by Anna Bonus Kingsford (1846-1888)
I AM unable to say where or when the events related in the following pages took place. Neither can I give any details concerning the personal circumstances of the narrator. All I know is that she was a young woman of French nationality, and that the “uncle” of whom she speaks — her senior by some thirty years — was more distinguished as a philosopher than as an enthusiast. Whether the conspiracy against the reigning authorities in which our heroine and her friends were implicated, happened to be of any historical importance or not, is also more than I can say. As my object in reproducing the narrative is merely to illustrate the curious operation through natural channels of laws, which are usually regarded as “occult”, and the activity of which on the material plane has given rise to the common notion of “miracle”, I do not propose to trouble the reader or myself with any preamble of merely local interest. So, without more introduction, I leave the diary of the writer to recount the adventure set down therein by her own hand.
“ I was concerned in a very prominent way in a political struggle for liberty and the people’s rights. My part in this struggle was, indeed, the leading one, but my uncle had been drawn into it at my instance, and was implicated in a secondary manner only. The government sought our arrest, and, for a time, we evaded all attempts to take us, but at last we were surprised and driven under escort in a private carriage to a military station, where we were to be detained for examination. With us was arrested a man popularly known as ‘Fou,’ a poor weakling whom I much pitied. When we arrived at the station which was our destination, ‘ Fou’ gave some trouble to the officials. I think he fainted, but at all events his conveyance from the carriage to the caserne needed the conjoined efforts of our escort, and some commotion was caused by his appearance among the crowd assembled to see us. Clearly the crowd was sympathetic with us and hostile to the military. I particularly noticed one woman who pressed forward as ‘Fou’ was being carried into the station, and who loudly called on all present to note his feeble condition and the barbarity of arresting a witless creature such as he. At that moment my uncle laid his hand on my arm and whispered: ‘Now is our time; the guards are all occupied with “Fou”; we are left alone for a minute; let us jump out of the carriage and run !’ As he said this he opened the carriage door on the side opposite to the caserne and alighted in the street. I instantly followed, and the people [Page 182] favouring us, we pressed through them and fled at the top of our speed down the road. As we ran I espied a pathway winding up a hill-side away from the town, and cried: ‘Let us go up there; let us get away from the streets !’ My uncle answered: ‘No, no; they would see us there immediately at that height, the path is too conspicuous. Our best safety is to lose ourselves in the town. We may throw them off our track by winding in and out of the streets’. Just then a little child, playing in the road, got in our way, and nearly threw us down as we ran. We had to pause a moment to recover ourselves. ‘That child may have cost us our lives’, whispered my uncle breathlessly. A second afterwards we reached the bottom of the street which branched off right and left. I hesitated a moment; then we both turned to the right. As we did so — in the twinkling of an eye — we found ourselves in the midst of a group of soldiers coming round the corner. I ran straight into the arms of one of them, who the same instant knew me and seized me by throat and waist with a grip of iron. This was a horrible moment! The iron grasp was sudden and solid as the grip of a vice; the man’s arm held my waist like a bar of steel. ‘ I arrest you !’ he cried, and the soldiers immediately closed round us. At once I realised the hopelessness of the situation; the utter futility of resistance .’Vous n’avez pas besoin de me tenir ainsi’, I said to the officer; ‘J’irai tranquillement? He loosened his hold and we were then marched off to another military station, in a different part of the town from that whence we had escaped. The man who had arrested me was a sergeant or some officer in petty command. He took me alone with him into the guardroom, and placed before me on a wooden table some papers which he told me to fill in and sign. Then he sat down opposite to me and I looked through the papers. They were forms, with blanks left for descriptions specifying the name, occupation, age, address and so forth of arrested persons. I signed these, and pushing them across the table to the man, asked him what was to be done with us. “You will be shot”, he replied, quickly and decisively. ‘ Both of us ? ‘ I asked. ‘ Both’, he replied. ‘But’, said I, ‘my companion has done nothing to deserve death. He was drawn into this struggle entirely by me. Consider, too, his advanced age. His hair is white; he stoops, and, had it not been for the difficulty with which he moves his limbs, both of us would probably be at this moment in a place of safety. What can you gain by shooting an old man such as he ?’ The officer was silent. He neither favoured nor discouraged me by his manner. While I sat awaiting his reply, I glanced at the hand with which I had just signed the papers, and a sudden idea flashed into my mind. ‘ At least’, I said, ‘ grant me one request. If my uncle must die, let me die first’ Now I made this request for the following reason. In my right hand, the line of life broke abruptly halfway in its length; indicating a sudden and violent death. But the point at which it broke was terminated by a [Page 183] perfectly marked square, extraordinarily clear-cut ,and distinct. Such a square, occurring at the end of a broken line means rescue, salvation. I had long been aware of this strange figuration in my hand, and had often wondered what it presaged. But now, as once more I looked at it, it came upon me with sudden conviction that in some way I was destined to be delivered from death at the last moment, and I thought that if this be so it would be horrible should my uncle have been killed first. If I were to be saved I should certainly save him also, for my pardon would involve the pardon of both, or my rescue the rescue of both. Therefore it was important to provide for his safety until after my fate was decided. The officer seemed to take this last request into more serious consideration than the first. He said shortly: ‘ I may be able to manage that for you,’ and then at once rose and took up the papers I had signed. ‘ When are we to be shot ?’ I asked him, ‘ Tomorrow morning’, he replied, as promptly as before. Then he went out, turning the key of the guard-room upon me.
