage, shouting "Long live
France and citizen Marbot !" And charging my mother to write to him to
say that they liked him very much and that his family was quite safe
In spite of this assurance, my mother felt that her position as
the sister of émigrés might expose her to a great deal of
unpleasantness from which even her position as the wife of a defender
of the country would not protect her. She decided to go away for the
time being. She told me later that she took this step because she was
convinced that the revolutionary storm would last only for some
months. There were many people who thought this !
My grandmother had had seven brothers, all of whom, as was usual
in the Verdal family had been soldiers and knights of St. Louis. One
of them, a former battalion commander in the infantry regiment of
Penthièvre, had married, on retirement, the rich widow of counsellor
of the parliament of Rennes.
My mother decided to go and stay with
her and was counting on taking me with her, when I was smitten by a
number of large and very painful boils. It was impossible to travel
with a child of eight in such a state, and my mother was in great
perplexity. She was extricated by a worthy lady, Mlle. Mongalvi, who
was much devoted to her and whose memory will always be dear to me.
Mongalvi lived at Turenne and ran boarding establishment for
young ladies of which my mother had been one of the first occupants.
She offered to take me into her house for the few months of my
mother's absence. My father's agreement having been obtained, I left
and was installed there. "What !" you may say, "A boy amongst young
ladies?" Well yes, but do not forget that I was a quiet, peaceable,
obedient child, and I was only eight years old.
The boarders who stayed with Mlle. Mongalvi, where my mother had
once been one of them, were young persons of some sixteen to twenty
years of age; the youngest being at least fourteen, and were sensible
enough to let me mingle with them.
On my arrival, all this little feminine flock gathered about me
and received me with such cries of pleasure and warm caresses that,
from the first instant, I thought myself lucky to have made this
trip. I figured that it would not last long and I believe that,
secretly, I even regretted that I would have only a short time to
spend with these nice young ladies, who did everything to please me
and argued as to who was to hold my hand.
However, my mother left and went to stay with my uncle. Events
moved forward rapidly. The terror bathed France in blood. Civil war
broke, out in the Vendée and in Brittany. Travel there became
absolutely impossible, so that my mother, who had thought to spend
two or three months at Rennes, found herself stuck there for several
My father continued on active service in the Pyrenees and in
Spain, where his ability and courage had raised him to the rank of
divisional general; while I, having gone as a boarder for a few
months, stayed for some four years, which were for me years of much
happiness, clouded only, from time to time, by the memory of my
parents; but the good Mlles. Mongalvi and their boarders would then
redouble their kindness, to dispel those thoughts which now and then
I was spoiled beyond belief by the mistresses and the
boarders; I had only to wish for something to obtain it. There was
nothing too good or too fine for me. My health recovered completely.
I was clean and fresh, so they vied with one another to cuddle me.
During recreation, which took place in a vast enclosure, where there
was a fine garden, with paddocks, vines and arbours, the young ladies
would crown me and garland me with flowers, then placing me on a
little litter covered with roses, they would take it in turns to
carry me while they sang.
At other times I would play prisoners base
with them, having the privilege of always catching but never being
caught. They would read stories to me and sing songs. They competed
to do something for me.
I recall, that on hearing of the horrible execution of Louis XVI,
Mlle. Mongalvi had all the boarders on their knees, to recite prayers
for the repose of the soul of the unfortunate king. The indiscretion
of any one of us could have brought down disaster on her head, but
all the pupils were of an age to understand, and I felt that it was
something I should not talk about; so no one knew anything about it.
I stayed in this pleasant retreat until November 1793.
Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.