A Surpising Heroine

March 20, 2008
By Grace Frank, Lewisville, TX

Else Sophie De Wahl stared at the bleak, gray ocean that surrounded her. Sophie, as that was her preferred name, tried to shake the feeling of fear that struggled to take over her mind and heart. What am I doing? She thought to herself from the deck of the Saphir D'or, a French ship. When fourteen-year-old Sophie had found out that her uncle was going to help their relatives in France because of the French Revolution, she had immediately volunteered to help, even though she was small for her age and not very strong. Her parents had protested, of course, but she had insisted. They had spent days that turned into weeks planning what she would do when she arrived. Her uncle, who had come with her father to Norway at the start of the French Revolution, insisted that he should go alone.

"You are a small, helpless girl!" he had said in an aggravated tone, "What makes you think you can do anything?"

"Because, Uncle," Sophie had tried to explain, "I have a native Norwegian accent, which you don't, and I can speak both Norwegian and French fluently. No one will suspect a small Norwegian girl of being a threat to them. And the moment you step into Paris you would be arrested. They haven't forgotten you."

Sophie's uncle didn't like to admit that she was right, but he had stopped pressing her father to keep her from going. Her father had given her all the information that she would need. They had received a letter from her father's sister, the Duchess Adélaïde d'Arête De Diamant, giving the location of where they were held captive in the city. The letter carrier had nearly been killed getting the letter out of the city but had managed to escape. Sophie tried not to think about what she was doing for the entire voyage. As they got farther and farther away from Norway and closer to France, worries had begun to flood her mind. She struggled to keep her spirits up.
Sophie took one last look at the ocean and then decided to go back to her cabin. She turned to go when she heard the lookout above call, "Land ho! Land ho!"
Sophie turned back and ran to the side of the ship to see if she could see the land. At first all she saw was water, but after a few minutes she saw it. It was only a small stretch of brown, but it was quickly growing larger. She sighed and walked slowly to her cabin to get her baggage ready.
All too soon she was walking off of the Saphir D'or, and climbed onto a coach to take her from the port town to Paris. Her uncle was going with her until she got to Paris where he would then get a wagon to meet her and their relatives outside the city. She carried a bag that held several sweaters. After what didn't seem a long enough period of time, Sophie walked up to the gates of Paris and was about to go through when a guard stopped her and said in French, "Stop! What is your business here?"
"I only speak a little French," she said in broken words, trying not to show her anxiety, "I am Norwegian."
"What are you doing here?" the guard said slowly, still in French and obviously annoyed.
"I am selling sweaters because my family needs the money. I came all the way from northern Norway," Sophie answered, equally slowly. The guard scowled but allowed her to go through. Sophie, while outwardly appearing not to care, was rejoicing inwardly. The first step of the plan was working.
She walked into the city. It was bustling with excitement, but she couldn’t keep her mind off of what was happening not far from where she was standing. She had heard too many horror stories about Madame Guillotine, and she couldn't stand to be near where it did its appalling work. She closed her eyes for a moment to envision where she knew her aunt and cousins were being held. They weren't being kept at the jail or guard house; they had been locked up in a large house at the edge of Paris, on the opposite side of the city from where she was standing. She followed street signs until she was about three blocks from the house, the Chaîne Mansion. She walked around and began edging towards the mansion as she "sold" her sweaters. She got as close as she could, but when she saw that it was teeming with guards, she backed away.
How will I get in? she wondered as she walked back to the inn. She had actually sold a few sweaters when she got an idea. She closed her eyes, desperately trying to remember where it was. She walked as quickly as she could without running. She finally reached the building and glanced up at the sign above it. It read, "Hall of Records". She wouldn't have been able to go inside, but she bribed one of the kinder looking guards with some of her sweater money. She quickly found what she was looking for- the blueprints for the Chaîne Mansion. She studied them carefully, memorizing everything. When she was sure she knew every exit, every room, and every detail of the surrounding grounds, she left the building.
The next morning, Sophie put her plan into action. She ran to the prison, and began trying to break in. Before long, guards had captured her and tied her wrists and ankles. She tried to scream, but they muffled all noise she could have made. After what seemed like hours, they sat her down in a rough chair and began to question her.
"Who are you?" the largest guard demanded.
"I am Countess Valérie Sophie De Wahl," she said proudly and in perfect French. It, well, at least the Countess part, was true. Her father had been a Count before he left France. Eventually, she would have received the title. Valérie had been her grandmother's name. The most important part of that sentence, however, was De Wahl. Her father had caused "quite a stir" when he and his brother had escaped, causing her aunt and cousins to be kept under close watch.
"Oh, you are," the guard said in a mocking tone, "You are a little young to be a countess, aren't you?"
"What is my age to you?" Sophie asked, in the same proud tone.
"Well, I think that it would be more of an advantage to you to know that you could be killed for being a 'countess'. And who might your father be?" the guard asked, showing that he obviously didn't believe her.
"Isach Andreas De Wahl," Sophie replied evenly. This time the guard looked back to other guard that stood behind him. She thought that he was starting to believe her.
The guard turned back to her and said, "So what were you doing breaking in to a prison, rather than breaking out?"
Sophie didn't respond. The guard pulled out his sword and she said in a terrified voice, "All right, I'll tell you. I have some good friends kept in here. I found a special way out that wouldn't leave any trace. I was going to get in, make it look as though nothing had happened, and then show my friends a way out."
This was when "De Wahl" became important. The guards knew that if Sophie was anything like her father, she would be able to do what she had said. They whispered for a few moments and then the smaller guard left. He returned soon and said, "All right, the captain said we should."
"Should what?" Sophie asked.
"Be quiet!" The larger guard said, "You are going to the Chaîne Mansion."
Sophie pretended to be afraid, and she was soon being taken by cart to the Chaîne Mansion. Sophie was blindfolded when she was taken in, but because of all the studying she had done on the structure of the building, she knew exactly where she was going. Moments later she was released and the guards left. She found herself in what had once been a grand ballroom, but was now only a large room filled with cots. She was surprised to see that there couldn't have been more than twenty people in the room. Families sat in clusters on cots. She even saw some children crying. She had started to scan the room to find someone who even remotely looked like pictures she had seen of her aunt, when some one said, "Excuse me, girl!"
Sophie looked around to see a frail woman walking towards her. The woman had pale, drawn features, but Sophie instantly recognized her. The woman spoke, "Who are you?"
"I am Else Sophie De Wahl, and am I right in assuming you are my aunt, Duchess Adélaïde d'Arête De Diamant?" Sophie asked, quietly so that no one nearby could hear her. Her aunt's face broke into a smile.
"Yes, my dear! You look so much you look so much like your father! But quickly, come follow me," Sophie's aunt said. Sophie followed her to a far corner of the room. There were three cots pulled together to create a half circle. Sitting on one of the cots was a boy who appeared to be about ten years old. There was also a girl who looked to be about fourteen. Both of the children wore ragged clothes and were just as pale as Sophie's aunt. Aunt Adélaïde said, "Children, I'd like you all to meet Else Sophie, your cousin."
"Please, just call me Sophie," Sophie said with a smile. Aunt Adélaïde then introduced the girl as Lacette and the boy as Pierre. Aunt Adélaïde and Sophie sat down on one of the cots and began to talk.
"Sophie, how on earth did you get here?" Aunt Adélaïde asked, "Did your father ever receive my letter? I thought he and his whole family was in Norway!"
"He and my mother are. Yes, he received your letter, and that’s why I'm here.
"You! But why did he send you? Didn't he know how dangerous it was?"
"Of course he knew. I volunteered."
"Child, I admire your courage, but you won't be able to do anything. Especially now that you've been caught."
"No, Aunt Adélaïde I was purposely caught," Sophie said, now speaking in a mere whisper. The look on her aunt's face told Sophie that she would have to explain more. "I know how to get out of here. I told guards that I knew a way out of the prison and that I am Countess Valérie Sophie De Wahl. They were cautious and sent me here."
"But this place is crawling with guards! And we are completely locked in here. This is the most guarded place in all Paris, and maybe even all France. How do you expect to get out of here?"
"Look, I can't tell you. I'll have to show you. How soon can you and Lacette and Pierre be ready to go?"
"Any time. We have nothing to pack."
"Good. I have to go look at something. If there is anyone else you trust here, tell them too, there is no limit on how many people can go. Bring anyone else over here."
With that, Sophie smiled at her aunt and stood up. She walked toward the back of the ball room. She made it look as though she was pacing next to the wall. She walked from one end to another, trying to find something. At last she found it, made sure it was what she was looking for, and went back to her aunt. She found Lacette sitting by herself.
"Hello, Lacette," Sophie said.

