Madame Roland - John S. C. Abbott

Arrest of Madame Roland

France was now governed by the Convention. The Convention was governed by the mob of Paris. The Jacobins were the head of this mob. They roused its rage, and guided its fury, when and where they listed. The friendship of the mob was secured and retained by ever pandering to their passions. The Jacobins claimed to be exclusively the friends of the people, and advocated all those measures which tended to crush the elevated and flatter the degraded. Robespierre, Danton, Marat, were now the idols of the populace.

On the morning of the 30th of May, 1793, the streets of Paris were darkened with a dismal storm of low, scudding clouds, and chilling winds, and sleet and rain. Pools of water stood in the miry streets, and every aspect of nature was cheerless and desolate. But there was another storm raging in those streets, more terrible than any elemental warfare. In locust legions, the deformed, the haggard, the brutalized in form, in features, in mind, in heart—demoniac men, satanic women, boys burly, sensual, blood-thirsty, like imps of darkness rioted along toward the Convention, an interminable multitude whom no one could count. Their hideous howlings thrilled upon the ear, and sent panic to the heart. There was no power to resist them. There was no protection from their violence. And thousands wished that they might call up even the most despotic king who ever sat upon the throne of France, from his grave, to drive back that most terrible of all earthly despotisms, the despotism of a mob. This was the power with which the Jacobins backed their arguments. This was the gory blade which they waved before their adversaries, and called the sword of justice.

The Assembly consisted of about eight hundred members. There were twenty-two illustrious men who were considered the leaders of the Girondist party. The Jacobins had resolved that they should be accused of treason, arrested, and condemned. The Convention had refused to submit to the arbitrary and bloody demand. The mob were now assembled to coerce submission. The melancholy tocsin, and the thunders of the alarm gun, resounded through the air, as the countless throng came pouring along like ocean billows, with a resistlessness which no power could stay. They surrounded the Assembly on every side, forced their way into the hall, filled every vacant space, clambered upon the benches, crowded the speaker in his chair, brandished their daggers, and mingled their oaths and imprecations with the fierce debate Even the Jacobins were terrified by the frightful spirits whom they had evoked. "Down with the Girondists!" "Death to the traitors!" the assassins shouted. The clamor of the mob silenced the Girondists, and they hardly made an attempt to speak in their defense. They sat upon their benches, pale with the emotions which the fearful scenes excited, yet firm and unwavering. As Couthon, a Jacobin orator, was uttering deep denunciations, he became breathless with the vehemence of his passionate speech. He turned to a waiter for a glass of water. "Take to Couthon a glass of blood," said Vergniaud; "he is thirsting for it."

The decree of accusation was proposed, and carried, without debate, beneath the poniards of uncounted thousands of assassins. The mob was triumphant. By acclamation it was then voted that all Paris should be joyfully illuminated, in celebration of the triumph of the people over those who would arrest the onward career of the Revolution; and every citizen of Paris well knew the doom which awaited him if brilliant lights were not burning at his windows. It was then voted, and with enthusiasm, that the Convention should go out and fraternize with the multitude. Who would have the temerity, in such an hour, to oppose the affectionate demonstration? The degraded Assembly obeyed the mandate of the mob, and marched into the streets, where they were hugged in the unclean arms and pressed to the foul bosoms of beggary, and infamy, and pollution. Louis was avenged. The hours of the day had now passed; night had come; but it was noonday light in the brilliantly-illuminated streets of the metropolis. The Convention, surrounded by torch-bearers, and an innumerable concourse of drunken men and women, rioting in hideous orgies, traversed, in compulsory procession, the principal streets of the city. The Girondists were led as captives to grace the triumph. "Which do you prefer," said a Jacobin to Vergniaud, "this ovation or the scaffold?" "It is all the same to me," replied Vergniaud, with stoical indifference. "There is no choice between this walk and the guillotine. It conducts us to it." The twenty-two Girondist were arrested and committed to prison.

