With those powerful agents, fire and water, we contrive to escape from a french prison.
After more than an hour of confusion and loud talking it was at last proposed and agreed to, nem. con., that the prisoners should be confined in the old church; the twelve invalids to be divided into two parties, who were to be sentinels over them, relieving each other every four hours. The mayor immediately went forward with the village blacksmith to examine the state of the church doors, and ascertain how they might be secured; while the prisoners, having been summoned out of the privateer, were escorted up between two files of the privateer's men with their swords drawn, and followed by the whole population. As soon as we arrived at the church door the name of every prisoner was taken down by the mayor, attended by a notary, and then he was passed into the church. Bramble and I of course were marched up with the others, the captain of the privateer talking with us the whole way, through the young man who interpreted, informing us that an express had been sent over to Morlaix, to which town we should be escorted the next day, and then have better accommodation. As we stood at the huge doors of the church, which were opened for our reception, we perceived that the altar and all the decorations had been removed, and that, with the exception of the large wooden screen of carved oak near the altar, the church was completely bare. Bramble spoke to the interpreter, and said that he hoped the captain would request the mayor to allow the prisoners to have straw to lie down upon, as the pavement would be very cold. Although the mayor at first demurred at this demand, yet the captain of the privateer, probably out of goodwill to Bramble, insisted, and the straw was ordered to be sent in. At last the mayor became impatient, we could delay no longer, and the doors were closed.
I had surveyed the church as we were escorted up to it. It was very large, capable, I should think, of holding more than two thousand people. The walls of the church were very massive, and the windows had but very few panes of glass remaining in them, but they were so very high as to prevent our climbing out of them, even if there had not been six sentinels guarding us outside. At one corner, to the right of the end of the church where the altar-piece had been, was a narrow stone tower, apparently an addition made to the Lady's Chapel long after the church had been originally built. When we were shut up we were enabled to survey the interior at our leisure. The whole was completely bare to the pavement until you came to the chancel part, near to which the altar had been, where the wooden screens and seats still remained, in a sad dilapidated state; but they must have once been very handsome, for the carving, where it was perfect, was very beautiful. A small, thick wooden door, loaded with ironwork, communicated with the narrow tower, which had a flight of stone steps running up to the top, and narrow loopholes to give light as you ascended. While the majority of the prisoners were sitting down here and there on the pavement, few of them entering into conversation, Bramble had, with me, taken a full survey of our locality.
"I tell you what, Tom; if we once get to Morlaix, all chance is over," said he. "We must either get out of this church this very night, or we must make up our minds to remain in prison Heaven knows how long."
"Have we any chance?"
"I'll tell you more about that in a little while."
The door of the church now opened, and the people brought in the straw for the beds, which they threw all in a heap in the center of the church, and the doors were again closed.
"I see daylight now," said Bramble. "Tom, find the mate and boatswain, and bring them here to me quickly."
I did so, and Bramble asked them whether they were inclined to make an attempt to get clear.
They replied that they would join us in anything—they did not care what it was, and against any odds.
"Well, then," said Bramble, "my idea is this. You see there are but twelve old soldiers to guard us; for you may be certain that, before long, all the privateer's men will be as drunk as owls—that's but natural; not that I think of coming to any fight with them, but I make the observation because, if we get out, we shall have little to fear afterward. Now, you see, I asked for the straw because the idea came in my head that it might be useful. You see, what I propose is, as there is plenty of wood in this part of the church, that we should wait till about three hours after dark—that is, until ten or eleven o'clock—and then set fire to the church. They must come and let us out, you know; at least I take it for granted that they will before the roof comes down. If they don't, we must force the doors ourselves—I've looked at them—and until we do there is no fear of suffocating, for there are no panes to the windows. So, after all, it will only be a bonfire, without danger to anybody."
"Well, but what shall we gain by it?" said the mate. "We shall be walked out with the other prisoners, and how shall we then escape?"
"There it is: we will not be walked out with the other prisoners; and, in the confusion and hurry of taking them away to one place or another, they will not be likely to miss us. We will all go up this narrow tower, where we may remain, till the church falls in, with perfect safety; and then, when all is quiet again, and the people have left the spot, we will make for the pier, get one of the fishing boats and be off. How do you like the idea?"
We all agreed that the plan was very feasible, and would attempt it.
"Well, then, we must remain quiet for the present; all you have to do is to fetch as much straw this way as you can by degrees: I expect they will bring us something to eat before long."
We removed a large portion of the straw to the chancel; in half an hour afterward the doors were opened and rations of bread were brought in. What still more assisted our plans was, that the captain of the privateer at the same time, very good-naturedly, brought a demijohn of brandy, which he gave to Bramble.
Bramble thanked him through the interpreter, and told him that he would get well drunk that night.
"Yes, drive away care, captain says," replied the interpreter.
Once more the doors were closed, and we had no chance of further interruption.
