Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

The Conciergerie

The shadow of death crossed the path of Marie Antoinette very soon after she was separated from her son. Paris knew by this time that an invasion by the Allies threatened them. Condé fell and Valenciennes surrendered, so that only Maubeuge was left of the frontier fortresses which blocked the way to the capital. Panic disturbed the riotous braggarts of the wine-shops, and the mob orators spoke wildly of stamping out the members of the Royal Family that remained. The Austrian woman was helpless in their hands and might be made to expiate her crimes upon the scaffold, where heads as proud as hers had been laid down. It was the Reign of Terror, and even the "citoyennes" were eager for the sight of blood. They took their knitting to the chairs, which were arranged before the spectacle of death, and watched each slender aristocratic neck laid bare. A kind of frenzy came upon them when they realized that next week the tide might turn, sweeping them to destruction too. If Maubeuge fell, the cause of the Austrian was gained.

In August the Queen's trial was discussed, and the Convention issued a decree for her removal from the Temple Tower. Guards awakened her at two o'clock in the morning and read the decree to her. She was unmoved by the words and said nothing in reply. She dressed herself in haste, making a package of the few clothes she was allowed to take. Then in the presence of the officials she gave her daughter into Madame Elizabeth's charge, embracing the two gently and bidding them be brave.

Madame Royale wept, overcome by grief and a premonition that she would lose her mother soon. In profound grief she heard the Queen say drearily as her head struck against the lintel of the door, "Nothing now can hurt me." These were the last words she heard from Marie Antoinette.

The Queen drove through the silent streets and noted sullen faces as she passed. It was long since she had driven into Paris to be received with cheers. She wondered dully why the world had changed. The discomforts of her new prison mattered little that close August night. She entered it before the dawn, delivered to the gaolers like some common criminal,

The cell which was assigned to the Queen was a damp and dreary room. It had paper, stamped with the royal Fleur-de-lis, and fine linen on the bed, but the furniture was scanty and the mattress of straw. There were some chairs, and a screen, some four feet high, to protect her from the prying of the passers-by. A window without curtains looked out on the prison yard.

The Queen hung her watch upon a nail and began to undress, fatigued by want of sleep. The porter's wife would have assisted her, but she had learned to do without such help. She lay down on the bed, watched, even in her sleep, by two men and a rough woman.

The next day she asked for linen but it was refused. A week later they brought some from the Temple, which showed Princess Elizabeth's thoughtfulness, for all the garments sent had been carefully mended. The Queen shed tears as she looked through the clothes, and hid in her bosom a little yellow glove which had been worn by her son.

Imprisonment in the Conciergerie was solitary and weakened Marie Antoinette. She had good food and the special water from Versailles which she had always drunk instead of wine. She had books to read, and could have knitted if they had not refused to bring her needles, fearing suicide. She was driven to work through sheer monotony, and drew the threads of some old tapestry and knit them together with quill tooth-picks when she was tired of Cook's Voyages and the stories of adventure that she read.

The Queen's few sympathizers in her fate cursed Coburg, the head of the invading army, because he did not move at once. Fersen, in Brussels, could do nothing though he would have given his life for her. He did not hear the exultant stories of the Paris democrats. The wife of Capet had been brought low, they said; she knew the misery of a ragged gown, and had to mend her own shoes unless she was willing to go barefoot in her cell. She looked like a magpie, a fellow-prisoner declared, with her white face and mourning garments. There was no pride left in her. She wept and talked foolishly whenever she chanced to see the gaoler's child. She would have given him her watch if that had not been removed. She had nothing golden left—her very hair was grey. She experienced no kindness save from some pitying woman of the gaol who put flowers upon her table and bought fruit at her request.

Three weeks passed before a ray of hope penetrated the dull walls of the Conciergerie. It was near the end of August when she had visitors within her cell. One was an inspector of police, who put some questions to her, while his companion dropped a bunch of carnations at her feet. There was a note in it, offering to connive at her flight as she was being transferred through the Paris streets to another prison. She had no pens, and her heart beat wildly as she sought for a reply.

While the men on guard were absorbed in their usual game of cards, she pricked with a pin upon a slip of paper. "I am watched; I neither write nor speak; I count on you; I will come"

There were people in the prison who had been bought by those without. The note passed through, and an order vas made out for the Queen to be transferred. Treachery laid bare the plot before her deliverers could make it complete. She waited for them one whole day, then knew that they had failed.

The discovery of the "carnation plot" did harm to the hapless Queen as well as to the friends who would have released her from the Conciergerie. She was examined closely and put into another cell. No candle was allowed at night and solitude was forbidden. They put spies everywhere. Even as she washed herself she felt their prying eyes, and grew hot with shame. Her strength failed sadly, but illness did not induce her guardians to move her even to a decent cell.

On the 12th of August the unhappy captive was conducted to a lighted hall within the prison, where two pale candles shone upon the face of the judge. She was to be tried by the people and without a legal trial. The jury were not peers of Marie Antoinette. Many were men of the working class, and prejudiced. The poor black dress could not conceal her royal descent, but even her proud bearing made them think her guilty of treason to France, for she had Austrian pride.

She was "the daughter of the Caesars" still, as she bent low to sign her name,—"the widow of Capet," before she was withdrawn again. The trial itself did not take place that night. She was led back to the cell, and told that two barristers had been briefed for her defence. It was to be a mockery, she knew, remembering poor Louis' trial. Long before this she had been doomed, for Europe hoped for the dismemberment of France and had abandoned her.