An English lady, then residing in France, who had often visited her in the days of her power, when her home presented all that earth could give of splendor, and when wealth and rank were bowing obsequiously around her, thus describes a visit which she paid to her cell in these dark days of adversity.
"I visited her in the prison of Sainte Pelagie, where her soul, superior to circumstances, retained its accustomed serenity, and she conversed with the same animated cheerfulness in her cheerless dudgeon as she used to do in the hotel of the minister. She had provided herself with a few books, and I found her reading Plutarch. She told me that she expected to die, and the look of placid resignation with which she said it convinced me that she was prepared to meet death with a firmness worthy of her exalted character. When I inquired after her daughter, an only child of thirteen years of age, she burst into tears; and, at the overwhelming recollection of her husband and child, the courage of the victim of liberty was lost in the feelings of the wife and the mother."
The merciless commissioners had ordered her to be incarcerated in a cell which no beam of light could penetrate. But her compassionate keepers ventured to misunderstand the orders, and to place her in a room where a few rays of the morning sun could struggle through the grated windows, and where the light of day, though seen but dimly, might still, in some degree, cheer those eyes so soon to be closed forever. The soul, instinctively appreciative of beauty, will under the most adverse circumstances, evoke congenial visions. Her friends brought her flowers, of which from childhood she had been most passionately fond. These cherished plants seemed to comprehend and requite unaffected love. At the iron window of her prison they appeared to grow with the joy and luxuriance of gratitude. With intertwining leaf and blossom, they concealed the rusty bars, till they changed the aspect of the grated cell into a garden bower, where birds might nestle and sing, and poets might love to linger.
When in the convent, she had formed a strong attachment for one of her companions, which the lapse of time had not diminished. Through all the vicissitudes of their lives they had kept up a constant correspondence. This friend, Henriette Cannet, one day obtained access to her prison, and, in the exercise of that romantic friendship of which this world can present but few parallels, urged Madame Roland to exchange garments with her, and thus escape from prison and the scaffold. "If you remain," said Henriette, "your death is inevitable. If I remain in your place, they will not take my life, but, after a short imprisonment, I shall be liberated. None fear me, and I am too obscure to attract attention in these troubled times. I," she continued, "am a widow, and childless. There are no responsibilities which claim my time. You have a husband, advanced in years, and a lovely little child, both needing your utmost care." Thus she pleaded with her to exchange attire, and endeavor to escape. But neither prayers nor tears availed. "They would kill thee, my good Henriette!" exclaimed Madame Roland, embracing her friend with tears of emotion. "Thy blood would ever rest on me. Sooner would I suffer a thousand deaths than reproach myself with thine." Henriette, finding all her entreaties in vain, sadly bade her adieu, and was never permitted to see her more.
Robespierre was now in the zenith of his power. He was the arbiter of life and death. One word from him would restore Madame Roland to liberty. But he had steeled his heart against every sentiment of humanity, and was not willing to deprive the guillotine of a single victim. One day Madame Roland was lying sick in the infirmary of the prison. A physician attended her, who styled himself the friend of Robespierre. The mention of his name recalled to her remembrance their early friendship, and her own exertions to save his life when it was in imminent peril. This suggested to her the idea of writing to him. She obeyed the impulse, and wrote as follows:
"Robespierre! I am about to put you to the proof, and to repeat to you what I said respecting your character to the friend who has undertaken to deliver this letter. You may be very sure that it is no suppliant who addresses you. I never asked a favor yet of any human being, and it is not from the depths of a prison I would supplicate him who could, if he pleased, restore me to liberty. No! prayers and entreaties belong to the guilty or to slaves. Neither would murmurs or complaints accord with my nature. I know how to bear all. I also well know that at the beginning of every republic the revolutions which effected them have invariably selected the principal actors in the change as their victims. It is their fate to experience this, as it becomes the task of the historian to avenge their memories. Still I am at a loss to imagine how I, a mere woman, should be exposed to the fury of a storm, ordinarily suffered to expend itself upon the great leaders of a revolution. You, Robespierre, were well acquainted with my husband, and I defy you to say that you ever thought him other than an honorable man. He had all the roughness of virtue, even as Cato possessed its asperity. Disgusted with business, irritated by persecution, weary of the world, and worn out with years and exertions, he desired only to bury himself and his troubles in some unknown spot, and to conceal himself there to save the age he lived in from the commission of a crime.
