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The Count and the Chimney Sweep header

By G. Lenôtre

 

On Christmas Eve, Mathiote, without changing his begrimed clothes, directed his steps to the Palace of de Plessis-Morambert. Three years earlier, also on Christmas Eve, he had been called to clean a certain chimney, where the Count de Morambert wanted to arrange an enormous pyramid of toys and candies to surprise his son Jacques when he awoke Christmas morning.

Now it happened that Mathiote was precisely the same age as the Count’s son and when the Count saw on the little chimney sweep’s face the look, not of envy, but of admiration at seeing all those marvels, and at the same time seduced by the intelligent and honest air of the child, he chatted with him for a few moments, gave him a gold coin and sent him to the pantry to be served a fine supper.

Mathiote, the young chimney sweep, carrying his brushes and other packagesThe comforting remembrance of that unexpected feast brought the lad to the Palace year after year on the same evening to receive his gold louis d’or and bowl of savory hot soup. If the whole truth must be said, his annual appearance was due, not only to the attention paid to him, but also by curiosity and sweetmeats.

But on the evening of this December 24, 1793, the lad was surprised to find the Palace, which was full of light and warmth; cold, dark and empty. For though he knocked many times on the great door, none of his entreaties were answered. As he sadly turned away, he saw far off at the other end of the street, shrouded in the dark shadows, the shapes of a man and small boy rapidly approaching the Palace. As they drew near, Mathiote recognized Jacques de Morambert and ran to him.

“Ah! It’s you, Mathiote! You did come! Let us go inside, quickly.”

As soon as the great door was made fast, Jacques broke into sobs. “My father was arrested eight days ago by the Revolutionary Committee. They are going to try him in a few days! Oh Mathiote! My father is lost.” And Jacques began to cry even louder.

Mathiote, whose humble existence hadn’t been affected by the Terror, was then told that the Count was accused of horrible crimes and would surely be sent to the guillotine. For eight days, Jacques had tried to speak to his father, but the guards were cruel men and wouldn’t permit it. Fortunately the Count’s cell faced the street, so Jacques was able to see his father throw him kisses through the bars. The poor lad was just returning from that painful sight when Mathiote met him.

“Don’t worry Monsieur Jacques. Those wretches cannot hurt or kill my lord the Count. He is so good, so charitable.”

“But don’t you see? It is for that very reason that he is lost.”

After a few moments thought, Mathiote said, “Take courage and leave it me.” “To you? What can you do? Any attempt to help him will only hasten his execution.”

And tears again streamed down Jacques’s face. Mathiote consoled him as best he could, then went out into the dark street and headed for the center of Paris, with a quick and almost happy step.

Old fashioned Christmas tree and a roaring fireplace.

The Count of Plessis-Morambert had been imprisoned in the l’Abbaye and his first few hours there had been spent pacing around his cell like a beast in a cage, trying to break the door down or rip the bars off the window or search for some other means of escape. But it was all futile, for the walls were very thick and the door was made of heavy planks and on it was set a great iron lock with enormous screws. But at last the good Count, exhausted and discouraged, sat down on the dilapidated cane chair and gazed sadly into the fireplace.

He thought of little Jacques bathed in tears and all alone in the deserted Palace and he began to pray. He thought of past Christmases when his son was very small and how, before going to sleep he would carefully place his tiny shoes on the hearth to wait for the visit of the Child Jesus, who never failed to come.

But what would Jacques think tomorrow morning when he would wake up and find that the Child Jesus had forgotten him? At the thought of that inevitable disappointment the Count fixed his tear-laden eyes on the lifeless fireplace and thought of those happy nights when he would tip-toe into his sleeping son’s room and carefully arrange the toys wrapped in garlands, the little soldiers in the box of carved pinewood, the golden oranges, the crystallized fruits…that paradise of good things a little boy finds upon awaking and delights him with claps and shouts of joy.

Matiote comes out of the fireplace in the Count's prison cell. At this point, the Count’s melancholy thoughts were interrupted by a muffled noise in the chimney. Suddenly there came a downpour of soot and ashes, followed by a large well-wrapped package that hit the hearth and rolled to the middle of the cell.

Startled at this strange occurrence, the Count stood up, glancing back and forth at the chimney and the mysterious package. His attention was then caught by something even stranger, for two feet appeared in the chimney, dangling in the air and in an instant a black form dropped out and sprang into the cell crying, “Don’t be afraid my lord Count! It is I, Mathiote.”

