The Countess of Charny; or, The Execution of King Louis XVI

Александр Дюма
The Countess of Charny; or, The Execution of King Louis XVI


It was on the first of October, 1791, that the new Legislative Assembly was to be inaugurated over France.

King Louis XVI., captured with Queen Marie Antoinette and the royal family, while attempting to escape from the kingdom and join his brothers and the other princes abroad, was held in a kind of detention, like imprisonment without hard labor, in the Tuileries Palace in Paris.

His fate hung on the members of the new House of Representatives. Let us hasten to see what they were.

The Congress was composed of seven hundred and forty-five members: four hundred lawyers of one kind or another; some seventy literary men; seventy priests who had taken the oath to abide by the Constitution, not yet framed, but to which the king had subscribed on the sketch. The remaining two hundred odd were landholders, farming their own estates or hiring them out to others.

Among these was François Billet, a robust peasant of forty-five, distinguished by the people of Paris and France as a hero, from having been mainly instrumental in the taking of the Bastile, regarded as the embodiment of the ancient tyranny, now almost leveled with the dust.

Billet had suffered two wrongs at the hands of the king's men and the nobles, which he had sworn to avenge as well on the classes as on the individuals.

His farm-house had been pillaged by Paris policemen acting under a blank warrant signed by the king and issued at the request of Andrea de Taverney, Countess of Charny, the queen's favorite, as her husband the count was reckoned, too. She had a spite against Billet's friend, Dr. Honore Gilbert, a noted patriot and politician. In his youth, this afterward distinguished physician had taken advantage of her senses being steeped in a mesmeric swoon, to lower her pride. Thanks to this trance and from his overruling love, he was the progenitor of her son, Sebastian Emile Gilbert; but with all the pride of this paternity, he was haunted by unceasing remorse. Andrea could not forgive this crime, all the more as it was a thorn in her side since her marriage.

It was a marriage enforced on her, as the Count of Charny had been caught by the king on his knees to the queen; and to prevent the stupid monarch being convinced by this scene that there was truth in the tattle at court that Count Charny was Marie Antoinette's paramour, she had explained that he merely was suing for the hand of her friend Andrea. The king's consent given, this marriage took place, but for six years the couple dwelt apart; not that mutual love did not prevail between them, but neither was aware of the affection each had inspired in the other at first sight.

The new countess thought that Charny's affection for the queen was a guilty and durable one; while he, believing his wife, by compulsion, a saint on earth, dared not presume on the position which fate and devotion to their sovereign had imposed on them both.

This devotion was confirmed on the count's part, cemented by blood; for his two brothers, Valence and Isidore, had lost their lives in defending the king and queen from the revolutionists.

Andrea had a brother, Philip, who also loved the queen, but he had been offended by her amour with Charny; and, being touched by an American republican fever while fighting with Lafayette for the liberation of the thirteen colonies, he had quitted the court of France.

On his way he had wounded Gilbert, whom he learned to be his sister's wronger, as well as having stolen away her infant son; but although the wound would have been mortal under other treatment, it had been healed by the wondrous medicaments of Joseph Balsamo, alias Count Cagliostro, the celebrated head of the Invisibles, a branch of the Orient Freemasons, dedicated to overthrow the monarchy and set up a republic, after the United States model, in France, if not in Europe.

Gilbert and Cagliostro were therefore fast friends, to say nothing of the latter's regret that he should have set temptation in the young man's way; it was he who had plunged Andrea into the magnetic slumber from which she had awakened a maid no longer.

But some recompense had come to the proud lady, after the six years' wedded life to the very man she adored, though fate and misunderstanding had estranged them. On learning what a martyr she had been through the unconscious motherhood, Count George had more than forgiven her – he worshiped her; and in their country seat at Boursonnes, eighteen miles from Paris, he was forgetting, in her lovely arms the demands of his queen, his king, and his caste, to use his influence in the political arena.

This silence on his part led to the candidature of Farmer Billet being unimpeded.

Besides, Charny would hardly have moved in opposition to the latter, as one cause of the enmity of the peasant was his daughter's ruin by Viscount Isidore Charny. The death of the latter, not being by Billet's hand, had not appeased the grudge. He was a stern, unrelenting man; and just as he would not forgive his daughter Catherine for her dishonor, or even look upon her son, he stood out uncompromisingly against the nobles and the priests.

Charny had stolen his daughter; the clergy, in the person of his parish priest, Father Fortier, had refused burial to his wife.

On her grave he had vowed eternal hostility to the nobles and the clericals.

