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When a Cobbler Ruled a King By Augusta Huiell Seaman Characters: 15887

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

On the morning of July first, 1794, Jean sat on the edge of his straw mattress, listening intently for the slightest sound in the corridor without. He had been in the Conciergerie over eight months. How he had come to be left so long without undergoing a trial was a mystery to him, except that it might be explained by the fact of his age. Under fifteen, the Republic considered people as children, and these they did not punish with death. Over it, he would have to suffer as an adult. Now his fifteenth birthday having occurred the day before, he held himself in readiness for trouble!

How he had endured those long, dreary weeks, he could scarcely himself have told. Sometimes it seemed as though the solitude, combined with his fears for his loved ones and himself, and the despair at this frustration of all his hopes, would deprive him of his reason. But Jean was a lad of many and varied resources! For one thing he had made friends with his jailers on the very first day, and had lost no opportunity since to improve their acquaintance. With them he held long conversations, and tried thus to learn as much as possible of the state of affairs in the city. But the turnkeys, though friendly, were rather chary of information, and Jean gleaned but little intelligence in this direction. Yesterday, however, one of them had casually dropped a remark that filled him with an unreasoning joy:

"We are hideously crowded now, and there's no place to be longer reserved for solitary confinement. So by to-morrow you may have a lodger, my friend!" Jean dared not exhibit the pleasure this announcement caused him. To see and speak to a human being other than these almost inhuman monstrosities, the turnkeys, was almost too good to be true!

"Oh, well! I'll not object, only do not crowd in too many, I beg!" he replied with greatest indifference. But his heart sang in a very jubilee of thanksgiving. Therefore was he waiting in breathless expectancy, for either one of two events,-a companion in his solitude, or a call to himself face the tribunal of justice and its almost certain result. Which would it be?

He waited till noon in eager suspense, but the corridor remained silent. Jean began to be very impatient. He longed for anything to break the monotony of this waiting, even were it to mean his own call to judgment. At last, about two o'clock, voices were heard along the corridor, tramping footfalls, the hoarse growl of the turnkeys, and finally the unbolting of the cell-door. But his joy was beyond all words when the two turnkeys flung into the room a stranger, and closed the door with a bang and the cheerful remark:

"There you are! Keep each other company till you go to make your call on Mistress Guillotine!" The stranger fell heavily on the bed, as though in a stupor, and so remained for many minutes. While in this state, Jean had time to look him over and judge what manner of companion he had been given. The man was clothed in the peasant costume, evidently of Picardy. His face was covered with a five days' growth of beard, and his expression indicated no large amount of wits. As he lay on the mattress, he seemed overcome by a very paroxysm of terror. When he appeared to be somewhat recovered, Jean broke the conversational ice:

"And what may be your crime against the Republic, Citizen Friend?" The peasant started at the sound of his voice, sat up and gave the boy a scrutinising look. Then his face underwent the strangest transformation Jean had ever seen. The stupid expression vanished, the eyes sparkled brilliantly, and a smile played about the bearded mouth. In that instant Jean recognised him.

"The Baron de Batz!" he exclaimed, springing forward.

"Hush!" whispered the Baron, as he wrung the boy's hand. "This is luck indeed! I knew that you had been sent here, but I thought regretfully, that you had long since perished!" Jean explained the supposed reason that he had been so far spared.

"But tell me, I beg, how you come to be here!" he ended.

"Oh," said De Batz, "it's not under my right name that I have been arrested, as you probably surmise. Of course, I'm still devoted to the cause of rescuing my little king, but up till now all my plans have failed, chiefly through just such misfortunes as that which spoiled the one in which you took part. But there is something on foot now,-or will be soon,-that is of greater scope than any yet conceived!

"As to how I came here?-well, I was prowling this morning about the Temple, in this disguise of a peasant of Picardy, seeking to obtain some needful information. For this purpose I engaged a guard in conversation, in the course of which he remarked that the country was going to the Evil One! 'Not going, but there already!' I responded, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned, and confronted-who but Simon the cobbler!

"'That's a remark inimical to the Republic!' he roared. 'For that I order your arrest!' And in two seconds I was in the grasp of a couple of gendarmes who hustled me, followed by Simon, to this prison. Simon made the charge, and I gave the name of Antoine Lecoste. The rest you know! And for such offences are thousands of poor wretches doomed to death in these glorious days!"