And so it was, with his face and clothes black with soot; his white teeth showing and his clear eyes shining like stars. The Count, astonished and searching his memory, could only repeat the boy’s name, “Mathiote? But…” “But I didn’t forget you, my lord Count. I have just come from your Palace and M. Jacques is very sad. But we may speak of him later. I have come to take you out of here, my lord Count.”

“You have come to take me out of here?”

“Yes! But we have no time to lose. Speak softly. Here I have everything you need. First your clothes.” And the little chimney sweep quickly unwrapped the package which contained an adult chimney sweep’s outfit that he had obtained from his master and a roll of gold louis d’ors Jacques had given him.

“If we are quiet and make haste my lord Count, I promise you we shall be in the street in a quarter of an hour.”

“But how shall we get out, my little one? You surely do not intend to take me out the same way you came in! Even so, where will we be then? On the rooftops. But how did you find my cell?”

“M. Jacques told me, the last window on the corner of Sainte-Marguerite street. It is easy when you become accustomed to it. But if you permit my lord Count, when we next speak it should be on the street. I must work and you must change your clothes.”

Then Mathiote examined the huge lock, took an instrument from his packet, and became to loosen the long screws holding it to the door, working with precision and agility, the still astonished Count looking on with disbelief. At a nod from Mathiote, the silent onlooker began to change into his new garb and when the rescuer turned around to show his success at removing the lock, he found a full grown version of himself and this time he nodded with approval.

Mathiote distracts the guard while the Count walks out dressed as a chimney sweep.“You’re saved! Now you must hide your money, except for one coin. Follow me and when we reach the sentinel, go on calmly into the street and turn left without hesitating. Agreed?”

The Count answered by pressing his hand. Mathiote opened the door and peaked into the corridor. Allowing the prisoner to pass through first, he then went out and closed the door softly behind him. At the bottom of the stairs, they found the guard fast asleep on a cot inside a windowed cubical dimly lit by an oil lamp. Mathiote went boldly up to the window and knocked to awaken the guard.

“Citizen! Let me out!” The guard grudgingly got up and shined the light toward the voice and found only a child burdened by ropes, hooks and brushes….the chimney sweep tools. Reassured at this site, he pulled the cord to unlock the door.

The Count moved slowly toward the threshold and almost retreated when, at the sound of the closing door, the guard turned around and caught sight of him. But Mathiote had foreseen everything.

“Excuse me soldier, can you tell me where to find the officer in charge?”

“The officer in charge? What do you want with him and who is THAT? No one is allowed through!”

“I wanted to give him this gold coin I found when I was cleaning out a chimney. Here, see! I wasn’t sure what to do with it.”

The guard, flattered at Mathiote addressing him as soldier, examined the coin and quickly gave it the safety of his pocket. For louis d’ors at that time were worth two hundred paper francs. “A coin for the officer in charge? Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he gets it. I’m not about to wake him for such a petty sum.”

“Oh thank you, citizen!”

“The pleasure is all mine, chimney sweep.” Mathiote darted out the door and ran to catch up with the Count who meanwhile had been hastily following his rescuer’s instructions.

painting of a boy sitting.The valiant youth well knew that in Paris it would be impossible to hide the aristocrat from the revolutionary police. And besides, who would dare risk his life for the fugitive noble with the whole Committee for Public Safety after him?

Mathiote therefore decided to conduct the Count to Savoy, where he would be well cared for by the chimney sweep’s good father and mother.

The ten day journey should be a relatively safe one as two Savoyard chimney sweeps returning home could hardly raise any suspicion. As an extra precaution, Mathiote wrapped the Count’s head in linen, as if he were wounded, but in reality to explain his companion’s silence when they were among strangers.

After placing what little provisions they had in knapsacks, the Count and chimney sweep set out for Savoy.

By the second day out from Paris, the Count de Morambert, little used to walking such distances, deprived of his habitual comforts, and sleeping in an occasional herdsman’s hut, no longer had to make an effort to play his role. No one would suspect that this exhausted and battered laborer making his last efforts to reach his homeland was actually a rich noble fleeing the Terror.

Twelve days after leaving Paris, the fugitives came to the last French village. Though Mathiote was fresh and full of energy, the Count was fatigued and barely able to drag himself forward.

