THIS is the true story of the escape of a little Huguenot from the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day.
The massacre took place at Paris, in the year fifteen hundred and seventy-two. It was the practical consequence of the hatred of the Papists for the members of the Reformed Religion, who desired nothing but to think for themselves on subjects which concerned their eternal salvation. The King of France and his mother were at the head of the conspiracy; and the signal for the beginning of the bloodshed was the tolling of a church bell, in the immediate neighbourhood of the Royal Palace. Men and women of the Reformed Religion, and their innocent children, were assassinated, under the encouragement and superintendence of the Church and State, in all quarters of Paris. The chief man of the Huguenots—the famous Admiral de Coligny—suffered with the rest of the victims. He was officially murdered at night, in his own house, and his dead body was thrown from the window of his bedchamber into the court-yard below. This atrocious massacre was perpetrated in the name of Christianity; and was invented and directed by men who were acquainted with the existence of the New Testament, and who, in the natural course, of their studies, must have read the words of the Sermon on the Mount.
In those times of savage cruelty and of worse than Pagan wickedness, there lived at Paris two brothers, who were Huguenots, and gentlemen of distinction in that day. One of the brothers bore his family name, and was called Monsieur de la Force. The other was known by the title of the Sieur de Caumont.
It so happened that some time before the day of the massacre, M. de la Force, the younger of the two brothers, had proved himself to be a good customer and friend to a certain horse-dealer, of whom he had purchased, on various occasions, nine or ten horses. Strange as it may appear, this person, although he was a horse-dealer, was really a sensible, humane, and honest man. A few hours before the massacre began, he happened to be in the neighbourhood of Admiral de Coligny’s house, and he there saw, or heard, something which gave him a suspicion of the murders which the Papists were then on the point of committing. He immediately thought of his kind patron and customer, and determined to warn him in time of the imminent danger to which he was exposed, as a man of distinction among the Huguenots. To do this, it was necessary for the horse-dealer to cross the Seine; M. de la Force living on that bank of the river which was opposite to the bank on which the King’s Palace and the house of Admiral de Coligny were situated.
The River Seine was crossed by ferry-boats in those days. When the horse-dealer reached that part of the bank on which the Royal Palace stood, and asked for passage in one of the ferry-boats in attendance there, he was told that they were all engaged on special service. He went a little further on, to try what he could do at the next station—but here the ferry-boats had all been removed. Knowing that the minutes were precious, and determined to succeed in his errand of mercy, the brave man took off his clothes, tied them in a bundle on his head, and passed the river by swimming. Once on the other bank, he lost no time in going straight to the house of M. de la Force, and warning him of his danger. The Huguenot gentleman, thereupon, immediately betook himself to his brother, the Sieur de Caumont, who lived near him; and the two called together all their friends of the Reformed Religion who were within reach, to consult on the best means of escaping the deadly danger which now threatened them.
After some discussion, the Sieur de Caumont, ignorant of the part which the King had secretly taken in organising the massacre, proposed that all the persons assembled should go straight to the Palace, and place themselves under the Royal protection. This advice was adopted, and they set forth at once for the nearest station of ferry-boats on that side of the river.
Arrived at the place, they found that every one of the boats had been removed to the opposite bank. This circumstance aroused their suspicions, and forced them to the conclusion that the conspiracy against their lives was sanctioned in high official quarters. They resolved to return immediately; to get to horse with their families; to muster in a park in the neighbourhood of Paris, called the Pré-aux-Clercs, and thence to escape to the safest places of refuge at their disposal in the country.
While they were preparing for departure, news came that the ferryboats were approaching the side of the river on which they lived, all filled with soldiers armed to the teeth.
Upon this, the fugitives mounted without losing another instant, and made for the Pré-aux-Clercs. The horses were ready for M. de la Force and his brother. The Sieur de Caumont rode off with the rest. M. de la Force (who was a widower) was detained by some difficulty in getting his two boys safely on horseback—was detained so long that he gave up all hope of joining the fugitives; and, returning to his house, closed all the doors, and determined to defend his children and himself on his own hearth.
