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15: Flight

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Author Topic: 15: Flight  (Read 15 times)
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« on: March 17, 2023, 08:30:20 am »

"Repousser sa croix, c'est l'appesantir."

During the first week of August the excitement in Paris reached its greatest height, and culminated on the Saturday after the battle of Weissenburg. Of this defeat John Turner had, as I believe, the news before any other in Paris. Indeed, the evil tidings came to the city from the English Times. The stout banker, whose astuteness I had never doubted, displayed at this time a number of those qualities---such as courage, cool-headedness and foresight---to which we undoubtedly owe our greatness in the world. We are, as our neighbours say, a nation of shopkeepers, but we keep a rifle under the counter. A man may prove his courage in the counting-house as effectually as on the field of battle.

"These," I said to Turner, "are stirring times. I suppose you are very anxious."

I had passed before the Bourse in coming to the Avenue d'Antan, and had, as I spoke, a lively recollection of the white-faced and panic-stricken financiers assembled there. For one franc that these men had at stake, it was probable that John Turner had a thousand.

"Yes---I am anxious," he said, quietly. "These are stirring times, as you say; they stimulate the appetite wonderfully, and, I think, help the digestion."

As he spoke a clerk came into the room without knocking---his eyes bright with excitement. He gave John Turner a note, which that stout gentleman read at a glance, and rose from the breakfast table.

"Come with me," he said, "and you will see some history."

We drove rapidly to the Bourse, through crowded streets, and there I witnessed a scene of the greatest excitement that it has been my lot to look upon; for it has pleased God to keep me from any battle-field.

Above a sea of hats a score of tricolour flags fluttered in the dusty air, and wild strains of the Marseillaise dominated the roar and babble of a thousand tongues wagging together. The steps of the great building were thronged with men, and on the bases of the statuary orators harangued high heaven, for no man had the patience to listen.

"What is it?" I asked my companion.

"News of a French victory; but it wants confirmation."

Some who could sing, and others who only thought they could, were shouting the Marseillaise from any elevation that presented itself---an omnibus or a street refuse-box served equally well for these musicians.

"How on earth these people have ever grown to a great nation!" muttered John Turner, who sat in his carriage. A man clambered on the box beside the coachman.

"I will sing you the Marseillaise!" he shouted.

"Thank you," replied John Turner.

But already the humour of the throng was changing, and some began to reflect. In a few minutes doubt swept over them like a shower of rain, and the expression of their faces altered. Almost immediately it was announced that the news of the victory had been a hoax.

"I am going to my office," said Turner, curtly. "Come and see me to-morrow morning. I may have some advice to give you."

In the evening I saw Madame, and told her that things were going badly on the frontier; but I did not know that the Germans were, at the time of speaking, actually on French territory, and that MacMahon had been beaten at Metz.

"Get the women out of the country," said John Turner to me the next morning, "and don't bother me."

I went back to the Hôtel Clericy and there found Alphonse Giraud. He was in the morning-room with the two ladies.

"I have come," he said, "to bid you all good-bye, as I was just telling these ladies.

"You remember," he went on, taking my hand and holding it in his effusive French way---"you remember that I said I would buy myself a commission? The good God has sent me one, but it is a rifle instead of a sword."

"Alphonse has volunteered to fight as a common soldier!" cried Lucille, her face glowing with excitement. "Is it not splendid? Ah, if I were only a man!"

Madame looked gravely and almost apprehensively at her daughter. She did not join in Giraud's proud laugh.

"There is bad news," she said, looking at my face. "What is it?"

"Yes, there is bad news, and it is said that Paris is to be placed under martial law. You and Mademoiselle must leave."

Alphonse protested that it was only a temporary reverse, and that General Frossard had but retreated in order to strike a harder blow. He nodded and winked at me, but I ignored his signals; for I have never held that women are dolls or children, that the truth must be withheld from them because it is unpleasant.

So Alphonse Giraud departed to fight for his country. He was drafted into a cavalry regiment, "together with some grooms and hostlers from the stables of the Paris Omnibus Company," as he wrote to me later in good spirits. He proved himself, moreover, a brave soldier as well as a true and honest French gentleman.

Madame de Clericy and Lucille made preparations for an early departure, but were averse to quitting Paris until such time as necessity should drive them into retreat. I saw nothing of John Turner at this time, but learnt from others that he was directing the course of his great banking house with a steady hand and a clear head. I wanted money, but did not go to him, knowing that he would require explanations which I was in no wise prepared to give him. Instead I telegraphed to my lawyer in London, who negotiated a loan for me, mortgaging, so far as I could gather from his technical communications, my reversion of Hopton in case Isabella Gayerson should marry another than myself. The money was an absolute necessity, for without it Madame and Lucille could not leave France, and I took but little heed of the manner in which it was procured.

It was in the evening of August 28th, a few hours after General Trochu's decree calling upon foreigners to quit Paris, that I sought a consultation with Madame. The Vicomtesse came to my study, divining perhaps that what I had to say to her were better spoken in the absence of Lucille.

"You wish to speak to me, mon ami," she said.

In reply I laid before her the proclamation issued by General Trochu. In it all foreigners were warned to leave, and persons who were not in a position to "faire face à l'ennemi" invited to quit Paris. She glanced through the paper hurriedly.

"Yes," she said; "I understand. You as a foreigner cannot stay."

"I can stay or go," I replied; "but I cannot leave you and Mademoiselle in Paris."

"Then what are we to do?"

I then laid before her my plan, which was simple enough in itself.

"To England?" said Madame de Clericy, when I had finished, and in her voice I detected that contempt for our grey country which is held by nearly all Frenchwomen. "Has it come to that? Is France then unsafe?"

