A Night at Avignon
Late in the cold October night when the bell of the grand St. Bernard had given notice of the deadly Bize or south-east wind, the Hospice of the Simplon was disturbed by the furious ringing and shouts of a traveller demanding the best room, supper, and wine that noble and then new hotel afforded. This guest was wrapped in furs, followed by a person whose inform step announced a tutor rather than a valet, and a superb dog of the true St. Bernard’s race.
“Milord must pardon us if the red room is occupied by a party including ladies.”
“Ladies! — and must we sit in this conventicle of the four winds, cold as St. Bernard’s death-room, because some of your guests wear longer skirts than ours?”
“Monsieur will be pleased to consider there is one enfant — little boy-child —”
“What is a child good for, pray? — to grow into a man, perhaps. Friend, we are men already and will have the red room or none. Must we of the new world be treated like the old world’s fools?”
The usual freemasonry understood by innkeepers procured the American admission into a saloon whose richest couch was instantly occupied by his whole length and its hearth by his wolf-dog. His infirm companion seated himself in modest silence.
“And what call you this black broth? questioned the traveller, “made from an Arabian horse’s beans, I suppose, while the Mocha is boiled for the cap and bib? Some queen of Sheba with blue stockings and thick ankles — and her sucking Solomon?”
The tutor, whose dress had something clerical in its arrangement, interposed a hint of the courtesy usually shewn by the powerful to the weak as the most generous use of superiority.
“A very inconvenient use, Abbé, I can tell you. Your French playhouses manage best. Did we not keep our places in the pit according to our tickets without minding bonnet-customs? Cannot men make customs as well as laws?”
“Make them for your own States if you can,” answered the tutor, “but allow me to understand mine best — at least while we travel through it. Do you forget that you are Scipio Whistlecraft of Sloptown in New England, and I your instructor in Belles Lettres? One of your namesakes would not have been so famous if he had been as unpolite to belles —”
“Classical, classical! — a fine, doctor — these are not schoolhouses. Come, refresh your reverence.” And he filled an ample goblet with the wine which glorifies Bordeaux. “What think you of American independence? Not one spy dared question Ben Franklin’s country-folk though they would have seen you through thirteen Dutch nightcaps. Faith, I quaked when those cuirassiers smoked their cigars so near as I talked of Badajoz.”
“Franklin was an Englishman, Mr Cincinnatus-Scipio, and — you know the rest —”
“We had better know the flavour of this omlet — take your share Caesar — you are near a Roman province, you roque. Another day and our task is done.”
“If your Bize-wind follows us,” said the graver traveller looking at his emaciated limbs and gasping painfully, “I shall not have breath left to thank you.”
“Fiddlededeeisms, as English schoolgirls say. Crossing glaciers is not worse than a stockade of bayonets. Old Venta gave you a stout guide over these spikes of ice, slippery as they are. Ha, ha! I scarce helped laughing when he talked of Claude Larron’s escapes from the gendarmes — they swam like camels and I like a sailor. Once in some Scotch creek, I scared the Laird of Knocknasey’s auld wife into fits by sitting upright in her bed, black as a goblin, after I had dropped down the chimney. Then at Limerick Fair I bemused the revenue-gaugers by transforming a dancing bear into a man. ‘How are ye, Paddy,’ says I. ‘Pretty well, thank ye,’ cries he, and jumped out of Bruin’s hide. I scampered too while the fools were blind with laughing.”
While the crafty guide told these tales, he watched with a practised eye whether Irish or Scotch idioms acted most on his friend’s risible muscles. But the sick stranger’s confidence extended no farther than his purse and his person. He only answered in very pure French, “Your tutor must have been a Dr. Pangloss. Has America such linguists?”
“Nay, Colonel, I studied in a larger university than his. My father cared nothing for me — my mother gave me nothing but this queer face and shambling legs. She dropped me in some of these snow-heaps, and I remember crawling into the corner of an old wood-house to look for crumbs the poultry were too well-fed to gather.
“And you borrowed a few fowls?”
“No, I listened through a chink and heard a boy read — or as I thought, tell fine tales at any old blind man’s knee. I crept in every night to watch them and to wonder if anything in the world would ever love me as that boy was loved. But my grandfather was a French seigneur and his an old English Captain—”
The tale-teller paused and stole a shrewd glance at his companion, whose eyes were still half-closed.
“Well, these glorious tales did not feed me, and one day I crept through their door and begged bread. The blind man did not see my ugliness, but a girl’s nurse had eyes and she screamed till I was beaten out like a mad dog — hunted from the very rocks where the bears howled less. I have hated woman ever since. She was not made, you know, when all things were called good.”
“Where was the boy?” said his auditor with half a smile.
“They kept him out of sight, and his blind grandfather died next day. And I heard the boy say, ‘Why do you call him dead? We never say the dew dies when it goes back to heaven?’ Sir, I never had dew on my cheeks before or since. I went next night to see the grave and sleep upon it.”
