MoboReader > Literature > When a Cobbler Ruled a King

   Chapter 15 LA SOURIS MEETS HIS MATCH

When a Cobbler Ruled a King By Augusta Huiell Seaman Characters: 18727

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


A month and a half had passed. Jean regularly attended the meetings of the Brotherhood, and in all that company there was no more active and enthusiastic worker than this youngest member of the league. By the middle of March many things had been accomplished and the rough details of the plot were nearing perfection.

In the first place, the Surgeon Saintanac had at last discovered a child suffering with a hopeless, incurable disease, and as like the little prince as could be wished in one so near death. The problem of smuggling him into the Tower was to be solved in this way. When Citizeness Clouet came with a basket of clean linen, the sick child was to be concealed at the bottom. The day chosen for this must of course be one when the municipals on duty were mostly those of the Brotherhood, and the examination of the basket could thus be intentionally hasty and incomplete. Then the child would be hidden in an upper lumber room, till a favourable opportunity to have him exchange places with the King.

This opportunity was not far away, for Laurent had intimated to some of the municipals that he was about to resign his position as keeper of the royal child. His mother had recently died, family affairs were pressing, and in spite of his real affection for the boy, he felt that he had done his duty and that the time had come for his removal. His successor, a man named Citizen Lasne, was a staunch Republican, but this did not worry the Brotherhood, since they planned that the false king should be exchanged for the real one before his arrival.

One other most important point had been gained by the society. Gomin had at last ceased his vacillating, and come out staunchly for the cause. Municipal Debièrne the toy-man, was responsible for this. Long and arduous had been his discussions, quiet and skilful his manipulations of the impressionable Gomin, till at length, inspired both by Debièrne's influence and his own very real sympathy for his pathetic little charge, he yielded. He was brought to the Brotherhood meeting, branded and sworn, and the cause was all but complete.

Great was the rejoicing on the night of Gomin's initiation into the Brotherhood, and a huge feast was partaken of in celebration of this most important event. Jean's delight was beyond all bounds, and he had hard work to contain his bubbling spirits, when he heard a piece of news that considerably dampened his ardour. It was Caron who told him. It had leaked out that La Souris was again walking about as if no harm could threaten him! After having disappeared for many months, he had managed to wriggle himself into favour with someone in high authority, probably with the minor leader of the Convention, La Reveillière-Lepeaux, and was again expecting to resume his duties as municipal of the Tower.

"Look out!" warned Caron. "He has you particularly in his eye, Jean! He can't do you much harm personally, for you are under the protection of the Brotherhood. Your place here is secure. But he may be the death of the whole plot if we don't watch out!"

"I'll watch him like a cat!" declared the disgusted boy. "I'll keep him in sight every minute of the time he is in the Tower. Trust me! But, oh, why did he have to come back?"

The day was appointed at last for the first great move. Far in the night, on the twenty-sixth of March, Saintanac drove up in a tightly closed carriage to Citizeness Clouet's door. No one was about to see him carry into the house a young boy of ten years, desperately ill and half delirious. This child, some nameless waif from one of the charity hospitals, bore a haunting, ghastly resemblance to the little captive of the Tower.

The surgeon administered to him a heavy dose of opium that would put him into a deep sleep for many hours, and left him in the care of Mère Clouet. She and Yvonne were both in the plot, of course, though it had not been deemed necessary that they should become sworn and branded members, since Jean vouched for them. Next morning they packed the unconscious child into the huge clothes-basket, carefully arranging the linen so that he should not be smothered. Then, with beating hearts and courage steeled to the utmost, they called a cab, in it deposited their heavy burden, and were driven to the Temple.

"Mother, mother!" gasped Yvonne, pressing her hands to her heart to still the terrible thumping, "what will happen if La Souris is there and insists on examining the basket?"