The farmers had great power at election time, as they employed ten, twenty, or thirty hands; and though the suffrage was divided into two classes at the period, the result depended on the rural vote.

As each man quitted Billet at the grave, he shook him by the hand, saying:

"It is a sure thing, brother."

Billet had gone home to his lonely farm, easy on this score; for the first time he saw a plain way of returning the noble class and royalty all the harm they had done him. He felt, but did not reason, and his thirst for vengeance was as blind as the blows he had received.

His daughter had come home to nurse her mother, and receive at the last gasp her blessing and for her son, born in shame; but Billet had said never a word to her; none could tell if he were aware of her flitting through the farm. Since a year he had not uttered her name, and it was the same as if she had never existed.

Her only friend was Ange Pitou, a poor peasant lad whom Billet had harbored when he was driven from home by his Aunt Angelique.

As Catherine was really the ruler of the roast on the farm, it was but natural that Pitou should offer her some part of the gratitude Billet had earned. This excellent feeling expanded into love; but there was little chance for the peasant when the girl had been captivated by the elegant young lord, although the elevation common during revolution had exalted Ange into a captaincy of the National Guards.

But Pitou had never swerved in his love for the deluded girl. He had a heart of gold; he was deeply sorry that Catherine had not loved him, but on comparing himself with young Charny, he acknowledged that she must prefer him. He envied Isidore, but he bore Catherine no ill-will; quite otherwise, he still loved her with profound and entire devotion.

To say this dedication was completely exempt from anguish, is going too far; but the pangs which made Pitou's heart ache at each new token of Catherine's love for her dead lover, showed his ineffable goodness.

All his feeling for Catherine when Isidore was slain at Varennes, where Billet arrested the king in his flight, was of utter pity. Quite contrary to Billet, he did justice to the young noble in the way of grace, generosity, and kindness, though he was his rival without knowing it. Like Catherine, he knew that the barriers of caste were insurmountable, and that the viscount could not have made his sweetheart his wife.

The consequence was that Pitou perhaps more loved the widow in her sorrow than when she was the coquettish girl, but it came to pass that he almost loved the little orphan boy like his own.

Let none be astonished, therefore, that after taking leave of Billet like the others, Ange went toward Haramont instead of Billet's farm, which might also be his home.

But he had lodgings at Haramont village, where he was born, and he was chief of the National Guards there.

They were so accustomed to his sudden departures and unexpected returns, that nobody was worried at them. When he went away, they said to one another: "He has gone to town to confer with General Lafayette," for the French lieutenant of General Washington was the friend, here as there, of Dr. Gilbert, who was their fellow-peasants' patron, and had furnished the funds to equip the Haramont company of volunteers.

On their commander's return they asked news of the capital; and as he could give the freshest and truest, thanks to Dr. Gilbert, who was an honorary physician to the king as well as friend of Cagliostro – in other words, the communicator between the two Leyden jars of the revolution – Pitou's predictions were sure to be realized in a few days, so that all continued to show him blind trust, as well as military captain as political prophet.

On his part, Gilbert knew all that was good and self-sacrificing in the peasant; he felt that he was a man to whom he might at the scratch intrust his life or Sebastian's – a treasure or a commission, anything confided to strength and loyalty. Every time Pitou came to Paris, the doctor would ask him if he stood in need of anything, without the young man coloring up; and while he would always say, "Nothing, thank you, Doctor Gilbert," this did not prevent the physician giving him some money, which Pitou ingulfed in his pocket.


A few gold pieces, with what he picked up in the game shot or trapped in the Duke of Orleans' woods, were a fortune; so, rarely did he find himself at the end of his resources when he met the doctor and had his supply renewed.

Knowing, then, how friendly Pitou was with Catherine and her baby, it will be understood that he hastily separated from Billet, to know how his cast-off daughter was getting on.

His road to Haramont took him past a hut in the woods where lived a veteran of the wars, who, on a pension and the privilege of killing a hare or a rabbit each day, lived a happy hermit's life, remote from man. Father Clovis, as this old soldier was called, was a great friend of Pitou. He had taught the boy to go gunning, and also the military drill by which he had trained the Haramont Guards to be the envy of the county. When Catherine was banished from her father's, after Billet had tried to shoot Isidore, his hut sheltered her till after the birth of her son. On her applying once more for the like hospitality, he had not hesitated; and when Pitou came along, she was sitting on the bed, with tears on her cheek at the revival of sad memories, and her boy in her arms.

