14 January 2008

Les Aumôniers de la Guillotine Part II

Part I


The old director of the little seminary in Autun, Fr. Magnin, about thirty years old, was refuged in Paris after having refused the oath, and had found asylum at the home of Miss Fouché, from Orléan of an excellent family, and who lived with her sister on the rue des Arcis, almost right across the way from the church of St. Merri--here in this old quarter where so much of the past survived, and was vanishing little by little under the demolitioning ax.

As pious as they were royalist, these saintly young women never ceased to devote themselves to these two causes dear to them and, at the peril of their lives, helped refractory priests and hunted aristocrats, hiding them, lodging them, helping them escape.

In order to exercise his ministry, Fr. Magnin had entirely transformed his personality; one only knew him now under the name of citizen Charles--a good patriot, seller of second-hand clothes who traveled the streets of the capital without fear of the police, buying and selling old garments; thus he could easily penetrate Christian homes where, impatiently awaited, he brought the sacraments; the Conciergerie had also opened its doors--without suspicion, if not with a certain complicity, letting him circulate under the pretext of practicing his commerce with the detainees. This circumstance would give Miss Fouché the idea of introducing the priest to Marie-Antoinette.

Like so many others, the pious girl was authorized at times to visit the prisoners, parents or friends, and she had connections to the concierge Richard, a brave guard who, despite his official duties, remained compassionate toward his prisoners, disposed to render them service and to alleviate their pain.

On this date, the regime of the houses of detention was not very severe, and for the queen alone they were ordered to take extra precautions, unseen up until then: day and night soldiers watched her, two never leaving her tightly locked cell, where the concierge alone, along with his wife, their servant Rosalie Lamorlière, and another woman charged specially with care of the prisoner were allowed access.

One day--likely in the second half of August--Miss Fouché, her visit ended, remains chatting with Richard. Abruptly, she asks the guard, "Would it be permitted me to visit the queen?"

An absolute "No" is the first response, but the lady persists.

"Impossible! Absolutely impossible!" repeats Richard.

By the sound of his voice, however, the petitioner "believed this resistance was not definite," that by some means this "No" could easily become a "Yes"--and, playing the temptress, she presents to the man some pieces of gold brought for this purpose.

At the sight of them the guard's resolve weakens. In a very low voice, after ensuring no one can hear, he whispers, "Listen closely! Four guards are assigned to keep watch over the prisoner. Two of them are devils, the other two are good men. They take over at midnight. Come at 12:30 and we will see..."

Miss Fouché asks for no more. Radiant, she re-enters rue St. Merri and announces the great news to Fr. Magnin: "I am going to see the queen!"

At the hour said, the intrepid lady runs to her appointment; the priest accompanied her, as the nights in revolutionary Paris were unsafe, and frequent were the patrols that, without pity, stopped passersby.

Without disturbance, however, both arrive at the pont au Change, at the end of which, to the right, the towers of the Horloge, of César, of Argent and of Bonbec stand with their sinister silhouettes. By the rue de la Barillerie, they enter the Palais: Richard had kept his word; he opens the door of the jail and, silently and alone, Miss Fouché enters.

(To be continued)