Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1716/The Queen's Gray Hair
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Volume 133, Issue 1716 : The Queen's Gray Hair
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On the night of the 1st of August, 1793, the guardian of the prison of the Conciergerie was busy arranging a little cell situated at the end of a long, black corridor. The cell was dark, damp, and unhealthy; daylight scarcely ever reached it, and when it did it seemed as though it fell regretfully athwart its heavy iron bars that were full of rust. In this miserable little room, the jailor placed a small iron bed, covering it with two straw mattresses, a sheet, a blanket, and by the side of the bedstead left a small earthen wash-basin and a little stool. Surely if the guardian of this prison made such preparations as these, he must have been expecting the arrival of some important person to occupy it. Alas! it was the queen of France, the daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria, who was to arrive.
It was three o'clock in the morning; already the sky was colored by the rosy tints of an August dawn. It was no longer night, nor scarcely yet day — it was the hour when often the queen of France, opening the window of her apartment in the palace at Versailles, would await alone in silence, and in happy reverie, the sun's first rays and the first songs of the awakening birds. How beautiful the gardens of Versailles were at that hour! The crystalline murmuring of its fountains, as the water stole softly between green lawns and luxurious flowerbeds, the crowd of statues around them seeming as though they were still asleep, the superb old trees which had overshadowed the great king and the great century, the sombre paths where Bossuet had walked, and further on, at the end of the great avenue, the Little Trianon, the marble cottage of which the queen was shepherdess; such was the scene which used to greet her eyes. But on this day we name, at three o'clock in the morning, the queen was rudely awakened from her slumbers. "Get up! get up!" they said to her, for she was to leave the Temple for the Conciergerie, the cell she then inhabited being thought too good for her. She arose at the voice of the two gendarmes and got into a small common cab with them. The blinds of the carriage were lowered, so that the royal captive should not see the bright dawn even through its dirty windows. There were to be no more happy dawns for the queen, no more summer's sky, not a bird to sing, not a flower to bloom the executioner was all that was left to her.
Reaching the Conciergerie, its heavy door soon closed upon her, and it seemed as though she already knew all the ways of this new prison, so quickly did she pass through its gloomy corridors. She walked through this obscure labyrinth as calmly as though she were traversing the gallery of Lebrun to enter the king's apartment. Then suddenly, from its narrow door, its menacing aspect, and its approach guarded by spies, she divined the cell that was intended for her and entered it. They brought her the jailer's book, in which she signed her name with a firm hand, then taking out of her pocket a white handkerchief she wiped her lovely forehead several times, which was covered with great drops of perspiration from having driven for so long in the closed cab in which she had been shut up with the two gendarmes; after which her gaze fell upon the damp walls that surrounded her. She saw at a glance all the new misery about her, the cold stones, the iron doors, the low-vaulted ceiling, all the nakedness of her tomb. For an instant her heart sank, but she soon regained her noble calmness. Then taking from her bosom a little watch which they had left her, she saw it was four o'clock. She then hung her watch on a nail which she discovered in the wall, which was its sole ornament, and as she had said her prayers the night before on going to bed in her other prison, she undressed herself to lie down on the iron bed, with its poor straw mattresses.
There was in the queen's cell the guardian's wife and her servant, who was an honest little Breton maid, who, pitying the queen, offered to aid her to undress herself. The queen was astonished at this kindness, and on looking at the young girl she discovered her face was full of sympathy, and could hardly believe her eyes. "Thank you, my child," she said to the young Breton peasant, "I have waited on myself for a long time now" and then she lay down. Two gendarmes guarded the cell, named Dufrene and Gilbert.
She remained thus for forty days, with no other misery than the misery of every new day — a widow and alone, having not a word of news of her son, the king of France; not a word of news of her children; not a word of news of Madame Elizabeth! No other sound than the grating of her iron doors, as they opened and shut to change the guards. No other noise than the rumbling of the charrette as it rolled away each morning, carrying its daily food to the monster guillotine.