Defence, however, was hopeless against the number of assailants who were now approaching him. The street was filled with soldiers, who threatened to break in the door if it was not opened. It being only too evident that they could execute their threat in a few minutes, their demand was complied with, for the sake of not irritating them unnecessarily.
They rushed in at once, with their drawn swords, headed by a Captain, named Martin, and all shouting together, “ Kill! kill! “ Their first proceeding was to disarm the master and his servants, and to place them, with the two boys, in a corner of the room. “Any one of you who likes may say his prayers, and had better be quick about it,” said Captain Martin; “for you will all die together in five minutes’ time.”
M. de la Force, preserving his self-possession, replied:
“Do what you will with me: I am prepared to die, if need be, in five minutes’ time. But have some compassion on these children, who have offended no one. By putting them to death you will gain nothing. By preserving their lives you may profit yourself considerably, for I have the means of rewarding your moderation by payment of a heavy ransom.”
This last argument made some impression on Captain Martin and his men. They put up their swords, and dispersed to pillage the house. Being unable to find the necessary keys (the person who kept them having taken to flight), they burst open closed doors, and broke open locked boxes in the court-yard. In a short space of time, all the property of M. de la Force, in money, plate, and clothes, had passed into their keeping.
Having completed the pillage, Captain Martin and his men came back to their prisoners, and told them with many oaths that die they must, as the soldiers had orders to kill all the Huguenots in Paris, without sparing anybody. M. de la Force again appealed to them on their only weak point, the love of money, and promised to ransom the lives of himself, his children, and his servants at the price of two thousand crowns. Captain Martin looked at his men, pondered a little, and then said roughly: “So be it. Follow me, all of you.”
Having got his prisoners into the courtyard, he made them tear up their handkerchiefs, and fix the strips in the form of a cross on their hats. After which, he directed them to turn up their right sleeves as high as their shoulders. The cross on the hat and the turned-up sleeve were peculiarities of dress previously agreed upon to distinguish the Papists from their Huguenot victims. Thus protected from discovery, they were taken across the river by Captain Martin, without delay.
They were altogether five in number. The father, the two boys, a man servant named Gast, and a Page named La Vigerie. On reaching the other side of the river, they passed the bodies of murdered Huguenots, weltering in their blood, at every step. Captain Martin, without looking to the right hand or the left, led his prisoners straight to his own house; and, having bestowed them there in safety, made ready to go out again, and continue the work of murder and pillage in his own neighbourhood. Before he went away, however, he addressed himself to M. de la Force, and insisted on that gentleman’s pledging his word of honour, that neither he nor his children would attempt to escape before the ransom was paid. Having been satisfied on this point (for he knew well enough that M. de la Force was a man who held his promise sacred), he took himself off, recommending the prisoners to be quick in getting the money, and leaving two Swiss soldiers to guard them in his absence.
M. de la Force, knowing the importance of losing no time, immediately sent his manservant, Gast, to his sister-in-law, Madame de Brisembourg who lived at the Arsenal. Gast was to tell her all that had happened, and to implore her to raise the sum of money required for the ransom, as soon as possible.
On his return to his master, Gast reported that the lady would undertake to raise the money and send it by the next day. She also sent word that the news of the lives of her brother-in-law and his children having been spared, had already reached the ears of the King, and that the worst consequences were to be apprehended as the result of that unhappy circumstance.
Having delivered his message, the servant implored his master to seek safety by flight—the more especially as the two Swiss soldiers appointed to watch the prisoners, were secretly horrified at the massacre, and were perfectly ready to let them go. But M. de la Force, with a dauntless sense of honour, which would have influenced few men at that moment, and which no words can praise as it deserves to be praised, steadily refused to profit by Gast’s suggestion.
“I have passed my word to wait here till the ransom is paid,” said that brave and admirable gentleman; “and I will not save my life by breaking my promise. Here I will stop till the money comes; and I will leave it to God in his wisdom to dispose of me and of my children, as He sees good.”
