A French Volunteer of the War of Independence/Chapter 2


Eighteen months in prison—A plan of escape successfully carried out—Armed resistance—Sheltered by a Lyons merchant—Arrival in Auvergne—A family compact—A compromise effected—Departure to join the, so-called, "insurgent army" in America.

In order that the intelligent reader may follow my narrative with interest, it is indispensable that I should here describe the castle of Pierre-en-Cize, the residence that I had taken on a long lease, or rather for an indefinite period, and of which I was an unwilling tenant. I must first though say something of the locality.

In Piganiol de la Force (see his Description of France) we find: "Pierre-en-Cize, or Pierre-Seise, a castle of France, and a State prison, near the Saone, and opposite Lyon. There are in this castle a captain on half pay, a company of thirty infantry soldiers, a lieutenant, and a sergeant."

That is all that a historian, a traveller, and a poet, could say about Pierre-en-Cize,—not having had an opportunity of examining the place closely. To properly describe the castle, one ought to have lived there, and been a State prisoner there, as I have been, but I do not think it likely that anyone will envy me my knowledge, considering how it was attained.

The castle of Pierre-en-Cize was the country house of the Archbishops of Lyon, and as far as situation and outlook are concerned, is a pleasant residence enough. It is not like the castle of Lourdes, surrounded by cloud-capped peaks, resembling a solitary cypress tree in a chaos of rocks, a veritable battle-field of the Titans. It is not like Mont St. Michel either, where, half the year, every twelve hours, the waves beat against the walls of your prison, the tempests roll under your feet, and the cry of the shipwrecked sailors echoes through the cells. Without prejudice, I may say that, as far as the view goes, Pierre-en-Cize is infinitely more pleasant, but there is no such thing as a nice prison, and, all things considered, it must be owned that,—when one is behind the bars,—the smiling fields, the harvests, the forests, the flocks, the sight of men at liberty, though they make a delightful picture, are only an added punishment to the poor prisoner.

Let me now give in my own fashion, and according to my own observations, a topographical and picturesque description of Pierre-en-Cize, internally and externally. It may be confidently accepted as correct, for I may say with truth, "I have seen."

The castle is situated on the banks of the Saone, as you enter Lyon by the faubourg of Vaize. It stands on a high and steep hill, which you ascend by steps cut in the rock. At the main-gate is a guardhouse, occupied by a company of the Lyonnais regiment,—some of them veterans, but a good number young soldiers of good conduct, admitted into the garrison as a favour. There was no possible means of escape this way; moreover, the prisoners were only allowed to walk in a portion of the courtyard; the sentinel stopped them if they passed the boundary,—a big chestnut tree, which I can still see in my mind's eye.

The castle is a square building, having at the north-west comer a very large tower, at the end of the courtyard on the right hand side. All the walls are very high; that part of the castle which looks towards the faubourg of Vaize is to the north-east, and is only accessible on that side by a road cut in the hill for the purpose of bringing up wood, wine, and other provisions and necessaries, which are all brought on the backs of mules. Whenever anything of this kind arrives, the entire guard turns out under arms, and, as long as the gates are open, half the soldiers stand outside, and the other half just inside, the gateway. But by observing as much as I could, I was able to form some idea as to the nature of the ground on that side, which had hitherto been unknown to me, I having arrived by the gate which overlooks the fiver Saone, by which, as 1 have said before, escape was impossible.

After having mounted the rock, I was conducted through the courtyard, and found myself at the foot of the great tower, the situation of which I have already described. I was led up a winding staircase to a wooden gallery, and locked in cell No. I, close to the tower, the circular wall of which formed one side of my cell. I found, in this agreeable abode, the regulation prison-furniture; a wretched bed, pushed against the rounded wall of the tower, a chair, a table, and the usual big jar of water. Light came from the inside court, through a window well garnished with bars, and looking on the gallery. Such was my prison, and such were the obstacles I should have to surmount in order to get out of it, but I had no sooner put my foot inside the tower than I resolved to attempt to make my escape, and that as soon as I possibly could. The contrivance, the patience, the hard work, and the boldness of my escape, which I made in full daylight, and with arms in my hand, rendered me somewhat celebrated in the history of Pierre-en-Cize. The castle was destroyed in the Revolution (in 1791), but it is a fact that from 1777 till the time the fortress was demolished, every young prisoner who was confined there longed to emulate the prowess of Pontgibaud. It will be seen that for a prisoner, aged only eighteen, to make his escape is a feat of which I may be allowed to boast.

