Josephine - John S. C. Abbott

Scenes in Prison


The Convent of the Carmelites, in which Josephine was imprisoned, had acquired a fearful celebrity during the Reign of Terror. It was a vast and gloomy pile, so capacious in its halls, its chapel, its cells, and its subterranean dungeons, that at one time nearly ten thousand prisoners were immured within its frowning walls. In every part of the building the floors were still deeply stained with the blood of the recent massacres. The infuriated men and women, intoxicated with rum and rage, who had broken into the prison, dragged multitudes of their victims, many of whom were priests, into the chapel, that they might, in derision of religion, poniard them before the altar. About three hundred thousand innocent victims of the Revolution now crowded the prisons of France. These unhappy captives, awaiting the hour of their execution, were not the ignorant, the debased, the degraded, but the noblest, the purest, the most refined of the citizens of the republic. Josephine was placed in the chapel of the convent, where she found one hundred and sixty men and women as the sharers of her captivity.

The natural buoyancy of her disposition led her to take as cheerful a view as possible of the calamity in which the family was involved. Being confident that no serious charge could be brought against her husband, she clung to the hope that they both would soon be liberated, and that happy days were again to dawn upon her reunited household. She wrote cheering letters to her husband and to her children. Her smiling countenance and words of kindness animated with new courage the grief-stricken and the despairing who surrounded her. She immediately became a universal favorite with the inmates of the prison. Her instinctive tact enabled her to approach all acceptably, whatever their rank or character. She soon became prominent in influence among the prisoners, and reigned there, as every where else, over the hearts of willing subjects. Her composure, her cheerfulness, her clear and melodious voice, caused her to be selected to read, each day, to the ladies, the journal of the preceding day. From their windows they could see, each morning, the carts bearing through the streets their burden of unhappy victims who were to perish on the scaffold. Not unfrequently a wife would catch a glimpse of her husband, or a mother of her son, borne past the grated windows in the cart of the condemned. Who can tell the fear and anguish with which the catalogue of the guillotined was read, when each trembling heart apprehended that the next word might announce that some loved one had perished? Not unfrequently a piercing shriek, and a fainting form falling lifeless upon the floor, revealed upon whose heart the blow had fallen.

Hortense, impetuous and unreflecting, was so impatient to see her mother, that one morning she secretly left her aunt's house, and, in a market cart, traveled thirty miles to Paris. She found her mother's maid, Victorine, at the family mansion, where all the property was sealed up by the revolutionary functionaries. After making unavailing efforts to obtain an interview with her parents, she returned the next day to Fontainebleau. Josephine was informed of this imprudent act of ardent affection, and wrote to her child the following admirable letter:

"I should be entirely satisfied with the good heart of my Hortense were I not displeased with her bad head. How is it, my daughter, that, without permission from your aunt, you have come to Paris? This was very wrong! But it was to see me, you will say. You ought to be aware that no one can see me without an order, to obtain which requires both means and precautions. And, besides, you got upon M. Dorcet's cart, at the risk of incommoding him and retarding the conveyance of his merchandise. In all this you have been very inconsiderate. My child! observe, it is not sufficient to do good; you must also do good properly. At your age, the first of all virtues is confidence and docility toward your relations. I am therefore obliged to tell you that I prefer your tranquil attachment to your misplaced warmth. This, however, does not prevent me from embracing you, but less tenderly than I shall do when I learn that you have returned to your aunt."

There was at this time, for some unknown reason, a little mitigation in the severity with which the prisoners were treated, and Josephine was very sanguine in the belief that the hour of their release was at hand. Emboldened by this hope, she wrote a very earnest appeal to the Committee of Public Safety, before whom the accusations against M. Beauharnais would be brought. The sincerity and frankness of the eloquent address so touched the feelings of the president of the committee, that he resolved to secure for Josephine and her husband the indulgence of an interview. The greatest caution was necessary in doing this, for he periled his own life by the manifestation of any sympathy for the accused.

The only way in which he could accomplish his benevolent project was to have them both brought together for trial. Neither of them knew of this design. One morning Josephine, while dreaming of liberty and of her children, was startled by the unexpected summons to appear before the Revolutionary tribunal. She knew that justice had no voice which could be heard before that merciless and sanguinary court. She knew that the mockery of a trial was but the precursor of the sentence, which was immediately followed by the execution. From her high hopes this summons caused a fearful fall. Thoughts of her husband and her children rushed in upon her overflowing heart, and the tenderness of the woman for a few moments triumphed over the heroine. Soon, however, regaining in some degree her composure, she prepared herself, with as much calmness as possible, to meet her doom. She was led from her prison to the hall where the blood-stained tribunal held its session, and, with many others, was placed in an ante-room, to await her turn for an examination of a few minutes, upon the issues of which life or death was suspended. While Josephine was sitting here, in the anguish of suspense, an opposite door was opened, and some armed soldiers led in a group of victims from another prison. As Josephine's eye vacantly wandered over their features, she was startled by the entrance of one whose wan and haggard features strikingly reminded her of her husband. She looked again, their eyes met, and husband and wife were instantly locked in each other's embrace. At this interview, the stoicism of M. Beauharnais was entirely subdued—the thoughts of the past, of his unworthiness, of the faithful and generous love of Josephine, rushed in a resistless flood upon his soul. He leaned his aching head upon the forgiving bosom of Josephine, and surrendered himself to love, and penitence, and tears.

