Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
XVII. Through the Bars of the Cage
I should have tried escape earlier but that it was little use to venture forth in the harsh winter in a hostile country. But now April had come, and I was keen to make a trial of my fortune. I had been saving food for a long time, little by little, and hiding it in the old knapsack which had held my second suit of clothes. I had used the little stove for parching my food--Indian corn, for which I had professed a fondness to my jailer, and liberally paid for out of funds which had been sent me by Mr. George Washington in answer to my letter, and other moneys to a goodly amount in a letter from Governor Dinwiddie. These letters had been carefully written, and the Marquis de Vaudreuil, into whose hands they had first come, was gallant enough not to withhold them--though he read them first.
Besides Indian corn, the parching of which amused me, I had dried ham and tongue, and bread and cheese, enough, by frugal use, to last me a month at least. I knew it would be a journey of six weeks or more to the nearest English settlement, but if I could get that month's start I should forage for the rest, or take my fate as I found it: I was used to all the turns of fortune now. My knapsack gradually filled, and meanwhile I slowly worked my passage into the open world. There was the chance that my jailer would explore the knapsack; but after a time I lost that fear, for it lay untouched with a blanket in a corner, and I cared for my cell with my own hands.
The true point of danger was the window. There lay my way. It was stoutly barred with iron up and down, and the bars were set in the solid limestone. Soon after I entered this prison, I saw that I must cut a groove in the stone from stanchion to stanchion, and then, by drawing one to the other, make an opening large enough to let my body through. For tools I had only a miserable knife with which I cut my victuals, and the smaller but stouter one which Gabord had not taken from me. There could be no pounding, no chiselling, but only rubbing of the hard stone. So hour after hour I rubbed away, in constant danger of discovery however. My jailer had a trick of sudden entrance, which would have been grotesque if it had not been so serious to me. To provide against the flurried inquisition of his eye, I kept near me bread well chewed, with which I filled the hole, covering it with the sand I had rubbed or the ashes of my pipe. I lived in dread of these entrances, but at last I found that they chanced only within certain hours, and I arranged my times of work accordingly. Once or twice, however, being impatient, I scratched the stone with some asperity and noise, and was rewarded by hearing my fellow stumbling in the hall; for he had as uncertain limbs as ever I saw. He stumbled upon nothing, as you have seen a child trip itself up by tangling of its feet.
The first time that he came, roused by the grating noise as he sat below, he stumbled in the very centre of the cell, and fell upon his knees. I would have laughed if I had dared, but I yawned over the book I had hastily snatched up, and puffed great whiffs from my pipe. I dreaded lest he should go to the window. He started for it, but suddenly made for my couch, and dragged it away, as if looking to find a hole dug beneath it. Still I did not laugh at him, but gravely watched him; and presently he went away. At another time I was foolishly harsh with my tools; but I knew now the time required by him to come upstairs, and I swiftly filled the groove with bread, strewed ashes and sand over it, rubbed all smooth, and was plunged in my copy of Montaigne when he entered. This time he went straight to the window, looked at it, tried the stanchions, and then, with an amused attempt at being cunning and hiding his own vigilance, he asked me, with laborious hypocrisy, if I had seen Captain Lancy pass the window. And so for weeks and weeks we played hide-and-seek with each other.
At last I had nothing to do but sit and wait, for the groove was cut, the bar had room to play. I could not bend it, for it was fast at the top; but when my hour of adventure was come, I would tie a handkerchief round the two bars and twist it with the piece of hickory used for stirring the fire. Here was my engine of escape, and I waited till April should wind to its close, when I should, in the softer weather, try my fortune outside these walls.
So time went on until one eventful day, even the 30th of April of that year 1758. It was raining and blowing when I waked, and it ceased not all the day, coming to a hailstorm towards night. I felt sure that my guards without would, on such a day, relax their vigilance. In the evening I listened, and heard no voices nor any sound of feet, only the pelting rain and the whistling wind. Yet I did not stir till midnight. Then I slung the knapsack in front of me, so that I could force it through the window first, and tying my handkerchief round the iron bars, I screwed it up with my stick. Presently the bars came together, and my way was open. I got my body through by dint of squeezing, and let myself go plump into the mire below. Then I stood still a minute, and listened again.
A light was shining not far away. Drawing near, I saw that it came from a small hut or lean-to. Looking through the cracks, I observed my two gentlemen drowsing in the corner. I was eager for their weapons, but I dared not make the attempt to get them, for they were laid between their legs, the barrels resting against their shoulders. I drew back, and for a moment paused to get my bearings. Then I made for a corner of the yard where the wall was lowest, and, taking a run at it, caught the top, with difficulty scrambled up, and speedily was over and floundering in the mud. I knew well where I was, and at once started off in a northwesterly direction, toward the St. Charles River, making for a certain farmhouse above the town. Yet I took care, though it was dangerous, to travel a street in which was Voban's house. There was no light in the street nor in his house, nor had I seen any one abroad as I came, not even a sentinel.
