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   Chapter 14 IN WHICH JEAN FINDS CARON

When a Cobbler Ruled a King By Augusta Huiell Seaman Characters: 17626

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


After the strange events of the last chapter, Jean went in and out freely, but he did not think it quite safe as yet, to return to the tavern of Père Lefèvre, till he could ascertain what had become of La Souris. A week later, Mère Clouet and Yvonne went to the Temple with the laundry, and returned with welcome news.

"Only think!" exclaimed Yvonne. "Barelle says that Citizen Coudert has not been seen since the Tenth Thermidor! As he was one of Robespierre's most trusted spies, he doubtless thought himself scarcely safe, for you know they are now imprisoning all who were connected with Robespierre. He will probably remain in hiding for some time!"

So one day Jean returned to the tavern, in the hope of again taking up his duties as helper, and thus keeping in touch with the affairs of the little King. But Père Lefèvre had a surprise in store for him. He found to his intense chagrin, that his place had been usurped by a large, fat old woman, one Mother Matthieu, whose assistance Père Lefèvre declared he found more satisfactory than Jean's had ever been.

"She tends to her work, does Mother Matthieu!" insisted Père Lefèvre to the disappointed boy. "She does not sleep away half her time behind the counter, as you did, young monkey! And though she cannot whistle, and dance the Carmagnole on the tables, and she does indulge overmuch in snuff, she suits me better!" Jean turned away, discomfited, yet smiling in spite of himself, at the absurd fancy of waddling Mother Matthieu dancing the Carmagnole on the restaurant table! As he was leaving, he encountered at the door the burly form of a man hurrying into the tavern, and recognised Caron, the cook of the Temple Tower kitchen. Here was a stroke of good fortune, for had he not been told to "find Caron"! And lately he had been racking his brains to think how this might be accomplished. But he did not wish outsiders to imagine that he had any business with the cook, so contented himself merely with a greeting.

"How now, stranger!" exclaimed the hearty Caron. "Never did I expect to see you again! But I suppose you were pardoned out after the Tenth Thermidor. But has the Conciergerie given you such a taste for prisons that you must needs be always near one?" and he grasped Jean's hand warmly.

"I wanted to see if Père Lefèvre would take me back," explained the crestfallen boy, "for I must be earning money and I liked it here. But he will not have me."

"That's bad!" sympathised Caron. "But cheer up! There may be other things!" And he turned and went out at the boy's side. Once in the street, however, he grasped Jean's arm. "Were you ever told to find me?" he whispered.

"Indeed yes!" answered Jean. "De Batz! We were in prison and escaped together! 'Find Caron'! were his parting words!"

"I thought so!" said Caron. "He has already told me much of you, and how you have been, and will yet be, useful to us. It's lucky we met just now, for I'm seldom out, and you could not get at me in the Temple. Now I'm going to tell you something. It's just as well that Père Lefèvre won't take you back, for I have a position for you right in the Tower. How would you like to be scullery-boy and assist me in the kitchen! I've lost my assistant, and have been doing all the grubbing work ever since. It's not very good pay, only five francs a week,-but it is something. Besides, the most important thing about it is that you will be in the Temple Tower!" Of course Jean could not imagine himself refusing such an offer, which was one beyond his greatest hopes.

"Oh, Citizen Caron, when can I come?" he exclaimed.

"Oh, I must first interview the Council, which will then appoint you if it sees fit. But never fear! I have considerable influence with those in authority, and I can almost certainly vouch that the place shall be yours. Come back in a week's time." That week seemed the longest Jean had ever spent, not even excepting the dreary days at the Conciergerie. Promptly at the expiration of the time he sought Caron, who had agreed to meet him at Père Lefèvre's.

"It's all right!" said Caron as soon as they met. "I had some trouble at first, because you had once been 'suspected' and put in prison. But I assured them that it was without foundation, and was the work of that sneaking La Souris, who is himself in hiding to save his skin. They did not hesitate long, I can tell you! So come along with me now, and I'll show you the first things you will have to do."

Thus it was that Jean gained admission to the Temple Tower, that he became in fact a regular inmate, going home to the Rue de Lille only once a week. He soon made the acquaintance of Laurent, and was not long in discovering that kindly and humane as the King's new keeper was, he was not only a devoted Republican, but also strictly conscientious in discharging the duties the Republic had imposed on him, and would countenance no plans for his charge's escape.

Among Jean's duties was that of carrying up to the Tower room the captive's meals twice a day. At the door Laurent would relieve him of the tray, but he often caught sight of the boy in the room beyond. The first time this happened, Jean could scarcely believe that he saw correctly. This wan, emaciated, listless child the little king of his former acquaintance! Presently, however, he heard the clear sweet voice address some question to Laurent, and then he recognised it to be identical with that of the Dauphin in the Tuileries garden. But his heart went out all the more to this white shadow of his former rosy friend, and he consecrated himself anew to the wronged child's service.