"My pretended confederacy would be amusing, were it not too serious a matter for a jest. Whence, then, arises that degree of animosity manifested toward me? I never injured a creature in my life, and can not find it in my heart to wish evil even to those who injure and oppress me. Brought up in solitude, my mind directed to serious studies, of simple tastes, an enthusiastic admirer of the Revolution—excluded, by my sex, from participating in public affairs, yet taking delight in conversing of them—I despised the first calumnies circulated respecting me, attributing them to the envy felt by the ignorant and low-minded at what they were pleased to style my elevated position, but to which I infinitely preferred the peaceful obscurity in which I had passed so many happy days.
"Yet I have now been for five months the inhabitant of a prison, torn from my beloved child, whose innocent head may never more be pillowed upon a mother's breast; far from all I hold dear; the mark for the invectives of a mistaken people; constrained to hear the very sentinels, as they keep watch beneath my windows, discussing the subject of my approaching execution, and outraged by reading the violent and disgusting diatribes poured forth against me by hirelings of the press, who have never once beheld me. I have wearied no one with requests, petitions, or demands. On the contrary, I feel proudly equal to battle with my own ill fortune, and it may be to trample it under my feet.
"Robespierre! I send not this softened picture of my condition to excite your pity. No! such a sentiment, expressed by you, would not only offend me, but be rejected as it deserves. I write for your edification. Fortune is fickle—popular favor equally so. Look at the fate of those who led on the revolutions of former ages—the idols of the people, and afterward their governors—from Vitellius to Caesar, or from Hippo, the orator of Syracuse, down to our Parisian speakers. Scylla and Marius proscribed thousands of knights and senators, besides a vast number of other unfortunate beings; but were they enabled to prevent history from handing down their names to the just execration of posterity, and did they themselves enjoy happiness? Whatever may be the fate awarded to me, I shall know how to submit to it in a manner worthy of myself, or to anticipate it should I deem it advisable. After receiving the honors of persecution, am I to expect the still greater one of martyrdom? Speak! It is something to know your fate, and a spirit such as mine can boldly face it, be it as it may. Should you bestow upon my letter a fair and impartial perusal, it will neither be useless to you nor to my country. But, under any circumstances, this I say, Robespierre—and you can not deny the truth of my assertion—none who have ever known me can persecute me without a feeling of remorse."
Madame Roland preferred to die rather than to owe her life to the compassion of her enemies. Could she obtain a triumphant acquittal, through the force of her own integrity, she would greatly exult. But her imperial spirit would not stoop to the acceptance of a pardon from those who deserved the execrations of mankind; such a pardon she would have torn in fragments, and have stepped resolutely upon the scaffold.
There is something cold and chilling in the supports which pride and philosophy alone can afford under the calamities of life. Madame Roland had met with Christianity only as it appeared in the pomp and parade of the Catholic Church, and in the openly-dissolute lives of its ignorant or voluptuous priesthood. While her poetic temperament was moved by the sublime conception of a God ruling over the world of matter and the world of mind, revealed religion, as her spirit encountered it, consisted only in gorgeous pageants, and ridiculous dogmas, and puerile traditions. The spirit of piety and pure devotion she could admire. Her natural temperament was serious, reflective, and prayerful. Her mind, so far as religion was concerned, was very much in the state of that of any intellectual, high-minded, uncorruptible Roman, who renounced, without opposing, the idolatry of the benighted multitude; who groped painfully for some revelation of God and of truth; who at times believed fully in a superintending providence, and again had fears whether there were any God or any immortality. In the processions, the relics, the grotesque garb, and the spiritual terrors wielded by the Roman Catholic priesthood, she could behold but barefaced deception. The papal system appeared to her but as a colossal monster, oppressing the people with hideous superstition, and sustaining, with its superhuman energies, the corruption of the nobles and of the throne. In rejecting this system, she had no friend to conduct her to the warm, sheltered, and congenial retreats of evangelical piety. She was led almost inevitably, by the philosophy of the times, to those chilling, barren, storm-swept heights, where the soul can find no shelter but in its own indomitable energies of endurance. These energies Madame Roland displayed in such a degree as to give her a name among the very first of those in any age who by heroism have shed luster upon human nature.
