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   Chapter 16 THE LAST MOVE

When a Cobbler Ruled a King By Augusta Huiell Seaman Characters: 16861

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


On the night of the tenth of May, Jean attended a meeting of the Brotherhood. He expected nothing unusual to happen, and was prepared only to give an account of the little King's welfare during the last few days. He entered as usual, and found the great room full of masked figures. But one place remained vacant, and he slipped into it two minutes before the command for unmasking. In these two minutes he glanced at his right-hand companion, finding something vaguely familiar in the short, slight figure. Then came the order to unmask, and a second later Jean gave a little cry of joy and astonishment, for at his right hand sat his former well-beloved friend, Napoleon Bonaparte!

Lean and sallow and poorly clad as ever, but with the same hauntingly brilliant eyes, it was as though not more than a day had passed since they last met. Bonaparte expressed a similar astonishment at beholding Jean, but the business-meeting being in full swing, they could exchange no more than a hearty hand-clasp under the table. But when the meeting was dismissed, Bonaparte invited Jean to walk home to his lodgings with him, and talk over their long period of separation.

"By all the saints! Jean, I should never know you! You have grown a foot at least! But this is a singular meeting! Yes, I am back in Paris," said Bonaparte. "I arrived to-day. Perhaps you wonder at finding me in the Brotherhood meeting, but I will tell you how it happened.

"You must know that at present I am a friend and protégé of Barras, who, by the way, was the leader to-night. Barras was a commissioner of the Convention at Marseilles while I was there, and he used his influence to better the condition of my family. So of course I feel somewhat in his debt, though I partially helped to pay that off by the advice and assistance I gave at the siege of Toulon. But be that as it may, I have decided to attach myself to him. He is the man of the hour, and I must attach myself to something!

"Well, recently I received an appointment to come to Paris and command a brigade of infantry that is soon to stamp out the insurrection in La Vendée, but, though I came to Paris, I have refused the command. I have no taste for such butcher's work, and I consider it rather an insult to be given the infantry when I have always been with the artillery. Besides that my health is not good at present.

"So I went to Barras to-day, to acquaint him with these matters. He invited me to sup with him, and then later asked me if I seriously wished to render him a great assistance. Naturally, as I still feel much under obligation to him, I replied that I certainly did so wish. He then told me that he relied on me as a man of honour not to reveal what I should hear if he took me to the meeting of a secret society. As he was leader for the evening, it would not be required that I become a sworn member as yet, and so I went-and met you! Privately I am glad enough to help that poor child to escape, for I think his inhuman detention has been one of the greatest outrages in history. But now tell me how it has fared with you since last we met?" Then Jean gave an account of the intervening year and a half. When he had ended, Bonaparte remarked:

"My boy, what you tell me makes me regard you more highly than ever, and I am not surprised to find you taking so prominent a part in this scheme. In fact I should have expected it. But let me whisper to you a few surmises that have occurred to me to-night. It was a curious meeting, that!-and I amused myself by striving to divine the true motives of many of the leading characters.

"De Batz and other royalists there have of course but one hope,-to get Louis XVII out of the clutches of the Republic, no matter how, and then some day bring him back a victorious king. Then there are not a few staunch Republicans like Barelle, Meunier and Debièrne, who seem actuated only by the humane wish to rescue the little fellow from his cruel captivity.

"But one man there has a motive entirely different, and he is the head and front of it all. That man is Barras! Shall I tell you what is his motive? I have guessed it, though of course he never suspects. He sees in himself the coming man of power. True, he is powerful already, but he aims at higher things. He would rescue Louis XVII and remove him to some distant spot where he can find him if necessary. Later he will use him to dangle over the heads of the royalists as a bait, and over the Republicans as a threat, so balancing his influence with both parties. And at last, at some expedient moment, Louis XVII will disappear forever, and Barras can make himself anything he wishes,-Dictator, Emperor, what not! It is a clever scheme!" Jean shook his head.

"I care not what the ultimate scheme of Barras may be," he vouchsafed, "if only the little fellow can get out of that horrible place! And if I can assist any, I shall only feel that I have done my duty by him and his dead mother!" So the two talked far into the night, and dawn was breaking when Jean went back to the Temple.

But how fared it in the room in the Tower, where a delirious little stranger masqueraded all unconsciously as Louis XVII of France?

For several days before the exchange was effected, Gomin had been writing daily in the Temple register, "Little Capet is ill!" This was quite true, as Louis Charles had been suffering with a severe cold. As Gomin expected, no attention was paid to this report. On the day after the strange child was placed in his care, he wrote, "Little Capet is dangerously ill!" Still no one took any notice of it, and then Lasne, the new keeper arrived. Taking one look at the inert, stricken boy, he exclaimed:

"Can that really be the little Dauphin whom I remember so well having seen in the Park of the Tuileries? I should never recognise him! He must be terribly ill. Have you sent for a physician?"

