Madame Roland - John S. C. Abbott

Prison Life

Madame Roland remained for four months in the Abbaye prison. On the 24th day of her imprisonment, to her inexpressible astonishment, an officer entered her cell, and informed her that she was liberated, as no charge could be found against her. Hardly crediting her senses—fearing that she should wake up and find her freedom but the blissful delirium of a dream—she took a coach and hastened to her own door. Her eyes were full of tears of joy, and her heart almost bursting with the throbbings of delight, in the anticipation of again pressing her idolized child to het bosom. Her hand was upon the door latch—she had not yet passed the threshold—when two men, who had watched at the door of her dwelling, again seized her in the name of the law. In spite of her tears and supplications, they convoyed her to the prison of St. Pelagic. This loathsome receptacle of crime was filled with the abandoned females who had been swept, in impurity and degradation, from the streets of Paris. It was, apparently, a studied humiliation, to compel their victim to associate with beings from whom her soul shrunk with loathing. She had resigned herself to die, but not to the society of infamy and pollution.

The Jacobins, conscious of the illegality of her first arrest, and dreading her power, were anxious to secure her upon a more legal footing. They adopted, therefore, this measure of liberating her and arresting her a second time. Even her firm and resigned spirit was for a moment vanquished by this cruel blow. Her blissful dream of happiness was so instantaneously converted into the blackness of despair, that she buried her face in her hands, and, in the anguish of a bruised and broken heart, wept aloud. The struggle, though short, was very violent ere she regained her wonted composure. She soon, however, won the compassionate sympathy of her jailers, and was removed from this degrading companionship to a narrow cell, where she could enjoy the luxury of being alone. An humble bed was spread for her in one corner, and a small table was placed near the few rays of light which stole feebly in through the iron grating of the inaccessible window. Summoning all her fortitude to her aid, she again resumed her usual occupations, allotting to each hour of the day its regular employment. She engaged vigorously in the study of the English language, and passed some hours every day in drawing, of which accomplishment she was very fond. She had no patterns to copy; but her imagination wandered through the green fields and by the murmuring brooks of her rural home. Now she roved with free footsteps through the vineyards which sprang up beneath her creative pencil. Now she floated upon the placid lake, reclining upon the bosom of her husband and caressing her child, beneath the tranquil sublimity of the evening sky. Again she sat down at the humble fireside of the peasant, ministering to the wants of the needy, and receiving the recompense of grateful hearts. Thus, on the free wing of imagination, she penetrated all scenes of beauty, and spread them out in vivid reality before her eye. At times she almost forgot that she was a captive. Well might she have exclaimed, in the language of Maria Antoinette, "What a resource, amid true calamities of life, is a highly-cultivated mind!"

A few devoted friends periled their own lives by gaining occasional access to her. During the dark hours of that reign of terror and of blood, no crime was more unpardonable than the manifestation of sympathy for the accused. These friends, calling as often as prudence would allow, brought to her presents of fruit and of flowers. At last the jailer's wife, unable to resist the pleadings of her own heart for one whom she could not but love and admire, ventured to remove her to a more comfortable apartment, where the daylight shone brightly in through the iron bars of the window. Here she could see the clouds and the birds soaring in the free air. She was even allowed, through her friends, to procure a piano-forte, which afforded her many hours of recreation. Music, drawing, and flowers were the embellishments of her life. Madame Bouchaud, the wife of the jailer, conceived for her prisoner the kindest affection, and daily visited her, doing every thing in her power to alleviate the bitterness of her imprisonment. At last her sympathies were so aroused, that, regardless of all prudential considerations, she offered to aid her in making her escape. Madame Roland was deeply moved by this proof of devotion, and, though she was fully aware that she must soon place her head upon the scaffold, she firmly refused all entreaties to escape in any way that might endanger her friend. Others united with Madame Bouchaud in entreating her to accept of her generous offer. Their efforts were entirely unavailing. She preferred to die herself rather than to incur the possibility of exposing those who loved her to the guillotine. The kindness with which Madame Roland was treated was soon spied out by those in power. The jailer was severely reprimanded, and ordered immediately to remove the piano-forte from the room, and to confine Madame Roland rigorously in her cell. This change did not disturb the equanimity of her spirit. She had studied so deeply and admired so profoundly all that was noble in the most illustrious characters of antiquity, that her mind instinctively assumed the same model. She found elevated enjoyment in triumphing over every earthly ill.

