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   Chapter 10 THE BLOW FALLS

When a Cobbler Ruled a King By Augusta Huiell Seaman Characters: 16166

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


On a night toward the end of October, 1793, Jean was walking slowly and thoughtfully home from the tavern to the Rue de Lille. His day's work was over and it was long past ten o'clock. He was in no special hurry, for he had many things to think over and he felt that he could do this better by himself and in the open. None of his thoughts were particularly happy. It was but a week since the Queen had given up her life on the guillotine, and his heart ached with pity and horror for her sorrowful end. The little King, doubtless all in ignorance of his loss, was constantly more and more cruelly treated by the cobbler, whose already evil temper was now thoroughly demoralised by his own enforced imprisonment.

Then too, the condition of Paris was appalling. The Terror was at its height, the prisons were overflowing with "suspects," and the guillotine claimed daily a sickening array of victims. Robespierre ruled the Convention with a hand of iron, and ruthlessly sacrificed to La Guillotine all who stood in his way.

Jean had heard no news from his friend Bonaparte except a brief note some time before, saying that he was in Marseilles with all his family (which had left Corsica forever), and that he was again in the army. And there was yet another problem weighing on the boy's mind. Tison, with whom he had established quite a friendship since the spy's strange conversion, had come to him two days before with a request. It seemed that the Queen, before she was taken to La Conciergerie, had entrusted to Tison a little book of prayers that she wished in some way to be conveyed to her son. Tison had promised faithfully to accomplish this mission if possible, but had as yet been unable to do so, as he was never admitted to Simon's room.

Then he bethought himself of Yvonne, and of how she came occasionally to play there, and he remembered that Jean had once confided to him the tale of her first admittance. Here then was the solution! He came to Jean and begged him to see that the book was in some way delivered, and had only that morning placed the precious parcel in the boy's keeping. This Jean felt to be a sacred trust, more so than ever now that the Queen was dead. He determined that Yvonne must take it on the morrow when she went with her mother and the laundry. Barelle would be on duty that day, and would very likely gain her entrance.

One more vague fear troubled him. La Souris had never, by word or sign, indicated that he concerned himself in the least about the boy, since the memorable night when the plot of the Baron de Batz had failed. But of late the man was constant in his hovering about the tavern, and the very fact that he seemed to avoid speaking to the boy purposely, made Jean most uneasy. It was as though a sword were suspended above his head, and might fall at any unexpected moment.

All these thoughts served to depress the spirits of this usually lively lad. He walked soberly, his head bent, looking neither to the right nor left, his hands jammed in his trousers pockets. The street he traversed was alive with people and bright with the lights from many shop-windows. But presently he turned into one that was quite deserted, and almost pitch dark by contrast. He had not proceeded far in this black lane before he became aware of stealthy steps following him. His first impulse was to take to his heels and run at top speed, but he wisely decided to do no such thing. Instead he stopped abruptly and demanded:

"Who is following me? What do you want?" The stealthy footfalls ceased for a moment, then out of the shadow stepped a huge figure.

"Do not be afraid!" a voice whispered, as the figure drew near. "I am Citizen Prev?t, the pikeman, who helped to search your house over a year ago!" Jean was astonished and not a little alarmed. He knew Prev?t to be an almost constant attendant of his enemy, La Souris, and he could not imagine whether to expect an attack from this giant or a friendly advance. Prev?t hastened to reassure him:

"I am following you with the friendliest intentions, believe me! I always liked you for your cleverness in teaching that little dog his trick, and I've news that will interest you to-night. I followed you from the tavern, but I dared not address you till we came to this dark street, for fear of-him! He's a born spy! It's the sole ambition of his life to get someone into trouble,-you know whom I mean!-and I hate him as I hate the devil! But I have to serve him,-that's my living and likewise the safety of my neck! Now, in the first place, let me ask you did your little dog ever get back to you?"

"Oh, yes, yes!" answered Jean. "But how he came to, I know not."

"Well, I do," returned Prev?t, "for I let him out of the house that night. The poor little beast had been pining away for weeks and weeks. He would eat almost nothing, and when we tried to make him do that clever trick, he would only lie down and whine. It was plain that his heart was breaking. So, one night when he was out on some spying expedition, I quietly opened the door, and the little animal was off and away like a flash. I supposed he would get back to you. My soul! But I had to stand a tirade from him when he came back, for I represented to him how the beast must have sneaked out unawares!"