The two travelers found a humble inn and were ready to begin a meager repast of bread and butter, when the innkeeper, speaking to Mathiote and pointing to the Count, asked, “Is he your father?” “No Monsieur. He’s my master’s brother.”

“What’s wrong with him? Is he ill?”

“Very! He fell from a roof and was crippled. I’m taking him home.”

“Well, where are your passports?”

“Our what?”

“You can’t cross the border without papers. It’s guarded by patriots. Just yesterday they caught two aristocrats disguised as cheese merchants.”
Mathiote grew pale beneath his layers of soot. He hadn’t foreseen this! But mastering himself, he replied naturally, “I only know that we must hasten to arrive quickly. The poor old man can barely walk!”

“You can’t cross the border unless you have papers.” And the innkeeper walked away without another word.

The Count and Mathiote look at the bridge they must cross to get to freedom

An hour later, the two found themselves in the shade of a tree beside the river, separating France from Savoy. There! Only a few hundred feet away was freedom. But in between was the bridge guarded by ten, well armed and cruel Revolutionaries.

At this last, seemingly unsurmountable obstacle, the Count sighed, “Ah Mathiote! So we are lost after all.” “But my lord Count, you must make one last effort. We’ll cut through the field and cross the river where the ice is thickest.”

“Impossible, Mathiote! Do you think I could walk on ice when I can barely lift my feet off the ground?”

“Then, we’ll go to the guardhouse. While I distract the sentries, you muster all your strength and run across the bridge.”

“Run? Only to make an easy target for the sentries’ muskets?”

“But they might miss!”

“Perhaps, and what about you? They’ll make you pay for your generosity with your life! No, my son. I can never permit that. I’m afraid we have shipwrecked in sight of land. Go across the fields. I will give myself up when I see you’re safe.”

Mathiote bowed his head and after a few moments’ silence said, “We still have one chance. We shall walk calmly down to the guardhouse, and if they ask us for papers, I’ll stop and pretend to look for them, but you walk on steadily. Every yard counts. But since we can’t be sure of escaping, my lord Count should give me all the gold louis d’ors, for if they search you and find all that money, you will be lost.”

The Count assented with a nod of his head. These last few words of Mathiote suddenly made everything clear. It had been naïve for him to believe that such a poor lad would help him, a rich noble, out of pure dedication or gratitude for a few bowls of hot soup. This was the first time he had allowed himself to be deceived by the appearance of a commoner. But experience left no doubt, the young Savoyard had but one intention, to possess the gold coins, which to him was a fortune. The Count removed the money from his wallet and placed them in the hand of the chimney sweep with a gesture of disdain. Then, after wiping his forehead, as if to remove the bitterness of disappointment, he rose with great difficulty and said, “I am going to give myself up. You try to escape. Yes. Let it be every man for himself.” “No, but I won’t let you. You will see, my lord Count.”

The guards shout for Mathiote and the Count, both dressed as chimney sweeps, to stopAs the fugitive chimney sweeps reached the guardhouse in their typical garb, the unsuspicious soldiers allowed them to pass with only a few jibes and laughs. But they had taken only a few steps onto the bridge, when the officer in charge called out to his men, “Hey boys! Look at those two. They’re disobeying the order! Hey there, my little one.”

“Come quickly my lord Count. We don’t hear anything. Just a few more steps.”

“You little knave. Are you going to stop or not?”

Mathiote turned around with surprised air and returned to the guard post, while the Count hobbled painfully toward the other side. “What do you want citizen?”

“Where’s your passport and where is he going? Is he deaf?”

“He is terribly wounded.”

“Well, he better stop or we’ll shoot!”

“Oh please don’t shoot citizen! My passport is right here…it’s….right…here….just….”

But the official wasn’t fooled by this maneuver and he cried out in a terrible voice, “FIRE! Can’t you see that an aristocrat is giving us the slip? Shoot him down! Fire! Fire!”

But at that instant, Mathiote jumped in front of the leveled muskets, knowing the soldiers would hesitate to shoot an unarmed child.

“Fire! Fire! He’s going to escape!”

The guards scramble to catch the coins as Mathiote tosses them in the air

But Mathiote was already filling his hands with the gold louis d’ors in his pocket and suddenly he threw them all at the feet of the soldiers. Then followed indescribable confusion. At the sight and sound of gold, the soldiers lost their heads, dropped their muskets and launched themselves after the rolling coins, pushing and shoving with desperation. Mathiote didn’t wait to contemplate that epic picture, but in a few leaps joined the Count de Morambert on the other side of the bridge, outside France.