I knew where was the window of the barber's bedroom, and I tapped upon it softly. Instantly I heard a stir; then there came the sound of flint and steel, then a light, and presently a hand at the window, and a voice asking who was there.
I gave a quick reply; the light was put out, the window opened, and there was Voban staring at me.
"This letter," said I, "to Mademoiselle Duvarney," and I slipped ten louis into his hand, also.
This he quickly handed back. "M'sieu'," said he, "if I take it I would seem to myself a traitor--no, no. But I will give the letter to ma'm'selle."
Then he asked me in; but I would not, yet begged him, if he could, to have a canoe at my disposal at a point below the Falls of Montmorenci two nights hence.
"M'sieu'," said he, "I will do so if I can, but I am watched. I would not pay a sou for my life--no. Yet I will serve you, if there is a way."
Then I told him what I meant to do, and bade him repeat it exactly to Alixe. This he swore to do, and I cordially grasped the good wretch's shoulder, and thanked him with all my heart. I got from him a weapon, also, and again I put gold louis into his hand, and bade him keep it, for I might need his kind offices to spend it for me. To this he consented, and I plunged into the dark again. I had not gone far when I heard footsteps coming, and I drew aside into the corner of a porch. A moment, then the light flashed full upon me. I had my hand upon the hanger I had got from Voban, and I was ready to strike if there were need, when Gabord's voice broke on my ear, and his hand caught at the short sword by his side.
"'Tis dickey-bird, aho!" cried he. There was exultation in his eye and voice. Here was a chance for him to prove himself against me; he had proved himself for me more than once.
"Here was I," added he, "making for M'sieu' Voban, that he might come and bleed a sick soldier, when who should come running but our English captain! Come forth, aho!"
"No, Gabord," said I, "I'm bound for freedom." I stepped forth. His sword was poised against me. I was intent to make a desperate fight.
"March on," returned he gruffly, and I could feel the iron in his voice.
"But not with you, Gabord. My way lies towards Virginia."
I did not care to strike the first blow, and I made to go past him. His lantern came down, and he made a catch at my shoulder. I swung back, threw off my cloak and up my weapon.
Then we fought. My knapsack troubled me, for it was loose, and kept shifting. Gabord made stroke after stroke, watchful, heavy, offensive, muttering to himself as he struck and parried. There was no hatred in his eyes, but he had the lust of fighting on him, and he was breathing easily, and could have kept this up for hours. As we fought I could hear a clock strike one in a house near. Then a cock crowed. I had received two slight wounds, and I had not touched my enemy. But I was swifter, and I came at him suddenly with a rush, and struck for his left shoulder when I saw my chance. I felt the steel strike the bone. As I did so, he caught my wrist and lunged most fiercely at me, dragging me to him. The blow struck straight at my side, but it went through the knapsack, which had swung loose, and so saved my life; for another instant and I had tripped him down, and he lay bleeding badly.
"Aho! 'twas a fair fight," said he. "Now get you gone. I call for help."
"I can not leave you so, Gabord," said I. I stooped and lifted up his head.
"Then you shall go to citadel," said he, feeling for his small trumpet.
"No, no," I answered; "I'll go fetch Voban."
"To bleed me more!" quoth he whimsically; and I knew well he was pleased that I did not leave him. "Nay, kick against yon door. It is Captain Lancy's."
At that moment a window opened, and Lancy's voice was heard. Without a word I seized the soldier's lantern and my cloak, and made away as hard as I could go.
"I'll have a wing of you for lantern there!" roared Gabord, swearing roundly as I ran off with it.
With all my might I hurried, and was soon outside the town, and coming fast to the farmhouse about two miles beyond. Nearing it, I hid the lantern beneath my cloak and made for an outhouse. The door was not locked, and I passed in. There was a loft nearly full of hay, and I crawled up, and dug a hole far down against the side of the building, and climbed in, bringing with me for drink a nest of hen's eggs which I found in a corner. The warmth of the dry hay was comforting, and after caring for my wounds, which I found were but scratches, I had somewhat to eat from my knapsack, drank up two eggs, and then coiled myself for sleep. It was my purpose, if not discovered, to stay where I was two days, and then to make for the point below the Falls of Montmorenci where I hoped to find a canoe of Voban's placing.
When I waked it must have been near noon, so I lay still for a time, listening to the cheerful noise of fowls and cattle in the yard without, and to the clacking of a hen above me. The air smelt very sweet. I also heard my unknowing host, at whose table I had once sat, two years before, talking with his son, who had just come over from Quebec, bringing news of my escape, together with a wonderful story of the fight between Gabord and myself. It had, by his calendar, lasted some three hours, and both of us, in the end, fought as we lay upon the ground. "But presently along comes a cloaked figure, with horses, and he lifts m'sieu' the Englishman upon one, and away they ride like the devil towards St. Charles River and Beauport. Gabord was taken to the hospital, and he swore that Englishman would not have got away if stranger had not fetched him a crack with a pistol-butt which sent him dumb and dizzy. And there M'sieu' Lancy sleep snug through all until the horses ride away!"
