The Midnight Bell  by Francis Lathom

(Skoob 1989, 294pp., pbk £5.95) ISBN 1-871438-30-6

Seldom, when
The steeled jailor is the friend of men.
                     MEASURE FOR MEASURE

‘Another year passed in solitude like the former ones; and the space of time I had now been imprisoned, in all ten years since my first being brought to the Bastille, began to reconcile me from habit, to that state which seemed to be marked out as the condition of my remaining life.

‘No change had taken place in the treatment shown me, but that milk and thin wine were sometimes brought me instead of water with my bread, and that I was not now so frequently led out for air upon the platform as I had formerly been; being now seldom conducted thither above once in eight or nine days.

‘About this time a man whom I had never before seen, brought me my morning and evening portion of provision, instead of the jailor who had been accustomed to attend me; he appeared to be about twenty-five years of age, tall, and strongly built, but of a benign aspect, that seemed ill to suit the office in which he served.

‘As he visited me for several successive days, and the mildness of his countenance encouraged me to address him, I inquired whether he who had formerly attended me was dead.

‘ "Oh no!" he answered, and immediately left me, as fearing to say more, whilst he features plainly showed that it was not from want of inclination on his part, that our conversation had been so short.

‘I often endeavoured to tempt him into farther conference, but he could never be prevailed by me to utter more than one sentence a visit. One day, however, when I asked if he knew whether I was a prisoner for life, he cast his eye to the door, as if to be assured non one was watching him, and then putting his face close to mine, he said hastily, and in a low voice, "Pray don’t question me again, but rely on me being your friend," and again departed as precipitately as he had done on former occasions.

‘The first ray of hope, in the course of ten tedious and painful years, now burst upon my afflicted heart, and every nerve was strained to form a conjecture how this youth could be interested in my welfare.

‘Five months passed, and this youth still visited me; nor did I once behold him who had before attended me; but still I perceived, from the conduct of my newly-declared friend, that no fit opportunity for conference was given us, for he always hastened from my prison as quickly as possible, seldom however forgetting to cast at me a look of sympathy, which served to keep the feeble spark of hope he had lighted in my breast.

‘On evening about this time, when he brought in my supper, he said, in the same mysterious way he had always spoken to me in, but apparently with greater signs of fear than he had ever before shown of being overheard, "Don’t go to sleep to-night." I obeyed his injunctions, and awaited with the greatest impatience the hour that should disclose to me his meaning.

‘The clock had just struck two, when a person in an under voice at the grating of my window, which I immediately knew to be that of my new friend, said "Monsieur, monsieur!"

‘I felt for my stool, and placing it under the window, mounted upon it, and our faces then nearly meeting, he said, "If I should contrive your escape from this place, and this kingdom, will you let me be your servant?"

‘ "Say rather my friend," I replied.

‘ "Only say you won’t let me starve, monsieur."

‘ "No, by heaven!" I returned, forgetful how destitute I myself was of the means of subsistence.

‘ "Enough said," he resumed; "then don’t refuse to drink any thing that is offered you; and leave the rest to me."

‘ "Drink!" I repeated, but the young man was gone.

‘I remained some minutes at the window, but he did not return, neither did I hear the faintest sound. I then left my station, and throwing myself on my mattress, I began to ruminate on the words which I had just had addressed to me; and the only idea I could suffer myself to connect with the last sentence the young man had uttered, was that I was intended to be poisoned.

‘At an early hour of the morning, I heard my prison door unlocked, and a friar entered; he commanded me to kneel by him; and having prayed that I might bear with fortitude the sentence he was about to announce to me, he told me that I was condemned to die on that day.

‘A few hours before, I should have thought death the greatest happiness that could have befallen me; but now, with the faint hope of enlargement which my new friend had given me, prepared as I was to receive this sentence, and even tempted to believe that by his means I should escape it, I felt an indescribable shock on its being first announced to me.

‘I am inclined to think that the emotions which this intelligence produced in me, were to me of essential service, for I am well convinced, that the sudden change my countenance underwent was so great, as to have baffled the suspicion of the priest, had he entertained any, of what had passed between me and the jailor.

