Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The King's Execution

As the end was so near, Louis XVI.'s last painful interview with his family took place that selfsame evening, under the supervision of the brutal jailers who guarded them. For two hours the royal family wept together, embracing one another, and speaking their last farewells. Louis took his little son on his knee, and so impressively told him he must forgive his oppressors, that, young as he was,—not quite eight years old,—the little fellow remembered and obeyed even under the most trying circumstances.

When the two hours were over and he saw they must part, Louis pacified his wife and sister by promising to see them again on the morrow, although he knew this was the last glimpse he would have, in this world, of the defenseless beings he loved so dearly, and to whom he had always been a good husband, father, and brother. Marie Antoinette, who now never resented anything that was done to her, indignantly exclaimed to her husband's jailers as she passed them going out from this heartrending interview, "You are all rascals!"—a reproof which cut deep because it was so true, and for which they never forgave her.

The affecting parting with his family once over, Louis XVI.,—who had already written his will,—had nothing to do but prepare for the end. He therefore spent most of the night in prayer, sleeping only a little while, and that mainly because he did not wish to appear tired, or to have his courage give out at the end through bodily weakness.

The next morning, after confessing and receiving the last sacrament, Louis begged pardon of his jailer, with whom he had been impatient the day before,—intrusted his last messages for his family to the faithful servant who had followed him to prison, handed his will to the commissioners, and himself gave the signal for departure. A moment later, his poor wife heard the carriage drive away, and then only learned that she was not to see him again before he died! All the streets were lined with troops, and the city absolutely silent, so no sound save the roll of the wheels over the pavement distracted the king's thoughts from his final prayers. Realizing that his faith was now his sole stay and consolation, he exclaimed,

"Where should I be now if God had not granted me grace to remain true to my religion?"

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


On reaching the scaffold,—erected opposite the Tuileries, on the spot where one of the fountains of the Place de la Concorde now plays,—Louis XVI. stepped out of his carriage, and after recommending his confessor to the care of the executioners, promptly divested himself of his coat. But when they attempted to bind his hands, he resisted indignantly, saying: "Tie my hands! No, I will not submit to this. Do your duty, but do not attempt to tie me. You shall not do it!" But the men insisted, and the king's confessor now whispered, "Sire, this last insult will only provide a fresh point of resemblance between your Majesty and the God who will be your recompense!" Louis then ceased to resist, and rejoined with a sigh: Assuredly, His example alone could induce me to submit to such an indignity. Do as you please; I will drink the cup to the dregs."

It was, therefore, with hands fast bound behind him, that Louis XVI stepped forward to the railing, and, facing the assembled crowd, cried in a firm voice: "I die innocent of the crimes imputed to me. I forgive the authors of my death, and I pray that my blood may not fall upon France. . . ." But here his speech was interrupted by loud rolls of the drums, the authorities fearing lest a reaction should take place in his favor even at the last minute.

A moment later, just after Abbe Edgeworth is reported to have pronounced the famous words, "Son of St. Louis, ascend to Heaven!" the executioner exhibited the king's head to the multitude, who gazed in awestruck silence at the countenance of the last of the unbroken line of thirty-three Capetian kings who had, so far, ruled France.

Then people crowded around the scaffold, to dip their handkerchiefs in the king's blood, some of these relics being still piously preserved. But, instead of resting from the first in St. Denis,—where a monument was erected later over what could still be found of his remains,—Louis XVI. was buried like other guillotine victims, in the spot where now rises a beautiful chapel, the Chapelle Expiatoire, erected in atonement of this sinful execution of an innocent king, and of many other victims. Louis, the best but weakest of the Bourbons, died thus at thirty-eight, after a reign of eighteen and a half years; but although his foes had clamored for his death, saying, "Only the dead never come back to trouble us," he was to prove far more formidable to them dead than alive, for since the French had made a martyr of him, all Europe rose up to avenge his death.