"Hello, Sophie," Lacette answered quietly.
Sophie began to just talk to Lacette, and both girls were laughing by the time Sophie asked, "Lacette, is there any time when those guards aren't there?"
Lacette followed Sophie's pointing finger where two guards stood around the door. She answered, "Yes. They change the guard twice a day. When they do, they guards go stand on the other side of the door to do something. We never have figured out what."
"How long are they on the other side?" Sophie asked excitedly.
"About fifteen minutes, but the doors are still locked and they would catch us trying to get out."
"That doesn't matter. When is the next time they change the guard?"
"They're about to. See, those two guards are turning to go out the door."
"Perfect," Sophie said under her breath. Right at that moment, Aunt Adélaïde and Pierre were walking back with ten other people. Luckily, the people who weren't with them were all sleeping, as it was now late in the evening.
"All right, Sophie, what are we doing?" Aunt Adélaïde asked. As soon as the guards were outside the door, Sophie motioned for everyone to follow her. She went to the back of the wall and opened a trap door in the floor. She had seen it in the plans for the house in the Hall of Records. She then told everyone to go through. She was the last one to go and she closed the door behind her. They were in a tunnel.
Sophie started walking toward the end of the tunnel and said, "Come on!"
All of them began to walk. After about ten minutes, the tunnel came to an end. Sophie felt above her with her hands and pushed. Another door opened easily. One of the only men who had been there and appeared to be very old helped everyone out. They all immediately saw that they were on the outside of the walls of Paris. Sophie showed them which direction to go and said, "Run! I'll catch up with you!"
She was closing the trap door and trying to make it look as though no one had been near it when she heard men yelling. She was about to run when someone scaled the wall and grabbed her before she could. The guard was fast, but he wasn't very strong. Sophie saw a few of the prisoners glance back at her. Before the guard could muffle her she yelled, "Go!"
The guard laughed a sinister laugh and said, "Ah, your little friends will soon be caught. And you won't get away!"
Sophie had given herself up for lost when a small speeding blur ran back and attacked the guard. The guard wasn't expecting this, and soon he was on the ground with the wind knocked out of him. Sophie recognized Pierre in the dark, and she grabbed his hand and ran. Soon they were all at the meeting point and Sophie's uncle drove them to the ocean in a large wagon.
A few days later, all of them were safely on a ship headed for Norway. Sophie smiled at Pierre and said, "Pierre, thank you. You saved my life!"
The little boy grinned sheepishly. Lacette and Sophie laughed, and Aunt Adélaïde smiled. Sophie looked out at the ocean. Just a week before she had been heading toward Paris alone. Now she was going home with family and friends, and she had quite a story to tell. Sophie smiled.

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