A prosperous fool is a grievous burden. — Aeschylus

Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead




The Little Apprentice

The day that saw the death of Robespierre and the end of the Terror removed from the stage of the Revolution a figure always mysterious in history. "Simon the shoemaker" fell under, the guillotine. He had forsaken his old trade and turned politician, being arrested for an attempt to go to the assistance of the outlawed leader, then in the Town Hall, whence he might have been removed.

Simon had been guardian of the heir of the Capets—Louis XVII—till six months previous to the Thermidor. It was with him that the Queen saw the little boy go forth from the royal apartments in the Temple. It was through him that she endured a long martyrdom, hearing of the boy's treatment and gradual corruption at the hands of the jailers.

Chaumette, the Republican, who had shared a crust with Louis Seize, was inspired with a desire to make the son of Louis Seize a useful member of the commons. He had read Rousseau, and was influenced probably by the statement that Emile "honoured a shoemaker much more than an emperor." He had been an artisan himself, and had followed many occupations. "I wish to give him some education," he said of the little Dauphin put under his care; "I will keep him away from his family so as to make him lose the idea of his rank."

There was another reason for the choice of honest Simon, He was held to be a true patriot, since the 190) ?> sight of royal suffering never moved him in those early days of rigorous imprisonment. He had gained honor among the Republican rulers by revealing a plot to rescue the Queen and her family. Chaumette judged wisely that he would not succumb to any temptations that Royalists might offer for the person of the heir to the fallen throne of France.

The Dauphin clung to his mother when the Municipals removed him to the second floor of the Temple Tower. He realized his loneliness bitterly now that there was none of that retinue to care for him which had made his household so expensive in the old days of Versailles. He had been attended by duchesses and marchionesses, rustling in silks faintly scented with perfumes of the East. Governesses had been elegant and refined, and nursemaids women of some claim to rank in the nurseries where everything was softest luxury. Since the trials of existence began, there had been the tenderest attentions of his mother, always stately and beautiful, with white hands and gentle voice that rarely uttered a harsh word.

No wonder the child shrank from the wife of Simon with her coarse features and clumsy caresses. She did caress him in his early captivity, being a woman without sons of her own, and pleased with the honourable situation that relieved her from drudgery. She was to have 4000 francs a year for this light employment, and her husband 6000 francs. There was nothing to do beyond sitting at ease in the comfortable chairs provided, and eating the good meals served at the expense of the nation. She had boasted to a neighbour that she would be fetched to her work in a carriage. She wished all her gossips of the cobblers' quarter in Paris could have seen her ruling the spoilt son of sixty kings.

Simon ill-used the charge entrusted to him by the State. He taught him to sing the Carmagnole and the Marseillais, and to speak disrespectfully of the three women still surviving in the other apartments of the Temple. He tried to poison the boy's mind by stories of the Queen, his mother. She was wont to spend hours at a narrow opening through which she could see her son taken up to the battlements for exercise. She tried in vain to get satisfactory news of him. It would have caused her agonies to think of the heir of France wearing the red cap of liberty and taught to swear terrible oaths against God, his family, and aristocrats. Mercifully she was spared the full knowledge of the truth, and died before there was worse to be related. She knew that they had taken away the black coat worn in mourning for King Louis, and she was told that he was ill. He had never been very healthy, even when he could run about the grounds of Saint-Cloud or Marly. The food given by Simon was unsuitable, and the wine forced upon him made Marie Antoinette's son still sicklier. He detested wine, as she had done, and liked to drink pure water.

The Dauphin's aunt and sister were alarmed after the Queen had gone to execution. They heard sounds of movement one night which led them to believe that Simon was conducting his charge to some place from the Temple. Looking through the keyhole, they saw packages conveyed by stealth. The whole day there had been much running up and down, and Simon's wife had breathed asthmatically from her exertions. She was a stout woman, and was occupied in counting linen and saying farewell to friends in the guard-house. It was a night of dense fog when the Temple gates were opened and a cart rumbled out of it, bearing the cobbler and his wife to a less celebrated dwelling.

There were stories told in later times of a child smuggled out in a basket of soiled clothes by Simon, who had not allowed his goods to be examined. A child hidden in a paste-board horse was said to have taken the Dauphin's place in prison. According to these narratives, a deaf mute had been chosen, and dressed in similar clothes to those worn by the Dauphin. When he awoke from a drugged sleep it was useless to question him, because he could not answer. Fright seized the guardians appointed to look after him in Simon's place. They were in horror of the guillotine, and adopted the most desperate measures.

The prisoner was walled up in his room, without fire or light except the faint glimmer of a lamp, which did not allow him to be clearly seen from the barred wicket which was the only opening allowed. The door was securely fastened and never opened, except for the conveyance of food to the buried child. That was often passed through the wicket as one passes food to caged animals. Men came to look through now and then, but did not enter to hold conversation.

In her old age, Mme Simon was fond of persisting that the fate of her "little Charles" had not been death. Claimants had some grounds for pretending to be Louis XVII while she was still upholding the story of the bundle of soiled linen. The Dauphin's sister, indeed, had believed that her brother was being taken away on the sinister January night. It was some time before she heard reports to convince her that he was still living in the Temple.

The unfortunate child survived in all probability, though there must be doubts of his real end always. A child was certainly kept in the awful terrors of solitude with a bell he dared not ring to summon his tormentors, without a voice to cheer his days, or an arm to protect him in the night.

It was a rat-infested place, with swarms of vermin, which he learned to keep from the bed and chair on which he sat. He would place an old hat containing the remains of his unrelished meals, in the centre of the floor, to attract his only companions, and would then crouch as far away as possible while they devoured the food. For six months his bed was not made and he was too ill to attend to it himself. He had been used to a certain amount of regular exercise under cruel Simon and would have welcomed his gaoler back again. The faces of the men, sent in turn to peer through the bars, haunted him after they had departed. He sat all day long without occupation, forgetting the happy times of early childhood He wondered in his brighter moments where his sister was, and the aunt who had promised to look after him. He became unkempt and dirty, for he did not wash himself. He had been used to much personal attention, and had never learned to do anything for himself.

A guard spoke to the authorities of the condition of the child and was dismissed for his trouble. Madame Royale was anxious concerning the fate of her only brother, but she might not see him. She was relieved when a compassionate man named Laurent was appointed. He was kind to the princess and did what he could for the Dauphin, but the child was still alone.

Laurent feared to compromise himself by showing too much kindness. It was dangerous to express sympathy under the tyrant sway of Robespierre. Gomier the physician came, at length, to solace the little prisoner, diseased from his long and dreadful isolation. He tried to amuse little Louis, but it was hopeless to rouse the gaiety of a victim treated more grimly than the children sent to the guillotine before their mother's eyes. There were awful stories of infant slaughter in the provinces, where the condemned were drowned in great numbers to save the ever-working knife of the guillotine.

The Committee-General visited the Temple during the winter which followed Thermidor. Pity was awaking after the fall of the Terror, but pity could not save the boy, now suffering from a kind of fever He could not take walks when permission was granted, and hated exertion in his feeble state. He had been an engaging child when he was the idol of a Court, and even now he was grateful to the few who eared for him.

Physicians tried to revive the life of Louis XVII without avail. His strength ebbed daily, and the announcement of his death was made to the nation in June 1795. He was a little more than ten years old.