Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Orphans of the Temple

It was on June 8, 1795, before the Convention finished its sessions, that another of the Temple prisoners left its walls forever. That was little Louis Capet, once the Dauphin, and since his father's death known by Royalists as Louis XVII., although he never reigned. You remember that this poor child entered the Temple in August, 1792, and that about a year later, after his father's death, he was torn from his mother to be intrusted to the brutal care of Simon. Now, it is believed that some of the rabid Revolutionists, feeling that they could not  guillotine a child, and not daring to get rid of him by secret assassination lest they be found out, wished to undermine his health by confinement and ill treatment, so he would die a natural death, thus putting a stop to all Royalist attempts to place him on his father's throne.

The brutal Simon had the care of this innocent victim until Madam Elizabeth was removed from the Temple. Shortly after that, Madam Royal heard a great commotion, and fancied that her little brother was being removed to another place. The men who brought her scanty meals (they themselves now ate the food intended for the royal prisoners), and those who, three times a day and sometimes in the middle of the night, suddenly entered and searched her room to discover whether she could be corresponding with "traitors," answered all her questions by saying only, "I advise you to have patience and to trust in the justice and goodness of Frenchmen."

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


The noise which had prompted Madam Royal's vain questions was caused by the moving of Simon and of his wife,—now tired of prison life,—and by the transfer of her poor little brother to a room upstairs, where, young as he was, his jailers were going to leave him many months all alone. Only once during all that time was Louis's room cleaned, and it was never aired, the window being covered and nailed fast to insure safety. The child's food was handed to him through a wicket, where he was obliged to show his face night or day, whenever called by the men on guard, and the only light he saw at night was that flashed on his pale features by the sentinel's lantern!

Poor little Louis was so afraid of every one by this time, that he never dared speak to the sentinels, and, during the last months of his captivity, he proved so dumb that a few of the men actually believed a deaf-mute child had been locked up there instead of the little prince! This suspicion gave rise to many romantic stories, in which the prince is said to have escaped, and to have lived to grow up, marry, and have children, whose descendants still exist.

Every day the small prisoner was given a crock of water, so he could have washed and kept clean, and he had a broom with which he might have swept his room, yet he did nothing of the sort, simply because he had always been washed, dressed, and waited upon, and was not accustomed to do anything for himself. Without books, or toys, or other means of occupation, amusement, or exercise, the child naturally became dull and listless, and the uncleanliness and bad air so undermined his health, that when he was finally given a bath and clean clothes, and later placed in another room with an attendant as kind as he dared be to this pitiful wreck, it was only too evident that the child had only a short time to live.

Then, Robespierre being dead, at last, the government, more humanely inclined, sent to the little patient a doctor who had attended him in his happy days, but now could do naught but ease his last moments. Even then the poor boy still remembered his mother, for he once piteously begged to go to her, ceasing only when told that such a request would endanger his kind keeper's life. Although Louis now had company by day, he was still always locked up alone at night, and although the sister who had been his beloved playmate was under the selfsame roof, he was never allowed one glimpse of her face!

We are told that he suffered greatly from tumors and sores,—the result of neglect and harsh treatment,—but that he was always patient and gentle. Once, when his attendant expressed regret at his anguish, the poor little laddie said, "Console yourself; I shall not suffer always." No, the poor little martyr's trials were nearly over. A few moments before he died, a smile—the first in many months—passed over his wasted face as with a rapturous look he exclaimed that he heard his mother singing! A moment later his spirit had left the place where he had been so unhappy, and had gone to join that of his beloved parents. Louis XVII. was then ten years and two months old (1795), having spent nearly three years of this short life in the Temple prison.

A few months later, just when the Convention was drawing to a close, his sister, who had been alone in her prison ever since Madam Elizabeth's departure, was allowed the company of a woman, and was soon after informed that she would be sent to Austria, in exchange for the commissioners surrendered by Dumouriez. But it was only a few hours before she left the Temple, that her eager questions were finally answered and she was told in the briefest and baldest way that she no longer had mother, brother, or aunt! When the death of her aunt was made known to her, Madam Royal exclaimed in broken-hearted accents: "What! Elizabeth, too! She was a saint!"

Do you wonder that this poor girl had written on her prison walls: "Marie Therese is the most unhappy creature in the world. She can obtain no news of her mother, nor be reunited to her, though she has asked it a thousand times!" But after the above news had been communicated to her, she traced the words, "Oh, my God! forgive those who have made my family die," thus proving that she, like her brother, was mindful of the last injunctions of her parents.

This poor young princess left her awful prison where she had been three and a half years, on her seventeenth birthday, to be escorted to the Austrian frontier, where she was exchanged for the other prisoners. From Vienna, at her request, she was sent to Russia to join her uncle (her father's brother, the "clever boy"), who, ever since her little brother's death, had claimed the empty title of Louis XVIII., King of France. In 1799, four years after leaving prison, she married the Duke of Angouleme, eldest son of her father's second brother (Count of Artois), as had already been decided in the happy days of her childhood, so you will hear of her again, as Duchess of Angouleme, for she was to play a further part in French history.