“The dawn of the next day broke darkly. It was a terribly stormy day; great black lurid thunderclouds lay piled along the horizon, and came up slowly and awfully against the wind. I looked upon them with terror; they seemed so near the earth, and so like living, watching things. They hung out of the sky, extending long ghostly arms downwards, and their gloom and density seemed supernatural. The soldiers took us out, our hands bound behind us, into a quadrangle at the back of their barracks. The scene is sharply impressed on my mind. A palisade of two sides of a square, made of wooden planks, ran round the quadrangle. Behind this palisade, and pressed up close against it was a mob of men and women — the people of the town — come to see the execution. But their faces were sympathetic; an unmistakable look of mingled grief and rage, not unmixed with desperation — for they were a down-trodden folk — shone in the hundreds of eyes turned towards us. I was the only woman among the condemned. My uncle was there, and poor ‘Fou’, looking bewildered, and one or two other prisoners. On the third and fourth sides of the quadrangle was a high wall, and in a certain place was a niche partly enclosing the trunk of a tree, cut off at the top. An iron ring was driven into the trunk midway, evidently for the purpose of securing condemned persons for execution. I guessed it would be used for that now. In the centre of the square piece of ground stood a file of soldiers, armed with carbines, and an officer with a drawn saber. The palisade was guarded by a row of soldiers somewhat sparsely distributed, certainly not more than a dozen in all. A Catholic priest in black cassock walked beside me, and as we were conducted into the enclosure, he turned to me and offered religious consolation. I declined his ministrations, but asked him anxiously if he knew which of us was to die first. ‘You ‘ he replied; ‘the officer in [Page 184] charge of you said you wished it, and he has been able to accede to your request’. Even then I felt a singular joy at hearing this, though I had no longer any expectation of release. Death was, I thought, far too near at hand for that. Just then a soldier approached us, and led me, bare-headed, to the tree trunk, where he placed me with my back against it, and made fast my hands behind me with a rope to the iron ring. No bandage was put over my eyes. I stood thus, facing the file of soldiers in the middle of the quadrangle, and noticed that the officer with the drawn saber placed himself at the extremity of the line, composed of six men. In that supreme moment I also noticed that their uniform was bright with steel accoutrements. Their helmets were of steel and their carbines, as they raised them and pointed them at me, ready cocked, glittered in a fitful gleam of sunlight with the same burnished metal. There was an instant’s stillness and hush while the men took aim; then I saw the officer raise his bared saber as the signal to fire. It flashed in the air; then, with a suddenness impossible to convey, the whole quadrangle blazed with an awful light — a light so vivid, so intense, so blinding, so indescribable that everything was blotted out and devoured by it. It crossed my brain with instantaneous conviction that this amazing glare was the physical effect of being shot, and that the bullets had pierced my brain or heart, and caused this frightful sense of all-pervading flame. Vaguely I remembered having read or having been told that such was the result produced on the nervous system of a victim to death from firearms. ‘ It is over’, I said, ‘that was the bullets’. But presently there forced itself on my dazed senses a sound — a confusion of sounds — darkness succeeding the white flash — then steadying itself into gloomy daylight; a tumult; a heap of stricken, tumbled men lying stone-still before me; a fearful horror upon every living face; and then …. it all burst on me with distinct conviction. The storm which had been gathering all the morning had culminated in its blackest and most electric point immediately over-head. The file of soldiers appointed to shoot me stood exactly under it. Sparkling with bright steel on head and breast and carbines, they stood shoulder to shoulder, a complete lightning conductor, and at the end of the chain they formed, their officer, at the critical moment, raised his shining, naked blade towards the sky. Instantaneously heaven opened, and the lightning fell, attracted by the burnished steel. From blade to carbine, from helmet to breastplate it ran, smiting every man dead as he stood. They fell like a row of ninepins, blackened in face and hand in an instant — in the twinkling of an eye. Dead, The electric flame licked the life out of seven men in that second; not one moved a muscle or a finger again. Then followed a wild scene. The crowd, stupefied for a minute by the thunderbolt and the horror of the devastation it had wrought, recovered sense, and with a mighty shout hurled itself against the palisade, burst it, leapt over it [Page 185] and swarmed into the quadrangle, easily overpowering the unnerved guards. I was surrounded, eager hands unbound mine, arms were thrown about me; the people roared, and wept, and triumphed, and fell about me on their knees praising Heaven. I think rain fell, my face was wet with drops, and my hair — but I knew no more, for I swooned and lay unconscious in the arms of the crowd. My rescue had indeed come, and from the very Heavens ! ”