That which does not kill us makes us stronger. — Nietzsche

Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber




Death of Madam Elizabeth

Ever since Marie Antoinette had bidden her daughter and sister-in-law farewell, they had remained in the Temple, where three times a day guards entered their room to bring food, and occasionally appeared to search their rooms for traces of conspiracy, confiscating everything which seemed suspicious. But Madam Elizabeth was such a good and sensible woman, that she comforted her niece and trained her to take the utmost care of the two small rooms they occupied, of her clothes, and of her health. Every day the girl had to exercise during a certain length of time, walking up and down the room, for since the king's death they had never been down in the gardens, and since the queen's removal had even been denied air and exercise on the tower platform.

From time to time the princesses gleaned scanty news of poor little Louis, but what they heard so wrung their hearts that, to divert themselves, they read their few books of devotion over and over, and knitted and sewed diligently, ripping and re-ripping for the sake of an occupation, as new materials were denied them. Madam Elizabeth suspected that Marie Antoinette had been executed; still, as no positive tidings reached her, she would not sadden her little niece by imparting to her such ghastly fears.

One day, with just as little warning as when they came for the queen, men arrived to take Elizabeth away, vouchsafing no answers to her questions. The little princess said afterwards that her aunt urged her to have courage and firmness, to hope always in God, to practice the good principles of religion given her by her parents, and not to fail in the last instructions given her by her father and mother. Madam Elizabeth was immediately summoned before the court, where the worst real charges brought were that she had written to her émigré brothers, and that she had begged to remain with the king and queen in prison! Besides, her judges accused her of all manner of fancied base deeds, declaring that they felt sure she must be plotting mischief, as they could find no trace of her diamonds! She answered patiently at first; then, seeing all efforts were wasted, she exclaimed: "All these questions are, however, useless; you want my life. I have offered up to God the sacrifice of my being, and I am prepared to die, happy at the thought of rejoining my revered brother and his wife, whom I loved so dearly when on earth."

As loyalty to the late king was now high treason, this blameless princess was sentenced to the guillotine, with ten noble ladies and fourteen gentlemen, the judges grimly calling these people "her court," for they frequently indulged in ghastly jokes of that order. Having long been prepared to die, Madam Elizabeth heard her sentence calmly, and spent her few remaining hours comforting and strengthening those who were to be executed with her. To a mother, who wailed that while she felt resigned to die herself, she could not bear the thought of death for her son, aged twenty, Elizabeth said: "You love your son, and yet you do not wish him to accompany you! You are going yourself to the joys of heaven, and you want him to stay upon earth, where all is now torture and sorrow!" In the tumbrel on the way to the scaffold, she cheered her unfortunate companions by saying, "You have shown your compatriots how to live rightly; show them now how men die when their consciences are at peace!"

Hoping to shake the courage of the princess, the executioners decreed that she should be last, but Madam Elizabeth remained perfectly calm, embracing each of the women victims as they went up the steps to the guillotine, and allowing each of the men to take leave of her by kissing her hand, as was then customary in polite society. To the last victim she said firmly, "Courage and faith in God's mercy!" and, when called herself, submitted patiently to the last indignities, exclaiming only when the executioner roughly removed her kerchief, "In the name of your mother, sir, cover me!" Madam Elizabeth was executed in May, 1794, at the age of thirty, and thus little Louis and his sister were the only royal captives left in the gloomy prison, where the "Orphans of the Temple" were, however, never allowed to see each other again.