Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

The Widow of Capet

On September 29th, Louis was separated from his wife and children and lodged in different rooms. He bore the parting patiently, but Marie Antoinette was almost frantic in her grief. She brooded sullenly on the punishment that would fall on the French soldiers when Austria and Prussia had won through to her. She could not believe that undisciplined troops could gain successes in the battlefield. She knew nothing of that victory of Jemappes, where furious valour had been shown by patriots and they had defeated the Allies gallantly.

She was told that the King would be tried before the National Convention, which assembled in the late autumn of 1792. She was indignant that subjects should dare to put her husband on his trial, but unconsciously she now began to fix her hopes upon the Dauphin, clinging more passionately than ever to her children in that lonely Temple life.

She had been dutiful to Louis in her nobler years, and missed his kindly presence now that friends were gone. In a curious mood of levity she played the popular hymn of the Marseillaise upon a clavecin, for the gaolers were indulgent at odd moments. Communication could take place between the prisoners on their different floors by means of a string which lowered notes or raised them at the prisoner's will. Pens had been removed, but it was easy to prick letters on paper with a pin. The Princess Elizabeth grew very clever at this stratagem.

The trial was speedy. Louis was proved to have intrigued with foreigners against the French, and to have approved of invasion, if it had been allowed to come to pass. He would have defended himself but had scant opportunity of pleading at the bar before which he was arraigned. It had been determined that he should die, and he became resigned to death.

During the sad Christmas-time of 1792, the deposed monarch made his will, a document so touching and so pious that it was read by later generations with reverence. He resigned his soul, with the wife and children whom he had to leave, to God's care. He forgave his enemies, and impressed upon his son that no vengeance must be taken for his death.

Sentence was pronounced in the first month of 1793, for Louis' entreaties for a respite had been refused although he only wished to make his last confession to a priest. He was allowed to see his family once more before he died. They came down to his rooms and stayed there for two hours. Then Louis sent the children away and promised Marie Antoinette that he would say farewell before he was taken to the scaffold the next day. When she was gone, he spent some time upon his knees and then lay down to take a few hours' sleep.

The Queen awoke in the dull January dawn to hear footsteps pass down the Temple stairs, echoing faintly like the tramp of distant men. She knew that the King had had to go without that last farewell. Cléry came to her with the King's seal and her own wedding-ring. "Tell her that I leave her with difficulty," was the message that he brought.

The scene which crowds of men and women had met to witness was hidden, mercifully, from the sight of Marie Antoinette. The streets were silent and all shops were shut, while eighty thousand soldiers lined the way by which the carriage passed with Louis Capet, the son of sixty kings. The guillotine had been erected in the Place de la Révolution, once called Place de Louis Seize. Around it were many faces the doomed man might have recognized had he raised his eves from the book of devotion which he held. "Egalité" Orleans was there; he was the prince of the blood who had voted for the King's death. Santerre, the brewer, directed the rolling of the drums to prevent the King's voice from being heard.

In his puce coat and grey breeches, Louis mounted the scaffold with unfaltering step. He cried to the people that he was innocent, but they were not allowed to hear. He was thirty-eight and had reigned for nearly twenty years.

All was over, the silence of Paris was dispelled for patriots rejoiced freely, not realizing what the world would have to say. Europe was aghast at the work of regicides who had dared to slay their King and destroy the social order. England and Spain declared war on France, shocked by the principles that had carried Revolution to such a desperate point. Funeral bells tolled in the United States, and public mourning was proclaimed at several courts. Within three weeks a coalition threatened France where a King's head had proved a battle-gage. There were plots to assist the Temple prisoners to escape, and the Dauphin «as duly recognized as Louis XVII. The Queen might have fled alone, but she would not leave her children. She had ceased to make plans though she still hoped that her son might come to his own.

The number of spies placed within the prison walls multiplied fast after Dumouriez, the chief general of the new Republic, went over to the Austrian camp. Dumouriez could not force his army to desert with him, but the fact of his treason and the rumour that he intended to march on Paris rendered the men who had put their King to death still more desperate. The Reign of Terror was established, for traitors must be promptly dealt with to save the Republic and its liberties!

Day by day men came to search the Tower and threaten the women, when they found nothing save an old hat of the King's which his sister kept. Insults were heaped upon the defenceless captives, whose mourning garments might have entitled them to some respect. "I never heard of giving a table or a chair to prisoners," one of the new guards said as he took the young King's seat at dinner, with a brutal laugh. "Straw is quite good enough for them."

The boy grew weaker and was taken from his mother because there were rumours of a conspiracy. The Queen implored that she might still have the care of him, but the men who came to remove him were inexorable. They had received orders to show no mercy, and tore the child from her arms while she stormed and shrieked, losing her self-control lamentably. "What is the good of all this noise?" the harsh officials said.

At length Marie Antoinette resigned herself, putting the boy's hand in that of Simon, the rough shoemaker who was to "make a citizen of a king."

Little Louis XVII was taken to a lower apartment of the Tower where his mother remained to weep. She had begged very piteously to see him sometimes at meals, but the privilege was refused. She had to peer through a chink in the wall to see him walking on the Tower with his new guardian, who was cruel to him. She was content to wait for hours for the pleasure of this glimpse, though she loathed the carmagnole  dress they had put on him—the red cap and brown cloth suit which loyal adherents of the Republic wore.

Simon taught "little Capet" to drink and swear strange oaths, and cry "Vive la Republique"  in his mother's hearing. He would have made him jest wickedly about the Queen, but the child refused for he was pure at heart. He missed his mother at all times and found it hard to do things for himself, for he had always been accustomed to the tenderest nurture even in the worst of days. "God has forsaken me," Marie Antoinette called out with bitterness when she saw her son for the last time. "I dare not pray any more."