Hearing these words, the servants hesitated about taking to flight by themselves, not knowing where to go, and not having any means of procuring horses. They waited, therefore, in the house, with the purpose of concealing themselves in the upper rooms at the first approach of danger.
The rest of the day passed, and the night followed, and nothing happened. Neither Captain Martin nor any of his men came near the house. On the next day, when the ransom was due, there arrived, instead of the Captain who was to receive it, a certain Papist nobleman, named the Count de Coconas, followed by a guard of forty soldiers. The Count informed M. de la Force that the King’s brother had heard of their being taken prisoners, and that he desired to speak with them immediately. While he was giving this message, he allowed his men to tear off the outer clothing of M. de la Force and his sons. Finding themselves used in this way, they suspected that the pretended message was a falsehood, and prepared themselves for the worst. M. de la Force appealed, as a last resource, to the Count’s sense of justice, pleading that his life, and the life of his sons, had been spared on condition of paying a ransom, and that the money was to be sent that very day. His youngest son, who had shown marvellous courage and coolness in the midst of deadly danger, joined M. de la Force in trying to touch the Count’s heart by his innocent entreaties. They spoke long; the boy, when he found his father getting agitated, trying to console and quiet him. When they had said all that it was possible to say, the only answer the Count condescended to give them, was this:—
“I was told there were two servants with you; and I see neither of them. Where are they?”
On the first approach of the soldiers, the Page had wisely flown to the protection of the two Swiss guards. Gast, unfortunately for himself, had rushed up-stairs to one of the garrets, and had there endeavoured to lie hid. He was searched for by the Count’s order, was found, and was brought down-stairs, to take his place with his fellow prisoners. The Page could not be discovered anywhere.
“ Only four! “ said the Count, running them over with his eye. “Never mind. March them out.”
They left the house, with their guards all round them, and were led into a lonely bye-street in the neighbourhood. There the soldiers halted, drew their swords, called out all together, “Kill! kill! “ and attacked their defenceless prisoners.
The eldest boy was the first slain; and his father was the next victim. The youngest son (the same who had shown such courage in pleading for his life), had the presence of mind to drop to the ground with them, and to lie there as still as if he too had been killed by the same sword-thrusts which had despatched his father and his brother. Gast, the servant, was murdered last. All the clothing of the bodies was torn off them. The living boy lay naked in the blood of his nearest and dearest relations—to all outward appearance death-stained by his wounds, like the rest.
As the Count and his men withdrew, believing that they had successfully accomplished the butchery of their four prisoners, certain poor Papists living in the street, stole out from their houses to look at the dead bodies. One among them, a Marker at a Tennis Court, staid longer than the rest on the scene of slaughter; and said to himself sorrowfully, looking at the younger son as he lay on the ground:
“Sad, sad! here is the body of a mere child! “
The boy, whose name was Jacques, hearing these compassionate words, ventured to raise his head, and said, piteously:
“I am not dead. For mercy’s sake, save my life! “
The Marker instantly pressed him back to the ground again, and whispered:
“ Hush! Don’t move yet, my little man. The soldiers are still in the neighbourhood.” Having spoken those words of warning, he withdrew a few paces, and walked backwards and forwards for a little while, watching, on the other side of the street. In a few minutes he came back, and saying: “They are gone, now-you may get up, my boy,” put his ragged old cloak over the naked body of Jacques, and led him away by the hand. They had not walked many paces, before some people met them, and asked who that strangely-dressed boy was.
“My nephew,” answered the Marker. The little rascal has been getting drunk, and I am taking him home to give him a good whipping.”
The worthy man’s home was a garret in a ruinous old house. Arrived there, he gave Jacques some water to wash himself, and some ragged clothing belonging to the nephew, whom the boy now personated. He was so poor that he had nothing to eat or drink; and seeing that Jacques had a little ring still left on his finger, he asked leave to go out and pawn it, to get some food. They supped, and breakfasted, the next morning, on the money obtained by the ring; and, then the Marker asked Jacques what he proposed to do next, and where he wanted to go.
