Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The Iron Chest

There had been at Versailles a certain locksmith, Francois Gamain, who had been in the habit of going to the palace to instruct the royal blacksmith. Under his superintendence, Louis had learnt the art of lock-making, and being wishful of finding some safe place for his private papers, he had summoned Gamain to the Tuileries.

It was necessary to cut a hole in the wall near the King's own bed-chamber, a task quite congenial to Louis, who hacked at the woodwork during three nights, since the whole affair must be a secret. Durey, one of the valets, had to carry away the chips and throw them in the river, while Gamain fixed in the masonry an iron door forged in the workshop, near the royal library. There were many bolts and hinges, and the corridor was not well lighted. The smith demanded that his master should hold the candle throughout the May Day on which he laboured, while Durey must be in attendance too and give any help that was necessary. The papers were concealed in the hole, and the iron door locked by a key which was hidden in a sealed casket under one of the flagstones of the palace.

Flight had been in the King's mind when he disposed of correspondence that might incriminate him in the eyes of revolutionary subjects. When the attempt was foiled, Gamain was seized with terror. He would have left the country himself if he had had sufficient money, for the Tenth of August might have revealed his secret to the furious mob bent on ravaging the Tuileries. He was possessed by a sense of danger till the trial of the King seemed imminent. Then he decided to give evidence against the man who had trusted him, and came from Versailles to make a confession. On the 20th November 1792 he approached Roland, the Girondist minister, and declared that in May of that same year he had been concerned in hiding treasonable correspondence.

Roland went with the smith to the Tuileries and began the search for papers. They were found under the wainscot and removed from the palace, wrapped in towels. It was a large bundle, and contained letters proving that the Court had been in correspondence with foreign countries in the hope of an invading force which should give back to it the power it had lost. Roland was one of the was party, and was enraged by the discovery. There were patriots to be convicted by those papers, Barnave among them. He had been corresponding with the Queen since the fateful journey from Varennes when she had won his loyalty. He was in prison as a suspect, and might be condemned at once. Mirabeau's treason was plain enough. Let his bust in the Hall of Convention be veiled with gauze! Later it should be thrown down and dashed to pieces if he were proved to be guilty. Meantime, the trial of Louis Capet approached, and Gamain's confession must affect it closely.

On Tuesday, December 11th, the King was driven through the streets to the Hall of the Convention under the charge of Santerre, bustling and important. The President received him with a curt permission to seat himself, and the Fifty-seven Questions were brought forward, embracing the documents which they held to prove him guilty.

For three hours the business continued, Louis being strangely quiet and composed through all the cross-examination. He demanded legal counsel before he withdrew, and shared a humble loaf of bread with one Chaumette in the committee room.

Three counsel were granted to the King, Malesherbes, an old man of seventy, undertaking a service which some thought dangerous and refused. He was joined by Deseze, a younger lawyer, and Tronchet, a man advanced in years. They had documents in plenty to study along with the indictment. Louis helped them as well as he could, but he was slow of brain. The patriots of the Mountain were eager to have the case settled, and attacked the Girondists, accusing them of delay to serve their own ends. It was decided after much storm in the Convention that Louis should plead on Wednesday, December 26th.

Accompanied by the three advocates, the King came to the bar at nine o'clock that winter morning. He was grateful to Deseze for the eloquent pleading, and added a few words to it, expressing regret that he should have caused blood to be shed. Poor, kindly man, he was suffering for the sins of previous generations.

Still the struggle continued between the two parties of the Convention, the Girondins becoming afraid to utter their belief that Louis was a prisoner of war and should not be put to death were he to be proved guilty; the Mountain growing vehement in their demand for haste, and making wildly applauded speeches in the Club of the Jacobins, where women also assembled to utter patriotic sentiments.

