St Ives
by Robert Louis Stevenson

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St Ives - Robert Louis Stevenson - 1898 Edition. Scanned
and proofed by David Price, email
St. Ives
The Adventures of a French Prisoner
in England


IT was in the month of May 1813 that I was so unlucky as to fall at
last into the hands of the enemy. My knowledge of the English
language had marked me out for a certain employment. Though I
cannot conceive a soldier refusing to incur the risk, yet to be
hanged for a spy is a disgusting business; and I was relieved to be
held a prisoner of war. Into the Castle of Edinburgh, standing in
the midst of that city on the summit of an extraordinary rock, I
was cast with several hundred fellow-sufferers, all privates like
myself, and the more part of them, by an accident, very ignorant,
plain fellows. My English, which had brought me into that scrape,
now helped me very materially to bear it. I had a thousand
advantages. I was often called to play the part of an interpreter,
whether of orders or complaints, and thus brought in relations,
sometimes of mirth, sometimes almost of friendship, with the
officers in charge. A young lieutenant singled me out to be his
adversary at chess, a game in which I was extremely proficient, and
would reward me for my gambits with excellent cigars. The major of
the battalion took lessons of French from me while at breakfast,
and was sometimes so obliging as to have me join him at the meal.
Chevenix was his name. He was stiff as a drum-major and selfish as
an Englishman, but a fairly conscientious pupil and a fairly
upright man. Little did I suppose that his ramrod body and frozen
face would, in the end, step in between me and all my dearest
wishes; that upon this precise, regular, icy soldier-man my
fortunes should so nearly shipwreck! I never liked, but yet I
trusted him; and though it may seem but a trifle, I found his
snuff-box with the bean in it come very welcome.

For it is strange how grown men and seasoned soldiers can go back
in life; so that after but a little while in prison, which is after
all the next thing to being in the nursery, they grow absorbed in
the most pitiful, childish interests, and a sugar biscuit or a
pinch of snuff become things to follow after and scheme for!

We made but a poor show of prisoners. The officers had been all
offered their parole, and had taken it. They lived mostly in
suburbs of the city, lodging with modest families, and enjoyed
their freedom and supported the almost continual evil tidings of
the Emperor as best they might. It chanced I was the only
gentleman among the privates who remained. A great part were
ignorant Italians, of a regiment that had suffered heavily in
Catalonia. The rest were mere diggers of the soil, treaders of
grapes or hewers of wood, who had been suddenly and violently
preferred to the glorious state of soldiers. We had but the one
interest in common: each of us who had any skill with his fingers
passed the hours of his captivity in the making of little toys and
ARTICLES OF PARIS; and the prison was daily visited at certain
hours by a concourse of people of the country, come to exult over
our distress, or - it is more tolerant to suppose - their own
vicarious triumph. Some moved among us with a decency of shame or
sympathy. Others were the most offensive personages in the world,
gaped at us as if we had been baboons, sought to evangelise us to
their rustic, northern religion, as though we had been savages, or
tortured us with intelligence of disasters to the arms of France.
Good, bad, and indifferent, there was one alleviation to the
annoyance of these visitors; for it was the practice of almost all
to purchase some specimen of our rude handiwork. This led, amongst
the prisoners, to a strong spirit of competition. Some were neat
of hand, and (the genius of the French being always distinguished)
could place upon sale little miracles of dexterity and taste. Some
had a more engaging appearance; fine features were found to do as
well as fine merchandise, and an air of youth in particular (as it
appealed to the sentiment of pity in our visitors) to be a source
of profit. Others again enjoyed some acquaintance with the
language, and were able to recommend the more agreeably to
purchasers such trifles as they had to sell. To the first of these
advantages I could lay no claim, for my fingers were all thumbs.
Some at least of the others I possessed; and finding much
entertainment in our commerce, I did not suffer my advantages to
rust. I have never despised the social arts, in which it is a
national boast that every Frenchman should excel. For the approach
of particular sorts of visitors, I had a particular manner of
address, and even of appearance, which I could readily assume and
change on the occasion rising. I never lost an opportunity to
flatter either the person of my visitor, if it should be a lady,
or, if it should be a man, the greatness of his country in war.
And in case my compliments should miss their aim, I was always
ready to cover my retreat with some agreeable pleasantry, which
would often earn me the name of an 'oddity' or a 'droll fellow.'
In this way, although I was so left-handed a toy-maker, I made out
to be rather a successful merchant; and found means to procure many
little delicacies and alleviations, such as children or prisoners