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   Chapter 18 AFTER LONG YEARS

When a Cobbler Ruled a King By Augusta Huiell Seaman Characters: 10148

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


In the month of June, 1806, the lieutenant of the Eighth Brigade of Light Artillery received, while on duty at the Imperial Palace of St Cloud, the following mysterious note:

"If Jean Dominique Mettot will be at Havre on the fourteenth instant, he will be admitted on board the vessel 'La Belle Gabrielle,' where he will meet someone who is most anxious to see him. He is kindly requested to refrain from mentioning this rendezvous to anyone. Ask for 'Monsieur Charles Durante.'

"C.D."

Devoured with curiosity, he hastened to obtain a leave of absence from his Emperor, who pinched his ear in giving it, inquired on what errand he was bound, and laughed when Jean blushed and stammered that he was not at liberty to explain.

Having made all speed to Havre, he had no difficulty in finding the ship "La Belle Gabrielle" which was preparing to set sail that evening, on its voyage to America. On inquiring for a Monsieur Durant, he was referred to cabin number twelve, which he reached and on whose door he knocked.

A tall, slim, gentle-faced young man of perhaps twenty years opened the door. Jean looked keenly at him for a moment, then gave a little gasp. For he realised in that instant that he stood before the former child of the Tower, Louis XVII of France! The young man drew him inside, closed the door, and the two stood for a long moment, hand clasped in hand, unable to utter a word. It was Louis Charles who at last broke the silence:

"You are much changed, and yet you seem the same Jean of the Temple! Tell me about yourself!"

"Indeed," replied Jean, "you are much changed also, but you are beginning to resemble greatly the late king, your father!"

"So I think myself," laughed the young man, "and so think others, which has begun to prove rather troublesome. For that reason I am going to America, never to return. But I could not leave without seeing you once more!"

"Surely, surely," cried Jean aghast, "you will come back sometime!"

"No, never!" said Louis firmly. "Nothing would induce me to reign over France, even were the opportunity to present itself. And to reside here in a private capacity will scarcely be feasible much longer. I have lived a quiet life for the past ten years with kindly people in a far corner of France. I was placed with them by Barras, under the name of Charles Durant, by which name I have been known ever since. They thought me an orphan of some good Parisian family, sent there to be away from the violent scenes of the Revolution. I was tenderly nursed back to health, and carefully educated. Many times lately has De Batz come secretly to me, and urged me to proclaim my identity and put myself at the head of the royalist cause, but I have steadily refused.

"The French nation murdered my father and mother! They will never be ruled by me! And to live here as a private citizen is becoming impossible because of my resemblance to my father. Again and again I have heard it remarked how closely I resemble Louis XVI in his younger days. It would soon be causing serious political complications, more particularly as I foresee that affairs are far from stable, even with such a man as your wonderful Emperor at their head! But in America I shall never be recognised, and there I can live the quiet, peaceful, useful life which I crave."

"But tell me," asked Jean, "have you never seen your sister since her removal from the Tower?"

"No, never, for two reasons,-one of them rather curious! She will not believe that I am alive!"

"How strange!" murmured Jean.

"No, not strange, in a way. It was De Batz who informed her of my escape, after she went to England. But she refused to believe it, saying it was an impossibility,-that I had died in the Tower, and that anyone who claimed to be myself must be an impostor! But then, you see, she has attached herself to our uncle, my father's oldest brother, who, if the Bourbons ever returned to reign, would be the next in succession, Louis XVIII. And on that account I feel I can never forgive her, for he was always a cruel enemy of our mother, Queen Marie Antoinette, and caused her much grief. How my sister could endure to be even in his presence, I cannot understand, and this is the reason I wish never to see her again. But tell me, Jean, all about yourself! And how is the good Madame Clouet and pretty little Yvonne?"

"It pains me to tell you," answered Jean, "that our dear Mère Clouet passed away a few months ago, after a severe illness. But for the last ten years she had lived a very happy life in our lovely little home at Meudon. That loss has left little Yvonne,-who is little no longer, but a beautiful young woman!-quite alone in the world, except for me. We grew up together as brother and sister, but now I have managed to persuade her to consider me in another light, and next month she is to become my wife! The Emperor has promised to give us a beautiful wedding!"