No pupil of Vauban ever made more calculations and plans how to get into a stronghold than I did how to get out of mine. I said to myself, "This castle is accessible on the side where I am. I ought to be able to cut through the wall where it joins the tower. The wall and the tower were built at different times, and though the facings are in hard stone, there is sure to be only rubble between,—more particularly in the angle where the straight wall joins the round tower. All that is needed is time and patience, and that I will have."

The prisoner who had occupied the cell before me had a talent for painting, and a taste for botany. He had amused himself, by painting all sorts of flowers on the walls, and, which was greatly in my favour, he had painted a dark blue border, about two and a half feet high, all round the room. I may note also as a strange freak of chance, that this predecessor was a near relative of my aunt. I will not say that she had anything to do with his imprisonment, for I never inquired the reason of it, but at any rate it caused the cell to seem quite like a family apartment. The purchase of a quantity of blue paper,—the paper in which hair powder is usually packed,—was therefore one of my first steps, for the sapper required a mantlet behind which he could work. Above all, I had need of money. Money has been called the sinews of war, and is certainly necessary in all great enterprises, and no enterprise was greater in my eyes than that which absorbed all my thoughts. Virgil has said,

Quid non mortalia pectora cogis
Auri sacra fames.

If he had been in my place he would have said, as I did, sacra fames libertatis.

I received fifty francs a month, to enable me to supplement my scanty fare with better food, and hire books. I found means to augment this scanty income by copying music in the daytime. The Amphions of Lyon had many a score from my hand, and I had their money; they were, without knowing it, half accomplices in my escape. I procured some cardboard, with which I made shutters to my window, because at ten o'clock the sentinel ordered us to put out our lights. I bought, under various pretexts, some small knives, and as we were supplied with wood for the winter, I manufactured out of the largest faggots, short levers intended to make an opening through the wall, without any noise, by working with them between the stones. I also procured, through the help of my laundress, some bullets, gunpowder, and a double-barrelled pistol. Trust in women, and you will never have cause to repent it. If they consent to help you, they will never betray you, and they will keep your secret as they would keep their own. This is not always the case with men. If there is cited against me the mother of Papirius Praetextatus, I will re ply with the name of Epicharis;[1] and as regards men my worthy laundress was more discreet than Turenne.

I had now nothing to do but set to work. The angle made by the wall and the tower was concealed by my bed. I commenced to tunnel at this spot, taking care not to surpass the limit of the blue paint. My paper, which was of the same colour, covered and concealed my sapping. I worked four hours every night. I was careful to sweep away all signs of work, and to neatly replace the blue paper before my " gate of safety." As to the rubbish I took out, I carefully carried it in handkerchiefs, and easily disposed of it by throwing it down the latrine used by the prisoners. This was at the foot of the staircase inside the tower. My cell was No. I, and being so close to the stairs, I could descend twenty times a day without being noticed, and, by a lucky chance also, the cesspool was a sort of well of great depth.

My labour was greatly lessened by the fact that the wall,—as I had hoped,—did not join the tower in the centre, there was a gap of two or three inches; and throughout the whole of my labours, in digging through a wall nine or ten feet thick, I only met with one very large stone. It caused me some disappointment, and led me to take counsel with myself. This huge stone presented an acute angle towards me. I attacked the wall round it, but with no great hope of success. Judge of my joy and surprise when I felt it yield under my poor little lever, like a loose tooth. I soon had the happiness to lay it bare, and then drag it out of my mole-run. I did not think of breaking it up, but hid it, as it was, in my mattress. It was found there later on, and figured in the report on my escape; but it did not tend to make my bed feel any the more comfortable. The first part of the work was the most diffi cult, because the nine or ten inches of plaster I had to get through, prevented my seeing the real positions of the stones, which I had then to attack very warily for fear that they should bring down with them, when they fell, some of the plaster above the line of blue paint. I made my tunnel so that, when I had crawled in on my stomach, I could then draw up my legs, and sit like a journeyman tailor. The light to work by, I obtained in the best way I could, by converting pomade pots into lamps, filling them with lard, and inserting a bit of wick.

The "solution of continuity," existing between the wall and the tower, allowed me to respire the external air, which was a great relief to me. I calculated that I had still nearly four feet of masonry to cut through, and that I was about half through my work, when, about eleven o'clock or midnight, I heard a voice pronounce these terrible words:

"Look, papa, there is a light at the foot of the castle tower."

The words were uttered by a little boy, the son of the gardener. My blood ran cold; I put my hand over my little lamp, but the burn and the fright were the worst that was to happen to me. The worthy man thought that the child was mistaken, and so I was saved.