"But what a misfortune," sighed Jean, "that you should be so imperilled when you are the soul of the noble schemes for releasing the little fellow! You stand about one chance in a million of being acquitted, from all I hear!"

"Do not fear for me, lad! One can never tell what may happen, of course, but, hark you! I have a band of trusty followers, and in view of the very thing that has happened, my arrest, we concerted, some time ago, a plan to rescue me if I am caught and condemned, even were I on the way to the very scaffold itself. And trust me, Jean, should it so fall out that we travel that road together, you shall share my rescue. If I go before you and am rescued, I will surely devise some scheme for your escape when your time comes. Only, if you are called to go before me, heaven alone can aid you!" Jean pressed his hand with a gratitude too deep for words.

"Meanwhile," ended the Baron, "it is best that we do not seem too intimate, when our jailers are around. What a horrible place this is! How long have you been here?" And Jean gave him a history of his imprisonment. The two talked nearly all that night. Jean had heard practically no news from the outer world in all the eight months, and he learned now much that astonished him. One of the events most amazing to him was the resignation of Simon from his post of tutor to Louis XVII, and the young king's solitary confinement. The other was that Danton, the great original Terrorist leader had perished on the scaffold as far back as April.

"How came it about?" inquired Jean in wonder. "I cannot understand it! He was head and front of every thing!"

"Simple enough, in these days!" responded De Batz. "It is like the mountainous waves of the sea. One towers above all for a moment, only to be overtopped by the one behind it next instant. Robespierre became both tired and jealous of his great friend and compatriot, and decided to get rid of him. Nothing easier! He denounced Danton to the Convention, and he was tried and condemned by the very tribunal he had himself instituted. Right here in the Conciergerie at that! You should have seen him during his trial! He sat and made paper pellets which he threw at his judges! Oh, Danton was a cool one, and he died bravely! But, let me tell you something. Robespierre's turn is coming next! The people are weary of him and his underhand ways, and 'tis whispered that he wishes to sweep all others out of his path and make himself Dictator. But it won't do! They are furious at him for causing Danton's death,-his closest friend, mind you!-and something is going to happen. The pot is on the point of boiling. It will take but a few days at most for it to boil over

. And let me tell you who will be the next man of the hour,-Barras! He is already very popular. Keep your eye on Barras, Jean!"

Two days passed, and the friends were left unmolested. During this time they exchanged thoughts on many subjects, and waited with apprehension lest one or the other should be called away, and strove to pass the hours as best they might. Jean begged De Batz to tell him what was the new plan for rescuing Louis XVII.

"That I cannot tell you just yet," said the Baron. "For it is not perfected, and I am under oath to reveal nothing. But if we get out of this alive, be sure that you will hear more about it later. But one thing I will say. I may have to disappear for a time to another part of France. If I am not in Paris, find Caron! You know who he is?" Jean nodded assent. Then he asked about how they were to escape.

"It is best that you should not know," said De Batz. "The manner of it will be attended with great risk, and you will come through it better if you are ignorant. Only, do not be surprised at anything that may happen!"

On the third day, the jailers entered the cell at noon, accompanied by a court-crier. Jean and the Baron exchanged a look, for they knew that the fate of at least one of them was to be sealed that day. To their joy, both their names were read to appear before the tribunal. The jailers left them saying that they would be back in half an hour.

"This is a godsend!" exclaimed the Baron. "Nothing could have been better than that we should go out at the same time. If we are rescued it will be together, and if not,-well, at least we will die in each other's company!" The jailers came back in a few moments and bound the hands of the two behind their backs. In the courtyard they found a band of thirty more victims, in charge of a corps of gendarmes, all petrified into a very apathy of fearful anticipation. Strangely enough, there was not even a tear shed by the band of the condemned. The sobs and lamentations came wholly from the friends they were leaving.

Out from the courtyard, and along dark galleries and passages they were herded like so many cattle, till at length they were pushed into the great gloomy room where sat the far-famed Tribunal of Terror. Three judges robed in black, wearing plumed hats, sat on a high platform, and scribbled occasional notes. A clerk called out the list of names, to which each prisoner responded. Then, one by one, the names were read again, and a charge against each was hastily gabbled over, which the prisoners scarcely heard and in nine cases out of ten did not understand. When asked if they had anything to say in their defence, each murmured calmly and hopelessly, "No!" After this, one of the judges rose and pronounced the sentence:

"You are all found guilty of conspiring against the Republic! I pronounce upon you the sentence of immediate death!"

