The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter xv.

How They Came Out of Ham

On the night of the 7th and 8th of January, Charras was sleeping. The noise of his bolts being drawn awoke him.

“So then!” said he, “they are going to put us in close confinement.” And he went to sleep again.

An hour afterwards the door was opened. The commandant of the fort entered in full uniform, accompanied by a police agent carrying a torch.

It was about four o’clock in the morning.

“Colonel,” said the Commandant, “dress yourself at once.”

“What for?”

“You are about to leave.”

“Some more rascality, I suppose!”

The Commandant was silent. Charras dressed himself.

As he finished dressing, a short young man, dressed in black, came in. This young man spoke to Charras.

“Colonel, you are about to leave the fortress, you are about to quit France. I am instructed to have you conducted to the frontier.”

Charras exclaimed —

“If I am to quit France I will not leave the fortress. This is yet another outrage. They have no more the right to exile me than they had the right to imprison me. I have on my side the Law, Right, my old services, my commission. I protest. Who are you, sir?”

“I am the Private Secretary of the Minister of the Interior.”

“Ah! it is you who are named Léopold Lehon.”

The young man cast down his eyes.

Charras continued —

“You come on the part of some one whom they call ‘Minister of the Interior,’ M. de Morny, I believe. I know M. de Morny. A bald young man; he has played the game where people lose their hair; and now he is playing the game where people risk their heads.”

The conversation was painful. The young man was deeply interested in the toe of his boot.

After a pause, however, he ventured to speak —

“M. Charras, I am instructed to say that if you want money —”

Charras interrupted him impetuously.

“Hold your tongue, sir! not another word. I have served my country five-and-twenty years as an officer, under fire, at the peril of my life, always for honor, never for gain. Keep your money for your own set!”

“But, sir —”

“Silence! Money which passes through your hands would soil mine.”

Another pause ensued, which the private secretary again broke —

“Colonel, you will be accompanied by two police agents who have special instructions, and I should inform you that you are ordered to travel with a false passport, and under the name of Vincent.”

“Good heavens!” said Charras; “this is really too much. Who is it imagines that they will make me travel by order with a false passport, and under a false name?” And looking steadily at M. Léopold Lehon, “Know, sir, that my name is Charras and not Vincent, and that I belong to a family whose members have always borne the name of their father.”

They set out.

They journeyed by carriage as far as Creil, which is on the railway.

At Creil station the first person whom Charras saw was General Changarnier.

“Ah! it is you, General.”

The two proscripts embraced each other. Such is exile.

“What the deuce are they doing with you?” asked the General.

“What they are probably doing with you. These vagabonds are making me travel under the name of Vincent.”

“And me,” said Changarnier, “under the name of Leblanc.”

“In that case they ought at least to have called me Lerouge,” said Charras, with a burst of laughter.

In the meantime a group, kept at a distance by the police agents, had formed round them. People had recognized them and saluted them. A little child, whose mother could not hold him back, ran quickly to Charras and took his hand.

They got into the train apparently as free as other travellers. Only they isolated them in empty compartments, and each was accompanied by two men, who sat one at the side and the other facing him, and who never took their eyes off him. The keepers of General Changarnier were of ordinary strength and stature. Those of Charras were almost giants. Charras is exceedingly tall; they topped him by an entire head. These men who were galley sergeants, had been carabineers; these spies had been heroes.

Charras questioned them. They had served when quite young, from 1813. Thus they had shared the bivouac of Napoleon; now they ate the same bread as Vidocq. The soldier brought to such a sorry pass as this is a sad sight.

The pocket of one of them was bulged out with something which he was hiding there.

When this man crossed the station in company with Charras, a lady traveller said —

“Has he got M. Thiers in his pocket?”

What the police agent was hiding was a pair of pistols. Under their long, buttoned-up and doubled-breasted frock coats these men were armed. They were ordered to treat “those gentlemen” with the most profound respect, but in certain circumstances to blow out their brains.