But toward the middle of September Fouquier-Tinville went into the queen's cell, drunk with rage. All of the republic was in excitement about this prison. The guards were changed, the jailer was put in irons, and they placed a sentinel before the window of this unhappy woman, and he walked before it day and night. It was, you must know, because a little pink had been thrown in at the queen's window and fallen at her feet. She supported these new outrages without complaining; she was passive, like the beautiful marble which represents Niobe, and so calm and sad that the coarsest jailers became silent as they approached her, and took off their hats involuntarily. For once the sentinel who marched beside her window did not dare to look into her cell, for there seemed to radiate from it a holy sadness which commanded respect. One day she said to the little servant, "Rosalie, comb my hair," and bended toward the young girl her beautiful head, which was to fall so soon, with its lovely locks, whose beauty had inspired all the poets of the day — Tultastasio first among them. The jailer forbade Rosalie to arrange the queen's hair, however, and, saying t was "his right," he endeavored to take it out of the young maid's hands; but the queen arranged it herself — no one but the executioner having a right to touch her thenceforth. When she had arranged her lovely blonde hair, which grew about her forehead with so majestic and natural a grace, she parted her curls in front and covered them with a little perfumed powder, and then she put on a simple little cap which she had worn for twelve days. The next day, being kindly disposed, the Revolution permitted them to bring from the Temple to the queen a few batiste chemises, some handkerchiefs, fichus, silk stockings, and a white peignoir for the morning, a few nightcaps and some little bits of white ribbon. The queen smiled sadly as she received these poor relics of her former grandeur. "Ah!" she said, "I recognize my sister's kind thought of me in these." For it was Madame Elizabeth herself who had sent these clothes to her. When seeing all this unexpected wealth the queen took courage, and asked for a second mourning cap; but finding she could not pay for it "she thought, perhaps, there was enough lawn in her one cap to make two." Tell me, do you know a greater mourning than that, or one so humbly worn?
The order was that the prisoner should not be allowed any books or paper, or even thread or scissors, in order, no doubt, that she should be deprived of everything that might distract her from her sorrows. But she, however, finding a little bit of old carpet in her cell, pulled out the threads from it, and with them amused herself by making a little braid, her knees serving her as a cushion and some pins doing the rest. Sometimes on Sundays her jailor brought her a few flowers in an old earthen pot, which alone would make her smile sadly — she who never smiled any more, and who loved flowers so dearly. Ah! the lovely flowers of Trianon, the dear friends of her leisure hours The sweet roses she cultivated with her own hands, the pinks that bore her name, the tender marguerites that bloomed at the caressing touch of their queen, and the soft, pearly dew which fell from those multitudinous fountains that were silent neither day or night. Ah! the fields enamelled with wild flowers that she loved to wander in, shaded by her large straw hat, or the white does that would come to eat out of her small white hands; ah me! where had they fled, those happy days?
Soon the jailer ceased bringing her any roses; they gave the captive too much pleasure, and he was afraid of Fouquier-Tinville. They saw that the queen, too, loved the sweet face and tender, pitying look of the young Breton peasant girl, so they placed an enormous screen to separate them; but sometimes with difficulty, Rosalie would stand on tiptoes and look over the barrier; as though to say to the poor queen "I am still here, madame." But then those moments were so short.
Behind this screen were placed the gendarmes, and with them a liberated convict, named Barassin, who was so dirty that when he would leave the place for a little while, the queen, made almost ill by the foul atmosphere of the cell, would beg Rosalie to burn a little piece of paper to change the air. Rosalie had obtained permission to brush the queen's shoes. They were pretty little black kid ones, which easily could have been taken for Cinderella's, so small they were. All France had been prostrated before these two little feet, that would have been adored for their beauty alone, even were they not the feet of a queen. The cold and humidity of the prison floor clung to these light shoes as mud would have done on a winter's day. One day a republican gendarme even took pity on them, and taking his sabre scraped with care all the moisture which covered the tiny soles.
In the adjoining courtyard, with eyes fixed on the iron bars that separated them from their sovereign, were kept some prisoners from the Temple, royalists devoted even to the death. There were aged priests of the Church, old officers of Fontenoy, and some noblemen forgotten by the guillotine, and all of them forgot their captivity, their present misery, their approaching death, to think only of their queen, shut up there in her miserable cell. And so it happened that when these poor unfortunates saw the gendarme wiping the queen's shoes, they held out their hands to him in supplicating prayer, and he out of pity passed one of the little shoes between the bars to them, who, taking it, kissed it with reverent, faithful lips.
At twelve o'clock the jailer would bring the queen her dinner, which consisted of half a chicken and a few vegetables, which she was forced to eat with a common pewter fork. The queen would eat this from off a little table, no one waiting on her. More than one prisoner, though, would wait till her meagre repast was over, and beg for some of the crumbs which had fallen from this poor, but still royal table, and happy and proud was he who could drink from the queen's glass; for bending low, with uncovered head, he would drink to her Majesty's health.
There was neither bureau, or wardrobe, or even a little mirror in her cell, but after many prayers the queen obtained permission to have a small paper box in which to keep her few clothes, and a tiny looking-glass, which she hung on the same nail where she had kept her watch, and on that day she was as pleased as though they had brought to her the loveliest Venetian mirror and the handsomest furniture in Boule.