Louis XVII did not recognise this new face at the door. In fact he took but slight notice of the faces about him now, and moreover, Jean had grown a foot taller and had developed wonderfully in the two years of the Prince's imprisonment. And just for the present Jean deemed it more advisable that Louis Charles should not recognise him.

Many times since he entered on his new employment did Jean beg Caron to tell him what was the latest plan for rescuing the imprisoned king. But Caron always put him off with this remark:

"Do not inquire yet, my lad. Things are not in a state where it is possible to explain the plans, but rest assured that you are to help, and the very fact of your having found me and obtained this position has all been counted on, and is a part of the scheme. You shall know more in time!" So Jean was obliged to possess his soul in patience.

When Laurent had been in the Tower about four months, he began to suffer from the same restraint that had finally conquered Simon,-he was wearied to death of his practical imprisonment. So he applied to the Convention for a colleague who should share his duties and relieve him at stated intervals. The Convention considered his request and at length appointed him a companion.

This colleague, Citizen Gomin by name, was a short, timid, quiet man of about forty, though he looked much older. He was not at all pleased at being assigned to this duty, but he dared not refuse, lest he become an object of suspicion. For he was very moderate in his opinions, leaning neither to the Republican nor the Royalist side. And to be moderate in those days, was to be considered almost as bad as an out-and-out enemy of the Republic of France!

His heart, however, had long revolted at the unjust imprisonment of the royal children, and he won the little king's love immediately, by bringing him as a gift four potted plants, radiantly in bloom. The child was almost wild with delight at the sight of them. He kissed them, fondled them, examined each blossom separately, and then putting aside the three finest, he said to Gomin:

"Take these to my mother, please!" Poor Gomin gathered them up and carried them from the room without a word. And Louis Charles smiled to himself all that day, thinking of the pleasure he had given his mother. Who shall say that Marie Antoinette, looking down on her little son from that other world, did not smile too, and bless him in her heart!

So the months passed, till one night in January, 1795, as Jean was preparing to go home for his weekly visit to the Rue de Lille, Caron laid his hand on the boy's arm.

"Don't go home to-night,-at least not till later!" he whispered.

"Why not?" demanded Jean wonderingly.

"Because the time has come!" answered Caron, enigmatically. But Jean understood, and waited in breathless expectation. Later the two passed into the deserted streets about the Temple. Caron stopped suddenly in the shadow of a high wall, and grasped Jean's arm.

"Are you truly devoted to him?" he asked in an undertone pointing to the Tower.

"I am!" responded the boy quietly, in a simple but convincing manner.

"So much so that you are

willing to risk life, liberty, everything, in his cause?"

"Yes!"

"Then come with me!" And Caron led the way through many winding, half-deserted streets, till at length they stood before a little tumble-down hovel in a black, unsightly alley. Caron knocked on the door with three peculiar taps, two loud and one soft. The door was opened a moment later by an unseen hand, and someone demanded:

"The password!"

"Marie Antoinette!" whispered Caron. The voice replied:

"And Louis XVII! Enter and be silent!" Jean was mystified beyond expression, but in his young enthusiasm he was eager for adventure of any kind, and one that related to his dearest hopes was all the more alluring. He entered with Caron, his heart beating high. In utter darkness they passed through rooms apparently empty, guided always by the unseen owner of the voice. Then they descended a stairway, and stood in what Jean took to be the cellar. Here the guide lighted a taper and bent to examine the floor. By the uncertain light, Jean perceived only that it was a man, and that his face was hidden by a black mask covering eyes, nose and mouth. Presently he found an iron ring, lifted it, thereby pulling up a large stone, and disclosed another staircase reaching far down beyond the range of light.

"Do not fear!" whispered Caron.

"Oh, I'm not in the least afraid!" Jean assured him, and to tell the truth, he was enjoying himself immensely! Then the guide descended, Jean followed next, and Caron came last, closing the stone entrance after him. Guided by the little candle they groped their way down the stairs and along a passage or tunnel so narrow that even Jean could not walk upright in it, nor raise his arms far from his side. The tunnel seemed interminable, and moreover, tiny trickling streams of water slid down its sides at intervals. Jean was thankful when they ascended another stairway, and stood in another cellar. This one he could see was much larger than the first, and filled with casks and barrels, evidently of wine. Here their guide again halted them.

"Put on these!" he commanded, and gave them two masks similar to his own. When these were adjusted he bade them go up the stairs, then he turned and went back through the tunnel, his duty being that of doorkeeper. Led by Caron they went upstairs, and knocked on a heavy door at the summit.

"The password!" demanded another voice. It was given and answered as before, and suddenly the two found themselves in a brilliantly lighted room. So dazzling was the intense light after the blackness through which they had been travelling, that Jean was for a moment almost blinded. When this sensation passed, he saw that they were in a large room furnished with chairs and a heavy centre-table. Everywhere were evidences of rich taste in decoration, and the apartment was doubtless in an abode of great wealth. Around the table were seated from twenty to twenty-five men all masked like themselves. At the head of the table sat the leader who turned at their entrance.