"I can never thank you enough!" said Jean gladly. "We all love the little thing so!"

"But that's not all I have to say," went on Prev?t. "And the rest is more serious! Do you know that he has been keeping an eye on you for a long time? Well, he has had his suspicions that you were mixed up in one or two things concerning those in the Tower, but he could never be quite certain till this morning, when he caught you in communication with Tison, and saw Tison hand you something, secretly. Then he put two and two together, and became convinced that you were in some plot to aid those Capets. My lad, to-day he denounced you to the authorities! To-morrow morning you will be arrested and then off with you to La Conciergerie,-and you can imagine the rest! Tison is to be treated to the same attention, only he will probably go to some other prison. Then said I to myself, that fellow is too bright a young chap to afford a mouthful to La Guillotine, and I'm going to give him at least a warning! Cut away to-night, young Jean! If you start at once without even going home, by to-morrow you can be far out of Paris and the reach of him!"

Jean's heart almost stopped beating at the news, yet, singularly enough, so long had he been expecting the blow, that when it fell his one thought was, "It has come at last!" He could not even command words in which to thank this kind-hearted sans-culotte for his timely warning. But Prev?t understood and grasped his hand:

"Don't try to thank me, lad! Make haste to get away, and to-morrow morning there will be one victim the less, thank heaven! I must return at once, for he will be missing me, and of course suspecting something! Adieu!" And he was gone before the boy could open his lips.

For many minutes Jean stood there in the darkness, striving to collect his thoughts. What was he to do! Circumstance having thus opened the way for him, combining his safety with one of his most cherished wishes, it was an almost irresistible temptation to flee from Paris, seek out his hero and friend in Marseilles, and become a soldier of France. It was a situation that would have tested the courage and loyalty of many an older and more experienced mind. But turn and twist it as he would, the position admitted of one outcome only, for him. Did he take good Citizen Prev?t's advice and escape before morning, what would be the inevitable result? Simply this-that Mère Clouet and Yvonne would be suspected of complicity with him, and they would, without doubt, take his place in one of the overflowing prisons. That they should suffer while he went scot-free was unthinkable. And of course they could not all attempt to escape,-that would mean certain apprehension with its inevitable results. On the other hand, did he stand his ground

, go about his usual duties to-morrow and accept his arrest as if innocent, there was one chance in a hundred that he might be so considered, and ultimately set free. And even at the worst, no matter what happened to him, Mère Clouet and Yvonne would probably escape suspicion.

Then there was one other consideration,-the dead Queen's little book of prayers that he held concealed, in trust for her misused son. That must be delivered at all cost, and in order to facilitate this he must go on to the Rue de Lille and entrust it to Yvonne. No!-the longer he thought about it, the plainer his duty became. He must accept with the best grace possible what fate had in store for him, execute the mission that had been entrusted to him, and see that no harm came through him, to those who stood for all the family that he could claim in this world. Once arrived at this conclusion, his heart actually felt lighter. With all due gratitude to Prev?t, he hurried home, determined to act on the morrow as though in complete ignorance of what awaited him.

But when he reached the Rue de Lille, it was with a very grave face. So unlike his usual gay self was he, that Mère Clouet was alarmed. Jean, however, told her nothing. He ate his late supper, fed Moufflet, and tried hard to act as though all were as usual. But when the Citizeness Clouet had left the room for a time, Jean drew Yvonne aside and took her into his confidence.

"Do not tell good Mère Clouet yet," he ended. "She must go to-morrow with the laundry, and I want her to know nothing, till afterward!" Poor little Yvonne grew white with terror.

"Oh, Jean," she whispered, "nothing must happen to you! We love you so! How could we live without you!"

"Perhaps nothing more serious than a few days' detention will happen, little one," he answered, "but we must always be prepared. Now let me tell you what you must do. Here is the packet. You cannot get it out of your hands too soon! Do they ever search you when you go to the little fellow?"

"No," replied Yvonne. "Citizen Barelle always tells them it is not necessary."

"Then you can probably get it to him safely. It is small thank heaven!-and easily concealed. Few about the place connect me with you and your mother, so if I am taken, make no inquiries for me except of Barelle or Meunier,-he is also a friend,-for your own heads would not then be safe! Trust in God, Yvonne, to save me! I cannot think He will suffer me to come to harm. Take good care of Moufflet, and give my love to Mère Clouet. Good-night, Yvonne!" It is scarcely necessary to add that two people in number 670 Rue de Lille slept but little that night!

