Though among the first to be arrested at the time of the panic before Montaignac, the Baron d’Escorval had not for an instant deluded himself with false hopes.
“I am a lost man,” he thought. And confronting death calmly, he now thought only of the danger that threatened his son.
His mistake before the judges was the result of his preoccupation.
He did not breathe freely until he saw Maurice led from the hall by Abbe Midon and the friendly officers, for he knew that his son would try to confess connection with the affair.
Then, calm and composed, with head erect, and steadfast eye, he listened to the death-sentence.
In the confusion that ensued in removing the prisoners from the hall, the baron found himself beside Chanlouineau, who had begun his noisy lamentations.
“Courage, my boy,” he said, indignant at such apparent cowardice.
“Ah! it is easy to talk,” whined the young farmer.
Then seeing that no one was observing them, he leaned toward the baron, and whispered:
“It is for you I am working. Save all your strength for to-night.”
Chanlouineau’s words and burning glance surprised M. d’Escorval, but he attributed both to fear. When the guards took him back to his cell, he threw himself upon his pallet, and before him rose that vision of the last hour, which is at once the hope and despair of those who are about to die.
He knew the terrible laws that govern a court-martial. The next day — in a few hours — at dawn, perhaps, they would take him from his cell, place him in front of a squad of soldiers, an officer would lift his sword, and all would be over.
Then what was to become of his wife and his son?
His agony on thinking of these dear ones was terrible. He was alone; he wept.
But suddenly he started up, ashamed of his weakness. He must not allow these thoughts to unnerve him. He was determined to meet death unflinchingly. Resolved to shake off the profound melancholy that was creeping over him, he walked about his cell, forcing his mind to occupy itself with material objects.
The room which had been allotted to him was very large. It had once communicated with the apartment adjoining; but the door had been walled up for a long time. The cement which held the large blocks of stone together had crumbled away, leaving crevices through which one might look from one room into the other.
M. d’Escorval mechanically applied his eye to one of these interstices. Perhaps he had a friend for a neighbor, some wretched man who was to share his fate. He saw no one. He called, first in a whisper, then louder. No voice responded to his.
“If I could only tear down this thin partition,” he thought.
He trembled, then shrugged his shoulders. And if he did, what then? He would only find himself in another apartment similar to his own, and opening like his upon a corridor full of guards, whose monotonous tramp he could plainly hear as they passed to and fro.
What folly to think of escape! He knew that every possible precaution must have been taken to guard against it.
Yes, he knew this, and yet he could not refrain from examining his window. Two rows of iron bars protected it. These were placed in such a way that it was impossible for him to put out his head and see how far he was above the ground. The height, however, must be considerable, judging from the extent of the view.
The sun was setting; and through the violet haze the baron could discern an undulating line of hills, whose culminating point must be the land of the Reche.
The dark masses of foliage that he saw on the right were probably the forests of Sairmeuse. On the left, he divined rather than saw, nestling between the hills, the valley of the Oiselle and Escorval.
Escorval, that lovely retreat where he had known such happiness, where he had hoped to die the calm and serene death of the just.
And remembering his past felicity, and thinking of his vanished dreams, his eyes once more filled with tears. But he quickly dried them on hearing the door of his cell open.
Two soldiers appeared.
One of the men bore a torch, the other, one of those long baskets divided into compartments which are used in carrying meals to the officers on guard.
These men were evidently deeply moved, and yet, obeying a sentiment of instinctive delicacy, they affected a sort of gayety.
“Here is your dinner, Monsieur,” said one soldier; “it ought to be very good, for it comes from the cuisine of the commander of the citadel.”
M. d’Escorval smiled sadly. Some attentions on the part of one’s jailer have a sinister significance. Still, when he seated himself before the little table which they prepared for him, he found that he was really hungry.
He ate with a relish, and chatted quite cheerfully with the soldiers.
“Always hope for the best, sir,” said one of these worthy fellows. “Who knows? Stranger things have happened!”
When the baron finished his repast, he asked for pen, ink, and paper. They brought what he desired.
He found himself again alone; but his conversation with the soldiers had been of service to him. His weakness had passed; his sang-froid had returned; he would now reflect.
He was surprised that he had heard nothing from Mme. d’Escorval and from Maurice.
