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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

LOUIS XVI. IS EXECUTED

[392] FOR about two months quiet reigned at the palace of the Tuileries. Then the suspicions of the people were again aroused.

Austrians, Germans, Prussians were approaching the frontiers of France, and it was rumoured that Louis and the queen were in secret communication with the Austrians.

The mere rumour was enough to disturb the Jacobins, who were the fiercest Republicans. They made up their minds that they must get rid of the king, that their country might be at peace.

It was determined to attack the Tuileries on August 10, 1792. This time the Jacobins resolved that the attack should not be left to the mob, for the Swiss Guard, who were devoted to the king and who were now guarding the palace, would soon scatter it.

So the Jacobins sent to Marseilles for soldiers who were known to stand the fiercest fire. In July 1792 the Marseillais set out on their march to Paris, and as they marched they sang a battle-song. Those who heard it could never forget its martial strains, and they called it after the soldiers who sang, "The Marseillaise." The Marseillaise became the battle-song of the Revolution.

When the famous regiment reached Paris, the people rose, and on the 10th August followed it to the Tuileries, bringing with them cannon.

The Assembly was sitting when the attack began, but it had lost all power over the mob. Still it was necessary [393] to get the king to a place of safety, lest the rabble should break into the palace.

At first Louis refused to believe there was danger, but as the shouts of the mob drew nearer and nearer, he consented to go with the queen and his children to take refuge with the members of the Assembly.

As he crossed the palace grounds—the dauphin, unconscious of danger, amusing himself by idly kicking a few fallen leaves—Louis could hear more clearly still the fierce cries of the Marseillais, the roar of cannon, the terrified screams of the mob.

Boldly the Swiss Guards defended the palace, not knowing that their king had left, nor, until an order reached them from Louis himself, did their firing cease.

Then, faithful to the end, although unable by their king's command to defend themselves, they were slaughtered at their post.

Thus the Tuileries was soon in the hands of the rebels, who roamed from room to room, plundering and destroying all that they touched.

Paris now belonged to the Jacobins. Without delay they declared that the king was no longer king, and he and his family were taken to a gloomy prison called the Temple. Here they were guarded day and night, nor were they allowed to leave their prison, save to walk in a small strip of garden that belonged to it.

Danton, one of the Jacobins, now determined that all the aristocrats who were left in France should be imprisoned or put to death.

The city gates were shut that none might escape, and all who were believed to favour the king were thrown into gaol.

A few weeks later the armies of Prussia and Austria crossed the frontiers of France. Paris was at once stricken with sudden panic, and hoisted a black flag on all the public buildings.

Then the Jacobins ordered the bells to be rung to assemble [394] the people, that they might listen to their chosen leader, Danton.

He in his zeal warned the citizens that when they left the city to fight the foreign foe that had invaded their land, the Royalists who were now in prison would break loose. They were said to be armed, and if that were so, what would happen to those who were left at home—to mothers, wives, children?

It was enough. Danton had no need to say more. A Committee of General Safety was formed by the Jacobins, and a terrible time known as the September Massacres now began.

A band of cruel men paid by the Jacobins went from prison to prison. After a hasty trial, which was after all only a sham one, the prisoners were led out to the door of their prison.

There the band of ruffians, with pikes in their hands, fell upon the defenceless folk and cruelly murdered them. None were spared, neither the old nor the young, the strong nor the weak.

A beautiful duchess, known to be the friend of Marie Antoinette, was told to leave her cell. She begged for time to arrange her dress, but not a moment was she granted. Rough voices shouted to her, "You have not far to go."

She was asked if she would swear to hate the king and queen, but loyally she answered that this she could not do. "It is not in my heart," she said.

At once she was led to the prison door, cruel hands stretched out to seize her, and she was stabbed to death. Her head, fixed on a pike, was carried beneath the windows of the Temple, in the hope, perchance, that the poor queen might learn what had befallen her friend.

For four long days these dreadful deeds were done, and not only in Paris. All over France the peasants rose against the hated aristocrats, who for years had trampled them beneath their feet. Castles were burned, pleasure-grounds destroyed, aristocrats themselves put to death.

[395] Moreover, in many towns an instrument called the guillotine was erected. Dr. Guillotine, a member of the Assembly, had suggested that this instrument should be used, and it was from him that it received its name, although he did not invent it. Death by it was quick, and therefore merciful.

In September there was again a new Assembly. Its first act was to declare that France was a republic, that royalty was abolished.

It was determined by the new Assembly, or Convention as it was called, that Louis should be brought to trial, though Danton and Marat would gladly have put him to death at once.

When he was brought before his judges Louis was brave and quiet. He denied the charges brought against him, and his advocates defended him zealously, but in vain.

Danton, that fierce Jacobin, said, "The kings of Europe threaten us. Let us cast down at their feet as the gauntlet of battle the head of a king." His followers had made up their minds that the head should be that of Louis XVI.

Without the hall the mob shouted fiercely, demanding that the tyrant, as they called the king, should be put to death. Within the Assembly there were some who, had they dared, would have saved the king.

When the members were asked to vote, a large number declared that Louis Capet, as they called the king, was guilty of trying to rob the nation of its liberty. A much smaller number voted that his punishment should be death. And this sentence was decreed to be carried out in twenty-four hours.

It was a cruel fate that had overtaken the honest, well-intentioned king, who, if he had but known how, might so easily have kept the love of his people. Not for his own mistakes, so much as for the sins of his fathers, was Louis XVI.put to death.

At eight o'clock on the morning of January 21, 1793, [396] the king was led to the place of execution. The evening before he had said good-bye to his wife and-children, nor would he ask to see them again. But they heard the trampling of feet, the beating of drums, and they knew he had gone from them for ever.

Quietly, with no sign of fear, Louis XVI. mounted the scaffold.

"Be silent, drummers," he cried, and then, as they obeyed, he spoke to the multitude. "Frenchmen," he said, "I die innocent, I pardon my enemies, I desire that France——"

But the king's last words were lost, for the drums again began to beat.


[Illustration]

"FRENCHMEN," HE SAID, "I DIE INNOCENT. I PARDON MY ENEMIES."

"Son of St. Louis, ascend to heaven," said the priest who was with him to the last, and at his words the executioner did his dreadful work, and King Louis was no more.

"Long live the Nation! long live the Republic!" shouted the people as they turned away from the terrible scene.


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