Out of the Jaws of Death:
Pimpernel Story by Baroness Orczy
We were such a happy family before this terrible revolution broke
out: we lived rather simply but very comfortably in our dear old home
just on the borders of the forest of Compiègne. Jean and André were
the twins; just fifteen years old they were when King Louis was
deposed from the throne of France, which God had given him, and
sent to prison like a common criminal, with our beautiful Queen Marie
Antoinette and the Royal children and Madame Elizabeth, who was
so beloved by the poor!
Ah! that seems very, very long ago now. No doubt you know
better than I do all that happened in our beautiful land of France and
in lovely Paris about that time: goods and property confiscated,
innocent men, women, and children condemned to death for acts of
treason which they had never committed.
It was in August last year that they came to "Mon Repos" and
arrested papa, maman, and us four young ones and dragged us to
Paris, where we were imprisoned in a narrow and horrible, dank vault
in the Abbaye, where all day and night through the humid stone walls
we heard cries and sobs and moans from poor people who no doubt
were suffering the same sorrows and the same indignities as we were.
I had just passed my nineteenth birthday and Marguerite was
only thirteen. Maman was a perfect angel during that terrible time:
she kept up our courage and our faith in God in a way that no one
else could have done. Every night and morning we knelt round her
knee, and papa sat close beside her, and we prayed to God for
deliverance from our own afflictions, and for the poor people who
were crying and moaning all the day.
But of what went on outside our prison walls we had not an idea,
though sometimes poor papa would brave the warder's brutalities and
ask him questions of what was happening in Paris every day.
"They are hanging all the aristos to the street-lamps of the city,"
the man would reply, with a cruel laugh, "and it will be your turn
We had been in prison for about a fortnight, then one day—oh!
shall I ever forget it?—we heard in the distance a noise like the rumbling
of thunder; nearer and nearer it came, and soon the sound became less
confused. Cries and shrieks could be heard above that rumbling din,
but so weird and menacing did those cries seem, that instinctively—though
none of us knew what they meant—we all felt a nameless terror
grip our hearts.
Oh! I am not going to attempt the awful task of describing to you
all the horrors of that never-to-be-forgotten day. People who to-day
cannot speak without a shudder of the September massacres have not
the remotest conception of what really happened on that truly awful
second day of that month.
We are all at peace and happy now, but whenever my thoughts
fly back to that morning, whenever the ears of memory recall those
hideous yells of fury and of hate, coupled with the equally horrible
cries for pity which pierced through the walls behind which the six
of us were crouching, trembling, and praying, whenever I think of it
all my heart still beats violently with that same nameless dread which
held it in its deathly grip then.
Hundreds of men, women, and children were
massacred in the prisons of Paris on that day—it was
a St. Bartholomew even more hideous than the last.
Maman was trying in vain to keep our thoughts
fixed upon God—papa sat on the stone bench, his
elbows resting on his knees, his head buried in his
hands, but maman was kneeling on the floor with her
dear arms encircling us all, and her trembling lips
moving in continuous prayer.
We felt that we were facing death—and what a
death!—O, my God!
Suddenly the small grated window—high up in
the dank wall—became obscured. I was the first to
look up, but the cry of terror which rose from
my heart was choked ere it reached my throat.
Jean and André looked up too, and they
shrieked, and so did Marguerite, and papa jumped
up and ran to us and stood suddenly between
us and the window like a tiger defending its
But we were all of us quite silent now. The
children did not even cry, they stared wide-eyed—paralysed
Only maman continued to pray, and we could
hear papa's rapid and stertorous breathing as he
watched what was going on in that window above.
Heavy blows were falling against the masonry
round the grating, and we could hear the nerve-racking
sound of a file working on the iron bars,
and farther away below the window those awful
yells of human beings transformed by hate and
fury into savage beasts.
