On Christmas Eve, Mathiote, without changing his begrimed clothes, directed his steps to the Palace of de Plessis-Morambert. Three years earlier, also on Christmas Eve, he had been called to clean a certain chimney, where the Count de Morambert wanted to arrange an enormous pyramid of toys and candies to surprise his son Jacques when he awoke Christmas morning.
Now it happened that Mathiote was precisely the same age as the Count’s son and when the Count saw on the little chimney sweep’s face the look, not of envy, but of admiration at seeing all those marvels, and at the same time seduced by the intelligent and honest air of the child, he chatted with him for a few moments, gave him a gold coin and sent him to the pantry to be served a fine supper.
The comforting remembrance of that unexpected feast brought the lad to the Palace year after year on the same evening to receive his gold louis d’or and bowl of savoury hot soup. If the whole truth must be said, his annual appearance was due, not only to the attention paid to him, but also by curiosity and sweetmeats.
But on the evening of this December 24, 1793, the lad was surprised to find the Palace, which was full of light and warmth; cold, dark and empty. For though he knocked many times on the great door, none of his entreaties were answered. As he sadly turned away, he saw far off at the other end of the street, shrouded in the dark shadows, the shapes of a man and small boy rapidly approaching the Palace. As they drew near, Mathiote recognized Jacques de Morambert and ran to him.
“Ah! It’s you, Mathiote! You did come! Let us go inside, quickly.”
As soon as the great door was made fast, Jacques broke into sobs. “My father was arrested eight days ago by the Revolutionary Committee. They are going to try him in a few days! Oh Mathiote! My father is lost.” And Jacques began to cry even louder.
Mathiote, whose humble existence hadn’t been affected by the Terror, was then told that the Count was accused of horrible crimes and would surely be sent to the guillotine. For eight days, Jacques had tried to speak to his father, but the guards were cruel men and wouldn’t permit it. Fortunately, the Count’s cell faced the street, so Jacques was able to see his father throw him kisses through the bars. The poor lad was just returning from that painful sight when Mathiote met him.
“Don’t worry Monsieur Jacques. Those wretches cannot hurt or kill my lord the Count. He is so good, so charitable.”
“But don’t you see? It is for that very reason that he is lost.”
After a few moments thought, Mathiote said, “Take courage and leave it me.” “To you? What can you do? Any attempt to help him will only hasten his execution.”
And tears again streamed down Jacques’s face. Mathiote consoled him as best he could, then went out into the dark street and headed for the centre of Paris, with a quick and almost happy step.
The Count of Plessis-Morambert had been imprisoned in the l’Abbaye and his first few hours there had been spent pacing around his cell like a beast in a cage, trying to break the door down or rip the bars off the window or search for some other means of escape. But it was all futile, for the walls were very thick and the door was made of heavy planks and on it was set a great iron lock with enormous screws. But at last the good Count, exhausted and discouraged, sat down on the dilapidated cane chair and gazed sadly into the fireplace.
He thought of little Jacques bathed in tears and all alone in the deserted Palace and he began to pray. He thought of past Christmases when his son was very small and how, before going to sleep he would carefully place his tiny shoes on the hearth to wait for the visit of the Child Jesus, who never failed to come.
But what would Jacques think tomorrow morning when he would wake up and find that the Child Jesus had forgotten him? At the thought of that inevitable disappointment the Count fixed his tear-laden eyes on the lifeless fireplace and thought of those happy nights when he would tip-toe into his sleeping son’s room and carefully arrange the toys wrapped in garlands, the little soldiers in the box of carved pinewood, the golden oranges, the crystallized fruits…that paradise of good things a little boy finds upon awaking and delights him with claps and shouts of joy.
At this point, the Count’s melancholy thoughts were interrupted by a muffled noise in the chimney. Suddenly there came a downpour of soot and ashes, followed by a large well-wrapped package that hit the hearth and rolled to the middle of the cell.
Startled at this strange occurrence, the Count stood up, glancing back and forth at the chimney and the mysterious package. His attention was then caught by something even stranger, for two feet appeared in the chimney, dangling in the air and in an instant a black form dropped out and sprang into the cell crying, “Don’t be afraid my lord Count! It is I, Mathiote.”
And so it was, with his face and clothes black with soot; his white teeth showing and his clear eyes shining like stars. The Count, astonished and searching his memory, could only repeat the boy’s name, “Mathiote? But…” “But I didn’t forget you, my lord Count. I have just come from your Palace and M. Jacques is very sad. But we may speak of him later. I have come to take you out of here, my lord Count.”