Next morning Jean hurried off to work as though nothing of importance was to happen that day. The hours of the morning drifted heavily by, and his heart was in his mouth at every unusual sound. He saw Mère Clouet and Yvonne arrive with the laundry and leave after their usual stay. Yvonne looked frightened and was plainly trembling, but by the imperceptible nod she gave him, he guessed that her mission was accomplished. Noon came, and still nothing had happened. But about one o'clock, three gendarmes came into the tavern and ordered some wine. Scarcely were they finished with their refreshment, when one of them laid a heavy hand on Jean's shoulder.

"I arrest you in the name of the Republic!" was all he said, but Jean knew that the blow had fallen at last. A wondering and regretful group gathered about to see this favourite led away to some unknown but only too well-imagined fate. Even Père Lefèvre parted from his little waiter with quite a show of sympathy. It seemed a long journey from the Temple to the Palais de Justice, and the gendarmes said not a word all the way. The procession aroused little interest in the passers-by, for arrests were too common in those days to cause any excitement. Arriving at the Palais de Justice, they entered through the great Cour du Mai, and led the boy to a large office where were seated many clerks at work. His name was entered and a gendarme assured the clerks that the charge had already been noted so that it only remained to thrust him within the walls of the prison. Without further ado, he was led down a gloomy staircase, a gate was opened and shut, and Jean was fast in La Conciergerie!

He found himself in a spacious courtyard filled to overflowing with a throng of helpless humanity of every degree from the lowest to the highest. Among them were nobles, authors, priests, bankers, merchants, bakers, farmers, mechanics, sans-culottes even, and vagabonds, all rubbing elbows, existing in daily fear and trembling, and almost starved on the inadequate rations they received. That afternoon a crier came to the gate and read aloud the list of that day's victims to the Guillotine. Amid sobs and cries, that batch of prisoners passed out of the dungeon forever, only to be replaced by a fresh installment before evening.

Recognising none of his fellow-prisoners, Jean established himself in a convenient corner, and amused himself by noting the vast difference in the way that different classes of victims behaved themselves in their terrible incarceration. Strangely enough, the class that seemed most unconcerned was the nobility. A little party of them were grouped together in a corner, and from their actions they might have been safely at home enjoying each others' society without a thought of fear. Four of them were engaged in playing a stately game of cards. When the crier of the afternoon read, among others, the name of one of these players, Jean was astonished to see the man rise, apologise politely to the others for his enforced absence, and request another friend to take his place while he was away. Then he bowed and departed, as though death were not awaiting him outside that fatal gate! Others were not less collected. These aristocrats seemed to pride themselves on ignoring the hideous peril of their position.

People in other walks of life were not always so self-contained. Here and there women, and even men sobbed and shivered for hours at a stretch, and a shriek of anguish from some doomed victim was no unusual occurrence. Others seemed frozen dumb with apprehension, while yet others laughed and sang and played at boisterous games, striving recklessly to forget their precarious nearness to trouble.

When evening came, and the prisoners were to be locked into their crowded cells for the night, four noisy, stupid, half-tipsy jailers entered, accompanied by several savage dogs, and there was a great to-do while the roll of the victims was being called. A badly spelled, incorrect list was passed from hand to hand among the jailers, a wrong name was called, to which, of course, no one responded. The turnkeys all swore in chorus, and tried another with no better success!

"Here, citizens," suggested Jean the irrepressible, "give me that list, and I'll help you get it straight!" They were only too glad of some assistance, and willingly handed it to him. Jean called off the names, while the person to whom each belonged marched before the guards and assured them of his or her identity. When this performance had been gone through four times, the muddled keepers were at length convinced that they had all safely locked in.

"Thanks, little rat!" they told Jean. "We will remember you another time!" and the great gates were shut and barred for the night. Jean found himself in a narrow cell in company with seven other persons completely unknown to him, and they all slept together on a filthy mattress of straw. Next day, however, Jean was removed from the common hall and placed in a tiny, uncomfortable cell by himself.

"What's this for, my friend?" he demanded of the turnkey.

"It's because you are a dangerous conspirator, and it has been commanded to keep you in solitary confinement!" he was told.

"Here's a pretty pass!" thought Jean. "How plainly we see the finger of La Souris in this pie!" And he sat down on his straw mattress to think it over.

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EXIT THE COBBLER

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