How long this horrible suspense lasted I
cannot now tell you: the next thing I remember clearly is a number of
men in horrible ragged clothing pouring into our vault-like prison from
the window above; the next moment they rushed at us simultaneously—or
so it seemed to me, for I was just then recommending my soul to
God, so certain was I that in that same second I would cease to live.
It was all like a dream, for instead of the horrible shriek of satisfied
hate which we were all expecting to hear, a whispering voice, commanding
and low, struck our ear and dragged us, as it were, from out the
abyss of despair into the sudden light of hope.
"If you will trust us," the voice whispered, "and not be afraid, you
will be safely out of Paris within an hour."
Papa was the first to realise what was happening: he had never lost
his presence of mind, even during the darkest moment of this terrible
time, and he said quite calmly and steadily now:
"What must we do?"
"Persuade the little ones not to be afraid, not to cry, to be as still
and silent as may be," continued the voice, which I felt must be that of
one of God's own angels, so exquisitely kind did it sound to my ear.
"They will be quiet and still without persuasion," said papa; "eh,
And Jean, André, and Marguerite murmured: "Yes!" whilst
maman and I drew them closer to us and said everything
we could think of to make them still more brave.
And the whispering, commanding voice went on
"Now, will you allow yourselves to be muffled
and bound? and after that will you swear that whatever
happens, whatever you may see or hear, you will
neither move nor speak. Not only your own lives, but
those of many brave men will depend upon your fulfilment
of this oath."
Papa made no reply, save to raise his hand and
eyes up to where God surely was watching over us all.
Maman said in her gentle, even voice:
"For myself and my children, I swear to do all
that you tell us."
A great feeling of confidence had entered into her
heart, just as it had done into mine. We looked at
one another and knew that we were both thinking
of the same thing: we were thinking of the brave
Englishman and his gallant little band of heroes about whom we had
heard many wonderful tales of how they had rescued a number of
innocent people who were unjustly threatened with the guillotine; and
we all knew that the tall figure disguised in horrible rags, who spoke to
us with such a gentle yet commanding voice, was the man whom
rumour credited with supernatural powers, and who was known by the
mysterious name of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Hardly had we sworn to do his bidding than his friends most
unceremoniously threw great pieces of sacking over our heads and then
proceeded to tie ropes round our bodies. At least I know that that is
what one of them was doing to me, and from one or two whispered
words of command which reached my ear I concluded that papa and
maman and the children were being dealt with in the same summary way.
I felt hot and stifled under that rough bit of sacking, but I would
not have moved or even sighed for worlds. Strangely enough, as soon as
my eyes and ears were shut off from the sounds and sights immediately
round me, I once more became conscious of the horrible and awful din
which was going on not only on the other side of our prison walls, but
inside the whole of the Abbaye building and in the street beyond.
Once more I heard those terrible howls of rage and of satisfied
hatred uttered by the assassins who were being paid by the Government
of our beautiful country to butcher helpless prisoners in their hundreds.
Suddenly I felt myself hoisted up off my feet and slung up on to a
pair of shoulders that must have been very powerful indeed, for I am
no light weight, and once more I heard the voice, the very sound of
which was delight, quite close to my ear this time, giving a brief and
"All ready—remember your part—en avant!"
Then it added in English; "Here, Tony, you start kicking against
the door whilst we begin to shout!"
I loved those few words of English, and hoped that maman had
heard them too, for it would confirm her—as it did me—in the happy
knowledge that God and a brave man had taken our rescue in hand.
But from that moment we might all have been in the very antechamber
of hell. I could hear the violent kicks against the heavy door
of our prison, and our brave rescuers seemed suddenly to be transformed
into a cageful of wild beasts. Their shouts and yells were as horrible as
any that came to us from the outside, and I must say that the gentle, firm
voice which I had learnt to love was as execrable as any I could hear.
Apparently the door would not yield, as the blows against it
became more and more violent, and presently, from somewhere above
my head—the window presumably—there came a rough call and a
"Why! what in the name of —— is happening here?"