The work was at last finished;—it had occupied me forty-five nights. What thoughts crowded in upon me. This wall ten feet thick was now nothing for me but a thin partition of a few inches; with a kick, or a push with my shoulder, I could throw down the feeble barrier which separated me from the world and from liberty. But then what should I do when I was free? I was without means,—for I had but six francs in my pocket. Then, should I make my escape alone? Would it not be more honourable to set at liberty all my companions in misfortune, as well as myself? They must be all innocent, for they said they were. What a debt they would owe me for the rest of their lives, and besides, if we were attacked we should be able to defend ourselves.

I resolved on adopting this noble idea, but I would say nothing beforehand,—for fear I should be betrayed.

I suspended my labours the following day, and when we re-entered the castle to be locked up in our several cells, I told five or six of the prisoners to come to No. I as soon as the doors were opened in the morning, and I would inform them of a certain means of escape.

I could not get them all out at night; it would be necessary to break through all the walls which separated the cells, with all the chances of being discovered or betrayed, but the regulations of the prison greatly favoured another plan.

Our cell doors were opened at precisely seven o'clock every morning, and our food was brought to us at ten; thus there were three hours during which nobody paid any attention to us.

The night before the projected attempt it was impossible for me to close my eyes, with such inquietude and impatience did I await the appointed hour. I will even confess that several times I was tempted to make my escape alone, but I resisted the thought. When the breach was opened, I did not know what height I should have to descend, therefore, during the night, I cut up my sheets and linen to make a rope if necessary.

At last the hour struck, the lock turned, and the gaoler entered, and wished me good day, as usual. My five comrades soon appeared; one of them said to me, in a mocking voice,

"Well, let us know this fine plan."

"The plan," I replied, "is in this corner, ehind this wall—which is only paper. Let us make haste."

"Is it possible?" they cried.

"He found this hole ready made.—It is not finished. What is there gained by that?"

"It is not finished—but it can be with a single push.—Let those who love me follow me."

We fastened my sheets to the leg of my bed; I took the end of this hastily devised cord, and entered the narrow passage. I was in a nankeen vest, and had in my pockets six cartridges, a double barrelled pistol, and a strong "springback" knife. I cannot describe my emotion. I trembled all over with hope and fear. Someone behind me cried, "Make haste." In a few moments I had pushed down the wall, which was only a thin partition of stones, but the opening was so narrow that two or three minutes,—which seemed to my impatience like two or three centuries, for there was not a moment to lose, — elapsed before I could get my shoulders free. At the sound of the stones rattling down, the gardener, who was at work below, ran to his cottage, built against the castle wall, and rang the alarm bell. The guard turned out, and took up their position on the very spot I should have to pass, for it would take me eight or ten minutes to descend to the foot of the tower, and I should then find myself between the castle gates and the soldiers.

One prisoner alone, M. de L——, dared to follow me,—the others recoiled at the sight of danger,—but my comrade was only armed with a broomstick pointed at both ends. The tocsin sounded, and all the windows which looked out on this side of the castle were filled with spectators. The major commanding the castle came running out in his drawers, and with bare legs, and crying, "Load your arms!" He ordered me to go back, and threatened that I should be fired on if I did not. My only reply was to present my pistol, and order him to go back himself.

The major ran away, crying, "Fire on the scoundrels!" I fancy I can still see the old sergeant, who was a friend of mine, his musket levelled, but trembling in his hands, and hear him beg of me to go back. I took no notice; we were at fifteen paces from each other. I advanced boldly—ten or twelve muskets went off at the same moment;—I replied with a single shot and charged furiously into the midst of them. I heard on all sides cries of "Bravo! Bravo!" and applause at the windows. I was assailed with the butts of muskets, and received blows of which my ribs showed the marks for long afterwards; my vest was nearly torn off, and my hair pulled out. My poor comrade De L—— was wounded and thrown down, after having knocked out the eye of one of the soldiers, and bitten the finger of another;—they all threw themselves upon him, and—I was saved.

Incidit in Scyllam,—I was in a narrow lane between two walls, which I did not dare to leap, being closely pursued by the youngest soldiers of the troop, who were crying behind me, "Stop! Stop!" I presented my weapon at all who tried to bar my passage, and received more bows and salutes than I have ever had either before or since. The road, which was . tortuous, was nearly a quarter of a league long, or at least seemed so to me. Hearing no more cries of "Stop! Stop!" I rested for a few minutes, and reloaded my pistol, when all of a sudden there appeared within ten paces of me, four soldiers who had pursued me for the sake of the reward. I put my back against the wall, and they stopped short.

