The Escape by Annie S. Swan
A GIRL'S STORY FROM GALLANT BELGIUM
Not a sound broke the exquisite hush of the
The old courtyard, with its tiled pavement,
its cool fountain, and its cooing doves, the dog
asleep in the sunshine, made a picture of perfect peace.
The house, once the Château of a great family that had fallen on
evil days, was grey and old, and beautiful still, though now merely
une pension de demoiselles.
It was August, when, as a rule, all the merry throng had
scattered from the Château to their respective homes, leaving it to its
former dignity and quiet. Mademoiselle usually went to England,
perhaps seeking fresh pupils, or to enjoy the sea breezes on the
La Royat, in the village of Coutane, was inland from the sea, about
fifteen miles from Brussels. It was a sweet spot, beloved of the understanding
traveller, and many came to look at the fine old church,
whose spire and windows were among the treasures known to lovers of
the beautiful all over the world. Mademoiselle Ledru had nothing to
complain of in her lot, with which she had been hitherto content. Success
had flowed in upon her earnest efforts, though looking at her anxious
face that summer morning one would have thought her oppressed by
care. She was an elderly woman now, with the remains of beauty still
on her face. The place where she stood that morning, before her household
was astir, was certainly unusual, being the square tower of the
Château, from whose low ramparts she was sweeping the horizon with a
powerful glass. It was all very peaceful and beautiful, a wide rolling
plateau, with fields white to harvest, not a hint of approaching desolation
on its smiling face.
It was very early, hardly an hour past daybreak, but already some
of the thrifty peasants were busy in the fields. Far away on the red
horizon there was a slight haze, regarding which Mademoiselle seemed
more than a little curious. Again and again she focused her glass, until
confident that the haze was not altogether stationary, but moved and
broke and thickened again. Then with a sickening apprehension
at her heart, she turned and fled down the stairs and went to open
the big door of the Château. Jules, the fat and sleepy porter, was
undoing the bolts as she got down.
"Bonjour, Mademoiselle. Some one is at the gate, an early
visitor." He chuckled as he undid the last bolt, and threw wide
the door. When he would have hobbled across the courtyard to
open the gate his mistress was before him. When she undid the bolts
the Curé, bareheaded, stood before her.
"Ah, Mademoiselle, it is bad news," he said in a firm voice,
though his face was tense with apprehension. "They come, the
barbarians. I have information, now it behoves us to consult what
we will do."
Mademoiselle whitened to the lips, and drew him in and shut the
door. She signed to Jules to depart, but the Curé intervened.
"Let him stay. It will save a twice-told tale. I have certain
news that they are not more than a couple of hours' march away, and for
sure they will come this way to Brussels. What shall we do?"
"I will remain at my post," answered Julie Ledru firmly. "I have
no fear for myself, but my charges, Father—Rosalie and Biddy, with
whom their English parents have trusted me. My spirit fails! What
must we do with them?"
"It will not be safe to leave them here, Mademoiselle, nor even for
you to stay. We will take you to the crypt of the church, where, with
a little food and drink, you will be safe until they have passed through.
We have no treasure here in Coutane, and are simple folk. Perhaps
we shall be beneath their notice."
Julie Ledru clasped her hands in an ecstasy of apprehension. They
had been without newspapers for four days, but chance travellers
from the East had brought strange and appalling tales of the invaders'
desolating march. They told of ruined villages and burning homes,
and helpless people mercilessly shot down in places as simple and as
unimportant as Coutane. Julie Ledru looked round her little domain
with a kind of sad pride. It did not contain many treasures, it is true,
but it was her home, enshrined by many sweet memories. It contained
"Now, Father?" she asked feverishly. "Do you think we should
"Without a moment's delay," he answered. "Go and get your
charges roused and bring all with you; a little food also in a basket, lest
you have to stop there several days."
"You will be with us, Father?" said Julie anxiously.
He shook his head.
"My place is in the open street with such of my people as feel
strong and brave in their innocence and faith. But you have English
charges. If it was known, Mademoiselle, believe me, nothing would
save them or you. Their fury against the English is so great."
"Shall we take Jules? Besides him,
is only our faithful
Before the Curé could reply Jules intervened, scratching his old
"I hide not from them, Mademoiselle; I will stay and guard the
Château and keep them out, if I can, barbarians that they are, making
war on women and children."
"They will shoot you, Jules, if you are so foolish," his mistress
reminded him. His answer was a shrug of the shoulders.
"A man dies but once—that is to say, a good man, who has faith
in God and does his duty."