"Bravo, bravo!" cried Louis Charles. "A thousand happy wishes! Nothing could have pleased me better than this news!" And as he looked Jean

over, noting his six feet of splendid brawn and muscle, his handsome black eyes and crisply curling hair, realising the cleverness and worth of this fellow and the loyal, loving heart of him, Louis Charles did not wonder at the choice of Yvonne!

"But now tell me about your Emperor," he said. "You fairly worship him, I'm sure, and I do not blame you! And when did you get this?" He pointed to a Cross of the Legion of Honour on the young man's breast.

"He decorated me with that after the battle of Austerlitz, for something or other,-leading a charge, I guess!" replied Jean modestly. "I have been with him through every campaign since he took command of the Army of Italy, and I shall go with him through every other, as long as I live. I love him! Do you blame me?"

"No, I do not! He is the most wonderful man of modern history! He deserves all that he has achieved. He has done more for France in these ten years, than all the line of Bourbon kings ever dreamed of accomplishing. There is no particle of envy in my heart that he is occupying a throne which should have been mine. It is an unstable throne at best! Let him be happy on it while he may, only let him beware lest too great ambition cause him to overreach the mark!"

Then the two drifted into talk of the past, and of the painful years of their childhood and early acquaintance. The hours, all too short, flew by, and at twilight the order was given to cast loose the ship and set sail. The two young men bade each other farewell in the cabin, for they could not endure that their parting should be witnessed on the common deck.

"Adieu, adieu, Jean!" murmured Louis Charles huskily. "I owe you a debt that a lifetime would be too short to repay! But for you I would have died long since, in that horrible place, and I believe that you and Yvonne are the only ones in this world who truly care for me now. My gratitude and love is all that I can give you, for I am poor as regards worldly wealth. But I know you understand! You are being rewarded by another and more powerful hand than mine. Give my love to Yvonne, and my most earnest wishes for her happiness. In you she will have the husband she deserves!" Jean was almost too overcome to speak at all.

"I-I love you!" he stammered. "And I have always secretly hoped that sometime you would come back to live among us!"

"That is impossible, as you see," said the young man. "This parting is harder to me than I dare to tell you, for you are all that links me with my former life! Adieu, adieu, Jean!"

But Jean could trust himself no longer. He bent and kissed the hands of Louis Charles, and hastily left the cabin without another word. On the quay he watched, while the great ship drew in her cables, and moved majestically out into the tide. But ere the dark hull vanished entirely from view, Jean perceived a white handkerchief fluttering from the railing of the afterdeck, and he knew it to be the last farewell of Louis XVII of France!

* * *

Jean lived to be a very old man, and he saw in his day many astonishing changes, and lived through a number of singular epochs in the history of his country. One of the most peculiar circumstances, however, that came under his ken was as follows:

In the course of the years, a rumour was wafted abroad (no one knew just how it started), that perhaps Louis XVII had not died as a child in the Tower, after all, but had escaped in some marvellous manner and was now living. Some believed this, and many more did not! But the strangest part of it was that in the course of ten years, no less than forty impostors arose, each claiming that he was the escaped Louis XVII, and demanding his right to the throne, for the Bourbon monarchy had been restored for a time. Of these forty impostors, the claims of thirty-eight were so obviously and impudently preposterous, that they were at once detected as false. But there were two, Baron de Richmont and Count Naundorff, who really seemed to know an amazing amount about the little Dauphin's early life and affairs, and who told wonderful stories of their escape from the Tower. Count Naundorff's was singularly like what had really happened.

But there was always something lacking somewhere, some loose, ill-fitting stone in their carefully constructed fabrication. None of them ever gained much serious attention. Perhaps these two had at some time heard the story of the escape from a member of the Brotherhood who had been false to his oath. Who can tell!

Jean used to listen to these tales with interest, and not a few times he was called upon to interview personally, some brazen claimant of the throne of France. One glance however, sufficed him, and his decision in the matter was always accepted as final. Not infrequently someone would say to him:

"How absurd of you to imagine that Louis XVII ever escaped from the Temple Tower! Why, he died there and was buried, as every record proves!"

Then Jean would clasp his hands, nod his head and smile patiently. But in his heart he whispered:

"I know!"

THE END

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