An English lady, then residing in France, who had often visited her in the days of her power, when her home presented all that earth could give of splendor, and when wealth and rank were bowing obsequiously around her, thus describes a visit which she paid to her cell in these dark days of adversity.

"I visited her in the prison of Sainte Pelagie, where her soul, superior to circumstances, retained its accustomed serenity, and she conversed with the same animated cheerfulness in her cheerless dungeon as she used to do in the hotel of the minister. She had provided herself with a few books, and I found her reading Plutarch. She told me that she expected to die, and the look of placid resignation with which she said it convinced me that she was prepared to meet death with a firmness worthy of her exalted character. When I inquired after her daughter, an only child of thirteen years of age, she burst into tears; and, at the overwhelming recollection of her husband and child, the courage of the victim of liberty was lost in the feelings of the wife and the mother."

The merciless commissioners had ordered her to be incarcerated in a cell which no beam of light could penetrate. But her compassionate keepers ventured to misunderstand the orders, and to place her in a room where a few rays of the morning sun could struggle through the grated windows, and where the light of day, though seen bat dimly, might still, in some degree, cheer those eyes so soon to be closed for ever. The soul, instinctively appreciative of beauty, will under the most adverse circumstances, evoke congenial visions. Her friends brought her flowers, of which from childhood she had been most passionately fond. These cherished plants seemed to comprehend and requite unaffected love. At the iron window of her prison they appeared to grow with the joy and luxuriance of gratitude. With intertwining leaf and blossom, they concealed the rusty bars, till they changed the aspect of the grated cell into a garden bower, where birds might nestle and sing, and poets might love to linger.

[Illustration] from Madame Roland by John S. C. Abbott


When in the convent, she had formed a strong attachment for one of her companions, which the lapse of time had not diminished. Through all the vicissitudes of their lives they had kept up a constant correspondence. This friend, Henriette Cannet, one day obtained access to her prison, and, in the exercise of that romantic friendship of which this world can present but few parallels, urged Madame Roland to exchange garments with her, and thus escape from prison and the scaffold. "If you remain," said Henriette, "your death is inevitable. If I remain in your place, they will not take my life, but, after a short imprisonment, I shall be liberated. None fear me, and I am too obscure to attract attention in these troubled times. I" she continued, "am a widow, and childless. There are no responsibilities which claim my time. You have a husband, advanced in years, and a lovely little child, both needing your utmost care." Thus she pleaded with her to exchange attire, and endeavor to escape. But neither prayers nor tears availed. "They would kill thee, my good Henriette!" exclaimed Madame Roland, embracing her friend with tears of emotion. "Thy blood would ever rest on me. Sooner would I suffer a thousand deaths than reproach myself with thine." Henriette, finding all her entreaties in vain, sadly bade her adieu, and was never permitted to see her more.

Robespierre was now in the zenith of his power. He was the arbiter of life and death. One word from him would restore Madame Roland to liberty. But he had steeled his heart against every sentiment of humanity, and was not willing to deprive the guillotine of a single victim. One day Madame Roland was lying sick in the infirmary of the prison. A physician attended her, who styled himself the friend of Robespierre The mention of his name recalled to her remembrance their early friendship, and her own exertions to save his life when it was in imminent peril. This suggested to the idea of writing to him. She obeyed the impulse, and wrote as follows:

"Robespierre! I am about to put you to the proof, and to repeat to you what I said respecting your character to the friend who has undertaken to deliver this letter. You may be very sure that it is no suppliant who addresses you. I never asked a favor yet of any human being, and it is not from the depths of a prison I would supplicate him who could, if he pleased, restore me to liberty. No! prayers and entreaties belong to the guilty or to slaves. Neither would murmurs or complaints accord with my nature. I know how to bear all. I also well know that at the beginning of every republic the revolutions which effected them have invariably selected the principal actors in the change as their victims. It is their fate to experience this, as it becomes the task of the historian to avenge their memories. Still I am at a loss to imagine how I, a mere woman, should be exposed to the fury of a storm, ordinarily suffered to expend itself upon the great leaders of a revolution. You, Robespierre, were well acquainted with my husband, and I defy you to say that you ever thought him other than an honorable man. He had all the roughness of virtue, even as Cato possessed its asperity. Disgusted with business, irritated by persecution, weary of the world, and worn out with years and exertions, he desired only to bury himself and his troubles in some unknown spot, and to conceal himself there to save the age he lived in from the commission of a crime.