"Trust in God, little one!" answered Mère Clouet. "Our cause is a just one and merciful. He will not suffer it to fail! Repeat the prayer for those in danger, child!" Yvonne's lips moved softly, and scarcely had she reached the "Amen!" when the carriage drew up at the outer courtyard.

Yvonne's presentiments were only too correct! To their horror and despair, the first face they saw as they entered with the basket, was the sly, evil, suspicious countenance of La Souris! His little, rat's eyes glittered under his almost hairless brows, and his claw-like hands twitched nervously as he reached for the basket. Debièrne and Meunier also stepped up and began to turn over the freshly ironed linen.

"Hold hard, friends! I will attend to this!" snapped La Souris. "You may look on and see that I do it thoroughly!"

Yvonne and Mère Clouet almost fainted away with terror, but they set their teeth and endured it bravely. All trembled with despair, even the staunchest man in the group, yet they dared not utter one word of remonstrance. Layer after layer La Souris removed, shaking out each piece deliberately, and holding it to the light. The operation seemed interminable, and the suspense beyond all endurance! At length all but the last layer had been removed. Nothing but that and a sheet covered the body of the hidden child. Oh, was there not something that could stop that dreadful hand!

Just at this point, out from the kitchen across the courtyard stepped Jean, bearing in his hands a huge bowl of soup for the breakfast of the soldiers in the Tower. To carry this to the guard-room where the meal was served, he was obliged to pass directly through the group gathered at the door. Well he knew the meaning of those blenched faces, those hopeless, despairing eyes, but he walked slowly by them all without a sign of recognition.

La Souris was kneeling before the basket, holding to the light a pillow-slip, when Jean passed directly behind him. With a studied carelessness, the boy deliberately tripped over the man's foot, lost his grip on the huge tureen, and skilfully managed to pour the entire steaming contents down the back of the unsuspecting municipal! With a hideous yell, La Souris dropped the linen and sprang to his feet.

"Oh! Pardon! pardon, Citizen! It was an accident!" shrieked Jean, assuming a well-feigned fright and dashing past him into the courtyard. La Souris, frenzied by the blistering of his back, and furious with rage at its perpetrator, tore after him, longing only to lay his hands on the agile lad. Round and round they flew, Jean ducking, doubling and evading with the skill of an accomplished Parisian gamin, while the soldiers gathered about laughing and applauding the race. La Souris panted and shrieked for vengeance, but he was no match for this agile lad, and he stopped at last, exhausted by his exertion and his very real pain.

"Someone call a doctor!" he groaned. "I haven't an inch of skin left on my back!" Jean, the wily, was the first and most ardent to rush off at this command, and fetch the Temple surgeon. La Souris, faint with suffering, was removed to his house in a cab, having forgotten all about the basket which had long since been quietly and thankfully removed. During the excitement and noise, when everyone had rushed to the yard to witness the chase, the sick child had been carried to the attic and hidden away in a long-unused half-boarded-up lumber room. The basket was returned to Mère Clouet, and the plot so far was safe, thanks to the timely intervention of Jean. He was the hero of the hour that night at the Brotherhood, and thoroughly did he enjoy that honourable position.

"But you've no idea," he declared, "how Caron and I worked to get that soup heated to the proper boiling pitch! I was watching at the window, when I wasn't cramming wood in the fire, and I certainly thought La Souris would have everything out of that basket before it was ready! It was Caron who thought of the soup!"

"Yes, but no one could have carried it out so well as Jean!" insisted the admiring Caron. "Whoever thought that La Souris would turn up just this day! The Evil One himself must have prompted him! Well, he's out of the way now for a spell, and that's a mercy!"

All this while the little captive king was living in total ignorance that there was such a thing as a plot for his escape. Release was something he had long given up as hopeless. Sometimes, even to his childish mind, it seemed as though death alone could free him from his long imprisonment. He was grieved and sad over the thought of Laurent's approaching departure, for he had begun to cherish a real affection for this first kindly man who had come into his life in many a weary month. He dreaded to think who might take his place, though Gomin was still to be there. But Gomin had to give much of his time to the sister on t

he floor above.