Soon, however, the Revolution thought it was too much luxury for the queen to have half a chicken and a plate of vegetables for her dinner, and it suppressed half of her already small ration, so that even the market-women had no longer the consolation of saying to the prison cook, "Here, monsieur, take this poor chicken to our queen." But even in this complete abandonment, in the mists of this horrible poverty, and overwhelmed with all her sorrows, she still remained the lovely woman and the great queen of her prosperous days; and she held out her pewter cup for the jailer to fill with water from an old earthen jug with the same majestic grace she was wont to hold the golden goblets at the royal fêtes of Versailles — her lovely white, but cold hands, her beautiful, calm face, only half seen in the dim prison light, her elegant and majestic figure, and her silence full of resignation. Ah! who could forget them who had ever seen her in the Conciergerie? But she was failing little by little under the influence of bad nourishment and air, and from her grief and loneliness, but she never complained. She was dying slowly and silently.
Her linen all wore out, and asking Rosalie to try and procure some more, the faithful little peasant gave some of her own coarse underclothes to the queen. Poor woman! She no longer even knew what o'clock it was, for her hours now were only marked by the departures for the guillotine in the morning, the death-warrants read out at mid-day, and by fresh imprisonments at night. These desolate time-markers were all that divided her days spent in that terrible prison, which was crowded with so many sorrows, for they had carried away her watch, which she had hung on the nail on entering her cell. It was a simple little ornament in enamelled gold, which her mother had given her when she was yet a young girl, ignorant of life. It had never left her, and recalled so many happy hours to her. When dauphine, and then queen of France, and even in the dungeon of the Temple she had never worn any other watch, but it was taken from her "by order of the nation," and she wept bitterly when she handed to the officer of the republic the gift of her mother, Maria Theresa of Austria. They took from her also two pretty rings ornamented with diamonds, which was all that remained to her of her past fortune. She loved to wear them, and would amuse herself changing them from one hand to the other, and the little diamonds shone on her slender fingers like her blue eyes from out her pale, sad face. But that was not all! They ruthlessly tore from her her marriage ring, given her by the king of France, and which was the last and touching relic she possessed of the martyred sovereign. Ah! you barbarous madmen, had she not paid for it dearly enough, this unhappy woman, that you could not have left it to her? She had paid for this gold ring with her youth, her beauty, and even with her head. This golden ring had made her queen of France, but of what a France? Queen rather of a volcano. This golden ring had placed her on a throne, but a throne crumbling. This golden ring had opened for her the doors of a palace, but a shattered palace. This golden ring had given her a royal bed, but a bed that a maddened populace had torn to pieces with bloody bayonets. This golden ring had affianced her to a king, but a king beheaded. This golden ring had made her mother of a king, but a king who was given over to a cobbler who killed him with brutal treatment. This golden ring had made her sister of a saint, Saint Elizabeth, who was insulted and covered with ignominy. This golden ring had given her friends, but friends proscribed from France, or whose heads fell upon the scaffold. It had given her a friend (the Princess de Lamballe) who was violated, beheaded, and whose heart was eaten by the cannibals. Ah! if the murderers of that time had known better how to play their part of torturers, far from taking it away from her, they would have suspended this golden ring before her night and day! If they had known that the widow of Louis XVI. wore a lock of the king's hair in a locket over her heart, and that she held it to her lips morning and evening before she said her prayers, no doubt they would have tried to find it in the queen's bosom; but heaven spared her this outrage the only one she was spared.
Every day and at every moment new spies came to trouble her resigned silence and her fervent prayers; architects, brutes in red caps, ferocious and threatening wretches with their caps on their heads, forced their way into her cell, examining the bars, gratings, bolts, doors, the walls, and even the stones of the pavement, to say nothing of the jailers, the turnkeys, and guards. A lion chained in a sheepfold could not have given greater anxiety than this poor queen caused these murderers.
She, however, grew only more and more resigned every day. She knew from these increasing barbarities that her last hour was finally approaching, and she spent all her time in praying to heaven. One day when she was on her knees, she saw in a cell which was opposite to her own, a poor nun who was praying most fervently and she felt that she was praying for her. The two prisoners from the depth of their misery understood one another, for they pointed toward heaven, giving each other a rendezvous there!