"My pretended confederacy would be amusing, were it not too serious a matter for a jest. Whence, then, arises that degree of animosity manifested toward me? I never injured a creature in my life, and can not find it in my heart to wish evil even to those who injure and oppress me. Brought up in solitude, my mind directed to serious studies, of simple tastes, an enthusiastic admirer of the Revolution—excluded, by my sex, from participating in public affairs, yet taking delight in conversing of them—I despised the first calumnies circulated respecting me, attributing them to the envy felt by the ignorant and low-minded at what they were pleased to style my elevated position, but to which I infinitely preferred the peaceful obscurity in which I had passed so many happy days.

"Yet I have now been for five months the inhabitant of a prison, torn from my beloved child, whose innocent head may never more be pillowed upon a mother's breast; far from all I hold dear; the mark for the invectives of a mistaken people; constrained to hear the very sentinels, as they keep watch beneath my windows, discussing the subject of my approaching execution, and outraged by reading the violent and disgusting diatribes poured forth against me by hirelings of the press, who have never once beheld me. I have wearied no one with requests, petitions, or demands. On the contrary, I feel proudly equal to battle with my own ill fortune, and it may be to trample it under my feet.

"Robespierre! I send not this softened picture of my condition to excite your pity. No! such a sentiment, expressed by you, would not only offend me, but be rejected as it deserves. I write for your edification. Fortune is fickle—popular favor equally so. Look at the fate of those who led on the revolutions of former ages—the idols of the people, and afterward their governors—from Vitellius to Caesar, or from Hippo, the orator of Syracuse, down to our Parisian speakers. Scylla and Marius proscribed thousands of knights and senators, besides a vast number of other unfortunate beings; but wet. they enabled to prevent history from handing down their names to the just execration of posterity, and did they themselves enjoy happiness? Whatever may be the fate awarded to me, I shall know how to submit to it in a manner worthy of myself, or to anticipate it should I deem it advisable. After receiving the honors of persecution, am I to expect the still greater one of martyrdom? Speak! It is something to know your fate, and a spirit such as mine can boldly face it, be it as it may. Should you bestow upon my letter a fair and impartial perusal, it will neither be useless to you nor to my country. But, under any circumstances, this I say, Robespierre—and you can not deny the truth of my assertion—none who have ever known me can persecute me without a feeling of remorse."

Madame Roland preferred to die rather than to owe her life to the compassion of her enemies. Could she obtain a triumphant acquittal, through the force of her own integrity, she would greatly exult. But her imperial spirit would not stoop to the acceptance of a pardon from those who deserved the execrations of mankind; such a pardon she would have torn in fragments, and have stepped resolutely upon the scaffold.

There is something cold and chilling in the supports which pride and philosophy alone can afford under the calamities of life. Madame Roland had met with Christianity only as it appeared in the pomp and parade of the Catholic Church, and in the openly-dissolute lives of its ignorant or voluptuous priesthood. While her poetic temperament was moved by the sublime conception of a God ruling over the world of matter and the world of mind, revealed religion, as her spirit encountered it, consisted only in gorgeous pageants, and ridiculous dogmas, and puerile traditions. The spirit of piety and pure devotion she could admire. Her natural temperament was serious, reflective, and prayerful. Her mind, so far as religion was concerned, was very much in the state of that of any intellectual, high-minded, incorruptible Roman, who renounced, without opposing, the idolatry of the benighted multitude; who groped painfully for some revelation of God and of truth; who at times believed fully in a superintending providence, and again had fears whether there were any God or any immortality. In the processions, the relics, the grotesque garb, and the spiritual terrors wielded by the Roman Catholic priesthood, she could behold but bare-faced deception. The papal system appeared to her but as a colossal monster, oppressing the people with hideous superstition, and sustaining, with its superhuman energies, the corruption of the nobles and of the throne. In rejecting this system, she had no friend to conduct her to the warm, sheltered, and congenial retreats of evangelical piety. She was led almost inevitably, by the philosophy of the times, to those chilling, barren, storm-swept heights, where the soul can find no shelter but in its own indomitable energies of endurance. These energies Madame Roland displayed in such a degree as to give her a name among the very first of those in any age who by heroism  have shed luster upon human nature.