“You have come to take me out of here?”
“Yes! But we have no time to lose. Speak softly. Here I have everything you need. First your clothes.” And the little chimney sweep quickly unwrapped the package which contained an adult chimney sweep’s outfit that he had obtained from his master and a roll of gold louis d’ors Jacques had given him.
“If we are quiet and make haste my lord Count, I promise you we shall be in the street in a quarter of an hour.”
“But how shall we get out, my little one? You surely do not intend to take me out the same way you came in! Even so, where will we be then? On the rooftops. But how did you find my cell?”
“M. Jacques told me, the last window on the corner of Sainte-Marguerite street. It is easy when you become accustomed to it. But if you permit my lord Count, when we next speak it should be on the street. I must work and you must change your clothes.”
Then Mathiote examined the huge lock, took an instrument from his packet, and became to loosen the long screws holding it to the door, working with precision and agility, the still astonished Count looking on with disbelief. At a nod from Mathiote, the silent onlooker began to change into his new garb and when the rescuer turned around to show his success at removing the lock, he found a full grown version of himself and this time he nodded with approval.
“You’re saved! Now you must hide your money, except for one coin. Follow me and when we reach the sentinel, go on calmly into the street and turn left without hesitating. Agreed?”
The Count answered by pressing his hand. Mathiote opened the door and peaked into the corridor. Allowing the prisoner to pass through first, he then went out and closed the door softly behind him. At the bottom of the stairs, they found the guard fast asleep on a cot inside a windowed cubical dimly lit by an oil lamp. Mathiote went boldly up to the window and knocked to awaken the guard.
“Citizen! Let me out!” The guard grudgingly got up and shined the light toward the voice and found only a child burdened by ropes, hooks and brushes…. the chimney sweep tools. Reassured at this site, he pulled the cord to unlock the door.
The Count moved slowly toward the threshold and almost retreated when, at the sound of the closing door, the guard turned around and caught sight of him. But Mathiote had foreseen everything.
“Excuse me soldier, can you tell me where to find the officer in charge?”
“The officer in charge? What do you want with him and who is THAT? No one is allowed through!”
“I wanted to give him this gold coin I found when I was cleaning out a chimney. Here, see! I wasn’t sure what to do with it.”
The guard, flattered at Mathiote addressing him as soldier, examined the coin and quickly gave it the safety of his pocket. For louis d’ors at that time were worth two hundred paper francs. “A coin for the officer in charge? Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he gets it. I’m not about to wake him for such a petty sum.”
“Oh thank you, citizen!”
“The pleasure is all mine, chimney sweep.” Mathiote darted out the door and ran to catch up with the Count who meanwhile had been hastily following his rescuer’s instructions.
The valiant youth well knew that in Paris it would be impossible to hide the aristocrat from the revolutionary police. And besides, who would dare risk his life for the fugitive noble with the whole Committee for Public Safety after him?
Mathiote therefore decided to conduct the Count to Savoy, where he would be well cared for by the chimney sweep’s good father and mother.
The ten-day journey should be a relatively safe one as two Savoyard chimney sweeps returning home could hardly raise any suspicion. As an extra precaution, Mathiote wrapped the Count’s head in linen, as if he were wounded, but in reality to explain his companion’s silence when they were among strangers.
After placing what little provisions they had in knapsacks, the Count and chimney sweep set out for Savoy.
By the second day out from Paris, the Count de Morambert, little used to walking such distances, deprived of his habitual comforts, and sleeping in an occasional herdsman’s hut, no longer had to make an effort to play his role. No one would suspect that this exhausted and battered labourer making his last efforts to reach his homeland was actually a rich noble fleeing the Terror.
Twelve days after leaving Paris, the fugitives came to the last French village. Though Mathiote was fresh and full of energy, the Count was fatigued and barely able to drag himself forward.
The two travellers found a humble inn and were ready to begin a meagre repast of bread and butter, when the innkeeper, speaking to Mathiote and pointing to the Count, asked, “Is he your father?” “No Monsieur. He’s my master’s brother.”
“What’s wrong with him? Is he ill?”
“Very! He fell from a roof and was crippled. I’m taking him home.”
“Well, where are your passports?”
“You can’t cross the border without papers. It’s guarded by patriots. Just yesterday they caught two aristocrats disguised as cheese merchants.”