This brief and painful interview was their last. They never met again. They were allowed but a few moments together ere the officers came and dragged M. Beauharnais before the judges. His examination lasted but a few minutes, when he was remanded back to prison. Nothing was proved against him. No serious accusation even was laid to his charge. But he was a noble. He had descended from illustrious ancestors, and therefore, as an aristocrat, he was doomed to die. Josephine was also conducted into the presence of this sanguinary tribunal. She was the wife of a nobleman. She was the friend of Marie Antoinette. She had even received distinguished attentions at court. These crimes consigned her also to the guillotine. Josephine was conducted back to her prison, unconscious of the sentence which had been pronounced against her husband and herself. She even cherished the sanguine hope that they would soon be liberated, for she could not think it possible that they could be doomed to death without even the accusation of crime.

Each evening there was brought into the prison a list of the names of those who were to be led to the guillotine on the ensuing morning. A few days after the trial, on the evening of the 24th of July, 1794, M. Beauharnais found his name with the proscribed who were to be led to the scaffold with the light of the next day. Love for his wife and his children rendered life too precious to him to be surrendered without anguish. But sorrow had subdued his heart, and led him with prayerfulness to look to God for strength to meet the trial. The native dignity of his character also nerved him to meet his fate with fortitude.

He sat down calmly in his cell, and wrote a long, affectionate, and touching letter to his wife. He assured her of his most heartfelt appreciation of the purity and nobleness of her character, and of her priceless worth as a wife and a mother. He thanked her again and again for the generous spirit with which she forgave his offenses, when, weary and contrite, he returned from his guilty wanderings, and anew sought her love. He implored her to cherish in the hearts of his children the memory of their father, that, though dead, he might still live in their affections. While he was writing, the executioners came in to cut off his long hair, that the ax might do its work unimpeded. Picking up a small lock from the floor, he wished to transmit it to his wife as his last legacy. The brutal executioners forbade him the privilege. He, however, succeeded in purchasing from them a few hairs, which he inclosed in his letter, and which she subsequently received.

In the early dawn of the morning, the cart of the condemned was at the prison door. The Parisians were beginning to be weary of the abundant flow of blood, and Robespierre had therefore caused the guillotine to be removed from the Place de la Revolution to an obscure spot in the Faubourg St. Antoine. A large number of victims were doomed to die that morning. The carts, as they rolled along the pavements, groaned with their burdens, and the persons in the streets looked on in sullen silence. M. Beauharnais, with firmness, ascended the scaffold. The slide of the guillotine fell, and the brief drama of his stormy life was ended.

While the mutilated form of M. Beauharnais was borne to an ignoble burial, Josephine, entirely unconscious of the calamity which had befallen her, was cheering her heart with the hope of a speedy union with her husband and her children in their own loved home. The morning after the execution, the daily journal, containing the names of those who had perished on the preceding day, was brought, as usual, to the prison. Some of the ladies in the prison had received the intimation that M. Beauharnais had fallen. They watched, therefore, the arrival of the journal, and, finding their fears established, they tried, for a time, to conceal the dreadful intelligence from the unconscious widow. But Josephine was eagerly inquiring for the paper, and at last obtaining it, she ran her eye hastily over the record of executions, and found the name of her husband in the fatal list. She fell senseless upon the floor. For a long time she remained in a swoon. When consciousness returned, and with it a sense of the misery into which she was plunged, in the delirium of her anguish she exclaimed, "Oh God! let me die! let me die! There is no peace for me but in the grave."

Her friends gathered around her. They implored her to think of her children, and for their sake to prize a life she could no longer prize for her own. The poignancy of her grief gradually subsided into the calm of despair. A sleepless night lingered slowly away. The darkness and the gloom of a prison settled down upon her soul. The morning dawned drearily. A band of rough and merciless agents from the Revolutionary Assembly came to her with the almost welcome intelligence that in two days she was to be led to the Conciergerie, and from thence to her execution. These tidings would have been joyful to Josephine were it not for her children. A mother's love clung to the orphans, and it was with pain inexpressible that she thought of leaving them alone in this tempestuous world—a world made so stormy, so woeful, by man's inhumanity to his fellow-man.

The day preceding the one assigned for her execution arrived. The numerous friends of Josephine in the prison hung around her with tears. The heartless jailer came and took away her mattress, saying, with a sneer, that she would need it no longer, as her head was soon to repose upon the soft pillow of the guillotine. It is reported that, as the hour of execution drew nearer, Josephine became not only perfectly calm, but even cheerful in spirit. She looked affectionately upon the weeping group gathered around her, and, recalling at the moment the prediction of the aged negress, gently smiling, said, "We have no cause for alarm my friends; I am not to be executed. It is written in the decrees of Fate that I am yet to be Queen of France." Some of her friends thought that the suppressed anguish of her heart had driven her to delirium, and they wept more bitterly. But one of the ladies, Madame d'Aiguillon, was a little irritated at pleasantry which she deemed so ill timed. With something like resentment, she asked, "Why, then, madame, do you not appoint your household?" "Ah! that is true," Josephine replied. "I had forgotten. Well, you, my dear, shall be my maid of honor. I promise you the situation." They both lived to witness the strange fulfillment of this promise. Josephine, however, who, from the circumstances of her early life, was inclined to credulity, afterward declared that at the time her mind reposed in the full confidence that in some way her life would be saved, and that the prediction of the negress would be virtually realized.

The shades of night settled down around the gloomy convent, enveloping in their folds the despairing hearts which thronged this abode of woe. Suddenly the most exultant shout of joy burst from every lip, and echoed along through corridors, and dungeons, and grated cells. There was weeping and fainting for rapture inexpressible. The prisoners leaped into each other's arms, and, frantic with happiness, clung together in that long and heartfelt embrace which none can appreciate but those who have been companions in woe. Into the blackness of their midnight there had suddenly burst the blaze of noonday. What caused this apparently miraculous change? The iron-hearted jailer had passed along, announcing, in coarsest phrase, THAT ROBESPIERRE WAS GUILLOTINED. There had been a new revolution. The tyrant had fallen. The prisons which he had filled with victims were to be emptied of their captives.