"Well, sir," said one of them, "you see you are caught,—you can't go any further. It was good of you to try to save all the others;—if they had all been as brave as you they would have succeeded, but they were cowards. Come back, sir; you run no risk, and your relations will soon take you out of prison. Besides, you haven't hurt anybody; it was the Marquis de L—— who wounded two of our men."

I listened quietly till they had finished, for I wanted to regain my breath. Then I replied,

"Go away! I don't want to hurt you, but I swear that I will never be taken alive. There are four of you, and I can rely on killing at least two." And with that I held out my pistol in one hand, and my knife in the other.

They looked at me a minute, and then one said,

"Good-bye. You are a brave young fellow. A pleasant journey, and good luck to you;" and they went away.

I also ran off, but without exactly knowing where I was going. The clang of the alarm bell, and the firing, had already caused rumours to be in circulation about me, and the name of the prisoner, and his bold escape, were known in Vaize. Women came to their doors, and cried, "Come in, sir, and we will conceal you." But I had no intention of stopping; I was too near the terrible prison, and I ran away faster than ever, but the voices of these women sank into my soul; though I had not had time to glance at one of them, I fancied that every woman who had offered to conceal me must be beautiful,—for did she not feel for my distresses, and wish to relieve them?

Marcelines, Suzannes, Comtesse Almavivas, I saw you all,—mentally; and I would have kissed you all,—but I had no time.

The houses began to get fewer and fewer, as I ran on, and at last I came to a small copse of trees and thick underwood, which would afford me a refuge. In the centre was a grass-plot a few yards square, and my first act was to throw myself on the grass and take some rest.

Profound silence reigned all round; I enjoyed the delightful sensation of breathing the pure air of liberty, of which I had been so long deprived. In the midst of all my thoughts, the ruling idea was pride. I thought that my escape would give me some notoriety, and perhaps be useful to me in the future, if I should adopt the military profession; but my thoughts then reverted to the question of the moment, what should I do? I did not know where I was; my only coat was a thin nankeen, badly torn in my fight, I had no hat, and my legs were bleeding from the thorns amidst which I had fallen when I descended the tower. What with my rags covered with blood, and my wild, haggard appearance, I must have looked like a poor devil who had been in the wars, and not got the best of it. My good angel, however, directed me to a respectable-looking house at a little distance, and I saw, walking in front of it, a person whom I imagined to be the proprietor. It was then about nine o'clock in the morning, and as it was July, the weather was very warm. I made up my mind on the spot, and advanced towards this unknown personage, who, luckily for me, turned out to be one of the best-natured men in the world—a M. Bontems, a merchant, of the Rue Merciere, Lyon. I have since been happy to acknowledge and repay the service he rendered me.

He did not see me till I was within eight or ten yards of him. He was a good-looking man, with a florid complexion, but at the sight of me he became deadly pale, and trembled. He kept his eyes fixed on the butt of the pistol, which was sticking out of my pocket, and stood motionless without the power to say a word.

"Pray be easy, my good sir," I said, "and listen to what I have to say. Never mind the horrible condition in which I am. I am the happiest man in the world, for I have just acquired my liberty; the alarm bell which is ringing up there, and which you can hear distinctly, is sounding on my account. I have got out of Pierre-en-Cize, and my body must be as black as a negro's from the blows I received in my fight with the castle guard. This house belongs to you, I suppose. Give me shelter till nightfall, for I am worn out with fatigue and hunger. I would hand over to you this minute the weapon which so much terrifies you, if I did not fear to be surprised without any means of defence. If you are humane enough to take me in, show me some way of getting into the house without being perceived."

The worthy man was touched by my address, and the trust I reposed in him, and showed me a way through his garden by which I could enter the house without being seen by anyone. M. Bontems led me into a room on the ground floor, where his old mother was sitting. She was quite as frightened as her son, but began to weep when I recounted my adventures. They brought me some refreshments, of which I had sore need.

My host meanwhile took the very natural precaution of sending to Lyon, and the neighbourhood of the castle, to know why the alarm bell was ringing. My statements were confirmed, and everybody was speaking highly of me, because I had nearly fallen a victim to my own generosity in endeavouring to set the other prisoners at liberty. M. Bontems, being per fectly satisfied as to the truth of my story, offered to be of service to me in any way. He wished to conceal me in his house, but I would not accept this kindness. I asked him only to furnish me with some clothes and a hat, and procure me a horse, and a guide, so that I might start that night by the old Lyon road, which is little frequented, and by which I could get home to my father's house,—a distance of but thirty leagues. M. Bontems procured me all I asked, and supplied me with the money necessary for my journey. You may imagine my affection and gratitude, when I said farewell to this worthy man and his good old mother.

