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The ledge of rock upon which Baron d'Escorval and Corporal Bavois rested in their descent from the tower was very narrow.
In the widest place it did not measure more than a yard and a half, and its surface was uneven, cut by innumerable fissures and crevices, and sloped suddenly at the edge. To stand there in the daytime, with the wall of the tower behind one, and the precipice at one's feet, would have been considered very imprudent.
Of course, the task of lowering a man from this ledge, at dead of night, was perilous in the extreme.
Before allowing the baron to descend, honest Bavois took every possible precaution to save himself from being dragged over the verge of the precipice by the weight he would be obliged to sustain.
He placed his crowbar firmly in a crevice of the rock, then bracing his feet against the bar, he seated himself firmly, throwing his shoulders well back, and it was only when he was sure of his position that he said to the baron:
"I am here and firmly fixed, comrade; now let yourself down."
The sudden parting of the rope hurled the brave corporal rudely against the tower wall, then he was thrown forward by the rebound.
His unalterable sang-froid was all that saved him.
For more than a minute he hung suspended over the abyss into which the baron had just fallen, and his hands clutched at the empty air.
A hasty movement, and he would have fallen.
But he possessed a marvellous power of will, which prevented him from attempting any violent effort. Prudently, but with determined energy, he screwed his feet and his knees into the crevices of the rock, feeling with his hands for some point of support, and gradually sinking to one side, he finally succeeded in dragging himself from the verge of the precipice.
It was time, for a cramp seized him with such violence that he was obliged to sit down and rest for a moment.
That the baron had been killed by his fall, Bavois did not doubt for an instant. But this catastrophe did not produce much effect upon the old soldier, who had seen so many comrades fall by his side on the field of battle.
What did amaze him was the breaking of the rope--a rope so large that one would have supposed it capable of sustaining the weight of ten men like the baron.
As he could not, by reason of the darkness, see the ruptured place, Bavois felt it with his finger; and, to his inexpressible astonishment, he found it smooth. No filaments, no rough bits of hemp, as usual after a break; the surface was perfectly even.
The corporal comprehended what Maurice had comprehended below.
"The scoundrels have cut the rope!" he exclaimed, with a frightful oath.
And a recollection of what had happened three or four hours previous arose in his mind.
"This," he thought, "explains the noise which the poor baron heard in the next room! And I said to him: 'Nonsense! it is a rat!'"
Then he thought of a very simple method of verifying his conjectures. He passed the cord about the crowbar and pulled it with all his strength. It parted in three places.
This discovery appalled him.
A part of the rope had fallen with the unfortunate baron, and it was evident that the remaining fragments tied together would not be long enough to reach to the base of the rock.
From this isolated ledge it was impossible to reach the ground upon which the citadel was built.
"You are in a fine fix, Corporal," he growled.
Honest Bavois looked the situation full in the face, and saw that it was desperate.
"Well, Corporal, your jig is up!" he murmured, "At daybreak they will find that the baron's cell is empty. They will poke their heads out of the window, and they will see you here, like a stone saint upon his pedestal. Naturally, you will be captured, tried, condemned; and you will be led out to take your turn in the ditches. Ready! Aim! Fire! And that will be the end of your story."
He stopped short. A vague idea had entered his mind, which he felt might possibly be his salvation.
It came to him in touching the rope which he had used in his descent from the prison to the ledge, and which, firmly attached to the bars, hung down the side of the tower.
"If you had that rope which hangs there useless, Corporal, you could add it to these fragments, and then it would be long enough to carry you to the foot of the rock. But how shall I obtain it? It is certainly impossible to go back after it! and how can I pull it down when it is so securely fastened to the bars?"
He sought a way, found it, and pursued it, talking to himself all the while as if there were two corporals; one prompt to conceive, the other, a trifle stupid, to whom it was necessary to explain everything in detail.
"Attention, Corporal," said he. "You are going to knot these five pieces of rope together and attach them to your waist; then you are going to climb up to that window, hand over hand. Not an easy matter! A carpeted staircase is preferable to that rope dangling there. But no matter, you are not finical, Corporal! So you climb it, and here you are in the cell again. What are you going to do? A mere nothing. You are unfastening the cord attached to the bars; you will tie it to this, and that will give you eighty feet of good strong rope. Then you will pass the rope about one of the bars that remain intact; the rope will thus be doubled; then you let yourself down again, and when you are here, you have only to untie one of the knots and the rope is at your service. Do you understand, Corporal?"
The corporal did understand so well that in less than twenty minutes he was back again upon the narrow shelf of rock, the difficult and dangerous operation which he had planned accomplished.