"Yes," answered Gomin. "At least I have reported his sickness, but nothing has been done about it." That night Lasne wrote in the register, "Little Capet is so ill that it is feared he will not live!" Then, and not till then, did the authorities see fit to act on so unimportant a matter, and they designated physician Desault to attend the boy. Desault was not long in discovering that his services would be all but useless. The child was far beyond hope, and all he could do was to ease any possible suffering. Desault himself was taken suddenly ill, not long after, and died a short time before the supposed prince. Two other physicians took his place, though they too felt assured that their services would not be needed long. At last, word was sent forth on the tenth of June, "Little Capet is dead!" The event not being considered as of any special importance by the public at large, it was ordered that he be buried as quickly and with as little ceremony as possible. This was done as directed, the reports were duly made out, and officially Louis XVII was no more!

But unofficially, in the little attic room, Louis XVII was very much alive, and wild with anxiety to be released from his long confinement! The time had come for the last step in this great undertaking, and circumstances had rendered that step far easier than the previous ones had been. In the first place, La Souris was well out of the way, being still in a state where it would take months for him to leave his bed. Then, Louis XVII was considered dead and buried! Therefore, why take any further precautions for safe-guarding his empty prison, thought the authorities!

A few days after the little funeral procession had wended its way from the Tower, Jean and Caron went to the attic room to procure the great basket with the false bottom. They were going to remove some things from the room of the "Little dead Capet" to the rubbish pile upstairs. At the same hour, Mère Clouet and Yvonne were to call for the soiled linen in the now deserted room. It was all very simple! The sentries on the stairs took no notice whatever of their proceedings. When they deposited the basket in the room, Mère Clouet's big clothes-hamper was already standing there, having been brought in while they were upstairs. Quickly they took out the false bottom and lifted up Louis Charles. He was alert and conscious this time, having begged hard not to be drugged.

"I will be so good!" he promised. "I will scarcely breathe! Oh, do let me go as I am, and see and h

ear everything!" So they granted his wish. The change of baskets did not take a moment. As the boy cuddled down in Mère Clouet's hamper, he took one last look about the room where he had suffered so much.

"Jean," he whispered, "I pray God that I may never see it again!" Then they buried him deep beneath a mound of linen.

"Can you breathe?" whispered Jean through the cracks of the basket.

"Nicely! I'm all right!" came the voice from within.

"Then, an revoir!" returned Jean. He and Caron lifted the great burden to their shoulders and carried it downstairs. No one challenged them. No one was interested in the contents of a basket which they thought contained only the soiled clothes of a boy now safely dead and buried! They shoved the huge hamper into the carriage, slammed the door carelessly on Citizeness Clouet and Yvonne, and called to the driver:

"Number six hundred and seventy Rue de Lille!" and the cab rolled away. It was all over, and the little captive of the Temple was free forever!

When Jean came home that night, he found the king busy hugging and kissing Moufflet, while Mère Clouet and Yvonne looked on admiringly. The boy was almost frantic with joy at being reunited with his long-lost pet, and the dog had certainly not forgotten his master, for he seemed as delighted as Louis Charles himself. For two days the little king lay hidden in the good keeping of Mère Clouet. On the second night, Jean took the boy off by himself, to have a last long talk with his friend.

"You know, little king," he said, "that much as we love you, we cannot keep you always here. That would not be safe or right for you. Other kind though unknown friends have your interests at heart, and are coming to-night to take you to a place of greater safety."

"Oh, Jean," replied the frightened boy, "I do not want to leave you! I wish to stay here! There is no one now in the whole world that I really love besides my sister and yourselves. Why must I leave you? Where will they take me?"

"You will be in care of kindly people, that I am sure, though I do not know whom, nor do I know where you will be taken. But always you will have freedom and the best of care. Perhaps some day you will come back to live in Paris, when these troubled times are over. That will be a happy event to look forward to!"

"But my sister!" persisted the boy. "She is yet in the Tower. When will she be free also? When can I see her?"

"There is a rumour abroad that she will soon be released and sent to the court of Austria, in return for certain important prisoners that the Austrians have lately captured from us. Perhaps you will be permitted to join her sometime, at your cousin's court." Louis Charles sat a long while, thinking it over.

"I suppose it must be so," he said at last, "since it is best. But I shall be very, very lonely! May I have a pair of scissors?" Jean opened his eyes at this strange request, but he procured a pair from the other room. Louis Charles took them, raised them to his head, and cut off three of his soft curls.

