Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Death of Marie Antoinette

In the middle of October, the queen—again without warning—was summoned before the Tribunal to be tried, no time being given to her to prepare any defense, while her enemies had craftily made all their plans to condemn her. For instance, a commission had even been sent to the Temple, to question the prince and both princesses.

Poor little Louis, dazed already by Simon's rough treatment, said "yes" to anything these men chose to ask. Then his sister was summoned, and entered the room, terrified at being alone with men for the first time in her young life; but, perceiving suddenly her small brother, she darted forward rapturously to embrace him, only to be cruelly prevented from doing so by the officers, who now proceeded to question her, too. Six years older, and therefore wiser and braver than the boy, Madam Royal gave them no satisfaction, although they cross-questioned her a long, long time, and did all they could to frighten her. But, while they did succeed in wringing tears from this little heroine, they could not obtain one word which could ever be used against her beloved mother. Next the aunt was called, whom these coarse men could not brow-beat as they had the children, and from whom, also, they could not wring anything save expressions of love and deep admiration for her poor brother's widow.

At her trial, Marie Antoinette was accused of meddling with the government, of giving her husband bad advice, and of considering her son king, although the Republic had been proclaimed! She was also asked to reveal what she knew in regard to certain so-called plots against the nation, giving the names of those who had taken part in them; but Marie Antoinette was no craven telltale, and all her judges obtained was the noble answer: "I shall never inform against my subjects. I have seen all, understood all, and forgotten all!" Then the old story of the Diamond Necklace, and all the other slanders spread by her enemies, were again brought to light, and, as if she could not be spared a single pang, the poor queen was told that her little son had accused her of trying to corrupt his morals.

To all these charges Marie Antoinette answered briefly or not at all, and, when urged to reply to the last, indignantly exclaimed, "I appeal to every mother here present, whether such a thing is possible!" This bold retort won such applause, even from hostile hearers, that the judges, fearing lest she should win the sympathy of the mob at the last minute, went on hurriedly with the business on hand. While thus questioned and badgered, hour after hour, she remained cool and dignified, saying pathetically toward the last: I was a queen and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you robbed me of my children. My blood alone remains; take it, but do not make me suffer too long!" You see, she knew it was her life that these wretches were determined to have, so she was not surprised when the verdict "guilty" was given, and she was condemned to die within twenty-four hours.

Taken back to her unwholesome prison, Marie Antoinette spent the night writing a touching letter to Madam Elizabeth, imploring her to watch over the orphaned children. This letter, in which the queen forgave all her enemies, and begged her children never to try to avenge her, was not delivered to Madam Elizabeth, but was found among the cruel judge's papers when he was guillotined in his turn. It is now one of the precious historic relics of the country, and a copy of it is engraved in marble in the Chapelle Expiatoire. After her sentence had again been read to her in prison, Marie Antoinette made her last toilet,—still watched by her jailers— gently thanking the young actress who gave her a clean white dress to wear. Next the chief executioner entered, cut off her beautiful hair, which he burned, and bound her hands behind her so tightly that the cords actually cut into her tender flesh!

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


Louis XVI. had been taken to the scaffold in a carriage, and had been allowed the services of an orthodox priest; Marie Antoinette had to ride in a tumbrel, or cart, where she sat on a rude board beside a Constitutional priest (one who had taken the civic oath), the only kind of clergy now allowed to attend prisoners. Knowing the feelings of the people, Marie Antoinette feared they might attack and tear her to pieces before she could reach the scaffold. The priest, seeing this, tried to reassure her, and then, wishing to improve the occasion, began, "Madame, by your death you will expiate . . ."

"Yes," she interrupted quickly, "errors, but not crimes!"  She was right: she had made mistakes, but only those natural to youth and ignorance, and had never committed any of the willful crimes which her foes laid to her charge.

Amid silence at first, and then a roar of insults, Marie Antoinette passed for the last time through the streets of Paris, and on reaching the scaffold sprang up the steps so eagerly that she dropped one of her slippers, which is now preserved as a sacred relic. On her way to the plank to which she was to be bound, she accidentally stepped on the executioner's foot, and apologized immediately, for her sufferings had made her even more tender of the feelings of others. As soon as the cruel knife had fallen, the executioner held the head of this victim so that all could gaze upon her features,—as he had done with that of her husband nine months before,—and then the remains of this Queen of France were buried by the state at a cost of less than two dollars.

The very day and hour that Marie Antoinette was thus released from a life which had been full of bliss and of sorrow, of grandeur and of bitter humiliation, the French won the battle of Wattignies (1793), and the nation thus claimed it had two causes for great rejoicing! The execution of Marie Antoinette was closely followed by that of twenty-one patriotic Girondists, who, on their way to the scaffold, and while awaiting their turn, heroically sang the "Marseillaise," to prove their devotion to their native country. Only one of their number dared not face the ordeal of the guillotine; but although he succeeded in committing suicide, his inanimate corpse was nevertheless borne to the scaffold to be beheaded with the rest. The strong chorus of a score of manly voices dwindled gradually as one head after another fell beneath the knife, but even the last Girondist kept up the strain, undaunted to the final minute.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


The Duke of Orleans—who, you remember, had voted for his cousin's death, and who had since been equally execrated by both parties—was one of the next victims. He was sent to the scaffold with a criminal, who cried, "I hardly regret life, since he who has ruined my country receives the just punishment of his crimes, but what mortifies me is to be obliged to die on the same scaffold with him!"

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


Four days after this execution, Madame Roland,—the clever wife of the president of the Convention,—who for two years past had entertained the Girondists at her house, was also led to the scaffold. She had been an enthusiastic advocate of the Revolution at first, expecting that reforms would be effected in an orderly manner, as did the ardent patriots who formed her circle of literary and political friends.

During her imprisonment, Madame Roland spent her time writing her Memoirs, which are considered a graphic account of those times. Upon being condemned to die, she said to the judge who pronounced her sentence: "I thank you for having found me worthy to share the lot of the great men you have murdered. I shall try to display the same courage on the scaffold." To one of her former guests, brought to the scaffold with her, she quickly whispered, "Mount first; you would not have nerve enough to see me die." And when about to lay her own head under the knife, she is reported to have exclaimed, gazing at a statue of Liberty recently erected near there, "O Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!" Her husband, who managed to escape his pursuers and hide, was so maddened by grief at the news of her execution, that he committed suicide, protesting that he "would no longer remain in a world defiled by such crimes."