Under the influence of these feelings, she came to the conclusion that it would be more honorable for her to die by her own hand than to be dragged to the guillotine by her foes. She obtained some poison, and sat down calmly to write her last thoughts, and her last messages of love, before she should plunge into the deep mystery of the unknown. There is something exceedingly affecting in the vague and shadowy prayer which she offered on this occasion. It betrays a painful uncertainty whether there were any superintending Deity to hear her cry, and yet it was the soul's instinctive breathing for a support higher and holier than could be found within itself.
"Divinity! Supreme Being! Spirit of the Universe! great principle of all that I feel great, or good, or immortal within myself—whose existence I believe in, because I must have emanated from something superior to that by which I am surrounded—I am about to reunite myself to thy essence." In her farewell note to her husband, she writes, "Forgive me, my esteemed and justly-honored husband, for taking upon myself to dispose of a life I had consecrated to you. Believe me, I could have loved life and you better for your misfortunes, had I been permitted to share them with you. At present, by my death, you are only freed from a useless object of unavailing anguish."
All the fountains of a mother's love gush forth as she writes to her idolized Eudora: "Pardon me, my beloved child, my sweet daughter, whose gentle image dwells within my heart, and whose very remembrance shakes my sternest resolution. Never would your fond mother have left you helpless in the world, could she but have remained to guide and guard you."
Then, apostrophizing her friends, she exclaims, "And you, my cherished friends, transfer to my motherless child the affection you have ever manifested for me. Grieve not at a resolution which ends my many and severe trials. You know me too well to believe that weakness or terror have instigated the step I am about to take."
She made her will, bequeathing such trifling souvenirs of affection as still remained in her possession to her daughter, her friends, and her servants. She then reverted to all she had loved and admired of the beauties of nature, and which she was now to leave forever. "Farewell!" she wrote, "farewell, glorious sun! that never failed to gild my windows with thy golden rays, ere thou hiddest thy brightness in the heavens. Adieu, ye lonely banks of the Saone, whose wild beauty could fill my heart with such deep delight. And you too, poor but honest people of Thizy, whose labors I lightened, whose distress I relieved, and whose sick beds I tended—farewell! Adieu, oh! peaceful chambers of my childhood, where I learned to love virtue and truth—where my imagination found in books and study the food to delight it, and where I learned in silence to command my passions and to despise my vanity. Again farewell, my child! Remember your mother. Doubtless your fate will be less severe than hers. Adieu, beloved child! whom I nourished at my breast, and earnestly desired to imbue with every feeling and opinion I myself entertained."
The cup of poison was in her hand. In her heart there was no consciousness that she should violate the command of any higher power by drinking it. But love for her child triumphed. The smile of Eudora rose before her, and for her sake she clung to life. She threw away the poison, resolved never again to think of a voluntary withdrawal from the cares and sorrows of her earthly lot, but with unwavering fortitude to surrender herself to those influences over which she could no longer exert any control. This brief conflict ended, she resumed her wonted composure and cheerfulness.
Tacitus was now her favorite author. Hours and days she passed in studying his glowing descriptions of heroic character and deeds. Heroism became her religion; magnanimity and fortitude the idols of her soul. With a glistening eye and a bosom throbbing with lofty emotion, she meditated upon his graphic paintings of the martyrdom of patriots and philosophers, where the soul, by its inherent energies, triumphed over obloquy, and pain, and death. Anticipating that each day might conduct her to the scaffold, she led her spirit through all the possible particulars of the tragic drama, that she might become familiar with terror, and look upon the block and the ax with an undaunted eye.
Many hours of every day she beguiled in writing the memoirs of her own life. It was an eloquent and a touching narrative, written with the expectation that each sentence might be interrupted by the entrance of the executioners to conduct her to trial and to the guillotine. In this unveiling of the heart to the world, one sees a noble nature, generous and strong, animated to benevolence by native generosity, and nerved to resignation by fatalism. The consciousness of spiritual elevation constituted her only religion and her only solace. The anticipation of a lofty reputation after death was her only heaven. The Christian must pity while he must admire. No one can read the thoughts she penned but with the deepest emotion.
Now her mind wanders to the hours of her precocious and dreamy childhood, and lingers in her little chamber, gazing upon the golden sunset, and her eye is bathed in tears as she reflects upon her early home, desolated by death, and still more desolated by that unhonored union which the infidelity of the times tolerated, when one took the position of the wife unblessed by the sanction of Heaven. Again her spirit wings its flight through the gloomy bars of the prison to the beautiful rural home to which her bridal introduced her, where she spent her happiest years, and she forgets the iron, and the stone, and the dungeon-glooms which surround her, as in imagination she walks again among her flowers and through the green fields, and, at the vintage, eats the rich, ripe clusters of the grape. Her pleasant household cares, her dairy, the domestic fowls recognizing her voice, and fed from her own hand; her library and her congenial intellectual pursuits rise before her, an entrancing vision, and she mourns, like Eve, the loss of Eden. The days of celebrity and of power engross her thoughts. Her husband is again minister of the king. The most influential statesmen and brilliant orators are gathered around her chair. Her mind is guiding the surging billows of the Revolution, and influencing the decisions of the proudest thrones of Europe.
The slightest movement dispels the illusion. From dreams she awakes to reality. She is a prisoner in a gloomy cell of stone and iron, from which there is no possible extrication. A bloody death awaits her. Her husband is a fugitive, pursued by human blood-hounds more merciless than the brute. Her daughter, the object of her most idolatrous love, is left fatherless and motherless in this cold world. The guillotine has already consigned many of those whom she loved best to the grave. But a few more days of sorrow can dimly struggle through her prison windows ere she must be conducted to the scaffold. Woman's nature triumphs over philosophic fortitude, and she finds momentary relief in a flood of tears.
The Girondists were led from their dungeons in the Conciergerie to their execution on the 31st of October, 1793. Upon that very day Madame Roland was conveyed from the prison of St. Pelagie to the same gloomy cells vacated by the death of her friends. She was cast into a bare and miserable dungeon, in that subterranean receptacle of woe, where there was not even a bed. Another prisoner, moved with compassion, drew his own pallet into her cell, that she might not be compelled to throw herself for repose upon the cold, wet stones. The chill air of winter had now come, and yet no covering was allowed her. Through the long night she shivered with the cold.
The prison of the Conciergerie consists of a series of dark and damp subterranean vaults situated beneath the floor of the Palace of Justice. Imagination can conceive of nothing more dismal than these somber caverns, with long and winding galleries opening into cells as dark as the tomb. You descend by a flight of massive stone steps into this sepulchral abode, and, passing through double doors, whose iron strength time has deformed but not weakened, you enter upon the vast labyrinthine prison, where the imagination wanders affrighted through intricate mazes of halls, and arches, and vaults, and dungeons, rendered only more appalling by the dim light which struggles through those grated orifices which pierced the massive walls. The Seine flows by upon one side, separated only by the high way of the quays. The bed of the Seine is above the floor of the prison. The surrounding earth was consequently saturated with water, and the oozing moisture diffused over the walls and the floors the humidity of the sepulcher. The plash of the river; the rumbling of carts upon the pavements overhead; the heavy tramp of countless footfalls, as the multitude poured into and out of the halls of justice, mingled with the moaning of the prisoners in those solitary cells. There were one or two narrow courts scattered in this vast structure, where the prisoners could look up the precipitous walls, as of a well, towering high above them, and see a few square yards of sky. The gigantic quadrangular tower, reared above these firm foundations, was formerly the imperial palace from which issued all power and law. Here the French kings reveled in voluptuousness, with their prisoners groaning beneath their feet. This strong-hold of feudalism had now become the tomb of the monarchy. In one of the most loathsome of these cells, Maria Antoinette, the daughter of the Caesars, had languished in misery as profound as mortals can suffer, till, in the endurance of every conceivable insult, she was dragged to the guillotine.
It was into a cell adjoining that which the hapless queen had occupied that Madame Roland was cast. Here the proud daughter of the emperors of Austria and the humble child of the artisan, each, after a career of unexampled vicissitudes, found their paths to meet but a few steps from the scaffold. The victim of the monarchy and the victim of the Revolution were conducted to the same dungeons and perished on the same block. They met as antagonists in the stormy arena of the French Revolution. They were nearly of equal age. The one possessed the prestige of wealth, and rank, and ancestral power; the other, the energy of a vigorous and cultivated mind. Both were endowed with unusual attractions of person, spirits invigorated by enthusiasm, and the loftiest heroism. From the antagonism of life they met in death.
TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF MADAME ROLAND.
Examination of Madame Roland.—Her esteem for the Girondists.—Eloquent defence of Madame Roland.—Madame Roland's reasons for not escaping.—Madame Roland's opinion of the Girondists.—Madame Roland's opinion of the Revolution.—Madame Roland's estimate of her husband.—Madame Roland's correspondence with Duperret.—Effects of prejudices and violent animosities.—Madame Roland avows her opinions.—Madame Roland's apostrophe to Liberty.—Repeated examinations.—Madame Roland's self-possession.—Madame Roland's enthusiasm.—Her influence upon the prisoners.—Madame Roland's addresses to the prisoners.—Effects of her eloquence.—Madame Roland's musical voice.—Her friendship for the Girondists.—Charming character of Madame Roland.—She is loved and esteemed.—Madame Roland's advocate.—Her appearance at the tribunal.—Demand of the president.—Madame Roland's refusal.—The sentence.—Madame Roland's dignity and calmness.—She returns to her cell.—Madame Roland's requiem.—She attires herself for the bridal of death.—The passage to the guillotine.—Horrible pastime.—Madame Roland's appearance in the cart.—She addresses the mob.—Powerful emotions of Madame Roland.—Work of the executioners.—Scene at the scaffold.—Execution of the old man.—Situation of the guillotine.—Death of Madame Roland.—Wonderful attachment.—Grief of M. Roland.—Death of M. Roland.—Subsequent life of Eudora.
The day after Madame Roland was placed in the Conciergerie, she was visited by one of the notorious officers of the revolutionary party, and very closely questioned concerning the friendship she had entertained for the Girondists. She frankly avowed the elevated affection and esteem with which she cherished their memory, but she declared that she and they were the cordial friends of republican liberty; that they wished to preserve, not to destroy, the Constitution. The examination was vexatious and intolerant in the extreme. It lasted for three hours, and consisted in an incessant torrent of criminations, to which she was hardly permitted to offer one word in reply. This examination taught her the nature of the accusations which would be brought against her. She sat down in her cell that very night, and, with a rapid pen, sketched that defense which has been pronounced one of the most eloquent and touching monuments of the Revolution. It so beautifully illustrates the heroism of her character, the serenity of her spirit, and the beauty and energy of her mental operations, that it will ever be read with the liveliest interest.
"I am accused," she writes, "of being the accomplice of men called conspirators. My intimacy with a few of these gentlemen is of much older date than the occurrences in consequence of which they are now deemed rebels. Our correspondence, since they left Paris, has been entirely foreign to public affairs. Properly speaking, I have been engaged in no political correspondence whatever, and in that respect I might confine myself to a simple denial. I certainly can not be called upon to give an account of my particular affections. I have, however, the right to be proud of these friendships. I glory in them. I wish to conceal nothing. I acknowledge that, with expressions of regret at my confinement, I received an intimation that Duperret had two letters for me, whether written by one or by two of my friends, before or after their leaving Paris, I can not say. Duperret had delivered them into other hands, and they never came to mine. Another time I received a pressing invitation to break my chains, and an offer of services, to assist me in effecting my escape in any way I might think proper, and to convey me whithersoever I might afterward wish to go. I was dissuaded from listening to such proposals by duty and by honor: by duty, that I might not endanger the safety of those to whose care I was confided; and by honor, because I preferred the risk of an unjust trial to exposing myself to the suspicion of guilt by a flight unworthy of me. When I consented to my arrest, it was not with the intention of afterward making my escape. Without doubt, if all means of communication had not been cut off, or if I had not been prevented by confinement, I should have endeavored to learn what had become of my friends. I know of no law by which my doing so is forbidden. In what age or in what nation was it ever considered a crime to be faithful to those sentiments of esteem and brotherly affection which bind man to man?
"I do not pretend to judge of the measures of those who have been proscribed, but I will never believe in the evil intentions of men of whose probity and patriotism I am thoroughly convinced. If they erred, it was unintentionally. They fall without being abased, and I regard them as being unfortunate without being liable to blame. I am perfectly easy as to their glory, and willingly consent to participate in the honor of being oppressed by their enemies. They are accused of having conspired against their country, but I know that they were firm friends of the Republic. They were, however, humane men, and were persuaded that good laws were necessary to procure the Republic the good will of persons who doubted whether the Republic could be maintained. It is more difficult to conciliate than to kill. The history of every age proves that it requires great talents to lead men to virtue by wise institutions, while force suffices to oppress them by terror, or to annihilate them by death. I have often heard them assert that abundance, as well as happiness, can only proceed from an equitable, protecting, and beneficent government. The omnipotence of the bayonet may produce fear, but not bread. I have seen them animated by the most lively enthusiasm for the good of the people, disdaining to flatter them, and resolved rather to fall victims to their delusion than to be the means of keeping it up. I confess that these principles and this conduct appeared to me totally different from the sentiments and proceedings of tyrants, or ambitious men, who seek to please the people to effect their subjugation. It inspired me with the highest esteem for those generous men. This error, if an error it be, will accompany me to the grave, whither I shall be proud of following those whom I was not permitted to accompany.
"My defense is more important for those who wish for the truth than it is for myself. Calm and contented in the consciousness of having done my duty, I look forward to futurity with perfect peace of mind. My serious turn and studious habits have preserved me alike from the follies of dissipation and from the bustle of intrigue. A friend to liberty, on which reflection had taught me to set a just value, I beheld the Revolution with delight, persuaded it was destined to put an end to the arbitrary power I detested, and to the abuses I had so often lamented, when reflecting with pity upon the indigent classes of society. I took an interest in the progress of the Revolution, and spoke with warmth of public affairs, but I did not pass the bounds prescribed by my sex. Some small talents, a considerable share of philosophy, a degree of courage more uncommon, and which did not permit me to weaken my husband's energy in dangerous times—such, perhaps, are the qualities which those who know me may have indiscreetly extolled, and which may have made me enemies among those to whom I am unknown. M. Roland sometimes employed me as a secretary, and the famous letter to the king, for instance, is copied entirely in my hand-writing. This would be an excellent item to add to my indictment, if the Austrians were trying me, and if they should have thought fit to extend a minister's responsibility to his wife. But M. Roland long ago manifested his knowledge of, and his attachment to, the great principles of political economy. The proof is to be found in his numerous works published during the last fifteen years. His learning and his probity are all his own. He stood in no need of a wife to make him an able minister. Never were secret councils held at his house. His colleagues and a few friends met once a week at his table, and there conversed, in a public manner, on matters in which every body was concerned. His writings, which breathe throughout a love of order and peace, and which enforce the best principles of public prosperity and morals, will forever attest his wisdom. His accounts prove his integrity.
"As to the offense imputed to me, I observe that I never was intimate with Duperret. I saw him occasionally at the time of M. Roland's administration. He never came to our house during the six months that my husband was no longer in office. The same remark will apply to other members, our friends, which surely does not accord with the plots and conspiracies laid to our charge. It is evident, by my first letter to Duperret, I only wrote to him because I knew not to whom else to address myself, and because I imagined he would readily consent to oblige me. My correspondence with him could not, then, be concerted. It could not be the consequence of any previous intimacy, and could have only one object in view. It gave me afterward an opportunity of receiving accounts from those who had just absented themselves, and with whom I was connected by the ties of friendship, independently of all political considerations. The latter were totally out of the question in the kind of correspondence I kept up with them during the early part of their absence. No written memorial bears witness against me in that respect. Those adduced only lead to the belief that I partook of the opinions and sentiments of the persons called conspirators. This deduction is well founded. I confess it without reserve. I am proud of the conformity. But I never manifested my opinion in a way which can be construed into a crime, or which tended to occasion any disturbance. Now, to become an accomplice in any plan whatever, it is necessary to give advice, or to furnish means of execution. I have done neither. There is no law to condemn me.