Under the influence of these feelings, she came to the conclusion that it would be more honorable for her to die by her own hand than to be dragged to the guillotine by her foes. She obtained some poison, and sat down calmly to write her last thoughts, and her last messages of love, before she should plunge into the deep mystery of the unknown. There is something exceedingly affecting in the vague and shadowy prayer which she offered on this occasion. It betrays a painful uncertainty whether there were any superintending Deity to hear her cry, and yet it was the soul's instinctive breathings for a support higher and holier than could be found within itself.

"Divinity! Supreme Being! Spirit of the Universe! great principle of all that I feel great, or good, or immortal within myself—whose existence I believe in, because I must have emanated from something superior to that by which I am surrounded—I am about to reunite myself to thy essence." In her farewell note to her husband, she writes, "Forgive me, my esteemed and justly-honored husband, for taking upon myself to dispose of a life I had consecrated to you. Believe me, I could have loved life and you better for your misfortunes, had I been permitted to share them with you. At present, by my death, you are only freed from a useless object of unavailing anguish."

All the fountains of a mother's love gash forth as she writes to her idolized Eudora: "Pardon me, my beloved child, my sweet daughter, whose gentle image dwells within my heart, and whose very remembrance shakes my sternest resolution Never would your fond mother have left you helpless in the world, could she but have remained to guide and guard you."

Then, apostrophizing her friends, she exclaims, "And you, my cherished friends, transfer to my motherless child the affection you have ever manifested for me. Grieve not at a resolution which ends my many and severe trials. You know me too well to believe that weakness or terror have instigated the step I am about to take."

She made her will, bequeathing such trifling souvenirs of affection as still remained in her possession to her daughter, her friends, and her servants. She then reverted to all she had loved and admired of the beauties of nature, and which she was now to leave forever. "Farewell!" she wrote, "farewell, glorious sun! that never failed to gild my windows with thy golden rays, ere thou hiddest thy brightness in the heavens. Adieu, ye lonely banks of the Saone, whose wild beauty could fill my heart with such deep delight. And you too, poor but honest people of Thixy, whose labors I lightened, whose distress I relieved, and whose sick beds I tended—farewell! Adieu, oh! peaceful chambers of my childhood, where I learned to love virtue and truth—where my imagination found in books and study the food to delight it, and where I learned in silence to command my passions and to despise my vanity. Again farewell, my child! Remember your mother Doubtless your fate will be less severe than hers. Adieu, beloved child! whom I nourished at my breast, and earnestly desired to imbue with every feeling and opinion I myself entertained."

The cup of poison was in her hand. In her heart there was no consciousness that she should violate the command of any higher power by drinking it. But love for her child triumphed. The smile of Eudora rose before her, and for her sake she clung to life. She threw away the poison, resolved never again to think of a voluntary withdrawal from the cares and sorrows of her earthly lot, but with unwavering fortitude to surrender herself to those influences over which she could no longer exert any control. This brief conflict ended, she resumed her wonted composure and cheerfulness.

Tacitus was now her favorite author. Hours and days she passed in studying his glowing descriptions of heroic character and deeds. Heroism became her religion; magnanimity and fortitude the idols of her soul. With a glistening eye and a bosom throbbing with lofty emotion, she meditated upon his graphic paintings of the martyrdom of patriots and philosophers, where the soul, by its inherent energies, triumphed over obloquy, and pain, and death. Anticipating that each day might conduct her to the scaffold, she led her spirit through all the possible particulars of the tragic drama, that she might become familiar with terror, and look upon the block and the ax with an undaunted eye.

Many hours of every day she beguiled in writing the memoirs of her own life. It was an eloquent and a touching narrative, written with the expectation that each sentence might be interrupted by the entrance of the executioners to conduct her to trial and to the guillotine. In this unveiling of the heart to the world, one sees a noble nature, generous and strong, animated to benevolence by native generosity, and nerved to resignation by fatalism. The consciousness of spiritual elevation constituted her only religion and her only solace. The anticipation of a lofty reputation after death was her only heaven. The Christian must pity while he must admire. No one can read the thoughts she penned but with the deepest emotion.