So saying, Jules went back to take up his waiting duty.
The Curé departed the way he had come, and Julie Ledru, with
a feeling of strange calm upon her, hurried indoors to make her few
, the elderly servant, one of the best of
the old Brabant type, was cool and ready for any emergency, and in
an incredibly short time they had packed some food and a few necessaries
in two considerable baskets. Then Mademoiselle Ledru essayed the
task she dreaded—that of awaking her two young charges, and preparing
them for the ordeal through which they had to pass.
They were still asleep, in two beds side by side, in one of the
pleasantest rooms of the Château. Rosalie Bentham, fair and rosy, like
an English flower, her golden hair lying on her pillow like an aureole,
and Biddy Connaught, the dark-eyed Irish girl, whose long black lashes
swept her cheek, while her dimpled chin was in her open palm, as she
smiled over some passing imagery of her dream. Something caught
Julie Ledru's throat as she regarded these two pictures of innocence and
beauty, and reflected on the greatness of her charge. Both were only
children, entrusted to her care in the holidays, because their parents,
both in the exercise of duty, could not take them home. But with a
strong effort she controlled herself and awakened them gently. It was
a process of some length, because the sleep of youth is sound and deep,
but at last they were sitting up, drinking in her news.
"We have to run away and hide in the crypt until the Germans
have marched through the village. Do you hear, Biddy?" called
Rosalie, as she sprang from her bed and began to get into her clothes.
"But how ripping! What lots we shall all have to write about and to
tell them when we get home!"
Julie Ledru faintly, tremulously, smiled, and with her own hands she
assisted them to make a hasty toilet. Some coffee was ready for them
downstairs, for Babette was a methodical person, not easily upset.
Thus fortified, they left the Château presently, leaving Babette and
Jules in charge. Babette made the same excuse—some one must stay
to guard the place, and surely when they found nobody but two simple
old servants they would pass on.
Julie had no time to argue; perhaps even she did not fully realise
the peril to which these two faithful souls thus willingly exposed themselves.
She looked back on their serene faces as she passed through the
gate, and it was the last time she was to look on them in life. She
never saw them again, nor found them. They disappeared in the ruins
of La Royat as many had disappeared in other ruins, leaving no trace
behind. At the church, which was but a few paces off, they found the
Curé busy arranging shelter. It was a very tiny village, and the number
of those willing to accept the shelter he offered and, indeed, advised was
comparatively few. For though a simple they were a brave people,
nor could they conceive of a wickedness and barbarity that would seek
to destroy innocent souls who had naught to do with war. So they
went about their ordinary avocations as usual, a trifle more apprehensively
perhaps, but none the less bravely, and the morning wore on.
The Curé took his charges, about twenty souls in all, down the
narrow stairs to the crypt, where he had already provided light and such
small comforts as he could spare from his own store.
"Isn't it ripping, Biddy?" asked Rosalie, but perhaps her young voice
had lost a little of its gallant ring. But Biddy, who had the imaginative
temperament of her race, shivered a little, and burst into tears. It was
strange and ominous to come in out of the warm, hopeful sunshine to
this place of tombs, an adventure with which the child could very well
have dispensed. The church was very old, and many
who had been born in Coutane had never seen the crypt.
Its very existence was unknown to a large number,
and the entrance to it was so cunningly arranged, and
so difficult of access, that it was of all hiding-places in
the village the most secure.
Then there was always the belief, founded on all
precedent of war, that the sacred things would be
respected, and sanctuary in God's house left undesecrated.
The hours seemed long down there and the stillness profound.
Not a sound from the upper air penetrated to that strange hiding-place.
Though sure of their sanctuary, it seemed natural to lower their
voices, to move softly, and even to watch apprehensively. Even the
two girls, usually so high-spirited, found themselves naturally becoming
quiet. It was only the very little children, of whom there were five,
who, unconscious of danger, crowed and laughed and babbled in their
usual glee. These little ones provided incessant interest and occupation
for the two girls, and Julie Ledru smiled as she watched their pretty
efforts to amuse and keep them quiet. She had brought her watch, and
it pointed to nine o'clock at the moment when they heard a dull thud
several times repeated, which caused them all to start and look at one
another in quick alarm.
"It is the guns," said old Monsieur Rollin, whose legs were twisted
with rheumatism, so that they had half-carried him down the steps of
the crypt. "They have come, and are starting their fiendish work."