The prisoners had each been informed that in the eyes of the different authorities whom they would meet on the road they would pass for foreigners, Swiss or Belgians, expelled on account of their political opinions, and that the police agents would keep their title of police agents, and would represent themselves as charged with reconducting these foreigners to the frontier.

Two-thirds of the journey were accomplished without any hindrance. At Valenciennes an incident occurred.

The coup d’état having succeeded, zeal reigned paramount. No task was any longer considered despicable. To denounce was to please; zeal is one of the forms of servitude towards which people lean the most willingly. The general became a common soldier, the prefect became a commissary of police, the commissary of police became a police spy.

The commissary of police at Valenciennes himself superintended the inspection of passports. For nothing in the world would he have deputed this important office to a subordinate inspector. When they presented him the passport of the so-called Leblanc, he looked the so-called Leblanc full in the face, started, and exclaimed —

“You are General Changarnier!”

“That is no affair of mine,” said the General.

Upon this the two keepers of the General protested and exhibited their papers, perfectly drawn up in due form.

“Mr. Commissary, we are Government agents. Here are our proper passports.”

“Improper ones,” said the General.

The Commissary shook his head. He had been employed in Paris, and had been frequently sent to the headquarters of the staff at the Tuileries, to General Changarnier. He knew him very well.

“This is too much!” exclaimed the police agents. They blustered, declared that they were police functionaries on a special service, that they had instructions to conduct to the frontier this Leblanc, expelled for political reasons, swore by all the gods, and gave their word of honor that the so-called Leblanc was really named Leblanc.

“I do not much believe in words of honor,” said the Commissary.

“Honest Commissary,” muttered Changarnier, “you are right. Since the 2d of December words of honor and oaths are no more than worthless paper money.”

And then he began to smile.

The Commissary became more and more perplexed. The police agents ended by invoking the testimony of the prisoner himself.

“Now, sir, tell him your name yourself.”

“Get out of the difficulty yourselves,” answered Changarnier.

All this appeared most irregular to the mind of a provincial alguazil.

It seemed evident to the Commissary of Valenciennes that General Changarnier was escaping from Ham under a false name with a false passport, and with false agents of police, in order to mislead the authorities, and that it was a plot to escape which was on the point of succeeding.

“Come down, all three of you!” exclaimed the Commissary.

The General gets down, and on putting foot to the ground notices Charras in the depths of his compartment between his two bullies.

“Oho! Charras, you are there!” he cries.

“Charras!” exclaimed the Commissary. “Charras there! Quick! the passports of these gentlemen!” And looking Charras in the face —

“Are you Colonel Charras?”

“Egad!” said Charras.

Yet another complication. It was now the turn of Charras’s bullies to bluster. They declared that Charras was the man called Vincent, displayed passports and papers, swore and protested. The Commissary’s suspicions were fully confirmed.

“Very well,” said he, “I arrest everybody.”

And he handed over Changarnier, Charras, and the four police agents to the gendarmes. The Commissary saw the Cross of Honor shining in the distance. He was radiant.

The police arrested the police. It happens sometimes that the wolf thinks he has seized a victim and bites his own tail.

The six prisoners — for now there were six prisoners — were taken into a parlor at the railway station. The Commissary informed the town authorities. The town authorities hastened hither, headed by the sub-prefect.

The sub-prefect, who was named Censier, comes in, and does not know whether he ought to salute or to question, to grovel in the dust or to keep his hat on his head. These poor devils of magistrates and local officials were very much exercised in their minds. General Changarnier had been too near the Dictatorship not to make them thoughtful. Who can foresee the course of events? Everything is possible. Yesterday called itself Cavaignac, to-day calls itself Bonaparte, to-morrow may call itself Changarnier. Providence is really cruel not to let sub-prefects have a peep at the future.