During this dreadful day, while these scenes were passing in the Assembly, Madame Roland and her husband were in their solitary room, oppressed with the most painful suspense. The cry and the uproar of the insurgent city, the tolling of bells and thundering of cannon, were borne upon the wailings of the gloomy storm, and sent consternation even to the stoutest hearts. There was now no room for escape, for the barriers were closed and carefully watched. Madame Roland knew perfectly well that if her friends fell she must fall with them. She had shared their principles; she had guided their measures, and she wished to participate in their doom. It was this honorable feeling which led her to refuse to provide for her own safety, and which induced her to abide, in the midst of ever increasing danger, with her associates. No person obnoxious to suspicion could enter the street without fearful peril, though, through the lingering hours of the day, friends brought them tidings of the current of events. Nothing remained to be done but to await, as patiently as possible, the blow that was inevitably to fall.

The twilight was darkening into night, when six armed men ascended the stairs and burst into Roland's apartment. The philosopher look. ad calmly upon them as, in the name of the Convention, they informed him of his arrest. "I do not recognize the authority of your warrant," said M. Roland, "and shall not voluntarily follow you. I can only oppose the resistance of my gray hairs, but I will protest against it with my last breath."

The leader of the party replied, "I have no orders to use violence. I will go and report your answer to the council, leaving, in the mean time, a guard to secure your person."

This was an hour to rouse all the energy and heroic resolution of Madame Roland. She immediately sat down, and, with the rapidity of action which her highly-disciplined mind had attained, wrote, in a few moments, a letter to the Convention. Leaving a friend who was in the house with her husband, she ordered a hackney coach, and drove as fast as possible to the Tuileries, where the Assembly was in session. The garden of the Tuileries was filled with the tumultuary concourse. She forced her way through the crowd till she arrived at the doors of the outer halls. Sentinels were stationed at all the passages, who would not allow her to enter.

"Citizens," said she, at last adroitly adopting the vernacular of the Jacobins, "in this day of salvation for our country, in the midst of those traitors who threaten us, you know not the importance of some notes which I have to transmit to the president."

These words were a talisman. The doors were thrown open, and she entered the petitioners' hall. "I wish to see one of the messengers of the House," she said to one of the inner sentinels.

"Wait till one comes out," was the gruff reply.

She waited for a quarter of an hour in burning impatience. Her ear was almost stunned with the deafening clamor of debate, of applause, of execrations, which now in dying murmurs, and again in thundering reverberations, awakening responsive echoes along the thronged streets, swelled upon the night air. Of all human sounds, the uproar of a countless multitude of maddened human voices is the most-awful.

At last she caught a glimpse of the messenger who had summoned her to appear before the bar of the Assembly in reply to the accusations of Viard, informed him of their peril, and implored him to hand her letter to the president. The messenger, M. Raze, took the paper, and, elbowing his way through the throng, disappeared. An hour elapsed, which seemed an age. The tumult within continued unabated. At length M. Raze reappeared.

"Well!" said Madame Roland, eagerly, "what has been done with my letter?"

"I have given it to the president," was the reply, "but nothing has been done with it as yet. Indescribable confusion prevails. The mob demands the accusation of the Girondists. I have just assisted one to escape by a private way. Others are endeavoring, concealed by the tumult, to effect their escape. There is no knowing what is to happen."

"Alas!" Madame Roland replied, "my letter will not be read. Do send some deputy to me, with whom I can speak a few words."

"Whom shall I send?"

"Indeed I have but little acquaintance with any, and but little esteem for any, except those who are proscribed. Tell Vergniaud that I am inquiring for him."

Vergniaud, notwithstanding the terrific agitations of the hour, immediately attended the summons of Madame Roland. She implored him to try to get her admission to the bar, that she might speak in defense of her husband and her friends.

"In the present state of the Assembly," said Vergniaud, "it would be impossible, and if possible, of no avail. The Convention has lost all power. It has become but the weapon of the rabble. Your words can do no good."

"They may do much good," replied Madame Roland. "I can venture to say that which you could not say without exposing yourself to accusation. I fear nothing. If I can not save Roland, I will utter with energy truths which may be useful to the Republic. An example of courage may shame the nation."

"Think how unavailing the attempt," replied Vergniaud. "Your letter can not possibly be read for two or three hours. A crowd of petitioners throng the bar. Noise, and confusion, and violence fill the House."

Madame Roland paused for a moment, and replied, "I must then hasten home, and ascertain what has become of my husband. I will immediately return. Tell our friends so."