"Not yet---but it may become so. The Germans are nearer than any one allows himself to suppose."

I saw that she did not believe me. Madame de Clericy was not very learned, and it is probable that her history was all forgotten. Paris had always seemed to her the centre of civilisation and safely withdrawn from the perils of war or internal disorder.

I begged her to leave the capital, and painted in lurid colours the possible effects of further defeat and the resulting fall of the French Empire.

"See," I said, opening the drawer of my writing table, "I have the money here. All is prepared, and in England I have arranged for your reception at a house which, if it is not palatial, will at all events be comfortable."

"Where is the house?"

"At a place called Hopton, on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk. It stands empty and quite ready for your reception. The servants are there."

"And the rent?" said she, without looking at me. "Is that within our means?"

"The rent will be almost nominal," I replied. "That can be arranged without difficulty. Many of our English country houses are now neglected. It is the fashion for our women, Madame, to despise a country life. They prefer to wear out themselves and their best attributes on the pavement."

Madame smiled.

"Everything is so strong about you," she said; "especially your prejudices. And this house to which we are to be sent---is it large? Is it well situated? May one inquire?"

I could not understand her eyes, which were averted with something like a smile.

"It is one of the best situated houses in England," I answered, unguardedly, and Madame laughed outright.

"My friend," she said, "one reason why I like you is that you are not at all clever. This house is yours, and you are offering Lucille and me a home in our time of trouble---and I accept."

She laid her hand, as light as a leaf, on my shoulder, and when I looked up she was gone.

On the morning of Saturday, September 3rd, I received a note from John Turner.

"If you have not gone---go!" he wrote.

Our departure had been fixed for a later date, but the yacht of an English friend had been lying in the port of Fécamp at my disposal for some days. We embarked there the same evening, having taken train at the St. Lazare station within two hours of the receipt of John Turner's warning. The streets of Paris, as we drove through them, were singularly quiet, and men passing their friends on the pavement nodded in silence, without exchanging other greeting. Hope seemed at last to have folded her wings and fled from the bright city. Some indefinable knowledge of coming catastrophe hovered over all.

It was a quiet sunset that clothed sea and sky with a golden splendour as we steamed out of Fécamp harbour that evening. I walked on the deck of the trim yacht with its captain until a late hour, and looked my last on the white cliffs and headlands of the doomed land about midnight---the hour at which the news was spreading over France, as black, swift and terrible as night itself, that hope was dead, that the whole army had been captured at Sedan, and the Emperor himself made prisoner. All this, however, we did not learn until we landed in England, although I have no doubt that John Turner knew it when he gave us so sharp a warning.

The weather was favourable to us, and the ladies came on deck the next morning in a calm sea as we sped past the North Foreland between the Goodwin Lightships and the land. It was a lovely morning, and the sea all stripes of deep blue and green, and even yellow where the great sand banks of the Thames estuary lay beneath the rippled surface.

Lucille thought but little of England, as she judged it from the tame bluffs of Thanet.

"Are these the famous white cliffs of England?" she said to the captain, for she rarely addressed herself unnecessarily to me. "Why they are but one quarter of the height of those of St. Valéry that I saw from the cabin window last night."

The captain, a simple man, sought to prove that England had counterbalancing advantages. He knew not that in certain humours a woman will find fault with anything. I thought that Mademoiselle took exception to the poor cliffs because they were those of my native land.

Madame proved more amenable to reason, however, and the captain, whose knowledge of French was not great, made an easier convert of her than of Lucille, who spoke English prettily enough, while her mother knew only the one tongue.

"There is bad weather coming," said the captain to me later in the day. "And I wish the tide served for Lowestoft harbour earlier than ten o'clock."

We anchored just astern of the coast-service gunboat, and a few hundred yards south of the pier at Lowestoft, awaiting the rise of the tide. At eleven o'clock we moved in, and passing through the dock into the river, anchored there for the night. I gave Madame the choice of passing the night on board and going ashore to the hotel, as it was too late to drive to Hopton. She elected to remain on board.

As ill fortune would have it, the evil weather foreseen by the captain came upon us in the night, and daylight next morning showed a grey and hopeless sea, with lowering clouds and a slantwise rain driving across all. The tide was low when the ladies came on deck, and the muddy banks of the river looked dismal enough, while the flat meadowland stretched away on all sides into a dim and mournful perspective of mist and rain.

The Hopton carriage was awaiting us at the landing-stage, and to those unaccustomed to such work the landing in a small boat no doubt presented difficulties and dangers of which we men took no account. The streets of Lowestoft were sloppy and half-deserted as we drove through them. A few fishermen in their oilskins seemed to emphasise the wetness and dismalness of England as they hurried down to the harbour in their great sea-boots. On the uplands a fine drizzle veiled the landscape, and showed the gnarled and sparse trees to small advantage.

Lucille sat with close-pressed lips and looked out of the streaming windows. There were unshed tears in her eyes, and I grimly realised the futility of human effort. All my plans had been frustrated by a passing rain.

At home, however, I found all comfortable enough, and fires alight in the hall and principal rooms.

It was late in the day that I came upon Lucille alone in the drawing-room. She was looking out of the window across the bleak table-land to the sea.

"I am sorry, Mademoiselle," I said, suddenly conscious of the stiff bareness of my ancestral home, "that things are not brighter. I have done my best."

"Thank you," she said, and there was still resentment in her voice. "You have been very kind."

She stood for a few moments in silence, and then turning flashed an angry glance at me.

"I do not know who constituted you our protector," she said scornfully.

"Fate, Mademoiselle."

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