On seeing the new-comer, Catherine set down the child and offered her forehead for Pitou's kiss; he gladly took her two hands, kissed her, and the child was sheltered by the arch formed with his stooping figure. Dropping on his knees to her and kissing the baby's little hands, he exclaimed:

"Never mind, I am rich; Master Isidore shall never come to want."

Pitou had twenty-five gold louis, which he reckoned to make him rich. Keen of wit and kind of heart, Catherine appreciated all that is good.

"Thank you, Captain Pitou," she said; "I believe you, and I am happy in so believing, for you are my only friend, and if you were to cast me off, we should stand alone in the world; but you never will, will you?"

"Oh, don't talk like that," cried Pitou, sobbing; "you will make me pour out all the tears in my body."

"I was wrong; excuse me," she said.

"No, no, you are right; I am a fool to blubber."

"Captain Pitou," said Catherine, "I should like an airing. Give me your arm for a stroll under the trees. I fancy it will do me good."

"I feel as if I were smothering myself," added Pitou.

The child had no need of air, nothing but sleep; so he was laid abed, and Catherine walked out with Pitou.

Five minutes after they were in the natural temple, under the huge trees.

Without being a philosopher on a level with Voltaire or Rousseau, Pitou understood that he and Catherine were atoms carried on by the whirlwind. But these atoms had their joy and grief just like the other atoms called king, queen, nobles; the mill of God, held by fatality, ground crowns and thrones to dust at the same time, and crushed Catherine's happiness no less harshly than if she wore a diadem.

Two years and a half before, Pitou was a poor peasant lad, hunted from home by his Aunt Angelique, received by Billet, feasted by Catherine, and "cut out" by Isidore.

At present, Ange Pitou was a power; he wore a sword by his side and epaulets on his shoulders; he was called a captain, and he was protecting the widow and son of the slain Viscount Isidore.

Relatively to Pitou the expression was exact of Danton, who, when asked why he was making the revolution, replied: "To put on high what was undermost, and send the highest below all."

But though these ideas danced in his head, he was not the one to profit by them, and the good and modest fellow went on his knees to beg Catherine to let him shield her and the boy.

Like all suffering hearts, Catherine had a finer appreciation in grief than in joy. Pitou, who was in her happy days a lad of no consequence, became the holy creature he really was; in other words, a man of goodness, candor, and devotion. The result was that, unfortunate and in want of a friend, she understood that Pitou was just the friend she wished; and so, always received by Catherine with one hand held out to him, and a witching smile, Pitou began to lead a life of bliss of which he never had had the idea even in dreams of paradise.

During this time, Billet, still mute as regarded his daughter, pursued his idea of being nominated for the House while getting in his harvest. Only one man could have beaten him, if he had the same ambition; but, entirely absorbed in his love and happiness, the Count of Charny, the world forgetting, believed himself forgotten by the world. He did not think of the matter, enjoying his unexpected felicity.

Hence, nothing opposed Billet's election in Villers Cotterets district, and he was elected by an immense majority.

As soon as chosen, he began to turn everything into money; it had been a good year. He set aside his landlord's share, reserved his own, put aside the grain for sowing, and the fodder for his live stock, and the cash to keep the work-folks going, and one morning sent for Pitou.

Now and then Pitou paid him a visit. Billet always welcomed him with open hand, made him take meals, if anything was on the board, or wine or cider, if it was the right time for drinks. But never had Billet sent for Pitou. Hence, it was not without disquiet that the young man proceeded to the farm.

Billet was always grave; nobody could say that he had seen a smile pass over his lips since his daughter had left the farm. This time he was graver than usual.

Still he held out his hand in the old manner to Pitou, shook his with more vigor than usual, and kept it in his, while the other looked at him with wonder.

"Pitou, you are an honest fellow," said the farmer.

"Faith, I believe I am," replied Pitou.

"I am sure of it."

"You are very good, Master Billet."

"It follows that, as I am going away, I shall leave you at the head of my farm."

"Impossible! There are a lot of petty matters for which a woman's eye is indispensable."

"I know it," replied Billet; "you can select the woman to share the superintendence with you. I shall not ask her name; I don't want to know it; and when I come down to the farm, I shall notify you a week ahead, so she will have time to get out of the way if she ought not to see me or I see her."

"Very well, Master Billet," said the new steward.

"Now, in the granary is the grain for sowing; also the hay and other fodder for the cattle, and in this drawer you see the cash to pay the hands." He opened a drawer full of hard money.

"Stop a bit, master. How much is in this drawer?"

"I do not know," rejoined Billet, locking the drawer and giving the key to Pitou, with the words; "When you want more, ask for it."

Pitou felt all the trust in this speech and put out his hand to grasp the other's, but was checked by his humility.