‘He asked my confession. A seclusion of nearly eleven years from the world could have added no sin of magnitude to my account of former misdeeds, and of them I had made a confession on the very morning on which I had first been brought to the Bastille; thus this task was quickly ended. He then again ordered me to kneel, and having prayed by me full two hours, he gave me his blessing, and departed.

‘In a few minutes the governor, attended by two guards, and the young man in whom my last and only hope vested, entered.

‘Obeying the governor’s orders, the young man poured from a phial which he had brought in his hand, a thick black liquor into a small bason, which the governor then took, and holding it out to me, commanded me to drink it, the two guards meanwhile levelling their bayonets at my breast, as a tacit threat in case of my refusing the draught.

‘I crossed myself, and drank; the bason fell from my hand, and I raised my eyes in search of my friend: he had left the prison; the governor made a signal to the guards; they went out; he followed them; and I heard him turn the lock upon me.

‘What a moment of horror was this! Uncertain whether or not I had swallowed the draught of death: if I had, how near the brink of eternity was I now standing! - if I had not, how dreadful a fate might await both me and the young man, should his stratagem fail!

‘Within the course of an hour a faint sickness seized me. I lay down upon my mattress, and pulled the blanket over me; an icy coldness ran through my veins, and big drops of perspiration started on my forehead: in a short time a heaviness, which I could not struggle against, weighed down my eye-lids, and in less than two hours after my swallowing the draught, I sunk into what I then thought the sleep of death!’

Thus far had Count Byroff proceeded in his narrative when the shepherd entering the room, informed him, that two men, who had seen his horse in the stable, had declared they knew it, and insisted on coming into the cottage in search of him, and that his son was then endeavouring to prevent their entrance.

The count raised his eyes in silence to Lauretta; they betrayed the wildest agitation and fear; Lauretta rose from her seat, and threw herself upon her father’s neck, and at the same instant the voices of Theodore and Kroonzer were heard by then in the adjoining apartment.

Count Byroff started up, and snatching his dagger from his side, prepared himself to meet their entrance into the chamber.

The chevalier was the first that appeared; the count made a dart at him, which he resisting, threw the count upon the floor, and treading on him with his left foot, drew his sword, while he muttered curses on him for a villain and a traitor.

Lauretta, instigated by the scene before her, caught his arm, and falling on her knees by the side of her father’s body, she exclaimed, ‘Here, in this bosom sheath thy sword; but spare, oh spare my father!’

Count Byroff’s prayers and struggles confirmed Theodore that Lauretta had truly named him her parent; and a momentary surprise suspended his power of action. This count Byroff perceived, and availing himself of the astonishment of his antagonist, by an instantaneous effort raised himself again to his feet, and dropping his dagger, made himself master of the sword Theodore had just drawn. Kroonzer immediately drew his weapon, and springing forward, presented himself to oppose the count in defence of the chevalier, whilst Lauretta, regardless of herself, her thoughts centred only in her father’s safety, and almost made frantic by the danger in which she now beheld him, ran without the cottage, piercing the air with her cries and calls for assistance.

Theodore was in an instant at her heels; and then first recollecting her own danger, on beholding herself so closely pursued by him she almost dreaded, she flew to the young cottager who was standing without the cottage door, and clasping his hand, she cried out, ‘Oh! save me from him, I conjure you!’

The lad, who was still standing with the oaken staff in his hand, with which he had endeavoured to repulse the entrance of the chevalier and his accomplice, and still panting from the unequal combat he had sustained, move either by the impulse of humanity, or fired by the beauty of his interesting suppliant, flew upon Theodore with the desperation a wolf flies to the combat when attacked by a lion, and conscious that he must either conquer or die.

For some moments the struggle was maintained with equal valour and dexterity; but at length the superior strength of the chevalier prevailing over that of his antagonist, Lauretta beheld her champion levelled with the ground; again she shrieked, and again she attempted to fly, but her trembling limbs could no longer support her, and she sunk to the earth in a swoon.

Ó Skoob Books Publishing, 1989.