"This is for you, Jean!" he said. "It is all I have to give you. And these are for Madame Clouet and Yvonne. And now, there is one thing more that I wish you to do for me. I had thought to take the little Moufflet with me, and never, never part from him. But now I have decided that I shall give him to my sister, since she is soon to be free. She will perhaps be as lonely as I am and I want her to have something that will give her pleasure and remind her of me! Will you do this for me, Jean?" The older boy was almost overwhelmed at the little fellow's generosity, knowing well what pain it must cost him to part again with the pet he had so lately recovered, and which was the sole remaining object that could remind him of happier days.

"I will surely do this, little friend!" answered Jean, and his voice shook as he spoke. "And we will all wait, watch, and look forward to the time when you may come back to us!"

"No one will look forward to it more than I," said the boy, "and yet something tells me that I shall never come back! But at least I shall never, never forget you, and all that you have suffered and sacrificed for my sake! And, Jean, neither will I ever forget that day in the attic room,-you know which one I mean!" Jean nodded. It was the only time that Louis Charles had ever since alluded to his mother, or to his great grief at the news of her death. He kept his sorrow locked always tightly in his own breast.

Then came the parting with Mère Clouet and Yvonne. He gave them the little gift of his curls,-the only things he had to bestow,-thanked them over and over again, kissed them tenderly, and not a few tears of genuine sorrow were shed by every member of the room. Moufflet he kept hugged to his breast till the last. All waited in breathless suspense for the sound that was to indicate the time of parting,-the triple knock of the Brotherhood. At about two in the morning it came, the three soft taps so familiar to Jean. He opened the door cautiously, and there stood two men, masked in the fashion of the band.

"The password!" demanded Jean.

"Liberation!" they both replied, "and Louis XVII of France!" They were admitted at once, and saw the little king standing ready. In spite of their masks, Jean recognised the Baron de Batz and Bonaparte. However, he knew it was best to hold no personal converse with them.

"Is your majesty ready to accompany us?" inquired the Baron, addressing Louis.

"I am!" answered the child simply and manfully. There were to be no tears now, no tempestuous parting. The tender farewell of the lonely boy to his dearest friends had all come before and was too sacred to be witnessed by strangers. He was a king now, and the royal blood that was in him rose to meet the occasion.

"Then come with us!" commanded the second masked figure. Louis XVII turned to give Moufflet a last caress and then addressed the strangers:

"I am ready! Lead the way!" They wrapped him in a long dark cloak, and making a sign to Jean to follow, the party left the house and proceeded on foot to the next street, where a carriage was waiting for them. The drive was made in absolute silence, but the little king sought and held Jean's hand all the way. At the Rue Chantereine, number six, the carriage stopped before the door of a small but handsome mansion. All four ascended the steps, and De Batz rapped on the door with the knock of the Brotherhood. The door opened on a hallway perfectly dark, and a soft voice said:

"Follow me, gentlemen!" At once the door of a room beyond was opened, and a flood of light revealed the owner of the voice, a woman dressed in soft, clinging drapery, and of such sylph-like grace and sweetness of manner, that she almost took Jean's breath away!

"Is this little Louis Charles?" she asked. But without waiting for an answer, she knelt down and threw her arms about the astonished child.

"Do not fear, poor abused little king!" she crooned. "You will be safe with me, and I love you already!" And at a sign from her, the three others withdrew and left the little king and his new protectress together. On leaving the house De Batz bade Bonaparte and Jean good-night, and went his own way. But the boy and his friend walked a few blocks together, before they separated.

"Tell me, Citizen Bonaparte," asked Jean, "who is that lovely lady with whom we left the little fellow?"

"That," answered Bonaparte, "is a great friend of Barras,-the Vicomtesse Josephine de Beauharnais!"

When Jean returned to the Rue de Lille, he found Yvonne in tears, and Mère Clouet thoughtful but happy. He told them what had become of the king, but Yvonne would not be comforted.

"Oh, why did he have to leave us!" she sobbed. "We could have kept him so well, and he would have been so happy here with us!"

"No, we could not have kept him!" retorted Jean. "He would not have been safe here long, and he is going to be very happy with that lovely lady!" Nevertheless he stood for a long time silent at the window, with his back to the rest, looking steadily out at nothing. But Mère Clouet dropped to her knees, clasped her hands, and softly uttered this prayer:

"I praise and thank Thee, O God, that Thou hast permitted us at last to repay this debt of gratitude to the poor Queen who is now with Thee!"

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THE STAR OF NAPOLEON BONAPARTE

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