Could it be that they had been refused access to the prison? No, they could not be; he could not imagine that there existed men sufficiently cruel to prevent a doomed man from pressing to his heart, in a last embrace, his wife and his son.
Yet, how was it that neither the baroness nor Maurice had made an attempt to see him! Something must have prevented them from doing so. What could it be?
He imagined the worst misfortunes. He saw his wife writhing in agony, perhaps dead. He pictured Maurice, wild with grief, upon his knees at the bedside of his mother.
But they might come yet. He consulted his watch. It marked the hour of seven.
But he waited in vain. No one came.
He took up his pen, and was about to write, when he heard a bustle in the corridor outside. The clink of spurs resounded on the flags; he heard the sharp clink of the rifle as the guard presented arms.
Trembling, the baron sprang up, saying:
“They have come at last!”
He was mistaken; the footsteps died away in the distance.
“A round of inspection!” he murmured.
But at the same moment, two objects thrown through the tiny opening in the door of his cell fell on the floor in the middle of the room.
M. d’Escorval caught them up. Someone had thrown him two files.
His first feeling was one of distrust. He knew that there were jailers who left no means untried to dishonor their prisoners before delivering them to the executioner.
Was it a friend, or an enemy, that had given him these instruments of deliverance and of liberty.
Chanlouineau’s words and the look that accompanied them recurred to his mind, perplexing him still more.
He was standing with knitted brows, turning and returning the fine and well-tempered files in his hands, when he suddenly perceived upon the floor a tiny scrap of paper which had, at first, escaped his notice.
He snatched it up, unfolded it, and read:
“Your friends are at work. Everything is prepared for your escape.
Make haste and saw the bars of your window. Maurice and his mother
embrace you. Hope, courage!”
Beneath these few lines was the letter M.
But the baron did not need this initial to be reassured. He had recognized Abbe Midon’s handwriting.
“Ah! he is a true friend,” he murmured.
Then the recollection of his doubts and despair arose in his mind.
“This explains why neither my wife nor son came to visit me,” he thought. “And I doubted their energy — and I was complaining of their neglect!”
Intense joy filled his breast; he raised the letter that promised him life and liberty to his lips, and enthusiastically exclaimed:
“To work! to work!”
He had chosen the finest of the two files, and was about to attack the ponderous bars, when he fancied he heard someone open the door of the next room.
Someone had opened it, certainly. The person closed it again, but did not lock it.
Then the baron heard someone moving cautiously about. What did all this mean? Were they incarcerating some new prisoner, or were they stationing a spy there?
Listening breathlessly, the baron heard a singular sound, whose cause it was absolutely impossible to explain.
Noiselessly he advanced to the former communicating door, knelt, and peered through one of the interstices.
The sight that met his eyes amazed him.
A man was standing in a corner of the room. The baron could see the lower part of the man’s body by the light of a large lantern which he had deposited on the floor at his feet. He was turning around and around very quickly, by this movement unwinding a long rope which had been twined around his body as thread is wound about a bobbin.
M. d’Escorval rubbed his eyes as if to assure himself that he was not dreaming. Evidently this rope was intended for him. It was to be attached to the broken bars.
But how had this man succeeded in gaining admission to this room? Who could it be that enjoyed such liberty in the prison? He was not a soldier — or, at least, he did not wear a uniform.
Unfortunately, the highest crevice was in such a place that the visual ray did not strike the upper part of the man’s body; and, despite the baron’s efforts, he was unable to see the face of this friend — he judged him to be such — whose boldness verged on folly.
Unable to resist his intense curiosity, M. d’Escorval was on the point of rapping on the wall to question him, when the door of the room occupied by this man, whom the baron already called his saviour, was impetuously thrown open.
Another man entered, whose face was also outside the baron’s range of vision; and the new-comer, in a tone of astonishment, exclaimed:
“Good heavens! what are you doing?”
The baron drew back in despair.
“All is discovered!” he thought.
The man whom M. d’Escorval believed to be his friend did not pause in his labor of unwinding the rope, and it was in the most tranquil voice that he responded:
“As you see, I am freeing myself from this burden of rope, which I find extremely uncomfortable. There are at least sixty yards of it, I should think — and what a bundle it makes! I feared they would discover it under my cloak.”