These sad and gloomy days in the hot month of August gave place to others as sad and gloomy, only dreadfully cold, as September approached. Suddenly the noisome heat of the cell changed to a damp coldness, the heavy shadow of the Conciergerie fell dismally over the narrow dungeon, and the captive was exposed to the pestitential moisture which ran from the filthy prison walls. The queen suffered so much from the intense cold that she complained of it at last, but to whom should she have recourse? The little Breton maid alone took pity on her, and would carry her camisole to the jailer's fire to warm it, and as in the long, dark nights they permitted the prisoner to have no candle, nor any other light than that of the lamp in the court-yard, which looked like the small funeral lanterns it is the custom to place on newly habited graves, the young peasant, out of sorrow for the queen, would lengthen out her evening work so that she might see her candle burning some five minutes more.
Twelve days passed thus, but on the thirteenth the judges came and began their first examination. They made an officer of the Revolution sleep in the royal cell, but on that night the queen did not retire.
On the 15th of October they came at eight o'clock in the morning to take her to the audience chamber. She was sleeping, and they awoke her by rudely shaking her. She was fasting moreover, and they gave her nothing to eat. When she was questioned, she answered sweetly, speaking like an angel, and gave utterance from her breaking heart to that "appeal to all mothers," which made the heroes of September grow pale, and which drew forth applause and even tears from the tricoteuses (the name given to the market-women who sat around the guillotine knitting, while they waited for the cart-loads of victims to be brought up for execution) in the galleries. It was only at four o'clock in the afternoon that the examination was terminated, when one of the jailers remembered that the queen had had nothing to eat that day. The poor woman had been battling with the murderers of Louis XVI. for nine long hours. Then they ordered a cup of bouillon for her, and the young servant Rosalie was on her way to take it to her, when passing through the large chamber as she was approaching the queen, a Revolutionary policeman snatched the cup from her hands. He was a low, hunchbacked fellow, named Labuziere, who had for his mistress one of the public women of the Palais Royal, whom he had placed on the first row of benches, in order that she might assist, more at her ease, at the torture of the "Widow Capet." Rosalie thought at first that Labuziere was not going to allow the queen to have the bouillon, of which the poor unhappy woman had such need, but he was really meditating a greater crime — to give to an ignoble creature who wished to have a good look at the queen, an opportunity of approaching her still closer and so he took the broken cup out of Rosalie's hands, who was also in tears at this new insult. The cup was given to Labuziere's mistress, and she, in her impertinent curiosity to see the queen, carried her the bouillon, half of which she spilt on the way, every drop of which as it fell on the floor was a drop of blood less in her Majesty's veins. That same day Marie Antoinette, the queen of France, was condemned to death, and Labuziere went off to sup with his mistress.
Before the fatal day arrived the queen asked for a priest; the republic sent her one of its own, whom the queen refused to see, and knelt alone before her God. At last the day of her deliverance came. The day before the royal victim had mended with her own hands the black dress which she wished to wear to the scaffold, but as she had appeared before her judges too handsome and majestic in this poor widow's gown, they would not permit her to wear it on the day of her death, so that it was in the white peignoir which her sister Elizabeth sent her that she went to the guillotine. Of her two widow's caps she had made one, but without strings or any sign of mourning — she no longer needed to wear mourning for any one. She arranged her lovely hair for the last time, and shuddered to find it had grown perfectly white in her last twenty-four hours! She finished her last toilette by putting on her feet the same little shoes she had taken great care to preserve, and which she had not spoiled in the seventy-six days that she had constantly worn them.
Shall I dare to tell you what Rosalie relates? that the queen, half hidden between the wall and her small bed, was endeavoring to change her clothes, when the gendarme on guard bent down in order to see her, and when her Majesty turned toward him, her eyes full of tears, and prayed him in the name of honor to desist, he replied that he was acting on his orders ;and when she had changed her dress, moved by a feeling of modesty, the poor woman folded it up with care and hid it under the mattress of her bed — and all this time the executioner was waiting for her.
Hardly had the queen left her miserable cell to go to her death, before the officers of the republic, fearing, it would seem, some miracle might take place to avenge her, sent the jailers to take everything that had been used by the queen; and they wrapped them all up in the sheets of her bed and carried them off, no one knows whither. You know how the executioner tied brutally together the queen's small hands, how he cut her cap which she had taken such pains to mend, and then her beautiful hair, which when cut he put in his pocket — to burn afterward. And you know about the little child who held out its hands to the august victim as she mounted the scaffold, so that for an instant she thought it was her son, the martyred child whom she would only see again in heaven!
You know that she wrote her will secretly, while lying in her bed, and that it was found and given to Fouquier-Tinville. And, finally, you know all about her death, and you do not ask me to tell it you; for, see, I can no more!