Page:010 Once a week Volume X Dec 1863 to Jun 64.pdf/71

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Jan. 9, 1864.
63
ONCE A WEEK.

stage! Whether Valjeans really exist it is not for us to say; but that the older scoundrel was to some extent "founded on facts," a little episode in the life of a distinguished nobleman of this class will prove.

One bright May morning in the year 1818 there was being held, in the Place Vendôme, a review of the troops in garrison at Paris. A crowd of spectators surrounded the soldiers, and gazed at the brilliant uniforms of the officers, who, as is their wont on such occasions, marched busily about without appearing to notice the admiration of the spectators. Had they only deigned to cast a pitying glance on the gaping "civilians" they must have remarked that one of their number, the lieutenant-colonel of the 72nd legion, was obstinately watched by a miserable tatterdemalion, who had managed to wriggle into the front ranks of the crowd. Squalid, half-starved seemingly, this pertinacious watcher might have been merely a beggar; but two minutes' examination of him would have convinced Vidocq, then at the head of the French police, that he was a convict at large. In fact Darius—so was our tattered friend called—if he were, as we might suppose from his name, a descendant of the royal house of the Achæmenidæ, had indeed fallen from his high estate; he had only just left Toulon after an imprisonment of twenty years for forgery. "It can't be," said Darius; "how could he be here, and in this company? Blazing with decorations, too—I'm mistaken." Yet still he watched the brilliant soldier as he walked proudly about. "Ah!" he said, presently, "I'm right after all; there's no mistaking the old nervous twitch. But what's he up to here?" Darius had no difficulty in learning from the bystanders all about the lieutenant-colonel; few men were better known in Paris than the Count de Sainte-Hélène.

In 1808 Marshal Soult had received orders from Napoleon to march into Spain, with which country France had recently become at war. Men with a knowledge of the country were wanted, and when the Count de Sainte-Hélène offered his services they were gladly accepted, for he had served as an officer in Spain, in party warfare, and with distinction, too, for he bore the decorations of Alcantara and of St. Vladimir, conferred on him for his bravery. He had, besides, shown to Soult papers on which he established his claim to his title, and which testified to his having seen service, not only in Spain, but also in America. Soult made him a major, and everywhere the respect due to their rank was paid to the count and countess—for the gallant soldier was married. He served well under Soult, and when the first restoration came he returned to France, and obtained a private audience of Louis XVIII. The king received with every mark of respect the last of an old and noble race; listened with sympathy to his account of his family and their misfortunes; and promised his lasting favour and protection. When Napoleon returned from Elba, the king retired to Gand, and among those who were faithful or discerning enough to follow him was the indefatigable count, whose devotion to the royal cause could as yet be paid only by promises of what should be done when the tyrant was once more driven out. At the end of the Hundred Days the king and his followers returned to Paris, and the count rejoined his wife, whom he had left in the capital. The king did not forget his promises; it was at his express desire that the count had been made lieutenant-colonel of the 72nd legion. He lived with his countess in grand style, and was received into the highest society; he increased in favour with his royal master; was made a member of the legion of honour, and, at the time of our story, it was asserted that he was about to be named aide-de-camp to the Duke of Angoulême, the king's nephew.

This was what Darius might have learnt, had he had leisure to make full inquiry; but keeping his eye constantly on the officer, he lost not a moment in following him on his return home at the end of the review. But the convict was not satisfied with merely learning the address of the officer; following him closely, he entered the house almost at the same time with him. "Do you recognise me?" said he, as he stood face to face with the count in his drawing-room. Recognise him! And the question asked, too, in a way that implied long familiarity! No wonder that the count replied by a counter-question, scarcely polite, indeed: "Who's this fellow?" "I'm Darius," said the convict; "and we were in the same chain at Toulon. Do you know me now?" "The Count de Sainte-Hélène has nothing to say to a scoundrel like you; get out of this directly, or I tell my footman to turn you out." "You're the scoundrel," says Darius. "Count, indeed! you're no more a count than I am. You're Peter Coignard—d'ye hear? Peter Coignard, I say, who got fourteen years for housebreaking!" Without further noticing Darius, the count rang a bell. "Mind what you're at," said Darius. "I don't want to hurt you, and I wouldn't have split. I'm hard up, and want a little help—that's all; but if you turn me out, you'll repent it." But a livery servant had entered, and on a sign from the count the tattered man with a royal name was bundled out of doors.