“And what are you going to do with all this rope?” inquired the new-comer.
“I am going to hand it to Baron d’Escorval, to whom I have already given a file. He must make his escape to-night.”
So improbable was this scene that the baron could not believe his own ears.
“I cannot be awake; I must be dreaming,” he thought.
The new-comer uttered a terrible oath, and, in an almost threatening tone, he said:
“We will see about that! If you have gone mad, I, thank God! still possess my reason! I will not permit ——”
“Pardon!” interrupted the other, coldly, “you will permit it. This is merely the result of your own — credulity. When Chanlouineau asked you to allow him to receive a visit from Mademoiselle Lacheneur, that was the time you should have said: ‘I will not permit it.’ Do you know what the fellow desired? Simply to give Mademoiselle Lacheneur a letter of mine, so compromising in its natures that if it ever reaches the hands of a certain person of my acquaintance, my father and I will be obliged to reside in London in future. Then farewell to the projects for an alliance between our two families!”
The new-comer heaved a mighty sigh, accompanied by a half-angry, half-sorrowful exclamation; but the other, without giving him any opportunity to reply, resumed:
“You, yourself, Marquis, would doubtless be compromised. Were you not a chamberlain during the reign of Bonaparte? Ah, Marquis! how could a man of your experience, a man so subtle, and penetrating, and acute, allow himself to be duped by a low, ignorant peasant?”
Now M. d’Escorval understood. He was not dreaming; it was the Marquis de Courtornieu and Martial de Sairmeuse who were talking on the other side of the wall.
This poor M. de Courtornieu had been so entirely crushed by Martial’s revelation that he no longer made any effort to oppose him.
“And this terrible letter?” he groaned.
“Marie-Anne Lacheneur gave it to Abbe Midon, who came to me and said: ‘Either the baron will escape, or this letter will be taken to the Duc de Richelieu.’ I voted for the baron’s escape, I assure you. The abbe procured all that was necessary; he met me at a rendezvous which I appointed in a quiet spot; he coiled all his rope about my body, and here I am.”
“Then you think if the baron escapes they will give you back your letter?”
“Deluded man! As soon as the baron is safe, they will demand the life of another prisoner, with the same menaces.”
“By no means.”
“You will see.”
“I shall see nothing of the kind, for a very simple reason. I have the letter now in my pocket. The abbe gave it to me in exchange for my word of honor.”
M. de Courtornieu’s exclamation proved that he considered the abbe an egregious fool.
“What!” he exclaimed. “You hold the proof, and — But this is madness! Burn this accursed letter by the flames of this lantern, and let the baron go where his slumbers will be undisturbed.”
Martial’s silence betrayed something like stupor.
“What! you would do this — you?” he demanded, at last.
“Certainly — and without the slightest hesitation.”
“Ah, well! I cannot say that I congratulate you.”
The sneer was so apparent that M. de Courtornieu was sorely tempted to make an angry response. But he was not a man to yield to his first impulse — this former chamberlain under the Emperor, now become a grand prevot under the Restoration.
He reflected. Should he, on account of a sharp word, quarrel with Martial — with the only suitor who had pleased his daughter? A rupture — then he would be left without any prospect of a son-in-law! When would Heaven send him such another? And how furious Mlle. Blanche would be!
He concluded to swallow the bitter pill; and it was with a paternal indulgence of manner that he said:
“You are young, my dear Martial.”
The baron was still kneeling by the partition, his ear glued to the crevices, holding his breath in an agony of suspense.
“You are only twenty, my dear Martial,” pursued the Marquis de Courtornieu; “you possess the ardent enthusiasm and generosity of youth. Complete your undertaking; I shall interpose no obstacle; but remember that all may be discovered — and then ——”
“Have no fears, sir,” interrupted the young marquis; “I have taken every precaution. Did you see a single soldier in the corridor, just now? No. That is because my father has, at my solicitation, assembled all the officers and guards under pretext of ordering exceptional precautions. He is talking to them now. This gave me an opportunity to come here unobserved. No one will see me when I go out. Who, then, will dare suspect me of having any hand in the baron’s escape?”
“If the baron escapes, justice will demand to know who aided him.”