Vergniaud sadly pressed her hand, as if for a last farewell, and returned, invigorated by her courage, to encounter the storm which was hailed upon him in the Assembly. She hastened to her dwelling, and found that her husband had succeeded in eluding the surveillance of his guards, and, escaping by a back passage, had taken refuge in the house of a friend. After a short search she found him in his asylum, and, too deeply moved to weep, threw herself into his arms, informed him of what she had done, rejoiced at his safety, and heroically returned to the Convention, resolved, if possible, to obtain admission there. It was now near midnight. The streets were brilliant with illuminations; but Madame Roland knew not of which party these illuminations celebrated the triumph.

On her arrival at the court of the Tuileries, which had so recently been thronged by a mob of forty thousand men, she found it silent and deserted. The sitting was ended. The members, accompanied by the populace with whom they had fraternized, were traversing the streets. A few sentinels stood shivering in the cold and drizzling rain around the doors of the national palace. A group of rough-looking men were gathered before a cannon. Madame Roland approached them.

"Citizens," inquired she, "has every thing gone well to-night?"

"Oh! wonderfully well," was the reply. "The deputies and the people embraced, and sung the Marseilles Hymn, there, under the tree of liberty."

"And what has become of the twenty-two Girondists?"

"They are all to be arrested."

Madame Roland was almost stunned by the blow. Hastily crossing the court, she arrived at her hackney-coach. A very pretty dog, which had lost its master, followed her. "Is the poor little creature yours?" inquired the coachman. The tones of kindness with which he spoke called up the first tears which had moistened the eyes of Madame Roland that eventful night.

"I should like him for my little boy," said the coachman.

Madame Roland, gratified to have, at such an hour, for a driver, a father and a man of feeling, said, "Put him into the coach, and I will take care of him for you. Drive immediately to the galleries of the Louvre." Madame Roland caressed the affectionate animal, and, of the passions of man, longed for retirement from the world, and to seclude herself with those animals who would repay kindness with gratitude. She sank back in her seat, exclaiming, "O that we could escape from France, and find a home in the law-governed republic of America."

Alighting at the Louvre, she called upon a friend, with whom she wished to consult upon the means of effecting M. Roland's escape from the city. He had just gone to bed, but arose, conversed about various plans, and made an appointment to meet her at seven o'clock the next morning. Entirely unmindful of herself, she thought only of the rescue of her friends. Exhausted with excitement and toil, she returned to her desolated home, bent over the sleeping form of her child, and gave vent to a mother's gushing love in a flood of tears. Recovering her fortitude, she sat down and wrote to M. Roland a minute account of all her proceedings. It would have periled his safety had she attempted to share his asylum. The gray of a dull and somber morning was just beginning to appear as Madame Roland threw herself upon a bed for a few moments of repose. Overwhelmed by sorrow and fatigue, she had just fallen asleep, when a band of armed men rudely broke into her house, and demanded to be conducted to her apartment. She knew too well the object of the summons. The order for her arrest was presented her. She calmly read it, and requested permission to write to a friend. The request was granted. When the note was finished, the officer informed her that it would be necessary for him to be made acquainted with its contents. She quietly tore it into fragments, and cast it into the fire. Then, imprinting her last kiss upon the cheek of her unconscious child, with the composure which such a catastrophe would naturally produce in so heroic a mind, she left her home for the prison. Blood had been flowing too freely in Paris, the guillotine had been too active in its operations, for Madame Roland to entertain any doubts whither the path she now trod was tending.

It was early in the morning of a bleak and dismal day as Madame Roland accompanied the officers through the hall of her dwelling, where she had been the object of such enthusiastic admiration and affection. The servants gathered around her, and filled the house with their lamentations. Even the hardened soldiers were moved by the scene, and one of them exclaimed, "How much you are beloved."  "Madame Roland, who alone was tranquil in this hour of trial, calmly replied, "Because I love."  As she was led from the house by the gens d'armes, a vast crowd collected around the door, who, believing her to be a traitor to her country, and in league with their enemies, shouted, "A la guillotine!"  Unmoved by their cries, she looked calmly and compassionately upon the populace, without gesture or reply. One of the officers, to relieve her from the insults to which she was exposed, asked her if she wished to have the windows of the carriage closed.