It is sad for a respectable functionary, who would ask for nothing better than to be servile or arrogant according to circumstances, to be in danger of lavishing his platitudes on a person who is perhaps going to rot forever in exile, and who is nothing more than a rascal, or to risk being insolent to a vagabond of a postscript who is capable of coming back a conqueror in six months’ time, and of becoming the Government in his turn. What was to be done? And then they were spied upon. This takes place between officials. The slightest word would be maliciously interpreted, the slightest gesture would be laid to their discredit. How should he keep on good terms at the same time this Cabbage, which is called To-day, and that Goat, which is called To-morrow? To ask too many questions would offend the General, to render to many salutations would annoy the President. How could he be at the same time very much a sub-prefect, and in some degree a lacquey? How could he combine the appearance of obsequiousness, which would please Changarnier, with the appearance of authority, which would please Bonaparte?

The sub-prefect thought to get out of the difficulty by saying, “General, you are my prisoner,” and by adding, with a smile, “Do me the honor of breakfasting with me?” He addressed the same words to Charras.

The General refused curtly.

Charras looked at him fixedly, and did not answer him.

Doubts regarding the identity of the prisoners came to the mind of the sub-prefect. He whispered to the Commissary “Are you quite sure?” “Certainly,” said the Commissary.

The sub-prefect decided to address himself to Charras, and dissatisfied with the manner in which his advances had been received, asked him somewhat sharply, “But, in short, who are you?”

Charras answered, “We are packages.”

And turning to his keepers who were now in their turn in keeping:—

“Apply to our exporters. Ask our Custom House officers. It is a mere matter of goods traffic.”

They set the electric telegraph to work. Valenciennes, alarmed, questioned Paris. The sub-prefect informed the Minister of the Interior that, thanks to a strict supervision, which he had trusted to no one but himself, he had just effected an important capture, that he had just discovered a plot, had saved the President, had saved society, had saved religion, etc., that in one word he had just arrested General Changarnier and Colonel Charras, who had escaped that morning from the fort of Ham with false passports, doubtless for the purpose of heading a rising, etc., and that, in short, he asked the Government what was to be done with the two prisoners.

At the end of an hour the answer arrived:—“Let them go on their way.”

The police perceived that in a burst of zeal they had pushed profundity to the point of stupidity. That sometimes happens.

The next train carried away the prisoners, restored, not to liberty, but to their keepers.

They passed Quiévrain.

They got down from the carriage, and got in again.

When the train again started Charras heaved the deep, joyous sigh of a freed man, and said, “At last!”

He raised his eyes, and perceived his two jailers by his side.

They had got up behind him into the carriage.

“Ah, indeed!” he said to them; “you there!”

Of these two men there was only one who spoke, that one answered —

“Yes, Colonel.”

“What are you doing here?”

“We are keeping watch over you.”

“But we are in Belgium.”

“Possibly.”

“Belgium is not France.”

“Ah, that may be.”

“But suppose I put my head out of the carriage? Suppose I call out? Suppose I had you arrested? Suppose I reclaimed my liberty?”

“You will not do all that, Colonel.”

“How will you prevent me?”

The police agent showed the butt-end of his pistol and said “Thus.”

Charras burst out laughing, and asked them, “Where then are you going to leave me?”

“At Brussels.”

“That is to say, that at Brussels you will salute me with your cap; but that at Mons you will salute me with your pistol.”

“As you say, Colonel.”

“In truth,” said Charras, “it does not matter to me. It is King Leopold’s business. The Bonaparte treats countries as he has treated the Representatives. He has violated the Assembly, he violates Belgium. But all the same, you are a medley of strange rascals. He who is at the top is a madman, those who are beneath are blockheads. Very well, my friends, let me go to sleep.”

And he went to sleep.

Almost the same incident happened nearly at the same moment to Generals Changarnier and Lamoricière and to M. Baze.

The police agents did not leave General Changarnier until they had reached Mons. There they made him get down from the train, and said to him, “General, this is your place of residence. We leave you free.”

“Ah!” said he, “this is my place of residence, and I am free? Well, then, good-night.”

And he sprang lightly back into the carriage just as the train was starting, leaving behind him two galley sergeants dumfounded.

The police released Charras at Brussels, but did not release General Lamoricière. The two police agents wished to compel him to leave immediately for Cologne. The General, who was suffering from rheumatism which he had caught at Ham, declared that he would sleep at Brussels.