Not without a terrible effort; not without torn and bleeding hands and knees.
But he had succeeded in obtaining the rope, and now he was certain that he could make his escape from his dangerous position. He laughed gleefully, or rather with that chuckle which was habitual to him.
Anxiety, then joy, had made him forget M. d'Escorval. At the thought of him, he was smitten with remorse.
"Poor man!" he murmured. "I shall succeed in saving my miserable life, for which no one cares, but I was unable to save him. Undoubtedly, by this time his friends have carried him away."
As he uttered these words he was leaning over the abyss. He doubted the evidence of his own senses when he saw a faint light moving here and there in the depths below.
What had happened? For something very extraordinary must have happened to induce intelligent men like the baron's friends to display this light, which, if observed from the citadel, would betray their presence and ruin them.
But Corporal Bavois's moments were too precious to be wasted in idle conjectures.
"Better go down on the double-quick," he said aloud, as if to spur on his courage. "Come, my friend, spit on your hands and be off!"
As he spoke the old soldier threw himself flat on his belly and crawled slowly backward to the verge of the precipice. The spirit was strong, but the flesh shuddered. To march upon a battery had always been a mere pastime to the worthy corporal; but to face an unknown peril, to suspend one's life upon a cord, was a different matter.
Great drops of perspiration, caused by the horror of his situation, stood out upon his brow when he felt that half his body had passed the edge of the precipice, and that the slightest movement would now launch him into space.
He made this movement, murmuring:
"If there is a God who watches over honest people let Him open His eyes this instant!"
The God of the just was watching.
Bavois arrived at the end of his dangerous journey with torn and bleeding hands, but safe. He fell like a mass of rock; and the rudeness of the shock drew from him a groan resembling the roar of an infuriated beast.
For more than a minute he lay there upon the ground stunned and dizzy.
When he rose two men seized him roughly.
"Ah, no foolishness," he said quickly. "It is I, Bavois."
This did not cause them to relax their hold.
"How does it happen," demanded one, in a threatening tone, "that Baron d'Escorval falls and you succeed in making the descent in safety a few moments later?"
The old soldier was too shrewd not to understand the whole import of this insulting question.
The sorrow and indignation aroused within him gave him strength to free himself from the hands of his captors.
"Mille tonnerres!" he exclaimed; "so I pass for a traitor, do I! No, it is impossible--listen to me."
Then rapidly, but with surprising clearness, he related all the details of his escape, his despair, his perilous situation, and the almost insurmountable obstacles which he had overcome. To hear was to believe.
The men--they were, of course, the retired army officers who had been waiting for the baron--offered the honest corporal their hands, sincerely sorry that they had wounded the feelings of a man who was so worthy of their respect and gratitude.
"You will forgive us, Corporal," they said, sadly. "Misery renders men suspicious and unjust, and we are very unhappy."
"No offence," he growled. "If I had trusted poor Monsieur d'Escorval, he would be alive now."
"The baron still breathes," said one of the officers.
This was such astounding news that Bavois was utterly confounded for a moment.
"Ah! I will give my right hand, if necessary, to save him!" he exclaimed, at last.
"If it is possible to save him, he will be saved, my friend. That worthy priest whom you see there, is an excellent physician. He is examining Monsieur d'Escorval's wounds now. It was by his order that we procured and lighted this candle, which may bring our enemies upon us at any moment; but this is not a time for hesitation."
Bavois looked with all his eyes, but from where he was standing he could discover only a confused group of moving figures.
"I would like to see the poor man," he said, sadly.
"Come nearer, my good fellow; fear nothing!"
He stepped forward, and by the flickering light of the candle which Marie-Anne held, he saw a spectacle which moved him more than the horrors of the bloodiest battle-field.
The baron was lying upon the ground, his head supported on Mme. d'Escorval's knee.
His face was not disfigured; but he was pale as death itself, and his eyes were closed.
At intervals a convulsive shudder shook his frame, and a stream of blood gushed from his mouth. His clothing was hacked--literally hacked in pieces; and it was easy to see that his body had sustained many frightful wounds,
Kneeling beside the unconscious man, Abbe Midon, with admirable dexterity, was stanching the blood and applying bandages which had been torn from the linen of those present.
Maurice and one of the officers were assisting him. "Ah! if I had my hands on the scoundrel who cut the rope," cried the corporal, in a passion of indignation; "but patience. I shall have him yet."
"Do you know who it was?"
"Only too well!"
He said no more. The abbe had done all it was possible to do, and he now lifted the wounded man a little higher on Mme. d'Escorval's knee.