There was no surprise and scarcely any interest created by this. Why should there be! They had expected it from the beginning! For the most part they were as those already dead. The gendarmes hurried them out by another passage, and they came to an open gate, beyond which stood the tumbrils waiting for their daily load. Here a great crowd of the populace had collected. But where months ago they had hooted and jeered at the doomed ones, now the sympathy of the majority was with the victims, and the carts were loaded in a sorrowful silence, broken only by the occasional cry of some outsider who beheld a friend among the condemned.

Jean and De Batz were reserved for the last cart, and just before they entered, the boy saw his friend make an almost imperceptible motion of the head to a man in the crowd who instantly disappeared. "Courage!" whispered the Baron to his little comrade, as they were flung unceremoniously into the tumbril, accompanied by ten or twelve others. That ride was a thing to be remembered as one recalls a shuddering nightmare. Crowded in as they were, Jean saw no possible hope of rescue, and the cart jolted on roughly through street after street. They had approached very near the Place de la Révolution and the termination of their ride, when a heavy cart that had driven in between them and the forward tumbril, suddenly broke down, a wheel flew off, and the way was completely blocked.

"Good!" muttered the Baron to Jean. "The first step is a success!" The driver of their tumbril swore roundly, but nothing could be done except drive back a block or two and proceed through a very narrow street, scarcely more than an alley. Meanwhile the crowd had forsaken them, and had hastened on to the guillotine, lest it be too late for the first of the day's executions. The last tumbril would doubtless arrive in good time without their assistance!

The narrow alley into which they now turned was lined with rickety wooden houses, and Jean noticed that De Batz watched one of these narrowly, so he also kept his eye upon it. They had almost reached it when suddenly, out from it rushed ten or fifteen men, all shouting, swearing, lunging at each other with knives and bludgeons, apparently engaged in a fierce dispute that could only be settled by drawing blood. They surged about the tumbril, while the astonished driver sought to clear the way by flourishing his whip, and shouting for a free passage.

In the midst of all this confusion, Jean presently felt a knife inserted between the cords that bound his wrists, and in a second his hands were free. Then he saw that De Batz had likewise been released from his fetters. In the midst of the greatest racket he heard the Baron whisper:

"Slip down! Get among them!" Fortunately they were both seated at the rear end of the cart. Before Jean realised it, he was down and in the midst of the noisy group shouting and struggling like the rest. If the other inmates of the cart realised what was happening, they were either too apathetic to care, or too glad that even a few might escape, to make any outcry. The struggling, fighting men, gradually ceased their blows and pretending to be appeased, gathered into a group, carefully concealing in their midst the Baron and Jean. The wrathful driver of the tumbril shook his fist at them, swore to have them all arrested later, gathered up his reins, and the cart lumbered heavily away, while he remained entirely in ignorance of the fact that his load was lighter by two! When it had disappeared, they all hurried into the house from whence the men had issued.

"Oh!" sobbed Jean, now that the terrible tension was relieved, "if we could only have saved the rest! It seems horrible that they should go on to what we have escaped!"

"It could not be done," said De Batz. "It was an awful risk even for one, and for two a still greater peril. But had there been more,-why all would have perished! You yourself would not have been saved, had I not given my men a sign." The men now gathered about their leader, who congratulated them on the successful outcome of the plot.

"But we must not remain here," he ended. "One by one you must leave the house, all but Jean and myself. It would not do for us to be seen in broad daylight so soon. We will hide in the cellar till to-night." Gradually the men dispersed, and till long after midnight, Jean and the Baron kept each other company in the dark cellar, for the house was an abandoned one. At length the time came for them to part.

"Return to the Rue de Lille," ordered De Batz, "and keep hidden there for a few days. Things are going to happen, as I told you, and after that it may be safe to go out. I must leave Paris, perhaps for some time. But one injunction I leave with you,-find Caron! No,-do not thank me, my boy, for helping you to this escape! It is only what we owe to each other, and to Louis XVII! But thank God for helping us to accomplish it. Adieu! adieu! Find Caron!"

And so they parted!

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