The Guillotine's Royal Victims
On December 20, all the members of that unhappy family were condemned to perpetual exile, with the exception of the prisoners in the Temple. And of these, on January 19, the King was brought to trial, and on the 20th, by the judgment of his subjects, was condemned to die.
"Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it." In spite of his weakness, Louis was a flower of a fine old French nobility, and his death was an example of heroic fortitude worthy of the many noble martyrs who followed him. Mutual misfortune, moreover, bound Louis and Marie Antoinette very closely to each other. At the end, when the shadow of death already lay across their path, there was something very pathetic in the devotion of these two poor sufferers; they loved each other, clung to each other, and comforted each other. On the eve of his execution, the Queen brought the children to see their father, and for a long while sat conversing with him. As she rose to go, however, she said to Louis, "Promise that you will see us again." "I will see you in the morning," he answered, "before ... I go - at eight." "It must be earlier," she implored, clinging to him. "It shall be earlier, then," he replied, "by half an hour." "Promise me." Louis promised, but when the Queen had gone he asked his gaolers not to mention his departure. He wished to spare the feelings of his wife.
Thus, when the fateful morrow dawned, Marie Antoinette sat waiting expectantly for his summons. She listened to every sound; seven, struck the clocks of Paris; eight, but still no message; nine, ten. There was no noise in the streets; the city was enveloped in silence; it was horrible, oppressive. Then the clocks chimed the quarter-hour. Suddenly the echo of the distant roar of human voices reached the queen's ears, and she knew that the foul and awful deed was done.
Even yet, however, Fersen hoped to save the Queen, but his hopes were vain. On October 16, at half-past ten in the morning, the guillotine claimed her also among the number of its victims. She met her death with amazing bravery and calmness. Proud and erect she stood in the tumbril as she was driven through those streets of evil faces. She had clothed herself for the ordeal with great care, but the dampness of her prison had robbed one eye of its power of vision, her hair was lank and dishevelled, her face emaciated, and the painted red upon her cheeks formed an agonising contrast to the pallor of her skin. For one moment she stood erect upon the scaffold in full view of the crowd, and then the cruel knife fell.
Fersen has left on record a description of his feelings. The words are not demonstrative, but he was not a Frenchman, he was not given to demonstration. Not even, moreover, by reading between the lines can one fathom the bottomless depths of his emotion. "Although I was prepared for it," he wrote, . it certainly overcame me. . . . The Gazette of the 17th speaks of it. It was on the 16th, at half-past eleven, that this execrable crime was committed, and the Divine vengeance has not yet fallen upon the monsters." Later he wrote: "I can only think of my loss. . . . That she should have been alone in her last moments. . . . That is horrifying! The monsters of hell! No; without vengeance, my heart will never be content."
But to avenge was a task beyond his mortal power. Perhaps, however, when he died himself a martyr, he received a small measure of grim compensation. But before this happened seventeen years elapsed, and in Sweden kings had come and kings had gone. Under Gustavus IV., Fersen had risen to high favour, but on his death the dynasty was changed, and shortly afterwards a rumour was spread abroad that Fersen had poisoned the new King's heir in the interests of the former ruling family. Sweden readily believed the story, for Sweden hated Fersen.
The Story of the Ring
On June 20, the young prince was buried - June 20, the anniversary of the flight to Varennes, the anniversary of the day on which the multitude of revolutionaries marched upon the Tuileries, there to make demands upon the King. Fersen attended the funeral, but on the steps of the very church where the service was conducted he was stoned by an infuriated mob, torn limb from limb, mutilated, and carried in pieces round the town of Stockholm. While, however, he was standing at bay, brandishing his sword, his tormentors noticed a ring on his left hand, gleaming sullenly. Instinctively they withdrew; they hated that ring; there was something ominous about it; it breathed Death.
At length, however, somebody suggested stoning Fersen, and then a fisherman, braver than the rest, advanced with an axe and hacked off the finger on which the ring was worn, and hurled it far out to sea. On the next evening, while fishing, if legend can be believed, he saw something shining on a distant rock. It was the ring! Some mysterious force compelled him to pick it up. Then he saw a hand, a hand intact, grasping the mast above his head; presently that hand released its hold and disappeared.
When the fisherman returned to Stockholm he was mad.