"Nonsense," said Billet; "why should not honest men grasp hands?"

"If you should want me in town?"

"Rest easy; I shall not forget you. It is two o'clock; I shall start for Paris at five. At six, you might be here with the woman you choose to second you."

"Right; but then, there is no time to lose," said Pitou. "I hope we shall soon meet again, dear Master Billet."

Billet watched him hurrying away as long as he could see him, and when he disappeared, he said: "Now, why did not Catherine fall in love with an honest chap like that, rather than one of those noble vermin who leaves her a mother without being a wife, and a widow without her being wed."

It is needless to say that Billet got upon the Villers Cotterets stage to ride to Paris at five, and that at six Catherine and little Isidore re-entered the farm.

Billet found himself among young men in the House, not merely representatives, but fighters; for it was felt that they had to wrestle with the unknown.

They were armed against two enemies, the clergy and the nobility. If these resisted, the orders were for them to be overcome.

The king was pitied, and the members were left free to treat him as occasion dictated. It was hoped that he might escape the threefold power of the queen, the clergy, and the aristocracy; if they upheld him, they would all be broken to pieces with him. They moved that the title of majesty should be suppressed.

"What shall we call the executive power, then?" asked a voice.

"Call him 'the King of the French,'" shouted Billet. "It is a pretty title enough for Capet to be satisfied with."

Moreover, instead of a throne, the King of the French had to content himself with a plain arm-chair, and that was placed on the left of the speaker's, so that the monarch should be subordinated.

In the absence of the king, the Constitution was sworn to by the sad, cold House, all aware that the impotent laws would not endure a year.

As these motions were equivalent to saying, "there is no longer a king." Money, as usual, took fright; down went the stocks dreadfully, and the bankers took alarm.

There was a revulsion in favor of the king, and his speech in the House was so applauded that he went to the theater that evening in high glee. That night he wrote to the powers of Europe that he had subscribed to the Constitution.

So far, the House had been tolerant, mild to the refractory priests, and paying pensions to the princes and nobles who had fled abroad.

We shall see how the nobles recompensed this mildness.

When they were debating on paying the old and infirm priests, though they might be opposed to the Reformation, news came from Avignon of a massacre of revolutionists by the religious fanatics, and a bloody reprisal of the other party.

As for the runaway nobles, still drawing revenue from their country, this is what they were doing.

They reconciled Austria with Prussia, making friends of two enemies. They induced Russia to forbid the French embassador going about the St. Petersburg streets, and sent a minister to the refugees at Coblentz. They made Berne punish a town for singing the "It shall go on." They led the kings to act roughly; Russia and Sweden sent back with unbroken seals Louis XVI.'s dispatches announcing his adhesion to the Constitution.

Spain refused to receive it, and a French revolutionist would have been burned by the Inquisition only for his committing suicide.

Venice threw on St. Mark's Place the corpse of a man strangled in the night by the Council of Ten, with the plain inscription: "This was a Freemason."

The Emperor and the King of Prussia did answer, but it was by a threat: "We trust we shall not have to take precautions against the repetition of events promising such sad auguries."

Hence there was a religious war in La Vendee and in the south, with prospective war abroad.

At present the intention of the crowned heads was to stifle the revolution rather than cut its throat.

The defiance of aristocratic Europe was accepted, and instead of waiting for the attack, the orator of the House cried for France to begin the movement.

The absentee princes were summoned home on penalty of losing all rights to the succession; the nobles' property was seized, unless they took the oath of allegiance to the country. The priests were granted a week to take the oath, or to be imprisoned, and no churches could be used for worship unless by the sworn clergy.

Lafayette's party wished the king to oppose his veto to these acts, but the queen so hated Lafayette that she induced the Court party to support Petion instead of the general for the post of mayor of Paris. Strange blindness, in favor of Petion, her rude jailer, who had brought her back from the flight to Varennes.

On the nineteenth of December the king vetoed the bill against the priests.

That night, at the Jacobin Club, the debate was hot. Virchaux, a Swiss, offered the society a sword for the first general who should vanquish the enemies of freedom. Isnard, the wrath of the House, a southerner, drew the sword, and leaped up into the rostrum, crying:

"Behold the sword of the exterminating angel! It will be victorious! France will give a loud call, and all the people will respond; the earth will then be covered with warriors, and the foes of liberty will be wiped out from the list of men!"

Ezekiel could not have spoken better. This drawn sword was not to be sheathed, for war broke out within and without. The Switzer's sword was first to smite the King of France, the foreign sovereigns afterward.

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