This change of position elicited a moan that betrayed the unfortunate baron's intense sufferings. He opened his eyes and faltered a few words--they were the first he had uttered.
"Firmin!" he murmured, "Firmin!" It was the name of the baron's former secretary, a man who had been absolutely devoted to his master, but who had been dead for several years. It was evident that the baron's mind was wandering. Still he had some vague idea of his terrible situation, for in a stifled, almost inaudible voice, he added:
"Oh! how I suffer! Firmin, I will not fall into the hands of the Marquis de Courtornieu alive. You shall kill me rather--do you hear me? I command it."
This was all; then his eyes closed again, and his head fell back a dead weight. One would have supposed that he had yielded up his last sigh.
Such was the opinion of the officers; and it was with poignant anxiety they drew the abbe a little aside.
"Is it all over?" they asked. "Is there any hope?"
The priest sadly shook his head, and pointing to heaven:
"My hope is in God!" he said, reverently.
The hour, the place, the terrible catastrophe, the present danger, the threatening future, all combined to lend a deep solemnity to the words of the priest.
So profound was the impression that, for more than a minute, these men, familiar with peril and scenes of horror, stood in awed silence.
Maurice, who approached, followed by Corporal Bavois, brought them back to the exigencies of the present.
"Ought we not to make haste and carry away my father?" he asked. "Must we not be in Piedmont before evening?"
"Yes!" exclaimed the officers, "let us start at once."
But the priest did not move, and in a despondent voice, he said:
"To make any attempt to carry Monsieur d'Escorval across the frontier in his present condition would cost him his life."
This seemed so inevitably a death-warrant for them all, that they shuddered.
"My God! what shall we do?" faltered Maurice. "What course shall we pursue?"
Not a voice replied. It was clear that they hoped for salvation through the priest alone.
He was lost in thought, and it was some time before he spoke.
"About an hour's walk from here," he said, at last, "beyond the Croix d'Arcy, is the hut of a peasant upon whom I can rely. His name is Poignot; and he was formerly in Monsieur Lacheneur's employ. With the assistance of his three sons, he now tills quite a large farm. We must procure a litter and carry Monsieur d'Escorval to the house of this honest peasant."
"What, Monsieur," interrupted one of the officers, "you wish us to procure a litter at this hour of the night, and in this neighborhood?"
"It must be done."
"But, will it not awaken suspicion?"
"The Montaignac police will follow us."
"I am certain of it."
"The baron will be recaptured!"
The abbe spoke in the tone of a man who, by virtue of assuming all the responsibility, feels that he has a right to be obeyed.
"When the baron has been conveyed to Poignot's house," he continued, "one of you gentlemen will take the wounded man's place upon the litter; the others will carry him, and the party will remain together until it has reached Piedmontese territory. Then you will separate and pretend to conceal yourselves, but do it in such a way that you are seen everywhere." All present comprehended the priest's simple plan.
They were to throw the emissaries sent by the Duc de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de Courtornieu off the track; and at the very moment it was apparently proven that the baron was in the mountains, he would be safe in Poignot's house.
"One word more," added the priest. "It will be necessary to make the cortege which accompanies the pretended baron resemble as much as possible the little party that would be likely to attend Monsieur d'Escorval. Mademoiselle Lacheneur will accompany you; Maurice also. People know that I would not leave the baron, who is my friend; my priestly robe would attract attention; one of you must assume it. God will forgive this deception on account of its worthy motive."
It was now necessary to procure the litter; and the officers were trying to decide where they should go to obtain it, when Corporal Bavois interrupted them.
"Give yourselves no uneasiness," he remarked; "I know an inn not far from here where I can procure one."
He departed on the run, and five minutes later reappeared with a small litter, a thin mattress, and a coverlid. He had thought of everything.
The wounded man was lifted carefully and placed upon the mattress.
A long and difficult operation which, in spite of extreme caution, drew many terrible groans from the baron.
When all was ready, each officer took an end of the litter, and the little procession, headed by the abbe, started on its way. They were obliged to proceed slowly on account of the suffering which the least jolting inflicted upon the baron. Still they made some progress, and by daybreak they were about half way to Poignot's house.
It was then that they met some peasants going to their daily toil. Both men and women paused to look at them, and when the little cortege had passed they still stood gazing curiously after these people who were apparently carrying a dead body.
The priest did not seem to trouble himself in regard to these encounters; at least, he made no attempt to avoid them.
But he did seem anxious and cautious when, after a three hours' march, they came in sight of Poignot's cottage.
Fortunately there was a little grove not far from the house. The abbe made the party enter it, recommending the strictest prudence, while he went on in advance to confer with this man, upon whose decision the safety of the whole party depended.
