15 January 2008

Les Aumôniers de la Guillotine Part IV

Part I
Part II
Part III

My translation of Jacques Hérissay's essay continues below.

This first encounter passed so well that Richard no longer raises any objection to what she repeats: Fr. Magnin can thus see the queen again several times, hear her confession, even give her Holy Communion. Miss Fouché on her part continues her visits, bringing the detainee fruit, rye bread, some delicacies, and garments that will replace the coarse linens furnished by the Nation.

A few trusted royalists, notably Mrs. Quélen, mother of the future archbishop of Paris, have been placed in confidence, and charge the messenger to offer some dresses to Marie-Antoinette; they retract the offer only for fear of drawing attention to the commissioners who visit the cell each day. The Sisters of Charity of St. Roch, the superior, Sister Julie, and her assistant, Sister Jeanne, will only persaude the ex-sovereign to accept some elastic garters and warm stockings lined with silk--for, in the frightening cell, the cold, despite the season, is glacial.

The queen would be happy to benefit from these intermediaries in order to send some news to those dear to her, but she dares not write; if the letter were discovered, it would surely mean the death of the detainee... She finds, however, a little ebony case that had inadvertently escaped successive searches; this case enclosed a porcelaine teacup bordered with silver. One night, she entrusts it to Miss Fouché, saying to her, "If it is possible for you, give this last souvenir to Madame Royale, and if the unhappy times do not permit you to send it to my daughter, I give this cup to you; keep it in my memory."

At the beginning of September, an event takes place that appears to put an end to these consoling visits.

On September 3rd, a gentleman, Mr. de Rougeville, has been introduced to the queen by the municipal officer Michonis; in the course of the interview, he had negligently dropped a carnation at the heart of which was concealed a note giving vague indications of a possible escape. Marie-Antoinette had responded with some words traced with the point of a needle on a piece of paper.

The guard Gilbert, whom the poor woman thought could be trusted, betrayed her; the affair quickly took enormous proportions. The Committee on General Safety saw in it a serious plot. In place of arresting the unassailable de Rougeville, Michonis and Richard were arrested, a new jailer placed in the Conciergerie, surveillance tightened, and, on September 11th, the queen was transferred to another cell, more deeply hidden in the heart of the prison--a miniscule room, whose door was loaded with a perfected system of locks and bolts, and whose openings were nearly hermetically sealed, only leaving a barred basement window with wire netting.

When Miss Fouché and Fr. Magnin return hoping, as usual, to access the prisoner, they learn with despair of these changes... How then to continue these visits?

Thanks to God, the new concierge Brault, who previously occupied the same position in the Force, is hardly any worse than Richard; he is also known to Miss Fouché. She has scarcely to let him in on the secret to persuade him to close his eyes by the example of his predecessor... The secret meetings could thus resume without delay.

Thanks to Miss Fouché, the jailer let himself be moved in Marie-Antoinette's favor; as she shows him how much more humid is the new cell compared to the last, he runs to find in a corner of the attic a shabby old tapestry, and he nails it to the walls. When the commissioners see it and become angry, he responds, "Citizens, I swear I am acting in response to the prisoner... Outsiders, if they speak loudly enough, can get some words through to her and receive her responses; this coarse rug will hinder that."

It is thus that Miss Fouché conceives the project to procure for the queen the good fortune of attending Mass celebrated in her cell. After some halfhearted resistance, Brault consents. "Calm yourself," she says. "You needn't trouble yourself except to get us two little candles; we will take care of the rest."

The priests in this epoque were obliged to officiate anywhere on a moment's notice, reduced to using only those objects strictly necessary for worship; they possessed tiny chalices of silver or pewter that could be dismantled, thin missals, portable stone altars just large enough to hold the base of he sacred vessel; all were enclosed in a workbag and could easily be concealed in a pocket... Fr. Magnin takes care of these, and Miss Fouché will bring a chasuble of simple taffeta, some altar linens, the water, the wine, and two candles.

The queen is informed as well as the two guards who keep watch over her; these two, named Lamarche and Prud-homme, are known to be trustworthy--brave men who, because of duty and the necessity of the times, fill positions for which they are not trained, and who remain attached to a religion now forbidden: not only will they enclose themselves within her cell, they will also take part with joy in a ceremony they have been so long deprived of.

The Conciergerie thus sees on this night the unfurling of the most unexpected of spectacles, a spectacle that, if they could have suspected it, would have made foam with rage the Héberts, the Chaumettes, the Chabots, the Clootzes, the Momoros, these fools who believed they could forever abolish the beliefs of the past.

The little wooden table has been transformed into an altar, two trembling lights brighten the pale face of the priest, whose voice is going to call down Our Lord in the Host; behind, lost in shadow, Marie-Antoinette, Miss Fouché, and the two soldiers kneel, following, without misssing a single thing, the liturgical gestures and words; then, when the moment for communion comes, the queen, the first, approaches the Holy Table, then it is Miss Fouche's turn, and finally, very humbly, the guards receive their God.

Nothing is suspected; the cell's vaults will keep their secret, and, the ceremony now ended, when Fr. Magnin and his companion return to their lodgings, Marie-Antoinette, remaining alone with her guardians, will have the long hours to pray to Him Who will give her the strength to climb, to the end, her calvary.

Jacques Hérissay, Les Aumôniers de la Guillotine, Chapitre II, 1963