“If justice seeks to know, she will find a culprit of my providing. Go now; I have told you all. I had but one person to fear: that was yourself. A trusty messenger requested you to join me here. You came; you know all, you have agreed to remain neutral. I am tranquil. The baron will be safe in Piedmont when the sun rises.”
He picked up his lantern, and added, gayly:
“But let us go — my father cannot harangue those soldiers forever.”
“But,” insisted M. de Courtornieu, “you have not told me ——”
“I will tell you all, but not here. Come, come!”
They went out, locking the door behind them; and then the baron rose from his knees.
All sorts of contradictory ideas, doubts, and conjectures filled his mind.
What could this letter have contained? Why had not Chanlouineau used it to procure his own salvation? Who would have believed that Martial would be so faithful to a promise wrested from him by threats?
But this was a time for action, not for reflection. The bars were heavy, and there were two rows of them.
M. d’Escorval set to work.
He had supposed that the task would be difficult. It was a thousand times more so than he had expected; he discovered this almost immediately.
It was the first time that he had ever worked with a file, and he did not know how to use it. His progress was despairingly slow.
Nor was that all. Though he worked as cautiously as possible, each movement of the instrument across the iron produced a harsh, grating sound that froze his blood with terror. What if someone should overhear this noise? And it seemed to him impossible for it to escape notice, since he could plainly distinguish the measured tread of the guards, who had resumed their watch in the corridor.
So slight was the result of his labors, that at the end of twenty minutes he experienced a feeling of profound discouragement.
At this rate, it would be impossible for him to sever the first bar before daybreak, What, then, was the use of spending his time in fruitless labor? Why mar the dignity of death by the disgrace of an unsuccessful effort to escape?
He was hesitating when footsteps approached his cell. He hastened to seat himself at the table.
The door opened and a soldier entered, to whom an officer who did not cross the threshold remarked:
“You have your instructions, Corporal, keep a close watch. If the prisoner needs anything, call.”
M. de Escorval’s heart throbbed almost to bursting. What was coming now?
Had M. de Courtornieu’s counsels carried the day, or had Martial sent someone to aid him?
“We must not be dawdling here,” said the corporal, as soon as the door was closed.
M. d’Escorval bounded from his chair. This man was a friend. Here was aid and life.
“I am Bavois,” continued the corporal. “Someone said to me just now: ‘A friend of the Emperor is in danger; are you willing to lend him a helping hand?’ I replied: ‘Present,’ and here I am!”
This certainly was a brave soul. The baron extended his hand, and in a voice trembling with emotion:
“Thanks,” said he; “thanks to you who, without knowing me, expose yourself to the greatest danger for my sake.”
Bavois shrugged his shoulders disdainfully.
“Positively, my old hide is no more precious than yours. If we do not succeed, they will chop off our heads with the same axe. But we shall succeed. Now, let us cease talking and proceed to business.”
As he spoke he drew from beneath his long overcoat a strong iron crowbar and a small vial of brandy, and deposited them upon the bed.
He then took the candle and passed it back and forth before the window five or six times.
“What are you doing?” inquired the baron, in suspense.
“I am signalling to your friends that everything is progressing favorably. They are down there waiting for us; and see, now they are answering.”
The baron looked, and three times they saw a little flash of flame like that produced by the burning of a pinch of gunpowder.
“Now,” said the corporal, “we are all right. Let us see what progress you have made with the bars.”
“I have scarcely begun,” murmured M. d’Escorval.
The corporal inspected the work.
“You may indeed say that you have made no progress,” said he; “but, never mind, I have been a locksmith, and I know how to handle a file.”
Having drawn the cork from the vial of brandy which he had brought, he fastened the stopper to the end of one of the files, and swathed the handle of the instrument with a piece of damp linen.
“That is what they call putting a stop on the instrument,” he remarked, by way of explanation.
Then he made an energetic attack on the bars. It at once became evident that he had not exaggerated his knowledge of the subject, nor the efficacy of his precautions for deadening the sound. The harsh grating that had so alarmed the baron was no longer heard, and Bavois, finding he had nothing more to dread from the keenest ears, now made preparations to shelter himself from observation.
To cover the opening in the door would arouse suspicion at once — so the corporal adopted another expedient.