Now her mind wanders to the hours of her precocious and dreamy childhood, and lingers in her little chamber, gazing upon the golden sunset, and her eye is bathed in tears as she reflects upon her early home, desolated by death, and still more desolated by that unhonored union which the infidelity of the times tolerated, when one took the position of the wife unblessed by the sanction of Heaven. Again her spirit wings its flight through the gloomy bars of the prison to the beautiful rural home to which her bridal introduced her, where she spent her happiest years, and she forgets the iron, and the stone, and the dungeon-gloomy which surround her, as in imagination she walks again among her flowers and through the green fields, and, at the vintage, eats the rich, ripe clusters of the grape. Her pleasant household cares, her dairy, the domestic fowls recognizing her voice, and fed from her own hand; her library and her congenial intellectual pursuits rise before her, an entrancing vision, and she mourns, like Eve, the loss of Eden. The days of celebrity and of power engross her thoughts. Her husband is again minister of the king. The most influential statesmen and brilliant orators are gathered around her chair. Her mind is guiding the surging billows of the Revolution, and influencing the decisions of the proudest thrones of Europe.

The slightest movement dispels the illusion. From dreams she awakes to reality. She is a prisoner in a gloomy cell of stone and iron, from which there is no possible extrication. A bloody death awaits her. Her husband is a fugitive, pursued by human bloodhounds more merciless than the brute. Her daughter, the object of her most idolatrous love, is left fatherless and motherless in this cold world. The guillotine has already consigned many of those whom she loved best to the grave. But a few more days of sorrow can dimly struggle through her prison windows ere she must be conducted to the scaffold. Woman's nature triumphs over philosophic fortitude, and she finds momentary relief in a flood of tears.

The Girondists were led from their dungeons in the Conciergerie to their execution on the 31st of October, 1793. Upon that very day Madame Roland was conveyed from the prison of St. Pelagic to the same gloomy cells vacated by the death of her friends. She was cast into a bare and miserable dungeon, in that subterranean receptacle of woe, where there was not even a bed. Another prisoner, moved with compassion, drew his own pallet into her cell, that she might not be compelled to throw herself for repose upon the cold, wet stones. The chill air of winter had now come, and yet no covering was allowed her. Through the long night she shivered with the cold.

The prison of the Conciergerie consists of a series of dark and damp subterranean vaults situated beneath the floor of the Palace of Justice. Imagination can conceive of nothing more dismal than these somber caverns, with long and winding galleries opening into cells as dark as the tomb. You descend by a flight of massive stone steps into this sepulchral abode, and, passing through double doors, whose iron strength time has deformed but not weakened, you enter upon the vast labyrinthine prison, where the imagination wanders affrighted through intricate mazes of halls, and arches, and vaults, and dungeons, rendered only more appalling by the dim light which struggles through those grated orifices which pierced the massive walls. The Seine flows by upon one side, separated only by the high way of the quays. The bed of the Seine is above the floor of the prison. The surrounding earth was consequently saturated with water, and the oozing moisture diffused over the walls and the floors the humidity of the sepulcher. The splash of the river; the rumbling of carts upon the pavements overhead; the heavy tramp of countless footfalls, as the multitude poured into and out of the halls of. justice, mingled with the moaning of the prisoners in those solitary cells. There were one or two narrow courts scattered in this vast structure, where the prisoners could look up the precipitous walls, as of a well, towering high above them, and see a few square yards of sky. The gigantic quadrangular tower, reared above these firm foundations, was formerly the imperial palace from which issued all power and law. Here the French kings reveled in voluptuousness, with their prisoners groaning beneath their feet. This stronghold of feudalism had now become the tomb of the monarchy. In one of the most loathsome of these cells, Maria Antoinette, the daughter of the Caesars, had languished in misery as profound as mortals can suffer, till, in the endurance of every conceivable insult, she was dragged to the guillotine.

It was into a cell adjoining that which the hapless queen had occupied that Madame Roland was cast. Here the proud daughter of the emperors of Austria and the humble child of the artisan, each, after a career of unexampled vicissitudes, found their paths to meet but a few steps from the scaffold. The victim of the monarchy and the victim of the Revolution were conducted to the same dungeons and perished on the same block. They met as antagonists in the stormy arena of the French Revolution. They were nearly of equal age. The one possessed the prestige of wealth, and rank, and ancestral power; the other, the energy of vigorous and cultivated mind. Both were endowed with unusual attractions of person, spirits invigorated by enthusiasm, and the loftiest heroism. From the antagonism of life they met in death.