Foreign Courts were ablaze with indignation that regicide should be contemplated by this people. Two decrees of the Convention had caused consternation throughout Europe. On the 19th of November, help had been promised to any nation willing to shake off the fetters of despotism and follow the example of France, the new Republic. Furthermore, religion had been set at naught by a deputy in the discussion of a scheme for National Education. He had avowed himself an atheist, and the Churches of other countries recoiled in horror. What a state was this when a nation openly instigated other nations to rebel and proclaimed its disbelief in religion! It seemed capable of sending a King to the scaffold. Both Spain and England intervened and availed nothing with the people. It was arranged that the Convention should vote, name by name, on January 15th. Petitions might flow in to demand the King's acquittal or condemnation. They would not weigh against the decision of Paris and her rulers, the 749 deputies to whom all things were relegated.

From Wednesday to Sunday the voting was protracted, each deputy mounting to the steps, where he gave his verdict as to guilt and punishment. The wintry dusk was succeeded by night and again by dawn, and all France, all Europe waited. Banishment was the pronouncement of many, and imprisonment till the war was over satisfied the patriotism of certain of the Girondins; but some voices decreed death, and they were found to be in the majority. Robespierre was among them, and Philippe, once Duke of Orleans and prince of the blood, since elected to the Convention under the name of Philippe Egalite.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


The scene was sombre in itself, for a King's life trembled in the balance, yet Parisians thronged the galleries, dressed with magnificence and enjoying the excitement. They ate and drank and speculated on the end of it. Some of them would soon meet that death which now they treated lightly. A sick man came wrapped in blankets to plead for mercy, and hoped one vote might mean everything to Louis. The President declared Louis Capet guilty and the sentence death. Delay was voted against by Philippe Egalite and others. The King was to be allowed a confessor, but no time in which to make an elaborate ceremony of confession.

Royalists could not protest to any useful purpose. A few priests distributed pamphlets demanding that their King should be delivered, but they were sent to prison and help came from no other source. England and Spain were powerless, the former, indeed, having furnished an example of regicide. Louis himself heard the sentence quietly, for he was resigned to the end of life and sought refuge in his faith. He had never discarded it, though France would banish priests. He told his little son never to avenge his death, and said farewell to the family in the Temple the night before he was to leave them for ever. They had feared the worst when he had been taken from them some weeks before. The Queen exacted a promise that her husband would visit her again in the morning, and he broke the promise, holding himself absolved because it was for her sake. He wished to spare her suffering.

Marie Antoinette lay awake and heard the King's guard come for the book of prayers which Louis wanted. She recognized the steps which left the Tower quite early in the morning. There was silence in the street where so often a crowd had assembled, and the Queen wept bitterly as the roll of drums sounded in the distance. Faint cries were hushed at the Temple gate when the King passed through. How different this order was from that mad tumult which broke forth at the news of Louis XV's illness. Then there had been churches open for prayer all through the night, and solemn services whereat the very priests wept. The courier who brought the tidings of the Well-Beloved's convalescence was nearly smothered by the kisses of distracted subjects. His horse received a share of the embraces, and every street was loud with joy because the King was cured. Now his grandson, of life unblemished, passed toward the scaffold and none greeted him with pity. The shops were shut and the windows down in Paris, generally so lively. Only one carriage drove through the town. Preceding it Santerre rode, mounted on one of his famous horses. His handsome bearing drew the attention of any spectators that were present, as he waved a naked sword. More than once he stopped to inquire if the King wanted anything, but they had reached the place where the guillotine stood when Louis made his first request. He would pray alone in the carriage for a while, leaving thoughts of this world far behind him.

After five minutes he descended and removed his coat to comply with the order of the executioner. He would have spoken to the people gathered in large numbers around the scaffold, had not Santerre given a signal for the drums to beat, so that not a word was audible.

"Son of Saint Louis, ascend to heaven," the priest exhorted, and the son of sixty kings had lost his head at the hands of the Republic They cried aloud then, "Long live the Nation," and Paris echoed to it as the newsmen called shrilly against the walls of the Temple where Marie Antoinette sat, alone now save for her two hapless children.