On the night of March twenty-ninth, Laurent bade a tender farewell to Louis Charles. When the door at last closed behind him, the boy threw himself on his bed in a violent fit of weeping. It was here that Gomin found him when he came in later with his supper. Gomin himself was nervous, excited and ill at ease, for this was the appointed time for the second great move in the scheme of liberation. On him this time depended success!

For a while the child refused to eat anything. This distressed Gomin beyond measure, for it was important that the meal should be eaten, since it was heavily dosed with opium. Nothing could be well accomplished unless the boy were rendered unconscious. At last, to please his keeper, Louis Charles swallowed the food though it almost choked him.

"Why am I so sleepy?" he presently asked. "It is not yet time to go to bed!"

"You have worn yourself out with crying," answered Gomin. "You had better let me put you to bed at once." The boy complied, his eyelids sinking more and more each moment, and before he was half undressed he had fallen into a heavy slumber. But Gomin did not put him in bed. On the contrary, he wrapped him in a large shawl, and opening the door, made a sign to someone outside.

Barelle and Debièrne entered with a huge basket that at first seemed empty. When the door was closed, however, they removed a false bottom, and there lay the sick child, sleeping soundly but not drugged. Quick as a flash the change was made. The strange boy lay in the little king's bed, clothed in the king's own gown and cap, and Louis XVII was placed at the bottom of the basket. The false bottom was again adjusted, and the remaining space piled with odds and ends of waste that had accumulated during Laurent's stay.

When the basket was filled, the two municipals carried it upstairs, telling the sentries who challenged them that they were going to place in the lumber room all the old truck that Laurent had left behind him, in order to clear the premises for Lasne. The sentries, after a hasty examination, passed them on without trouble. The attic of the Tower was a vast space more than half filled with every manner of cast-off articles that could have accumulated in a century past. Here they removed the rubbish from the basket, and lifted out the boy. Approaching the wooden partition they knocked softly, in the manner of the Brotherhood.

"All right!" whispered a familiar voice from behind, and on removing a board the curly head of Jean appeared.

"Hand him in!" he said. With incredible difficulty they managed to squeeze the unconscious child through the small aperture. Behind the partition was a tiny space not more than six or seven feet in any direction. Within this space was a mattress on the floor, and nothing else. Jean laid the boy on the mattress, covered him, and called once more, "All right!" The two men drew the board into place, and no one would have suspected either that there was any space behind it, or what that space contained. Then they left the garret room, rejoicing in the success of the second great step, and Jean was left alone with his charge.

All night he sat by the bed watching. But morning came and no change had occurred. The drug still held the boy in its deadening grip. Jean ate his breakfast of half a loaf of bread, and washed it down with a pitcher of water. Then he continued his watch. About noon the little king came to himself, but so deathly ill was he from the effects of the opium, that he noticed neither his changed surroundings nor his companion for many hours. Meanwhile Jean nursed him tenderly, and forced him to swallow a healing draught that had been left for the purpose by Saintanac. Toward night Louis Charles recovered himself sufficiently to be conscious of some radical change in his surroundings.

"Why is it so dark?" he demanded. "And who are you?" Then Jean put his arms around the boy, and whispered the whole story in his ear.

"I am Jean," he ended, "who has loved you ever since I first saw you in your little garden at the Tuileries! Will you not trust me?" For a time it seemed as if the child could hardly comprehend it all. The news was so sudden, so confusing! It was too wonderful! It was beyond belief that he should be free at last, and that his long-lost friend should be one of the chief actors in that scheme of release! But something else troubled him.

"What of my mother and sister and aunt?" he inquired. "Will they also be released with me? I do not wish to go if they remain!" Jean was silent a moment. What should he reply? But the time was not yet ripe to reveal all the truth to this loving child.