I left this hospitable roof, and made my way towards Clermont.

The future was before me. I did not look back, for I should have seen that cursed castle, the very recollection of which made me shiver, for past dangers make more impression on the mind than present perils. Except for some vague misgivings, which I could not prevent, I made the journey peaceably enough, but I reflected that as my father would not expect to see me, there was a risk that my sudden appearance would give him a shock, which, considering his great age, might be dangerous, and for which I should always reproach myself. I thought it wise, therefore, to stop at the house of a friend of our family, who lived two leagues from Pontgibaud. When I arrived at the Chateau d'A——, there was a large gathering of friends and visitors. My adventures were not yet known to anyone in Auvergne. It was as though I fell from the clouds, for certainly no one expected me, for all knew that I was in Pierre-en-Cize, though my poor old father sometimes asked himself why I was there.

It was a really dramatic situation; the servants—almost a second family in the distant parts of the country—surrounded me, and I arrived in the salon in the midst of them. It was crowded with people who all began to ask questions, and I did not know what to reply to all these men and women, young and old. Some laughed at my dress, some of the women cried when they heard my story, and all were interested in it. It was quite a picture: I felt like Telemachus relating his adventures in the cave of Calypso, but with the difference that there was nothing fabulous in my story. All the neighbours, men as well as women, masters as well as servants, had tears in their eyes, for at that time French people had not learned,—as they did later, in the school of the Revolution,—how to harden their hearts to distress.

All approved of my foresight in not presenting myself to my father until he had been prepared for my coming, and the master of the house undertook that duty. A welcome proposal was also made to me the same evening. I learned that England was at war with her American colonies; I heard also that the Marquis de la Fayette, who belonged to our province, had already made himself talked about, and it was suggested that it would be a good thing for me to join him and fight under his orders. I snapped at the idea enthusiastically, and my ambassador went to arrange the matter with my father.

M. d'A—— presented himself, let out the story by degrees, and made his old friend acquainted with all my adventures down to the minutest detail. There is generally a touch of the ludicrous, even in the gravest affairs. The aged author of my being listened very quietly to the history of my almost incredibly bold escape. He was no doubt struck by the difference in character between my brother, "the good young man," and me, "the bad lot," and remembering his young days when he was a musketeer, he said, with a smile,

"Ah, the rascal! Well, my friend, I’ll tell you what it is. If I had locked up my elder son, instead of my younger,—he would have stopped there for ever."

Peace was concluded, and all the conditions were granted, with one exception. My father steadfastly refused to see me;—not that he was angry with me, for his wrath had completely disappeared, but from quite another motive. He was an old soldier, and knew the rules of the service. He remarked that I had fired upon the King's soldiers, which might get me into trouble, and he did not wish to be exposed to the unpleasantness of seeing the gendarmes visit the chateau to search for me.

It was decided that I should start for North America; that my father should make me an allowance of 100 louis a year; and that 2000 crowns should be counted down to me at the port where I embarked. I left at once for La Rochelle, with a letter of recommendation to M. Seigneur, commissaire of artillery.

It might have been expected that I should obtain a passage without any difficulty, but I was obliged to go to Nantes. Only two days after my arrival at La Rochelle, orders were received by the military commander, Baron de M——, to arrest me. What a debt of gratitude do I owe him! He was kind enough to cause a hint to be conveyed to M. Seigneur to get me out of the way.

I left therefore for Nantes with a letter of recommendation from M. Seigneur to M. de Ville-Hélis, the government outfitter. I shall always remember the hearty

welcome he gave me. He kindly interested himself in all the details of my situation; gave me some excellent advice how to lay out my money, and the means to augment my resources by the purchase of goods likely to be required in the country to which I was going. Finally, he procured—and at a very low rate—a passage on the ship Arc-en-Ciel, fitted out by Messrs. Minier and Struckman, and recommended me to the care of the captain. And so I sailed for the New World.

  1. Epicharis, a freed woman of bad repute, who conspired against Nero. When the plot was discovered she was horribly tortured but would not reveal the names of her accomplices. She strangled herself with her girdle to escape further torture. The "Mother of Praetextatus" is, I suppose, the person mentioned in Livy VI., 32—38, but if so the comparison is not well chosen. ED.