14 January 2008

Les Aumôniers de la Guillotine Part III

Part I
Part II

Queen Marie Antoinette in the Conciergerie: the Prayer Table, 1856-57, by Charles Muller

On tiptoe--for everyone seemed asleep in this immense building--she follows the concierge: doors open successively, a humid hallway is crossed, at the end of which a low door appears, loaded with locks and bolts.

It is there that the queen is enclosed.

She has certainly been informed, for she shows no surprise upon seeing this stranger coming near her at such an hour... Miss Fouché in her first moments is mute with emotion: Marie-Antoinette has retained all her majesty, despite her white hair, her hollow cheeks, her pale skin, and she appears as at ease here as at Versailles, in the surroundings of this small room where the walls of stone seep dismally, and where the only furnishings are a bed, an old armchair stuffed with straw, two chairs, a little table, and a washbasin; for hangings, one saw only the divider separating the unfortunate from her two guards.

In an instant, the visitor recovers her spirits. As simply as possible, she speaks of the motives that bring this French woman and this Christian here; she offers some food that she has brought, going so far as to propose to be the first to eat, in order to gain her trust. The queen, however, remains impassible, responds with nothing, refuses to accept what is given to her.

Only at the end, as the good young lady, before leaving, asks permission to return, a glacial response falls from the thin lips. "As you wish."

Outside, having exited the Conciergerie, Miss Fouché finds Fr. Magnin, who awaits her in an obscure corner of the cour de Mai. Together in the night, they quickly return to rue St. Merri.

Soon the attempt is renewed... This time again, only Miss Fouché is introduced to Marie-Antoinette. In the interval, she has reflected, has been touched by the visitor's tone, and has let go of her suspicions that had at first crossed her mind. Her welcome was less cool, almost friendly. Miss Fouché hazarded thus to propose a few things.

"Madame," she says, "the disposition of the mind is such that it is no longer permitted to conceive the least hope for you. Religion alone can offer you its last consolations, and it is to procure them for you that I've dared to present myself before you. If you accept what I propose, you can trust me to put you in touch with a Catholic non-juring priest. If Your Majesty deigns to answer me, I will neglect nothing in order to serve you."

The effect of these words is immediate: the queen throws herself into Miss Fouché's arms, embraces her, offers her gratitude... An apprehension, however, comes to her. "You know, then, a priest who has not sworn the oath?"

Reassured on this point, Marie-Antoinette only expresses her joy; it is understood that the next time, Fr. Magnin will come. It is even agreed that, if the ecclesiastic is displeasing to her, a simple sign would suffice, and he would leave.

The difficulty now is to get the priest inside... He is known to Richard, since he comes daily to the prison for his so-called commerce in old garments, but it is quite another thing to introduce him to her who was not allowed to see any strangers...

By force of insistence, certainly as well as by the help of clinking, flowing silver, Miss Fouché manages to persuade the worthy concierge. "Let Fr. Magnin present himself; he will be admitted."

Some days later, the thing is done: the queen will talk with the priest for an hour and a half... The discussion will end in tears "of happiness and of gratitude."

(To be continued)