"They will also be safe!" he answered. And satisfied with this, the little fellow put his head down on Jean's shoulder, and cried long and softly in the sheer excess of his joy.

Jean remained hidden with the boy for the next few days. He was supposed to be away on a leave of absence, so at the Tower his non-appearance was thus accounted for. During this time he warned Louis Charles that his position was a terribly dangerous one, and that he must keep absolutely quiet always, and not be afraid if he were left alone, for he, Jean, could not be with him all the time. After his horrible six months of solitude, however, this new departure had little terror for a boy so inured to suffering. He promised joyfully to do all that was required of him.

"How long do you think it will be?" he asked.

"I cannot tell," answered Jean, "but as long as that poor little chap in your place down there remains alive. And goodness knows, that won't be very long, from the description they give of him!" Louis was genuinely interested in, and sorry for his counterpart.

"Do not waste much sympathy on him, dear friend," said Jean. "He is long past knowing even that he suffers, and death will be to him also a welcome release. Rest assured too that he is having better care here than he would get in a charity hospital! But now I must go. Be quiet and contented, and do not fear! I will come again to you as soon as it is possible. Meanwhile here is food and drink for two days. Adieu!" And in some inexplicable manner Jean wriggled himself out of the absurdly small aperture, and closed the plank behind him.

For nearly two months and a half, Louis Charles remained hidden at the top of the Tower, waiting till the sick child below should breathe his last. During this time Jean was his frequent companion, and his only one. The boy did his best to amuse the lonely little prisoner, telling him long stories about Moufflet, Yvonne, the good Mère Clouet, and also about his own imprisonment in the Conciergerie, and his remarkable escape. The eyesight of the two children grew like an owl's in this semi-darkness, and they found after a while that they could see each other quite well. On one occasion, after they had talked a long while and fallen into silence, Louis Charles suddenly asked his companion what day of the month it was.

"The third of May, 1795," answered Jean, unsuspectingly. Louis was quiet for a while, apparently struggling with some thought or half illusive recollection. Presently a flash of joy illuminated his face.

"Why! then it is my Aunt Elizabeth's birthday! How I wish I could go to her and give her my congratulations! But I suppose my mother will remember to do so for me!"

"Yes, yes!" returned Jean, but the words almost choked him, and he could think of nothing further to say. Something about his actions aroused his companion's suspicions. Turning on him squarely, Louis Charles demanded:

"Tell me all about my mother!" Jean felt that the time had at last arrived when it was expedient to conceal the facts no longer. Summoning all his courage, he replied softly:

"She is dead!"

"And my aunt?"

"She is also dead!"

"And my sister?" pursued the relentless voice.

"She is alive and safe here in the Tower!" For a moment the blow seemed too stupendous. The stricken child sat almost stunned. Then the catechism recommenced.

"How long has my mother been dead?"

"A year and a half!"

"And my aunt?"

"Just one year!"

"And they never told me?"

"They did not have the heart!" said Jean gently. This reply broke the ice of the little fellow's grief. Tears came to his relief, and he threw himself on the bed sobbing quietly. The struggle was long and severe, and Jean left him to the sacredness of his sorrow unmolested. When the storm of sobs grew less and the tears had ceased, Jean took him in his big, brawny arms and comforted him almost as one would a tired baby. Then to divert his thoughts for a while, he told him all his experiences on the night of his first visit to the Brotherhood of Liberation, for this he had been permitted to do if he chose. The child's interest was at first languid, but gradually grew intense as the tale advanced. When Jean recounted how he had been branded and sworn into the circle, Louis took in his own hands the branded palm of the older boy.

"And you went through all this for me?" he said in wonder. "Then will I never, never forget you, and I shall love you always, as I would my own brother!" Stooping, he bent his head and touched the scar with his gentle lips!

In all his life, Jean never forgot that moment!

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THE LAST MOVE

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