The farmer and his son laughed heartily, with many a "By Gar!" their sole English oath. Then came the news that six thousand livres were offered for me, dead or living, the drums beating far and near to tell the people so.
The farmer gave a long whistle, and in a great bustle set to calling all his family to arm themselves and join with him in this treasure-hunting. I am sure at least a dozen were at the task, searching all about; nor did they neglect the loft where I lay. But I had dug far down, drawing the hay over me as I went, so that they must needs have been keen to smell me out. After about three hours' poking about over all the farm, they met again outside this building, and I could hear their gabble plainly. The smallest among them, the piping chore-boy, he was for spitting me without mercy; and the milking-lass would toast me with a hay-fork, that she would, and six thousand livres should set her up forever.
In the midst of their rattling came two soldiers, who ordered them about, and with much blustering began searching here and there, and chucking the maids under the chins, as I could tell by their little bursts of laughter, and the "La M'sieu's!" which trickled through the hay.
I am sure that one such little episode saved me. For I heard a soldier just above me poking and tossing hay with uncomfortable vigour. But presently the amorous hunter turned his thoughts elsewhere, and I was left to myself, and to a late breakfast of parched beans and bread and raw eggs, after which I lay and thought; and the sum of the thinking was that I would stay where I was till the first wave of the hunt had passed.
Near midnight of the second day I came out secretly from my lurking-place, and faced straight for the St. Charles River. Finding it at high water, I plunged in, with my knapsack and cloak on my head, and made my way across, reaching the opposite shore safely. After going two miles or so, I discovered friendly covert in the woods, where, in spite of my cloak and dry cedar boughs wrapped round, I shivered as I lay until the morning. When the sun came up, I drew out, that it might dry me; after which I crawled back into my nest and fell into a broken sleep. Many times during the day I heard the horns of my hunters, and more than once voices near me. But I had crawled into the hollow of a half-uprooted stump, and the cedar branches, which had been cut off a day or two before, were a screen. I could see soldiers here and there, armed and swaggering, and faces of peasants and shopkeepers whom I knew.
A function was being made of my escape; it was a hunting-feast, in which women were as eager as their husbands and their brothers. There was something devilish in it, when I came to think of it: a whole town roused and abroad to hunt down one poor fugitive, whose only sin was, in themselves, a virtue--loyalty to his country. I saw women armed with sickles and iron forks, and lads bearing axes and hickory poles cut to a point like a spear, while blunderbusses were in plenty. Now and again a weapon was fired, and, to watch their motions and peepings, it might have been thought I was a dragon, or that they all were hunting La Jongleuse, their fabled witch, whose villainies, are they not told at every fireside?
Often I shivered violently, and anon I was burning hot; my adventure had given me a chill and fever. Late in the evening of this day, my hunters having drawn off with as little sense as they had hunted me, I edged cautiously down past Beauport and on to the Montmorenci Falls. I came along in safety, and reached a spot near the point where Voban was to hide the boat. The highway ran between. I looked out cautiously. I could hear and see nothing, and so ran out and crossed the road, and pushed for the woods on the banks of the river. I had scarcely got across when I heard a shout, and looking round I saw three horsemen, who instantly spurred towards me. I sprang through the underbrush and came down roughly into a sort of quarry, spraining my ankle on a pile of stones. I got up quickly; but my ankle hurt me sorely, and I turned sick and dizzy. Limping a little way, I set my back against a tree, and drew my hanger. As I did so, the three gentlemen burst in upon me. They were General Montcalm, a gentleman of the Governor's household, and Doltaire!
"It is no use, dear Captain," said Doltaire. "Yield up your weapon."
General Montcalm eyed me curiously, as the other gentleman talked in low, excited tones; and presently he made a gesture of courtesy, for he saw that I was hurt. Doltaire's face wore a malicious smile; but when he noted how sick I was, he came and offered me his arm, and was constant in courtesy till I was set upon a horse; and with him and the General riding beside me I came to my new imprisonment. They both forbore to torture me with words, for I was suffering greatly; but they fetched me to the Chateau St. Louis, followed by a crowd, who hooted at me. Doltaire turned on them at last, and stopped them.
The Governor, whose petty vanity was roused, showed a foolish fury at seeing me, and straightway ordered me to the citadel again.
"It's useless kicking 'gainst the pricks," said Doltaire to me cynically, as I passed out limping between two soldiers; but I did not reply. In another half hour of most bitter journeying I found myself in my dungeon. I sank upon the old couch of straw, untouched since I had left it; and when the door shut upon me, desponding, aching in all my body, now feverish and now shivering, my ankle in great pain, I could bear up no longer, and I bowed my head and fell a-weeping like a woman.