“Be it so,” said the police agents.

They followed him to the Hôtel de Bellevue. They spent the night there with him. He had considerable difficulty to prevent them from sleeping in his room. Next day they carried him off, and took him to Cologne-violating Prussian territory after having violated Belgian territory.

The coup d’état was still more impudent with M. Baze.

They made M. Baze journey with his wife and his children under the name of Lassalle. He passed for the servant of the police agent who accompanied him.

They took him thus to Aix-la-Chapelle.

There, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the street, the police agents deposited him and the whole of his family, without a passport, without papers, without money. M. Baze, indignant, was obliged to have recourse to threats to induce them to take him and identify him before a magistrate. It was, perhaps, part of the petty joys of Bonaparte to cause a Questor of the Assembly to be treated as a vagrant.

On the night of the 7th of January, General Bedeau, although he was not to leave till the next day, was awakened like the others by the noise of bolts. He did not understand that they were shutting him in, but on the contrary, believed that they were releasing M. Baze, his neighbor in the adjoining cell. He cried through the door, “Bravo, Baze!”

In fact, every day the Generals said to the Questor, “You have no business here, this is a military fortress. One of these fine mornings you will be thrust outside like Roger du Nord.”

Nevertheless General Bedeau heard an unusual noise in the fortress. He got up and “knocked” for General Leflô, his neighbor in the cell on the other side, with whom he exchanged frequent military dialogues, little flattering to the coup d’état. General Leflô answered the knocking, but he did not know any more than General Bedeau.

General Bedeau’s window looked out on the inner courtyard of the prison. He went to this window and saw lanterns flashing hither and thither, species of covered carts, horsed, and a company of the 48th under arms. A moment afterwards he saw General Changarnier come into the courtyard, get into a carriage, and drive off. Some moments elapsed, then he saw Charras pass. Charras noticed him at the window, and cried out to him, “Mons!”

In fact he believed he was going to Mons, and this made General Bedeau, on the next day, choose Mons as his residence, expecting to meet Charras there.

Charras having left, M. Léopold Lehon came in accompanied by the Commandant of the fort. He saluted Bedeau, explained his business, and gave his name. General Bedeau confined himself to saying, “They banish us; it is an illegality, and one more indignity added to the others. However, with the people who send you one is no longer surprised at anything.”

They did not send him away till the next day. Louis Bonaparte had said, “We must ‘space out’ the Generals.”

The police agent charged with escorting General Bedeau to Belgium was one of those who, on the 2d of December, had arrested General Cavaignac. He told General Bedeau that they had had a moment of uneasiness when arresting General Cavaignae: the picket of fifty men, which had been told off to assist the police having failed them.

In the compartment of the railway carriage which was taking General Bedeau into Belgium there was a lady, manifestly belonging to good society, of very distinguished appearance, and who was accompanied by three little children. A servant in livery, who appeared to be a German, had two of the children on his knees, and lavished a thousand little attentions on them. However, the General, hidden by the darkness, and muffled up, like the police agents, in the collar of his mantle, paid little attention to this group. When they reached Quièvrain, the lady turned to him and said, “General, I congratulate you, you are now in safety.”

The General thanked her, and asked her name.

“Baroness Coppens,” she answered.

It may be remembered that it was at M. Coppens’s house, 70, Rue Blanche, that the first meeting of the Left had taken place on December 2d.

“You have charming children there, madam,” said the General, “and,” he added, “an exceedingly good servant.”

“It is my husband,” said Madame Coppens.

M. Coppens, in fact, had remained five weeks buried in a hiding-place contrived in his own house. He had escaped from France that very night under the cover of his own livery. They had carefully taught their children their lesson. Chance had made them get into the same carriage as General Bedeau and the two bullies who were keeping guard over him, and throughout the night Madame Coppens had been in terror lest, in the presence of the policeman, one of the little ones awakening, should throw its arms around the neck of the servant and cry “Papa!”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38