"No!" she replied; "oppressed innocence should not assume the attitude of crime and shame. I do not fear the looks of honest men, and I brave those of my enemies."

"You have very great resolution," was the reply, "thus calmly to await justice."

"Justice!" she exclaimed; "were justice done I should not be here. But I shall go to the scaffold as fearlessly as I now proceed to the prison."

"Roland's flight," said one of the officers, brutally, "is a proof of his guilt."

She indignantly replied, "It is so atrocious to persecute a man who has rendered such services to the cause of liberty. His conduct has been so open and his accounts so clear, that he is perfectly justifiable in avoiding the last outrages of envy and malice. Just as Aristides and inflexible as Cato, he is indebted to his virtues for his enemies. Let them satiate their fury upon me. I defy their power, and devote myself to death. He ought to save himself for the sake of his country, to which he may yet do good."

When they arrived at the prison of the Abbaye, Madame Roland was first conducted into a large, dark, gloomy room, which was occupied by a number of men, who, in attitudes of the deepest melancholy, were either pacing the floor or reclining upon some miserable pallets. From this room she ascended a narrow and dirty staircase to the jailer's apartment. The jailer's wife was a kind woman, and immediately felt the power of the attractions of her fascinating prisoner. As no cell was yet provided for her, she permitted her to remain in her room for the rest of the day. The commissioners who had brought her to the prison gave orders that she should receive no indulgence, but be treated with the utmost rigor. The instructions, however, being merely verbal, were but little regarded. She was furnished with comfortable refreshment instead of the repulsive , prison fare, and, after breakfast, was permitted to write a letter to the National Assembly upon her illegal arrest. Thus passed the day.

At ten o'clock in the evening, her cell being prepared, she entered it for the first time. It was a cold, bare room, with walls blackened by the dust and damp of ages. There was a small fire-place in the room, and a narrow window, with a double iron grating, which admitted but a dim twilight even at noon day. In one corner there was a pallet of straw. The chill night air crept in at the unglazed window, and the dismal tolling of the tocsin proclaimed that the metropolis was still the scene of tumult and of violence. Madame Roland threw herself upon her humble bed, and was so overpowered by fatigue and exhaustion that she woke not from her dreamless slumber until twelve o'clock of the next day.

Eudora, who had been left by her mother in the care of weeping domestics, was taken by a friend, and watched over and protected with maternal care. Though Madame Roland never saw her idolized child again, her heart was comforted in the prison by the assurance that she had found a home with those who, for her mother's sake, would love and cherish her.

The tidings of the arrest and imprisonment of Madame Roland soon reached the ears of her unfortunate husband in his retreat. His embarrassment was most agonizing. To remain and participate in her doom, whatever that doom might be, would only diminish her chances of escape and magnify her peril; and yet it seemed not magnanimous to abandon his noble wife to encounter her merciless foes alone. The triumphant Jacobins were now, with the eagerness of bloodhounds, searching every nook and corner in Paris, to drag the fallen minister from his concealment. It soon became evident that no dark hiding-place in the metropolis could long conceal him from the vigilant search which was commenced, and that he must seek safety in precipitate flight. His friends obtained for him the tattered garb of a peasant. In a dark night, alone and trembling, he stole from his retreat, and commenced a journey on foot, by a circuitous and unfrequented route, to gain the frontiers of Switzerland. He hoped to find a temporary refuge by burying himself among the lonely passes of the Alps. A man can face his foes with a spirit undaunted and unyielding, but he can not fly from them without trembling as he looks behind. For two or three days, with blistered feet, and a heart agitated even beyond all his powers of stoical endurance, he toiled painfully along his dreary journey. As he was entering Moulins, his marked features were recognized. He was arrested, taken back to Paris, and cast into prison, where he languished for some time. He subsequently again made his escape, and was concealed by some friends in the vicinity of Rouen, where he remained in a state of indescribable suspense and anguish until the death of his wife.