Mathiote grew pale beneath his layers of soot. He hadn’t foreseen this! But mastering himself, he replied naturally, “I only know that we must hasten to arrive quickly. The poor old man can barely walk!”
“You can’t cross the border unless you have papers.” And the innkeeper walked away without another word.
The Count and Mathiote look at the bridge they must cross to get to freedom
An hour later, the two found themselves in the shade of a tree beside the river, separating France from Savoy. There! Only a few hundred feet away was freedom. But in between was the bridge guarded by ten, well-armed and cruel Revolutionaries.
At this last, seemingly unsurmountable obstacle, the Count sighed, “Ah Mathiote! So we are lost after all.” “But my lord Count, you must make one last effort. We’ll cut through the field and cross the river where the ice is thickest.”
“Impossible, Mathiote! Do you think I could walk on ice when I can barely lift my feet off the ground?”
“Then, we’ll go to the guardhouse. While I distract the sentries, you muster all your strength and run across the bridge.”
“Run? Only to make an easy target for the sentries’ muskets?”
“But they might miss!”
“Perhaps, and what about you? They’ll make you pay for your generosity with your life! No, my son. I can never permit that. I’m afraid we have shipwrecked in sight of land. Go across the fields. I will give myself up when I see you’re safe.”
Mathiote bowed his head and after a few moments’ silence said, “We still have one chance. We shall walk calmly down to the guardhouse, and if they ask us for papers, I’ll stop and pretend to look for them, but you walk on steadily. Every yard counts. But since we can’t be sure of escaping, my lord Count should give me all the gold louis d’ors, for if they search you and find all that money, you will be lost.”
The Count assented with a nod of his head. These last few words of Mathiote suddenly made everything clear. It had been naïve for him to believe that such a poor lad would help him, a rich noble, out of pure dedication or gratitude for a few bowls of hot soup. This was the first time he had allowed himself to be deceived by the appearance of a commoner. But experience left no doubt, the young Savoyard had but one intention, to possess the gold coins, which to him was a fortune. The Count removed the money from his wallet and placed them in the hand of the chimney sweep with a gesture of disdain. Then, after wiping his forehead, as if to remove the bitterness of disappointment, he rose with great difficulty and said, “I am going to give myself up. You try to escape. Yes. Let it be every man for himself.” “No, but I won’t let you. You will see, my lord Count.”
As the fugitive chimney sweeps reached the guardhouse in their typical garb, the unsuspicious soldiers allowed them to pass with only a few jibes and laughs. But they had taken only a few steps onto the bridge, when the officer in charge called out to his men, “Hey boys! Look at those two. They’re disobeying the order! Hey there, my little one.”
“Come quickly my lord Count. We don’t hear anything. Just a few more steps.”
“You little knave. Are you going to stop or not?”
Mathiote turned around with surprised air and returned to the guard post, while the Count hobbled painfully toward the other side. “What do you want citizen?”
“Where’s your passport and where is he going? Is he deaf?”
“He is terribly wounded.”
“Well, he better stop or we’ll shoot!”
“Oh please don’t shoot citizen! My passport is right here…it’s….right…here….just….”
But the official wasn’t fooled by this manoeuvre and he cried out in a terrible voice, “FIRE! Can’t you see that an aristocrat is giving us the slip? Shoot him down! Fire! Fire!”
But at that instant, Mathiote jumped in front of the levelled muskets, knowing the soldiers would hesitate to shoot an unarmed child.
“Fire! Fire! He’s going to escape!”
But Mathiote was already filling his hands with the gold louis d’ors in his pocket and suddenly he threw them all at the feet of the soldiers. Then followed indescribable confusion. At the sight and sound of gold, the soldiers lost their heads, dropped their muskets and launched themselves after the rolling coins, pushing and shoving with desperation. Mathiote didn’t wait to contemplate that epic picture, but in a few leaps joined the Count de Morambert on the other side of the bridge, outside France.
While the soldiers were still fighting over the last piece of gold, the lad threw his béret to the air and shouted in his Savoyard dialect, “Evviva la libertà! Long live liberty!” The boy ran to his companion and the two, Count and Chimney sweep, the one weeping with joy and the other with exhaustion and gratitude, tumbled arm in arm into the guardhouse of Savoy.
By G. Lenôtre
Légendes du Noël, contes historiques, by G. Lenôtre, pp. 161-176.
Short Stories on Honora, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 137