"Welcome," he said, "and be seated!" Jean and Caron placed themselves in two vacant chairs. For several moments no one spoke. Then the man at the head rose.

"Brothers," he began, "since we are all here, we will delay no longer in opening our meeting. Unmask!" At this command every mask was removed except that of the leader, which he continued to wear throughout the session. Jean looked about him in complete amazement What did it all mean? Here were Barelle, Meunier, Gagnié, a former cook at the Tower, Debièrne the commissary who never failed to bring Louis Charles a toy whenever he visited him, and a host of others whom he knew but slightly. Most surprising of all, however, was the Baron de Batz seated directly across the table, who nodded an affectionate greeting and welcome to the boy. The masked leader looked about him, and his glance fell on Jean.

"There is a strange face among us! Who is responsible for the stranger?" Caron rose.

"'Tis I who brought him. Jean Dominique Mettot is his name, my assistant in the kitchen. He is a devoted and loyal friend of the little king, and one who will be able to render us valuable service. I vouch for him!"

"And I also!" said the Baron de Batz quietly, from the other side of the table.

"Then let him be sworn!" replied the leader. The ceremony that followed was a curious one. The company all rose, and Jean was requested to stand upon the table. He climbed up assisted by the leader who held a lighted candle in his hand.

"We are the Brotherhood of Liberation!" announced the masked one. "Our sole aim and object is to free Louis XVII from his hateful, cruel and unjust captivity, and get him out of the country or to some place of safety. For this we have sworn to devote our lives! Since you desire to join us, you must submit to being branded with the badge of our Order. If you flinch in the branding, you are not worthy to be admitted among us. Jean Dominique Mettot, hold out your left hand, palm downward!" Jean obeyed. The leader held close under it the flame of the candle. The boy's first impulse was to shrink back, but he clinched his teeth and endured to the end what seemed to him an unspeakable torture. Finally the leader removed the candle.

"You have stood the test bravely and well! You will now take the oath of loyalty with the rest. Hold up your branded hand!" Jean held up his scorched palm, and every man in the room raised his open left hand. In the palm of each was a small scar, made evidently in the same manner. The leader raised his hand also, and they all repeated aloud the creed of their band:

"By our branded hands we swear to devote our lives and all we hold dear to the cause of liberating Louis XVII from his captivity. Likewise we swear that to the end of our lives we will never reveal these secrets, except with the permission of the entire band!" When this was over they dropped their hands and resumed their seats, and Jean was helped from the table. Barelle applied soothing liniments and bandages to his wounded hand, and the business of the meeting went forward.

In that night Jean learned much. In the first place he understood that there was a definite plot to release the little king,-a plot not confined to a few scattered souls not yet devoid of all humanity, but organised and countenanced by some high in authority, who however preferred that their identity should remain unknown. The details of the scheme were not yet fully worked out. But in the rough, the idea was to spirit away Louis XVII, hide him for a while in an unused upper part of the Temple, and substitute in his place some child resembling him that they would procure from one of the hospitals,-a child so ill that he could not in all reason live very long. On the death of this sick child it would be officially proclaimed that Louis XVII was no more, and then the real boy could be taken away without very much fear of discovery.

Many things, however, stood for the present in the way of success. In the first place Laurent was an ardent Republican and too conscientious to consent to wink at such a scheme. Gomin as yet vacillated, but his sympathies would probably soon be gained. Then a sick child must be procured and smuggled into the Tower. No child had yet been discovered who sufficiently resembled Louis Charles, though Saintanac, a surgeon in the Society, was making a daily round of the hospitals to find one. It was a terribly difficult, unthinkably hazardous undertaking, for it would mean the lives of all were they discovered, and doubtless the certain death of the very one they sought to rescue. Yet all were eager, hopeful, enthusiastic! The meeting broke up with a renewal of their oath of allegiance and they were dismissed in the same way that they had come, through the tunnel and the hovel in the alley.

When they were outside, Caron told Jean some additional items of interest. The house they met in was that of the Marquis de Fenouil, an ardent royalist. It was the Marquis who had been responsible for the appointment of Gomin, whom he hoped would be converted to the cause. Caron said he was sure it was the Marquis who had led the meeting that night. They had various leaders who always remained masked, thereby avoiding absolute recognition, for they were frequently men prominent in Republican authority. It was even whispered that the great Barras himself was sometimes behind that mask. It was also hinted that Barras had a secret interest in having the little prince removed to a remote place of safety. But these things were not openly spoken of.

Jean went home that night to nurse his wounded hand, with his head in a whirl, but with immense hope and thankfulness in his heart!

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LA SOURIS MEETS HIS MATCH

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