Page:010 Once a week Volume X Dec 1863 to Jun 64.pdf/72

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[Jan. 9, 1864.

Not at all disheartened with the result of his first attempt to enter polite society, Darius waits a few minutes to get himself together after his ejection, and then hastens off and asks to see the Minister of the Interior, on business of the greatest importance. His reception here was more polite; the minister listened aghast to the revelations of the convict; and, notwithstanding that he found, as men in office will sometimes find, that it was not in his department, he gave Darius an introduction to the governor of the military division, who in his turn heard the strange story, told with an earnestness which left no doubt of the good faith of the narrator. "What proofs have you?" at last asked the stern, upright old soldier, his face crimson with rage at the thought that a convict held high rank in his own honourable profession. "Keep me here, my general," replied Darius, "and fetch Coignard, and bring us face to face; but first of all, for Heaven's sake, give me something to eat. I haven't touched a morsel to-day." While Darius was despatching a hearty meal, under lock and key, an orderly was sent to the lieutenant-colonel with an invitation to betake himself to head-quarters.

"M. le Comte de Sainte-Hélène," said the wrathful general, when the accused officer stood before him, still in full uniform, and displaying all his decorations, "you can no longer abuse the Government and myself; I have learnt who you are—Coignard, an escaped convict!" Without in the least betraying himself, the count merely asked permission to return home, in order to fetch documents which would establish his identity. "One moment," said the general, and Darius was forthwith brought in. A slight embarrassment of manner betrayed the count's uneasiness at the turn things were taking, and when he began to load Darius with abuse, the general became convinced that the convict was right. Cutting short the warm dialogue which had begun, he ordered an officer to accompany the count to his house, and not to lose sight of him for a moment. When the house was reached the officer left his two gendarmes in the court-yard; and, thrown off his guard by his prisoner, who had had time to regain all his audacity, he was imprudent enough to let him visit alone a room in which he said that his papers were kept. He went out with the same footman, who a short while before had thrust out Darius; in a few minutes he had quitted the house, passing unquestioned by the gendarmes, who merely observed a man in livery leave the house. The officer, who had served in Spain, soon found a topic on which to carry on an interesting conversation with the pretty countess, in whose company he had been left; but thinking, at last, that it was high tune the count had found his papers, he opened, the door of the room into which he had gone—it was empty. "Where's your master?" he asked of the only servant he could find. "He went out an hour ago," was the answer, "and by now is far enough off." It was too true, and it was only some weeks afterwards that he was arrested in the company of some notorious scoundrels, to whom he had fled.

Was he really the Comte de Pontis de Sainte-Hélène, the noble émigré who had won back by his sword a position lost in troublous times, or was he the escaped convict that Darius asserted him to be? The question of his identity was quite set at rest by overwhelming proofs which were brought before the Court of Assizes of the Seine, and Coignard, together with Rosa Marcen, the ex-countess, and six accomplices, including his brother, the footman who had ejected Darius, were brought to trial.

An investigation of very many months had brought to light the past life of this extraordinary scoundrel. He was the son of a vine-dresser, and was himself brought up as a hatter, a trade which he had abandoned to enter the army of the Convention as a grenadier. His military career was, however, cut short by the discovery of several burglaries in which he had been engaged, and for which he was in 1800 sentenced to fourteen years' hard labour. Two years only of this time had passed when, in spite of every precaution, he managed to escape from Toulon. On the night following his escape he contrived to embark on a vessel bound to a Spanish port. He was set on shore, and at a town near the coast fell in with his future companion. This was a girl who had been in the service of the Count de Sainte-Hélène, the last of an ancient and noble family who had left France at an early stage of the Revolution and had entered the Spanish service, in which he had afterwards gone to South America. Here he greatly distinguished himself by his courage and thorough uprightness; but his health gave way, and he returned to Spain, which he reached only to die far from his country and friends, and bereft of nearly all save his name and his sword; uncared for except by a single female servant who watched him in his last moments. To this girl the dying count left in gratitude the little he still possessed. Slender enough were the means of existence of the girl thus left alone. One by one she sold the objects which made up the count's legacy, and at the time that Coignard fell in with her all had gone except a little box of old parchments, which the count had often told her in his last illness were the most precious things