The boy answered by begging to be taken to the Palace, where he had a sister who occupied a place in the Queen’s household. The Marker shook his head at that proposal, and declined to risk the gallows by taking a young Huguenot, whose life he had saved, to the head-quarters of the Papist conspiracy.
The next suggestion offered by Jacques, was that they should go to the Arsenal, where his aunt, Madame de Brisembourg, lived. The Marker was ready to undertake this expedition, though it was rather a long and dangerous one, provided they passed through no principal streets. Before they started, he took occasion to remind Jacques of his poverty, and inquired if Madame de Brisembourg was a likely woman to give as much as thirty crowns for the safe delivery of her nephew, at the gates of the Arsenal. Jacques promised, in his aunt’s name, that the sum should be forthcoming, and they started immediately.
They got to the Arsenal without misadventures of any sort. Arrived at the gate, Jacques said to his companion:—
“Wait here; and I will send you out your nephew’s clothes, and the thirty crowns for taking care of me.”
While he was speaking, the gate was opened by some one coming out; and Jacques dexterously slipped in, before it was closed again. He wandered about the place, looking for the building in which his aunt lived, and meeting no persons but strangers, whom he was afraid to inquire of. At last, who should he see but the Page in his late father’s service—the lad who had been saved by the Swiss guards!
The Page (who had taken refuge with Madame de Brisembourg on the night of the murder), did not recognise his young master at first, in the ragged clothing of the Marker’s nephew. Jacques made himself known, and was taken instantly to his aunt.
Madame de Brisembourg having heard that her brother-in-law, and both his children, had been killed, was in bed, overwhelmed by the shock of that dreadful intelligence. Her joy and astonishment can hardly be imagined, when she found her youngest nephew standing alive and well by her bedside. She immediately ordered proper clothing for him, and arranged that his bed should be made in her own dressing-room. Jacques did not forget his friend the Marker, in the happiness of finding an asylum. He begged thirty crowns from his aunt, and sent them out, with the ragged clothes, to his preserver, who was waiting at the gate.
Jacques enjoyed two days of rest and security in his aunt’s dressing-room. At the end of that time, Marshal de Biron (Head of the Artillery Department), was told that the King bad discovered that certain Huguenots had taken refuge at the Arsenal, and that His Majesty was determined to have them sought for without delay. This bad news the Marshal communicated to Madame de Brisembourg, who immediately felt that her nephew was no longer in safety under her own roof.
The next morning, accordingly, she caused him to be dressed as a Page in the service of Marshal de Biron, and placed him, with many tears, under the protection of the Sieur de Born, a lieutenant-general of artillery, in whose good sense and humanity she could put perfect trust.
The Sieur de Born took Jacques out of the Arsenal and brought him to a house in the neighbourhood belonging to a person connected with the Artillery Department, named Guillon. “ Be so good,” said the Sieur de Born, “as to give this lad house-room for a few days. He is the son of an old friend of mine, and he is about to enter the service of the Marshal de Biron, in the capacity of Page.” Guillon accepted the charge readily. He was a sharp man, and he strongly suspected that the story about the Marshal de Biron’s page was a mere invention. However, fortunately for Jacques, he was under obligations to the Sieur de Born; so he kept his suspicions to himself, and received the young stranger very kindly.
Jacques remained unmolested in the house of Guillon for a week. His host was accustomed to go out every morning to his duties, and to return to dinner—on which occasion the lad generally ran to open the door for him. On the eighth day the usual knock came at the usual time, and Jacques opened the door; but, seeing a stranger standing on the threshold, immediately clapped it to again in his face. Upon this, the man called through the door, “Don’t be afraid, my boy. I am a messenger of your aunt’s, and I am sent to know how you are.” Jacques called back, that his health was excellent, and that he was very much obliged to his aunt; but he took good care not to open the door again. The deadly peril through which he had passed, had taught him to be as cautious as any grown man in Paris.
When the master of the house came back, a little later, Jacques told him what had happened. Guillon, with a look of alarm, started up from his dinner, and ran to the Arsenal to make inquiries at the apartments of Madame de Brisembourg. The information he received there, justified the worst suspicions. Madame de Brisembourg had sent no messenger to inquire after her nephew’s health. The stranger was evidently a Papist spy.