There was another pause and the sick traveller seemed to doze. The mock American rose slowly and looked on his face by the wavering lamp-light. “It is sorely changed — it cannot be, or he acts rarely —” Then bending close, he whispered, “Badajoz!”
“First division, charge!” With those words the dreamer started up, his brow flushed and his eye kindling. Claude laughed heartily. “Now I have shown you a French spy’s trick when he suspects a scarlet soldier in disguise. Come, awake — the Prefect of Avignon has just arrived with a post-wagon full of commissaries!”
“If you have sold me!” said the stranger drawing a pistol with an alertness his weak frame did not promise.
“You have not trusted me,” interrupted Claude, “and I have no business with the Prefect. Follow me if you can.” And with a chamois-hunter’s leap, he disappeared through the window as the door was opened by the Commandant. He entered, directing his attendants to remain in the anteroom and advanced cautiously towards his prisoner.
“Sir,” said the Englishman without changing his position and calm countenance, “I am no fugitive from my parole. I have been detained by Spanish outlaws, not by Frenchmen or soldiers. You know the name on this medal.”
“I wish its true bearer existed,” said the officer smiling with some scorn. “He was among the slain at Badajoz.”
“Nothing is more probable than the rumour — the falsehood can be vouched by all who know my person. Commandant, I have no doubt some mangled remains among the thousands of our men destroyed by fire and sword may have been numbered as mine. Wait till the messenger arrives from Wellington.”
“Spies are fit company for smugglers;” answered the Prefect drily. “The wolf-dog who followed his master’s leap is a practised conveyancer of secrets as his collar can testify. Exempts, secure your prisoner. Sir, my information is exact and my orders peremptory.”
Before the agents of the military police could obey, an official gave a billet to his principal. It was hastily read and torn. Then giving a sign to his assistants, the Prefect caused the Englishman to be conveyed without violence to a calêche well-guarded and rode by its side himself till it reached Avignon.
But as they entered that ancient city, the hoarse howl of a furious mob was heard in the streets. The guards of the Prefect and his prisoner forced their way with drawn swords to his hotel in the chief square where he endeavoured to alight. His horse’s head was seized and himself dragged down by a ruffian shouting “Vive Louis! A bas Napoleon!” and the yells of contending parties rung on all sides while flames burst from the windows of the Hotel-de-Ville. The prisoner rose from among the broken fragments of the calêche and thrust his pistol into the Prefect’s hand. Then snatching up the baton of a municipal officer whose dead body lay near them, he kept the wild multitude at bay till they could hear him. “Friends! Frenchmen!” he said with the courage that creates authority, “your King is a guest in England — would you slay an Englishman?”
The absolute and fearless tone of command awed the vulgar — some more sagacious or better informed shouted, “Our allies! Our allies! The great Lord’s aide-de-camp!” and they suffered him to raise the fallen Prefect, now covered with dust and blood.
“Gentlemen,” he added, “your magistrate is a brave man — let me answer for him — I am your hostage for his loyalty.”
A crowd of men with white cockades gathered around them, and ushered both into the vestibule of a palace adjoining the mayor’s, leaving a guard of honour, as they said, to attend and perhaps secure them.
The first was soon subdued, and those official personages whose fears or loyalty prevailed, urged their principal to sign a proclamation of their restored monarch.
“I am Napoleon’s officer,” he answered sullenly, “and was his fellow-soldier. If he has abdicated, I resign my power too. Act for yourselves.”
They departed, well pleased to have no sharer in the honours they expected from a new master. A new mayor was elected in a few moments and announced with acclamations, while the ex-magistrate retired to a private room with his prisoner, now his protector.
“We have changed places,” said the Frenchman smiling grimly, “but no matter. Fortune may be whimsical again, and I may resume my cordon. Chevalier, I thank you for my life. Take care of your own — you have enemies.”
And he gave him a copy of the declaration made by informers in the employ of Fouché, describing him as an impostor assuming the name of a deceased officer to obtain credentials in “traitorous mission.”
“You may guess the author and the purpose of this libel — but you are safe here; safe, at least, if the many-headed monster can be kept in a silver harness. The Bourbons pay well and have one or two friends without pay. My late wife’s father is one and his chateau is not far from the frontiers. Let me be useful to a brave man.”
The Englishman wrung his hand. “Louis would need no allies if all his enemies were as generous. I accept your kindness and will urge it farther. My letters to England may have failed during this strange hurricane of events. I cannot — (and he looked on his wounded arm) I cannot be my own secretary nor a very dangerous enemy to your emperor. Take my parole, if you desire it, but let my general be informed of my condition.”
“He shall,” answered the gallant Gascon, “though I know none who can spare an aide-de-camp better. But you are in no state to travel among rebels and traitors. That rascal Scotchman who held my throat tonight while he shouted ‘Vive Louis!’ was a sans-culotte in Marat’s mob when the last Bourbon was beheaded. Napoleon and I both fall by treason!”