Old Time Tales - Lawton Evans

The Crime of Charlotte Corday

Charlotte Corday was the daughter of poor parents who lived in Normandy, and when a child, had to work in the fields to help support the family. She and her sisters and brothers dug in the garden, worked in the fields, and made the clothes for the entire family. In this way Charlotte grew to be a young woman, and when her mother died she entered a convent. But when, in 1790, all the convents were shut up, she went to live with an old relative at Caen.

Charlotte read a great deal and learned that France was in the throes of a terrible revolution. One party, called the Jacobins, wished to overturn all power except its own, and to put the king to death. The other party, called the Girondins, were more moderate, but they wished to dethrone the king and to establish a republic.

One of the leaders of the Jacobins was Jean Paul Marat. He was an ugly, tiger-like looking man, with a hoarse, croaking voice and a cruel mouth. His nature was as cruel as his face was repellent. He was in favor of murdering everyone who opposed him in any way. He wrote a great many articles that were published in the papers and in pamphlet form, many of which fell into the hands of Charlotte. As she read these articles she became more and more alarmed at the principles of the cruel man.

"Oh, unhappy France! Unhappy king!" She was heard to exclaim, "I also am a Republican, but no ruler is safe whose garments are dyed in blood!"

Charlotte had now grown to be a lovely woman, with long brown hair and dark eyes. Her face was very serious, and her voice trembled with emotion when she thought of France and the terrible deeds of Marat and his followers.

A dreadful idea entered her mind. All that she had read and heard convinced her that Marat was a dangerous enemy to society. He was always asking for more victims for the guillotine, and blood was flowing fast under the awful knife of the executioner. It did not seem to her that this was necessary.

"If Marat were only dead, or could be made to die, then France would be at peace again," she said to herself. She did not know that Marat already had a fatal disease and that in a short while he would be dead anyhow.

The thought took possession of her. Marat must die and die quickly. She herself would kill him, though she knew her own life would be the penalty. "What matters my poor little life, if only France can be saved from a cruel monster?" she said to herself.

She told no one of her purpose, but began to make preparations for leaving Caen. She told her family and friends that she had to go to Paris on business and would be absent for a few days. She wrote a letter to her father in which she said, "I am leaving without your permission, my dear papa, and I must leave without seeing you. I am going to England to live, for I do not believe any one can live happily in France any longer. Farewell, and kiss my sister for me, and do not forget your unhappy daughter."

Of course her going to England was not true. But having made up her mind to kill Marat, she did not wish her father or anyone to interfere with her purpose, and she preferred for him to believe that she was really leaving the country.

One morning she set out for Paris in the public stage. She reached the city and engaged a room at a hotel. Upon inquiry, she learned that Marat was ill, and was not attending the meetings of the Convention. She was sorry for this, for she had hoped to kill him as he sat in his seat with his counselors.

She now made up her mind that Marat must be killed in his own house. The day after her arrival she was seen walking around the beautiful gardens of the royal palace. She sat down on a bench, and with the flowers blooming around her, and the birds singing overhead she matured her plans. Leaving her seat she went into a shop near-by and bought a long, sharp knife with a wooden handle and a case to fit over the blade.

She bought a newspaper at a stand, and read that several citizens of Caen, whom she knew, had been killed by order of the Jacobins. "Surely this man must die and his crimes be stopped," said she. Thereupon she called a carriage and ordered the driver to take her to the house where Marat lived.

The servant opened the door after Charlotte had knocked several times. "I wish to see your master on important business," she said. But the servant told her it was impossible, that Marat was ill, and no one was allowed to see him, and the door was closed in the face of the girl.

Charlotte went back to her room and wrote a note to Marat in which she told him she had news of Caen, and that she could tell him some things he should know. She sent this note to his house and waited for a reply. None came by evening, and Charlotte grew more and more impatient.

She dressed herself in a white gown, put on a cap of the shape worn by the peasant girls of Normandy, concealed the knife in her bodice, and went again to the house of Marat.

"I must see your master on important business," she told the servant. "Ask him if he received a letter from Charlotte Corday; say that I am she, and that I have something for him and for France."

The servant went to his master, who was just in the act of reading the letter Charlotte had written him. He was curious to know what news the girl could bring to him, and in his croaking voice said to the man, "Show the girl up here." He was seated in a medicinal bath, where he stayed for several hours each day, a remedy for the disease of which he was slowly dying. Charlotte did not know of this, and when she entered was surprised to find him thus occupied.

Marat had put on a loose gown, his head was wrapped with a cloth, and near his hand were two pistols. A map of France hung on the wall. On a stool near him was an ink-pot and a glass of medicine. In front of him, and across the bath, was a board on which he was writing. It was his custom to sit thus in the water and work all the time he was there.

"For what reason do you come, and what news bear you of the traitors of Caen? I shall soon have more of them under the knife, I hope," said he, with a snarl, which made the girl shudder.

Charlotte told she had heard that some Girondins were going to raise an army, march on Paris, and put all the Jacobins to death.

"Give me their names!" cried the infuriated man, "and we shall see that they are stopped before they begin." He then eagerly wrote down the names of those that Charlotte called out to him.

His cruel eyes glittered, and his hoarse voice made deep guttural noises in his throat. Underneath the list he wrote, "For the guillotine," and smiled with a malicious satisfaction.

"And do you need proof of what I say or are you taking my simple word for all this?" asked Charlotte.

"I need no proof, for the guillotine needs victims more than I need confirmation of what I hear," sneered the inhuman wretch, as he prepared to dispatch the order.

Charlotte could stand no more. She had given him the names of people she knew were innocent, and now she saw what fate could befall anyone who was accused. Swiftly she drew her knife and advanced upon her victim. Seeing her purpose, Marat called, "Help, help!" but it was too late. The knife had sunk deep into his breast, driven by both hands of the determined girl.

When the attendants rushed in and lifted Marat from his bath, and tried to stop the bleeding of his wounds, it was too late to save him. He was dead.

One of the attendants struck Charlotte to the ground with a chair. Police came in and bound her with cords which cut and bruised her wrists. After a short examination she was thrown in prison. Before being taken there she was shown the corpse of Marat, and asked how he came to his death.

"I killed him," she said quietly, but with a voice that trembled, for, after all, she was but a girl and the sight of blood made her shudder.

On being brought to trial, her judges asked her why she came to Paris. She replied to them, "I came to Paris to kill Marat, for his many odious crimes against the people of my country, and for what others he could commit."

While the trial was going on an artist was busily engaged sketching her face. She asked his name and begged him to come to her prison to finish the portrait if there was time. When the artist had finished, Charlotte took up a pen as if to write, but at that moment the executioner came to the door.

He put on her scarlet gown, and bound her hands behind her back. Her long chestnut-colored hair was cut off. One lock she gave to the jailer's wife who had been very kind to her, another she gave to the young artist who had sketched her picture.

On the ride to the guillotine she would not sit in the chair provided for her, but stood up all the way. As they moved slowly through the crowd, the executioner remarked, "We move but slowly."

"Yes," she replied, "but we shall arrive in time."

When the place of the guillotine was reached, Charlotte descended from the cart, mounted the platform, and faced the crowd. Her lips moved as if in prayer and her face was very gentle and composed. Shortly the knife descended and Charlotte had paid the penalty she expected.

If she had only waited a few weeks Marat would have been dead of his malady and she been spared her dreadful crime; but she did not know this, and who knows whether it would have made any difference?