There was no resource now for Jacques, but to resign all hopes of finding an asylum in Paris, and to risk the danger of trying to escape into the country. If he had not possessed powerful friends at the Arsenal, he would never have been able to make the attempt. As it was, his aunt’s influence with the Marshal de Biron, was powerful enough to give him another chance for his life. The Marshal had a royal passport intended for the use of two persons in his service—that is to say, of his steward, the Sieur de Fraisse, and of one of the pages, who was accustomed to carry his written orders to the commanding officer of a troop of soldiers, then in garrison in the country. It was arranged that the steward should make use of the passport immediately, and that he should take Jacques with him in the character of page.
At the gate of the city by which they passed out, they found the Sieur de Born waiting to lend them his assistance, in case of any difficulties. He introduced Jacques to the official persons who examined the passport, as a relation of his own, who had recently entered the service of the Marshal de Biron. Thanks to this recommendation, the passport proved effectual; and the steward and the page rode through the gate without hindrance and without question.
As soon as they passed the guard, Jacques asked where they were going to. “We are going into the country, if it pleases God,” said the Sieur de Fraisse. “I hope from! my heart it may please Him,” answered Jacques. And away they went along the high road.
After two days’ riding they put up at an inn, where they met with a Person of Quality, who had arrived before them, and who rejoiced in a train of seven mounted servants. The Person of Quality was a zealous Papist, and talked in high spirits of the successful slaughtering of the scoundrelly Huguenots, as he called them. He also took a great fancy to Jacques, and proposed, as they were travelling the same way, to offer him the protection of his train of seven mounted servants. Jacques and the steward were afraid to decline this offer. So the next day they all travelled together.
When they put up again for the night, the Person of Quality, ordered his dressing-gown to make himself comfortable after the journey. Jacques recognised the pattern the moment the dressing-gown was produced. It had belonged to his father.
Once wrapped up comfortably, with his boots off and his legs on a chair, the Person of Quality, resumed his rejoicings over the massacre of the Huguenots. He said that only one mistake of any consequence had been committed in the execution of that righteous butchery, and that was caused by allowing the Sieur de Caumont (Jacques’ uncle) to escape. This circumstance the Person of Quality sincerely regretted; but he was consoled by calling to mind that M. de la Force and both his children had perished, at any rate; and he was not without hope that he might yet find out the place of the Sieur de Caumont’s retreat, and have the satisfaction of killing that detestable Huguenot with his own hands.
This discourse and the discovery of the dressing-gown had such an effect on Jacques, that he took the first opportunity of entreating the steward to find out some means of continuing their journey alone, the next day. The Sieur de Fraisse was only too anxious to grant the request. He and Jacques rose the next morning before daybreak, paid their bill, called for their horses, and rode off, while the Person of Quality was fast asleep.
They encountered other dangers from stray Papist travellers, from which they escaped, however, with very little difficulty. - The further they got from Paris, the fewer risks they ran. On the eighth day after their departure, they reached a large building, situated in a very remote place, and called Castlenau. This was the end of their journey; for here the Sieur de Caumont had flown for refuge, after riding out to the Pré-aux-Clercs with the rest of the Huguenot fugitives,
“ Nobody,” says the ancient chronicler from whose pages these particulars are taken—“nobody would believe, if I tried to relate it, how the Sieur de Caumont rejoiced over the recovery of the nephew whom he had given up for dead. From that time forth he loved the boy as if he had been his son; and the first lesson he taught him was to thank God, on his knees, night and morning, for his deliverance from death.” It is good to know that Jacques showed himself well worthy of his uncle’s affection and care. He entered the army, and rose to the highest distinction as a soldier. In French history his name is famous, as the Marshal de la Force. He escaped death on the field of battle as marvellously as he had escaped it in the streets of Paris, and he lived prosperously to the ripe old age of eighty-four years.
This is all there is to tell of the escape of Jacques from the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day.
Taken from Household Words 9 January 1858 XVII 80-84
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