No one could gainsay him, and for the next half-hour they had to
listen to a repetition of the same sound gradually getting nearer and
nearer. Presently their terror was increased by the deafening roar of
artillery much nearer and the sound of falling masonry, indicating that
the church itself, cradle and sanctuary of the life of Coutane for
centuries, had not been respected. The two English girls, now
thoroughly frightened, clung together fearfully, and the whole little
company, some of them on their knees, did not exchange a word. After
a time the firing ceased, and they were left to absolute stillness. But
none of them moved, or offered to go up to discover what had
actually happened in the village.
After what seemed an interminable interval—in reality it
was not more than a couple of hours from the moment the din
ceased overhead—the door of the crypt was cautiously opened,
and the Curé looked in. He was all dishevelled, his face blackened
with smoke, and his whole appearance that of a man who had
seen some terrible and haunting vision.
"Ah, there you are, my children," he cried as they crowded
round him; "I think you may come up presently, but be prepared
to have your hearts broken. A regiment of the enemy has
passed through, and left nothing behind. Mademoiselle, the
Château is in flames, and the beautiful spire of the church has been
blown to pieces, and at the Mairie the devastation is complete. But,
above all, we mourn the death of so many helpless people—I myself
escaped by a miracle."
"Have they gone?" asked Mademoiselle, with a shivering breath.
"They have, and I think that they are pursued, and that this was
the hurried work of destruction prompted by hatred and revenge.
Will you come up now and see for yourselves, or remain here in safety
through the night? Alas! you will find no other refuge, Mademoiselle,
for your home is in ruins."
Such fear was upon them that with one accord they determined
to remain in the crypt until the dawn of another day.
Even the natural gaiety and high spirits of youth were not proof
against the terror which all felt might swoop down upon them again at
They had arranged themselves as comfortably as possible to
pass the night, when they were suddenly disturbed by the grating of
a door and the swinging of a lantern. All scrambled to their feet,
some of them shrieking and hiding their eyes, certain that there had been
a fresh arrival of the invaders, and that instant death would meet them.
But once more the Curé smiled upon them reassuringly.
"Courage, my children! Our trouble is for the moment at an end.
Our own brave soldiers have arrived. It is as I said—they are in pursuit,
but part of them will camp here to-night. Alas! we have little or no
food to offer them, for the barbarians stripped the village of everything."
Then Julie Ledru, hurriedly throwing on her cloak, said she would
ascend with the Curé and give what stores she could from the Château.
"But it is no more, my daughter. You have forgotten how I told
you yesterday that they have burned it to the ground."
"But my stores are hidden in the grotto in the garden, and there is
a secret passage to it. I think, Father, they had not time, or did not
take it, to explore, and we shall find things there. I have been putting
them away since the war began."
So in the pearly dawn, a strange sight was to be seen in the
trampled, desecrated garden of the Château behind its smoking ruins.
Led by Julie Ledru, the Commandant of the troops that had halted
in the village found stores sufficient to help assuage the hunger of his
men. He was profuse in his thanks.
"What can I do for you in exchange, Mademoiselle?" he asked, as he
stood at the salute. Instantly Mademoiselle pointed to her charges,
who, still shivering a little with fear, yet profoundly, poignantly
interested in the extraordinary scene of desolation, in what but a few
hours ago was one of the fairest spots in Belgium.
"These are my English children. Get them to their parents,
Monsieur le Capitaine, and I shall be amply repaid."
The officer shook his head.
"Easier said than done, Madame; but leave it, and I will see what can
be done. How is it you have been so indiscreet as to remain here? You
ought to have removed yourself, and them, while there was still time."
Mademoiselle shook her head.
"We imagined we were of no account, and we have had no news
for several days. We were assured that the tide of battle had flowed in
a different direction."
"It is everywhere, Mademoiselle—an evil flood, rolling over the
whole of our country. But, look you, I will see what can be done."
He was as good as his word, and that evening after dark, in an
armoured motor-car, Julie Ledru and her charges were driven for hours
and miles by tortuous ways which kept them out of danger, until they
reached Ghent, where it was still possible to get a train for Ostend.
Two days later, she landed in England with Rose and Biddy, herself
utterly ruined, her home gone, one of the most pitiful of the refugees.
But she was welcomed warmly and gratefully by Biddy's father,
and in a few days' time was safe in a warm, comfortable home on the
Irish coast, where Rose, too, was made welcome, until her own relatives
in India could be communicated with.
It was an experience the two girls would never forget, one which
will remain with them through life as a very poignant personal
experience of the Great War.