When Madame Roland awoke from her long sleep, instead of yielding to despair and surrendering herself to useless repinings, she immediately began to arrange her cell as comfortably as possible, and to look around for such sources of comfort and enjoyment as might yet be obtained. The course she pursued most beautifully illustrates the power of a contented and cheerful spirit not only to alleviate the pangs of severest affliction, but to gild with comfort even the darkest of earthly sorrows. With those smiles of unaffected affability which won to her all hearts, she obtained the favor of a small table, and then of a neat white spread to cover it. This she placed near the window to serve for her writing-desk. To keep this table, which she prized so highly, unsoiled, she smilingly told her keeper that she should make a dining-table of her stove. A rusty dining-table indeed it was. Two hair-pins, which she drew from her own clustering ringlets, she drove into a shelf for pegs to hang her clothes upon. These arrangements she made as cheerfully as when superintending the disposition of the gorgeous furniture in the palace over which she had presided with so much elegance and grace. Having thus provided her study, her next care was to obtain a few books. She happened to have Thomson's Seasons, a favorite volume of hers, in her pocket. Through the jailer's wife she succeeded in obtaining Plutarch's Lives and Sheridan's Dictionary.

The jailer and his wife were both charmed with their prisoner, and invited her to dine with them that day. In the solitude of her cell she could distinctly hear the rolling of drums, the tolling of bells, and all those sounds of tumult which announced that the storm of popular insurrection was still sweeping through the streets One of her faithful servants called to see her, and, on beholding her mistress in such a situation, the poor girl burst into tears. Madame Roland was, for a moment, overcome by this sensibility; she, however, soon again regained her self-command. She endeavored to banish from her mind all painful thoughts of her husband and her child, and to accommodate herself as heroically as possible to her situation. The prison regulations were very severe. The government allowed twenty pence per day for the support of each prisoner. Ten pence was to be paid to the jailer for the furniture he put into the cell; ten pence only remained for food. The prisoners were, however, allowed to purchase such food as they pleased from their own purse. Madame Roland, with that stoicism which enabled her to triumph over all ordinary ills, resolved to conform to the prison allowance. She took bread and water alone for breakfast. The dinner was coarse meat and vegetables. The money she saved by this great frugality she distributed among the poorer prisoners. The only indulgence she allowed herself was in the purchase of books and flowers. In reading and with her pen she beguiled the weary days of her imprisonment. And though at times het spirit was overwhelmed with anguish in view of her desolate home and blighted hopes, she still found great solace in the warm affections which sprang up around her, even in the uncongenial atmosphere of a prison.

Though she had been compelled to abandon ill the enthusiastic dreams of her youth, she still retained confidence in her faith that these dark storms would ere long disappear from the political horizon, and that a brighter day would soon dawn upon the nations. No misfortunes could disturb the serenity of her soul, and no accumulating perils could daunt her courage. She immediately made a methodical arrangement of her time, so as to appropriate stated employment to every hour. She cheered herself with the reflection that her husband was safe in his retreat, with kind friends ready to minister to all his wants. She felt assured that her daughter was received with maternal love by one who would ever watch over her with the tenderest care. The agitation of the terrible conflict was over. She submitted with calmness and quietude to her lot. After having been so long tossed by storms, she seemed to find a peaceful harbor in her prison cell, and her spirit wandered back to those days, so serene and happy, which she spent with her books in the little chamber beneath her father's roof. She however, made every effort in her power to regain her freedom. She wrote to the Assembly, protesting against her illegal arrest. She found all these efforts unavailing. Still, she gave way to no despondency, and uttered no murmurs. Most of her time she employed in writing historic notices of the scenes through which she had passed. These papers she intrusted, for preservation, to a friend, who occasionally gained access to her. These articles, written with great eloquence and feeling, were subsequently published with her memoirs. Having such resources in her own highly-cultivated mind, even the hours of imprisonment glided rapidly and happily along. Time had no tardy flight, and there probably might have been found many a lady in Europe lolling in a sumptuous carriage, or reclining upon a silken couch, who had far fewer hours of enjoyment.

One day some commissioners called at her cell, hoping to extort from her the secret of her husband's retreat. She looked them calmly in the face, and said, "Gentlemen, I know perfectly well where my husband is. I scorn to tell you a lie. I know also my own strength. And I assure you that there is no earthly power which can induce me to betray him." The commissioners withdrew, admiring her heroism, and convinced that she was still able to wield an influence which might yet bring the guillotine upon their own necks. Her doom was sealed. Her heroism was her crime. She was too illustrious to live.