A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XI." by Constance Hill
From: Juniper Hall: A Rendevous of Certain Illustrious Personages during the French Revolution Including Alexandre D'Arblay and Fanny Burney by Constance Hill. London & New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1904.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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CHAPTER XI

A KING'S DEATH

TOWARDS the end of January 1793, Fanny Burney went to Norbury Park to visit her friends the Locks.

Soon after her arrival the news reached the Mickleham colony of the execution of Louis XVI. Fanny writes to her father:

"I have been wholly without spirit for writing, reading, working, or even walking or conversing ever since my arrival. The dreadful tragedy acted in France has entirely absorbed me . . . . Except the period of the illness of our own inestimable King, I have never been so overcome with grief and dismay for any but personal and family calamities. O what a tragedy! How implacable its villainy, and how severe its sorrows!

. . . Good Heaven! what must have been the sufferings of the few unhardened in crimes who inhabit that city of horrors, if I, an English person, have been so deeply afflicted that even this sweet house and society - even my Susan [Page 109]  and her lovely children - have been incapable to give me any pleasure?

. . . "M. de Narbonne and M. d'Arblay have been almost annihilated; they are for ever repining that they are French, and though two of the most accomplished and elegant men I ever saw, they break our hearts with the humiliation they feel for their guiltless birth in that guilty country! 'Is it possible, Mr. Lock,' cries M. de Narbonne, 'that you can still retain friendly feelings towards those who have the shame and the misfortune to be born Frenchmen?'"

A few days later Fanny writes: "I hear daily more and more affecting accounts of the saint-like end of the martyred Louis. Madame de Staël, daughter of M. Necker, is now at the head of the colony of French noblesse established near Mickleham. She has just received by a private letter many particulars not yet made public, and which the Commune and Commissaries of the Temple had ordered should be suppressed. It has been exacted by those cautious men of blood that nothing should be printed that could attendrir le peuple.

. . . "When the King left the Temple to go to the place of execution, the cries of his wretched family were heard loud and shrill through the courts without. Good Heaven! what distress [Page 110]  and horror equalled ever what they must then experience?

"When he arrived at the scaffold his Confessor, as if with the courage of inspiration, called out to him aloud, after his last benediction: 'Fils de Saint Louis, montez au ciel!' The King ascended with firmness, and meant to harangue his guilty subjects; but the wretch Santerre said he was not there to speak, and the drums drowned the words, except to those nearest the terrible spot. To those he audibly was heard to say 'Citoyens, je meurs innocent! Je pardonne à mes assassins; et je souhaite que ma mort soit utile à mon peuple.'"

The "Confessor," as the reader will remember, was the Abbé Edgeworth,[1] known in France as the Abbé de Firmont. He has left on record his experiences of that solemn time. About a week before the King's execution he wrote to Edmund Burke, who had urged him to fly from France: "The Malheureux Maître charges me not to quit the country, for that I am the person he intends to employ to prepare him for death, in case the iniquity of the nation should commit that last act of cruelty and parricide. In these circumstances I must endeavour to prepare myself, too, for death; for I am convinced that popular rage will not

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THE ABBÉ EDGEWORTH

[Page 111]  allow me to survive one hour after that tragic act. But I am resigned; my life is of no consequence; the preservation of it or the shedding of my blood is not connected with the happiness or misery of millions . . . . Fiat voluntas tua."

In a letter to a brother the Abbé says that the King's message, asking him to attend his last moments, was "moving beyond expression." "The King," he remarks, "though in chains, had a right to command; but he commanded not. My attendance was requested merely as a pledge of my affection for him - as a favour which he hoped I would not refuse. . . . . I made answer that whether he lived or died I would be his friend to the last."

Some days elapsed before the Abbé was summoned to attend the King. They were employed by him in putting his affairs in order, in making his will, and in providing for the care of his large flock; for the Archbishop of Paris, who had fled from the city, had committed his whole diocese into the hands of the Abbé Edgeworth.

On the 20th of January the summons came. The Abbé was then lying concealed in the house of his mother and sister in the Rue du Bacq.

"It was five o'clock in the afternoon," he writes, "and a coach was waiting at my door; but as I knew my poor mother would be alarmed to see me go out at that time of the evening whilst all [Page 112]  was danger in the streets, I sent immediately to an intimate friend of hers and gave her my secret, requesting her to keep it until she had news of me, and to tell my mother that I had been suddenly called upon to assist a dying person, and would not come home until morning. This quieted her completely; but Betty was no dupe. 'Oh,' said she to her friend, 'the dying person is the King! I always apprehended this moment for my brother - he is lost for me; but his duty is to go, and I must resign myself to my fate.'"

The Abbé describes the long procession moving slowly, on the following morning, to the place of execution. When the carriage drew up at the Place Louis XV., "the guards," he says, "would have jumped out, but the King stopped them, and leaning his arm on my knee, 'Gentlemen,' said he, in a voice of authority, 'I recommend to you this good man; take care that after my death no insult be offered him. I charge you to prevent it.'"

After giving the details of the scene upon the scaffold the Abbé goes on to say: "As soon as the fatal blow was given, I fell upon my knees, and thus remained until the vile wretch who acted the principal part in this horrid tragedy came with shouts of joy, showing the bleeding head to the mob, and sprinkling me with the blood that streamed from it. Then, indeed, I thought it [Page 113]  time to quit the scaffold; but casting my eyes round about I saw myself invested by twenty or thirty thousand men in arms . . . . All eyes were fixed on me . . . but as soon as I reached the first line, to my great surprise, no resistance was made; the second line opened in the same manner, and when I got to the fourth or fifth, my coat being a common surtout (for I was not permitted, on this occasion, to wear any exterior marks of a priest), I was absolutely lost in the crowd, and no more noticed than if I had been a simple spectator of a scene which for ever will dishonour France." In one of his letters the Abbé describes Louis XVI. as "a prince who, with every virtue, had but one fault - that of thinking too well of others, whilst he refused common justice to himself."

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Footnotes

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1 The Abbé belonged to the same family as that of the writer Maria Edgeworth.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom