Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Last Moments of Louis XVI - Escape of the Ducs D'Angouleme and Berry

Stowe: January 9th, 1807.—This morning I have been very much interested by an account given us of some of the horrors of the Revolution by the Duke de Sirent. He read to us a history of the last moments of Louis XVI, written by Abbé Edgeworth, at the request of the brothers of that unfortunate Monarch. In the history there was little that we did not know before from Clery's and other publications: but every particular became doubly interesting—first, from being so authenticated, but still more from the extreme emotion of the reader. This was peculiarly striking when, in describing the anxiety expressed by the King respecting the fate of the clergy, the abbé says he informed him of the kind, hospitable reception they had met with in this country, upon which the King forcibly expressed his gratitude towards the English for the protection they had afforded to his unfortunate subjects. At these words the poor old man's voice faltered, and his eyes filled as he looked towards LadyB.

The most striking circumstance mentioned by Edgeworth is a speech of the Deputy of the National Assembly, who was ordered to accompany him in the fiacre, which carried him from the National Assembly to the melancholy abode of the condemned Monarch. After very little communication on indifferent subjects, the man suddenly exclaimed, 'Mon Dieu, quelle tache nous avons a remplir f Quel homme! quelle resignation! quel courage! II faut qu'il y ait la quelque chose de surhumain.' *

After this speech the abbé had the prudence to preserve perfect silence; he thought that, though he might be able to work on the mind of this man, it was still more likely, considering the short time they had to pass together, that he might only exasperate him, and be denied the permission of seeing the unfortunate King. The behaviour of Louis in these last trying moments exhibits proofs not only of his uncommon piety, resignation, and meekness, but also of fortitude and resolution, which appear little to accord with general weakness and indecision of his character.

In reading this melancholy history, it was singular to see that the duke appeared to be most affected by trifling instances of degradation, which we might otherwise have overlooked. For instance, when Louis described as receiving the sacrament sans prie-Dieu sans cousin, in a small bed-room** without any furniture but trois mauvaises chaises en cuir, he was deeply affected, probably from the having so frequently been an eye-witness of all the splendour which used to attend this ceremony.

Afterwards, the duke gave us the account of his escape from Paris with the sons of the Comte d'Artois,— the Duc d'Angouleme and the Duke de Bern. These children were entrusted to him not only by their father, but by the King, who both seem on this occasion to have given evident proofs of indecision and weakness of mind. The Comte d'Artois (now Monsieur) having told the duke that he wished him to escape with his sons, whose governor he was, everything was prepared for their departure that night.

The father seems to have little troubled himself with any arrangements, saying to the duke, 'Je m'en, repose sur vows, ce sont vos enfants, and refusing even to name the place or country to which he was to take them. At last, upon his representing that they were enfants de l’etat, he promised to get from Louis an order empowering the duke to remove them. Very late at night, not having received this order. Monsieur de Sirent determined to follow Monsieur to the queen's supper, where he knew him to be.

He says he never can forget the appearance of deep dejection and consternation which he saw in the faces of all the royal family, assembled after supper in the state bedchamber of the queen. In a window stood the King and the Comte d'Artois, in earnest conversation. Monsieur de Sirent endeavoured once more to obtain further orders; representing that from various political circumstances, of which he was ignorant, there must be reasons for preferring one country to another for the refuge of the royal children.

After a pause, both brothers, nearly in the same words, assured him of their perfect confidence in him, and refused to give any further orders; thus shifting all the weight of responsibility from their own shoulders upon his. They gave, however, one much stronger proof of pusillanimity; when the duke repeated his request for a written order from the King, His Majesty said, 'a propos, il vous en faut un assurement,' and put into his hands a folded paper. His dismay must have been great when, on his return home, he found this to be only an order to furnish him with post-horses; in short, a sort of safe conduct for himself, without any mention of the young princes.

He had, therefore, to set out on his perilous enterprise with the additional horror of knowing that, if the princes were missed soon enough to be overtaken by the emissaries of the National Assembly, he had no permission to show; and, therefore, the whole blame would fall on his devoted head.

Besides, it seemed but too probable that they might work on the mind of the weak monarch so far as to make him wish to recall the princes; in which case, he would never avow that he had permitted their departure. Neither of these fears were expressed by M. de Sirent, but from the circumstances, it was easy to imagine what he must feel.

At last, in the middle of the night, they set out; the duke, his two pupils, a surgeon, and a servant in one carriage, followed by one in which were the duchess and her daughters. The children had no idea where they were going; they were told they were going to see the departure of a regiment of hussars which they had much admired.

The hairbreadth escapes of this journey made one's blood run cold. Monsieur de Sirent describes the
villages as ne finissant point, particularly one near Paris filled with laundresses, who poured upon them the most violent torrent of abuse.

After some hours' travelling, it became necessary to give the children some breakfast, which he thought might be safely obtained at the seat of the Garde des Sceaux, M. de Massieu (I think). He was absent; but from an old concierge, who knew Monsieur de Sirent to be an old friend of his master, they got breakfast. While the children were eating, the duke was examining the old concierge. Finding that he had lived 20 years with Monsieur de M., he ventured to tell him that his visitors were the sons of the Comte d'Artois, asking him to procure them horses.

In this he succeeded, and for some time they travelled prosperously, the innkeepers too much occupied by passing events to trouble their heads about un simple particulier voyageant a Spa pour sa sante avec sa femne et ses enfans.

At the town of Buonavite, where they intended to sleep and expected to find a bon gîte , they found the streets full of populace, who collected round the carriage, calling them aristocrats, and by every other abusive term which seemed to follow of course. They were actually beginning to pull off the papers which were stuck on to conceal the arms on the carriages, when the courier, to whom, fortunately, their intention of stopping had not been communicated, announced the horses to be put to, and they set off again, not very sorry to lose sight of the good people of Buonavite.

At the next stop they found only a wretched post house, but the master promised to get them some eggs for supper, and the cushions of the carriages were taken out to make a sort of bed for the princes and the ladies. While they were resting, the duke sat himself down in a corner of the kitchen chimney, trying to warm himself; for, though worn out with anxiety, he found it impossible to sleep.

The post-master sat down by him, and began to talk of the news of the day, of the wretched condition of the country, of the disturbances hourly expected in the next town of Peronne, &c. On these subjects his sentiments were such as the duke himself might have expressed, and more effectually warmed his heart than the kitchen fire. At last, having agreed with his host in everything, he asked him how he might prosecute his journey to Spa with most safety and least disturbance. The man replied: Monsieur, il faut enfin, que les coquins dorment comme les honnetes gens, je vous donnerai six bons chevaux a chaque voiture, et vous serez loin d'ici avant qu’ils ne soient eveilles.

They accordingly proceeded without obstacle through the deserted streets of Peronne, which by ten o'clock the next day was in a state of insurrection. During this day's journey they were overtaken by the Prince de Conde, and had the mortification of seeing the horse which had been put to their carriage taken off for his.

When he discovered them, he wished to prevent this, but the duke wisely thought that a little delay would be less dangerous than the suspicions excited by such a mark of respect. At last, on the third night of their departure from Paris, when they were within a few miles of Valenciennes, where the duke knew Monsieur would meet them, he informed his pupils of their real destination. Hitherto they had been kept in perfect ignorance.

After the story of the hussar regiment, he had invented others to account for their travelling incognito. M. de Sirent took this opportunity to inform them fully, and in the most solemn manner, of the melancholy situation of their father, their King, and their country; expressing at the same time his fears as to their future fate. He then told them that now they must depend upon themselves, they must become from that hour not only men but heroes.

All this appears perfectly natural if the princes had been, as we thought when we heard all this, only eight or ten years of age; but the fact is that these children, kept so perfectly in the dark, delighted with the idea of seeing a hussar regiment, and believing that such a journey was caused and all the apprehensions which they could not but see in M. de Sirent excited by some trivial occasion—these children (as he called them) were, one near sixteen and the other near fourteen.

They stayed only a few days at Valenciennes, and then proceeded to Spa; nor was M. de Sirent at ease about them till two months and a half afterwards, when they reached Turin, and were placed under the care of their maternal grandfather.

Madame de Sirent, who was dame d’atours to Madame Elizabeth, and had only left her, thinking that she should rather impede than assist her flight after the disaster of Varennes, determined to return to her post. Immediately on her return to Paris, she and her daughter were imprisoned, and were only released at the death of Robespierre, fourteen months after. Her life was during this time preserved by singular means: one of the inferior agents of Robespierre was highly bribed, and through his hands passed the awful orders of execution.

They were given each decade on ten loose sheets of paper, one for each day; when the name of Madame de Sirent appeared upon the paper, he slipped that sheet underneath, and proceeded to the next. Afterwards she attached herself to the unfortunate niece of Madame Elizabeth, and is now with her at Mittau, while her husband, from the same sense of duty, is here with Monsieur and the Duc de Bern.

N.B.—In 1814 I saw Madame de Sirent, a little hump-backed old woman, a stray lady of the bed
chamber to the Duchesse d'Angouleme, at the reception or sad mock drawing-room, which she held in South Audley Street, in a small two-roomed house which the Comte d'Artois had hired. A few days after they departed for Paris.

*It was the Minister of Justice (Garat) who accompanied the abbé on his way to the Temple, and his soliloquy is thus reported in the Derniei'es Beures, as printed; '"Grand Dieu! S'ecria-t-il, apres avoir leve les glaces de sa voiture, "de quelle affreuse commission je me vois charge ! Quelle homme!" ajouta-t-il en parlant du Eoi, "quelle resignation! quel courage! Non, la nature toute seule ne saurait donner tant de forces; il y a quelque chose de surhumain."'
**According to the printed copy of the narrative, it was the King's cabinet, 'ou il n'y avait ni tapisserie ni ornemens; un mauvais poele de faience lui tenoit lieu de cheminee, et l'on n'y
voyait pour toute meuble qu' une table et trois chaises de cuir
. It was in the adjoining chamber, the King's, where 'le Roi entendit la messe a genoux par terre, sans prie-Dieu. Ni coussins.'


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