And the voice near me answered back equally roughly:
"A quarry of six—but we are caught in this trap—get the door
open for us, citizen—we want to be rid of this booty and go in search
A horrible laugh was the reply from above, and the next instant
I heard a terrific crash; the door had at last been burst open either
from within or without, I could not tell which, and suddenly all the din,
the cries, the groans, the hideous laughter and bibulous songs which
had sounded muffled up to now burst upon us with all their hideousness.
That was, I think, the most awful moment of that truly fearful
hour. I could not have moved then, even had I wished or been able
to do so, but I knew that between us all and a horrible, yelling,
murdering mob there was now nothing—except the hand of God and
the heroism of a band of English gentlemen.
Together they gave a cry—as loud, as terrifying as any that were
uttered by the butchering crowd in the building, and with a wild rush
they seemed to plunge with us right into the thick of the awful mêlée.
At least that is what it all felt like to me, and afterwards I heard
from our gallant rescuer himself that that is exactly what he and his
friends did. There were eight of them altogether, and we four young
ones had each been hoisted on a pair of devoted shoulders, whilst
maman and papa were each carried by two men.
I was lying across the finest pair of shoulders in the world, and
close to me was beating the bravest heart on God's earth.
Thus burdened, these eight noble English gentlemen charged right
through an army of butchering, howling brutes, they themselves howling
with the fiercest of them.
All around me I heard weird and terrifying cries:
"What ho, citizens! what have you there?"
"Six aristos!" shouted my hero boldly as he rushed on, forcing his
way through the crowd.
"What are you doing with them?" yelled a raucous voice.
"Food for the starving fish in the river," was the ready response.
"Stand aside, citizen," he added, with a round curse. "I have my orders
from citizen Danton himself about these six aristos. You hinder me at
He was challenged over and over again in the same way, and so
were his friends who were carrying papa and maman and the children,
but they were always ready for a reply. With eyes that could not
see one could imagine them as hideous, as vengeful, as cruel as the rest
of the crowd.
I think that soon I must have fainted from sheer excitement and
terror, for I remember nothing more till I felt myself deposited on a
hard floor, propped against the wall, and the stifling piece of sacking
taken off my head and face.
I looked around me dazed and bewildered; gradually the horrors
of the past hour came back to me, and I had to close my eyes again, for
I felt sick and giddy with the sheer memory of it all.
But presently I felt stronger and looked around me again. Jean
and André were squatting in a corner close by, gazing wide-eyed at the
group of men in filthy, ragged clothing who sat round a deal table in
the centre of a small, ill-furnished room.
Maman was lying on a horse-hair sofa at the other end of the room,
with Marguerite beside her, and papa sat in a low chair by her side
holding her hand.
The voice I loved was speaking in its quaint, somewhat drawly
"You are quite safe now, my dear Monsieur Lemercier," it said.
"After Madame and the young people have had a rest some of my friends
will find you suitable disguises, and they will escort you out of Paris, as
they have some really genuine passports in their possession, which we
obtain from time to time through the agency of a personage highly placed
in this murdering Government, and with the help of English banknotes.
Those passports are not always unchallenged, I must confess," added my
hero, with a quaint laugh, "but to-night every one is busy murdering in
one part of Paris, so the other parts are comparatively safe."
Then he turned to one of his friends and spoke to him in English:
"You had better see this through, Tony," he said, "with Hastings
and Mackenzie. Three of you will be enough: I shall have need of the
No one seemed to question his orders. He had spoken and the
others made ready to obey. Just then papa spoke up:
"How are we going to thank you, sir?" he asked, speaking broken
English, but with his habitual dignity of manner.
"By leaving your welfare in our hands, Monsieur," replied our gallant
Papa tried to speak again, but the Englishman put up his hand to
stop any further talk.
"There is no time now, Monsieur," he said, with gentle courtesy.
"I must leave you, as I have much work yet to do."
"Where are you going, Blakeney?" asked one of the others.
"Back to the Abbaye prison," he said; "there are other women and
children to be rescued there!"