While the soldiers were still fighting over the last piece of gold, the lad threw his béret to the air and shouted in his Savoyard dialect, “Evviva la libertà! Long live liberty!” The boy ran to his companion and the two, Count and Chimney sweep, the one weeping with joy and the other with exhaustion and gratitude, tumbled arm in arm into the guardhouse of Savoy.

 


Légendes du Noël, contes historiques, by G. Lenôtre, pp. 161-176.
Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 137

Quote of the day

DAILY QUOTE for April 22, 2021

Mary was raised to the dignity of Mother of God rather for s...

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April 22

 

Mary was raised to the dignity of Mother of God
rather for sinners than for the just, since
Jesus Christ declares that
He came to call not the just, but sinners.

St. Anselm

 
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Saint of the day

SAINT OF THE DAY

St. Theodore of Sykeon

Endowed with the gift of prophecy and miracles, on a second...

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St. Theodore of Sykeon

Born in the Roman Galatian town of Sykeon in Asia Minor, Theodore was the son of a woman of ill repute, who kept an inn along the imperial highway.

As a child, he was so given to prayer that he would often give up a meal to spend time in church. From an early age he shut himself up first in the cellar of his mother’s house and then in a cave beneath a disused chapel. Later, for a time, seeking to further escape the world, he sought solitude on a mountain.

On a pilgrimage to Jerusalem Theodore assumed a monk’s habit, and though only eighteen years of age, was ordained a priest by his own bishop. His life was most austere, wearing an iron girdle about his body and only sparingly partaking of vegetables.

Endowed with the gift of prophecy and miracles, on a second pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he obtained abundant rain after a severe drought.

Theodore founded several monasteries, and ruled as abbot in Sykeon. He was consecrated Bishop of Anastasiopolis, though he deemed himself totally unfitted. After ten years he succeeded in relinquishing his post and retired to Sykeon.

From Sykeon he was recalled to Constantinople to bless the emperor and the senate and there healed one of the Emperor’s sons of a skin disease, reputedly leprosy.

Theodore had a great devotion to St. George and did much to propagate devotion to him.

He died in Sykeon on April 22, 613.

Weekly Story

WEEKLY STORY

In the mountainous region of Trent in Germany, there lived a...

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The Robber Who Stole Heaven

In the mountainous region of Trent in Germany, there lived a notorious robber who made his living by bringing misfortune on others. His occupation being what it was, he would only increase his property by decreasing that of his victims.

One day, he was admonished by a local religious to change his course of life and thereby insure his eternal salvation. The only answer the robber gave was that for him there was no remedy.

"Do not say so," said the religious, "do what I tell you. Fast on each Saturday in honor of the Virgin Mary, and on that day of the week do no harm to anyone. She will obtain for you the grace of not dying in God’s displeasure.”

The robber thought to himself, “This is a small price to pay to insure my salvation; I will do as this holy man has prescribed.” He then obediently followed the religious’ advice, and made a vow to continue to do so. That he might not break it, from that time on he traveled unarmed on Saturdays.

Many years later, our robber was apprehended on a given Saturday by the officers of justice, and that he might not break his oath, he allowed himself to be taken without resistance. The judge, seeing that he was now a gray-haired old man, wished to pardon him.

Then the truly miraculous occurred. Rather than jump for joy thanking the judge for his leniency, the old robber, said that he wished to die in punishment of his sins. He then made a public confession of all the sins of his life in that same judgment hall, weeping so bitterly that all present wept with him.

He was beheaded, a death reserved for the nobility, rather than hanged. Then his body was buried with little ceremony, in a grave dug nearby.
Very soon afterwards, the mother of God came down from Heaven with four holy virgins by her side. They took the robber’s dead body from that place, wrapped it in a rich cloth embroidered with gold, and bore it themselves to the gate of the city.

There the Blessed Virgin said to the guards: "Tell the bishop from me, to give an honorable burial, in such a church to this dead person, for he was my faithful servant." And thus it was done.

All the people in the village thronged to the spot where they found the corpse with the rich pall, and the bier on which it was placed. And from that moment on, says Caesarius of Heisterbach, all persons in that region began to fast on Saturdays in honor of she who was so kind to even a notorious robber.

From the Glories of Mary, by St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori.

In the mountainous region of Trent in Germany, there lived a notorious robber who made his living by bringing misfortune on others. 

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