As the priest approached the house, a small, thin man, with gray hair and a sunburned face emerged from the stable.
It was Father Poignot.
"What! is this you, Monsieur le Cure!" he exclaimed, delightedly. "Heavens! how pleased my wife will be. We have a great favor to ask of you----"
And then, without giving the abbe an opportunity to open his lips, he began to tell him his perplexities. The night of the revolt he had given shelter to a poor man who had received an ugly sword-thrust. Neither his wife nor himself knew how to dress the wound, and he dared not call in a physician.
"And this wounded man," he added, "is Jean Lacheneur, the son of my former employer." A terrible anxiety seized the priest's heart.
Would this man, who had already given an asylum to one wounded conspirator, consent to receive another?
The abbe's voice trembled as he made known his petition.
The farmer turned very pale and shook his head gravely, while the priest was speaking. When the abbe had finished:
"Do you know, sir," he asked, coldly, "that I incur a great risk by converting my house into a hospital for these rebels?"
The abbe dared not answer.
"They told me," Father Poignot continued, "that I was a coward, because I would not take part in the revolt. Such was not my opinion. Now I choose to shelter these wounded men--I shelter them. In my opinion, it requires quite as much courage as it does to go and fight."
"Ah! you are a brave man!" cried the abbe.
"I know that very well! Bring Monsieur d'Escorval. There is no one here but my wife and boys--no one will betray him!"
A half hour later the baron was lying in a small loft, where Jean Lacheneur was already installed.
From the window, Abbe Midon and Mme. d'Escorval watched the little cortege, organized for the purpose of deceiving the Duc de Sairmeuse's spies, as it moved rapidly away.
Corporal Bavois, with his head bound up with bloodstained linen, had taken the baron's place upon the litter.
This was one of the troubled epochs in history that try men's souls. There is no chance for hypocrisy; each man stands revealed in his grandeur, or in his pettiness of soul.
Certainly much cowardice was displayed during the early days of the second Restoration; but many deeds of sublime courage and devotion were performed.
These officers who befriended Mme. d'Escorval and Maurice--who lent their aid to the abbe--knew the baron only by name and reputation.
It was sufficient for them to know that he was the friend of their former ruler--the man whom they had made their idol, and they rejoiced with all their hearts when they saw M. d'Escorval reposing under Father Poignot's roof in comparative security.
After this, their task, which consisted in misleading the government emissaries, seemed to them mere child's play.
But all these precautions were unnecessary. Public sentiment had declared itself in an unmistakable manner, and it was evident that Lacheneur's hopes had not been without some foundation.
The police discovered nothing, not so much as a single detail of the escape. They did not even hear of the little party that had travelled nearly three leagues in the full light of day, bearing a wounded man upon a litter.
Among the two thousand peasants who believed that this wounded man was Baron d'Escorval, there was not one who turned informer or let drop an indiscreet word.
But on approaching the frontier, which they knew to be strictly guarded, the fugitives became even more cautious.
They waited until nightfall before presenting themselves at a lonely inn, where they hoped to procure a guide to lead them through the defiles of the mountains.
Frightful news awaited them there. The innkeeper informed them of the bloody massacre at Montaignac.
With tears rolling down his cheeks, he related the details of the execution, which he had heard from an eyewitness.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, he knew nothing of M. d'Escorval's flight or of M. Lacheneur's arrest.
But he was well acquainted with Chanlouineau, and he was inconsolable over the death of that "handsome young fellow, the best farmer in the country."
The officers, who had left the litter a short distance from the inn, decided that they could confide at least a part of their secret to this man.
"We are carrying one of our wounded comrades," they said to him. "Can you guide us across the frontier to-night?"
The innkeeper replied that he would do so very willingly, that he would promise to take them safely past the military posts; but that he would not think of going upon the mountain before the moon rose.
By midnight the fugitives were en route; by daybreak they set foot on Piedmont territory.
They had dismissed their guide some time before. They now proceeded to break the litter in pieces; and handful by handful they cast the wool of the mattress to the wind.
"Our task is accomplished," the officer said to Maurice. "We will now return to France. May God protect you! Farewell!"
It was with tears in his eyes that Maurice saw these brave men, who had just saved his father's life, depart. Now he was the sole protector of Marie-Anne, who, pale and overcome with fatigue and emotion, trembled on his arm.
But no--Corporal Bavois still lingered by his side.
"And you, my friend," he asked, sadly, "what are you going to do?"
"Follow you," replied the old soldier. "I have a right to a home with you; that was agreed between your father and myself! So do not hurry, the young lady does not seem well, and I see the village only a short distance away."
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