Moving the little table to another part of the room, he placed the light upon it, in such a position that the window remained entirely in shadow.
Then he ordered the baron to sit down, and handing him a paper, said:
“Now read aloud, without stopping for an instant, until you see me cease work.”
By this method they might reasonably hope to deceive the guards outside in the corridor. Some of them, indeed, did come to the door and look in, then went away to say to their companions:
“We have just taken a look at the prisoner. He is very pale, and his eyes are glittering feverishly. He is reading aloud to divert his mind. Corporal Bavois is looking out of the window. It must be dull music for him.”
The baron’s voice would also be of advantage in overpowering any suspicious sound, should there be one.
And while Bavois worked, M. d’Escorval read, read, read.
He had completed the perusal of the entire paper, and was about to begin it again, when the old soldier, leaving the window, motioned him to stop.
“Half the task is completed,” he said, in a whisper. “The lower bars are cut.”
“Ah! how can I ever repay you for your devotion!” murmured the baron.
“Hush! not a word!” interrupted Bavois. “If I escape with you, I can never return here; and I shall not know where to go, for the regiment, you see, is my only family. Ah, well! if you will give me a home with you, I shall be content.”
Whereupon he swallowed a big draught of brandy, and set to work with renewed ardor.
The corporal had cut one of the second row of bars, when he was interrupted by M. d’Escorval, who, without discontinuing his reading, had approached and pulled Bavois’s long coat to attract his attention.
He turned quickly.
“What is it?”
“I heard a singular noise.”
“In the adjoining room where the ropes are.”
Honest Bavois muttered a terrible oath.
“Do they intend to betray us? I risked my life, and they promised me fair play.”
He placed his ear against an opening in the partition, and listened for a long time. Nothing, not the slightest sound.
“It must have been some rat that you heard,” he said, at last. “Resume your reading.”
And he began his work again. This was the only interruption, and a little before four o’clock everything was ready. The bars were cut, and the ropes, which had been drawn through an opening in the wall, were coiled under the window.
The decisive moment had come. Bavois took the counterpane from the bed, fastened it over the opening in the door, and filled up the key-hole.
“Now,” said he, in the same measured tone which he would have used in instructing his recruits, “attention, sir, and obey the word of command.” Then he calmly explained that the escape would consist of two distinct operations; the first in gaining the narrow platform at the base of the tower; the second, in descending to the foot of the precipitous rock.
The abbe, who understood this, had brought Martial two ropes; the one to be used in the descent of the precipice being considerably longer than the other.
“I will fasten the shortest rope under your arms, Monsieur, and I will let you down to the base of the tower. When you have reached it, I will pass you the longer rope and the crowbar. Do not miss them. If we find ourselves without them, on that narrow ledge of rock, we shall either be compelled to deliver ourselves up, or throw ourselves down the precipice. I shall not be long in joining you. Are you ready?”
M. d’Escorval lifted his arms, the rope was fastened securely about him, and he crawled through the window.
From there the height seemed immense. Below, in the barren fields that surrounded the citadel, eight persons were waiting, silent, anxious, breathless.
They were Mme. d’Escorval and Maurice, Marie-Anne, Abbe Midon, and the four retired army officers.
There was no moon; but the night was very clear, and they could see the tower quite plainly.
Soon after four o’clock sounded they saw a dark object glide slowly down the side of the tower — it was the baron. After a little, another form followed very rapidly — it was Bavois.
Half of the perilous journey was accomplished.
From below, they could see the two figures moving about on the narrow platform. The corporal and the baron were exerting all their strength to fix the crowbar securely in a crevice of the rock.
In a moment or two one of the figures stepped from the projecting rock and glided gently down the side of the precipice.
It could be none other than M. d’Escorval. Transported with happiness, his wife sprang forward with open arms to receive him.
Wretched woman! A terrific cry rent the still night air.
M. d’Escorval was falling from a height of fifty feet; he was hurled down to the foot of the rocky precipice. The rope had parted.
Had it broken naturally?
Maurice, who examined the end of it, exclaimed with horrible imprecations of hatred and vengeance that they had been betrayed — that their enemy had arranged to deliver only a dead body into their hands — that the rope, in short, had been foully tampered with — cut!
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50