By Bramble's direction, the mate, assisted by me and the boatswain, cast loose the remaining bundles of straw and shook them down as beds for the prisoners at the end of the church nearest to the door; and as soon as they had eaten their bread, Bramble gave them all a portion of the brandy, advising them to turn in soon, as we were to march very early the next morning. We remained with them at first, having taken our seats on the straw as if we also intended to repose. At last it became dusk, and then dark; the prisoners settled themselves to sleep; we left them and joined Bramble. Having arranged our straw so as to secure ignition, and leaving the mate and boatswain down below, Bramble and I, now that there was no chance of our being seen by the sentinels, ascended the tower. It commanded a view of the town and harbor. We looked down upon the main street—all was mirth and revelry; fiddling and dancing and singing were to be heard from more than one house; women in the street laughing, and now and then running and screaming when pursued by the men.
"This is all right," observed Bramble; "in an hour or two you'll see how quiet everything will be; but I shall not let them all go to bed before I set fire, for there may be some difficulty in waking them. I don't see that there's any lights down at the pier, where the vessels lie."
We stayed up there till about eleven o'clock, Bramble watching the lights and sounds; and when he considered that they had sufficiently decreased, he said, "Now we'll try it, Tom, and may success attend us!"
We descended and found the mate and boatswain anxiously waiting for us. Bramble struck a light with his flint, and we carried it to the screen where we had piled the straw under the seats and against the panels.
"Now then, messmates," said Bramble, "as long as the others sleep the better; but if they waken in the confusion, bring here all the straw you can collect, for we must not fail for want of fuel."
But of this there was no chance, for the wood of the screen and benches was so dry that it was alight immediately. For ten minutes the other prisoners and the guard outside did not appear to be aware of what was going on; but at last the church was so filled with smoke that they were roused up. Still the principal smoke was in that portion of the church where we were; at the other end they were not much inconvenienced, as it found vent by the windows. What the invalids were about outside I do not know, but they did not perceive it; probably they had left their guard to go and carouse. At all events the flames had climbed up from the screen and had caught a portion of the roof before the Frenchmen knew that the church was on fire; the smoke was now exchanged for a bright clear flame, which had already found its way through the slating, and the prisoners were halloaing and screaming as loud as they could. We went to the part of the church where the others were, and joined the outcry. The voices of the people outside were now to be heard, for men and women had been summoned by the cry of the church being on fire: still there was no danger until the roof fell in, and that would not be the case for perhaps an hour, although it was now burning furiously, and the sparks and cinders were borne away to leeward by the breeze. The screams of the prisoners now became dreadful: frightened out of their wits, they fully expected to be burned alive; still the door was not opened, although we heard a loud consultation of many voices without.
"Well," said Bramble, "I hope they really don't mean to let us burn here; at all events, if they do, I can save the poor devils, for there's room enough on the stairs of the tower for twice as many. At all events we must hold on till the last moment."
As he said this we heard them outside put the key in the door, and immediately Bramble, the boatswain, mate, and I retreated from the crowd and gained the other portion of the church, which was most in flames. As the door opened we hastened to the tower door, and closing it after us, gained the staircase near the top, where we remained quiet; there was no want of smoke there, but still we could breathe pretty freely, as the fire from the roof was borne down by the wind from us and toward the people, who were at the front of the church. How they disposed of the other prisoners we do not know, as we dared not show ourselves; but in about half an hour the whole of the roof fell down upon the pavement, and nothing but the bare walls of the church were left standing.
After the roof fell in the light from the flames was so small that we ventured to the top of the tower to look out. There were still many people standing about, but the major part of them were gone. As the fire sank down so did the people go away; at last there was no one to be seen: we remained more than half an hour watching; light after light disappeared, and all was quiet as death.
"Now's our time," said Bramble, "but still we must be cautious; let us follow one another at about ten yards apart: if we meet with any one, pretend to be reeling as if drunk, and they may think we are privateer's-men not yet gone to bed."
We followed him down the stairs, gained the church, and trod over the still burning embers; as soon as we were clear of the walls we turned to the right in our way down to the harbor, keeping in the gloom as much as possible. We arrived safely at the pier, for there was not a soul stirring; all our fear was that we should find some one keeping watch on board of the vessels, which we must pass after we had possession of one of the fishing-boats, as they laid inside of them. But fortune favored us every way: the boat we selected had her sails bent, and was not fastened with a chain; we were, therefore, in the stream in a moment; the tide was also running out strong, and we passed the vessels without having occasion to use our oars. The battery at the entrance of the harbor was also without its usual sentry, for the men had been called up to guard the prisoners. In half an hour we were clear of the harbor, and steering with a fine breeze for the English coast; and when daylight broke the French land was but just perceptible.
"Well," said Bramble, "praised be Heaven for all things. I expected to have lost my precious liberty for years, and I have only lost two shirts, one pair of trousers, and three pair of worsted stockings."
We had nothing to eat or drink, but that we cared little for, as the wind was fair. About ten o'clock that night we landed at Cawsand Bay near Plymouth, where we sat down to a hearty supper; and when we went to bed, I did not forget to thank Providence for my unexpected escape.