It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. — Abraham Lincoln

Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead




At the Bar

On Monday, the 14th of October 1793, Marie Antoinette was formally arraigned before five judges and a jury of fifteen. It was early in the morning that the trial began, but the populace crowded the side galleries of the court and the knitting women had deserted the place where the guillotine then stood to attend also. "See how proud she is!" they cried as the Queen carne from the cell, walking between her warders. It seemed long since the Austrian had been a spectacle for all Paris to watch with jealous anger and contempt. Every head bent forward to see what changes had been wrought in her.

She looked older than the thirty-eight years she gave as her age when they began to question her, but her carriage was stately and her voice was clear. A white cap had been placed by the gaoler's wife upon the ashen hair. A lace scarf hung from her shoulders, relieving the black dress, which was limp and shabby from constant wear. She wore crape in token of her widowed state.

After the first formalities Marie Antoinette sat down. She was so worn by trouble that she found it difficult to endure the searching gaze that Fouquier-Tinville bent on her. The Public Accuser had his salary to earn and would spare none of his victims, hurrying them ruthlessly to the scaffold. He was one of the most dreaded figures of the Reign of Terror—a monster he seemed at the court, yet he was kind to his own household it was said.

The speech against the Queen contained many charges which were true. She had had disloyal relations with the King of Bohemia and Hungary, and she had influenced her husband against his French subjects many times. She had sent French gold to Austria and would have sent more if she could. The follies of her youth were recounted at length, and the shameful story of the necklace did her injury. It had been found difficult, nevertheless, to convict Marie Antoinette before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Simon the shoemaker was told to threaten the Queen's son to make him sign a document testifying to the guilt of his mother on the cruellest charge that they could bring. The child was dazed with wine and did not understand the words. He scrawled his childish signature to please his captor, not knowing what grave harm he did. Madame Royale was braver and refused to confirm the wicked accusation, though they questioned her with brutality.

Fouquier-Tinville guessed that this charge, so grossly false, would perhaps turn the scale in favour of the Queen, for no reasonable judge could believe that she had been aught but a true mother to her son. She had denied the other accusations steadily. Now that this was read she cried out, "I appeal to every mother here," and stirred hearts that were not too tender by her words. Indignation was roused against her accusers, and her defence became easier from that time. The Queen returned to her cell at three o'clock, carrying some sympathy with her for the ordeal that had lasted several hours.

At five in the evening the trial was resumed. The court was only lit by a few smoky lamps and crowded with the enemies of the Austrian, who wished to see her dragged to ruin. She could barely walk when she was taken back to her cell just before midnight. She was stronger on the morrow because she had slept awhile, and was prepared to face the people in the court.

Latour Dupin, a dashing noble of the Versailles court, was among the witnesses called on this day, the 16th of October. His powdered head and elegant costume brought bygone days painfully before Marie Antoinette.

She listened to his voice eagerly for he spoke in her favour, defending himself, too, with skill. She rejoiced to see how disdainfully he answered the questions put to him. So many of the old order had been brought low that he too might have stooped to save his head. She was glad that he did not avert his eyes from the cold, merciless gaze of Fouquier-Tinville at the judgment bar.

Sitting erect, the Queen became absorbed in dreams of the life which had passed so gaily that she could not believe how short a time it was since she had figured in it, the frivolous, thoughtless wife. The sordid story of the necklace touched her keenly, as it had always done. She replied scornfully when Herman, the judge, doubted the truth of what she said about that strange affair. She should have resisted, perhaps, when the few beloved treasures were now removed. The miniature of her son was laid before the judge, and locks of hair cut from the heads of the unfortunate children in the Temple, who knew nothing so far of the suffering that their mother had to endure alone.

Witnesses appeared who gave evidence relating to events of later times. The story of the "carnation plot" was told, and other stories of attempts at flight. It could not be denied that the Queen had hoped to be rescued by force of foreign arms, and that she would have given Paris up to vengeance if the Allies had passed the barriers and broken her prison doors. She persisted that she had always obeyed the King instead of leading him, but her defence was weak. It was made by counsel after Fouquier-Tinville had spoken. At four o'clock in the morning the Queen was told the court's decision on her case.

Marie Antoinette had not hoped for life during the long hours of her trial, and she seemed untouched by fear as the sentence of death was read. She did not answer when the judge asked if she had anything to say. She was quite still, save that her restless fingers played upon the rail in front of her as though she played the music of Mozart. The torches were flickering out when she went through the dreary corridor to her cell and sat down to compose the letter, the writing of which was the last act of her life.

Blotted with tears, the document never reached the Princess Elizabeth, to whom it was addressed. It had something exalted in its wording, for the writer had reached the solemn hour when she saw clearly the uselessness of human strife. Remembering Louis' parting phrase, she exhorted her son not to avenge her death. She commended her children to their aunt, the only companion of their prison days, and spoke sorrowfully of the friends now gone. Fersen was in her mind, perhaps, and thoughts of the bitter regrets that must assail him when he heard the news.

The priest came to minister to her and found her lying on the bed. She was not asleep, and complained of cold, for they had stripped every comfort from her at the end. Two candles lit the cell, showing its desolation and the sorrowful, prostrate figure of the Queen.