"I know that, in revolutions, law as well as justice is often forgotten, and the proof of it is that I am here. I owe my trial to nothing but the prejudices and violent animosities which arise in times of great agitation, and which are generally directed against those who have been placed in conspicuous situations, or are known to possess any energy or spirit. It would have been easy for my courage to put me out of the reach of the sentence which I foresaw would be pronounced against me. But I thought it rather became me to undergo that sentence. I thought that I owed the example to my country. I thought that if I were to be condemned, it must be right to leave to tyranny all the odium of sacrificing a woman, whose crime is that of possessing some small talent, which she never misapplied, a zealous desire to promote the welfare of mankind, and courage enough to acknowledge her friends when in misfortune, and to do homage to virtue at the risk of life. Minds which have any claim to greatness are capable of divesting themselves of selfish considerations. They feel that they belong to the whole human race. Their views are directed to posterity. I am the wife of a virtuous man exposed to persecution. I was the friend of men who have been proscribed and immolated by delusion, and the hatred of jealous mediocrity. It is necessary that I should perish in my turn, because it is a rule with tyranny to sacrifice those whom it has grievously oppressed, and to annihilate the very witnesses of its misdeeds. I have this double claim to death at your hands, and I expect it. When innocence walks to the scaffold at the command of error and perversity, every step she takes is an advance toward glory. May I be the last victim sacrificed to the furious spirit of party. I shall leave with joy this unfortunate earth, which swallows up the friends of virtue and drinks the blood of the just.
"Truth! friendship! my country! sacred objects, sentiments dear to my heart, accept my last sacrifice. My life was devoted to you, and you will render my death easy and glorious.
"Just Heaven! enlighten this unfortunate people for whom I desired liberty. Liberty! it is for noble minds, who despise death, and who know how, upon occasion, to give it to themselves. It is not for weak beings, who enter into a composition with guilt, and cover selfishness and cowardice with the name of prudence. It is not for corrupt wretches, who rise from the bed of debauchery, or from the mire of indigence, to feast their eyes upon the blood that streams from the scaffold. It is the portion of a people who delight in humanity, practice justice, despise their flatterers, and respect the truth. While you are not such a people, O my fellow-citizens! you will talk in vain of liberty. Instead of liberty you will have licentiousness, to which you will all fall victims in your turn. You will ask for bread; dead bodies will be given you, and you at last will bow down your own necks to the yoke.
"I have neither concealed my sentiments nor my opinions. I know that a Roman lady was sent to the scaffold for lamenting the death of her son. I know that, in times of delusion and party rage, he who dares avow himself the friend of the condemned or of the proscribed exposes himself to their fate. But I have no fear of death. I never feared any thing but guilt, and I will not purchase life at the expense of a base subterfuge. Woe to the times! woe to the people among whom doing homage to disregarded truth can be attended with danger; and happy is he who, in such circumstances, is bold enough to brave it.
"It is now your part to see whether it answer your purpose to condemn me without proof upon mere matter of opinion, and without the support or justification of any law."
Having concluded this magnanimous defense, which she wrote in one evening with the rapidity which characterized all her mental operations, she retired to rest, and slept with the serenity of a child. She was called upon several times by committees sent from the revolutionary tribunal for examination. They were resolved to take her life, but were anxious to do it, if possible, under the forms of law. She passed through all their examinations with the most perfect composure and the most dignified self-possession. Her enemies could not withhold their expressions of admiration as they saw her in her sepulchral cell of stone and of iron, cheerful, fascinating, and perfectly at ease. She knew that she was to be led from that cell to a violent death, and yet no faltering of soul could be detected. Her spirit had apparently achieved a perfect victory over all earthly ills.
The upper part of the door of her cell was an iron grating. The surrounding cells were filled with the most illustrious ladies and gentlemen of France. As the hour of death drew near, her courage and animation seemed to increase. Her features glowed with enthusiasm; her thoughts and expressions were refulgent with sublimity, and her whole aspect assumed the impress of one appointed to fill some great and lofty destiny. She remained but a few days in the Conciergerie before she was led to the scaffold. During those few days, by her example and her encouraging words, she spread among the numerous prisoners there an enthusiasm and a spirit of heroism which elevated, above the fear of the scaffold, even the most timid and depressed. This glow of feeling and exhilaration gave a new impress of sweetness and fascination to her beauty. The length of her captivity, the calmness with which she contemplated the certain approach of death, gave to her voice that depth of tone and slight tremulousness of utterance which sent her eloquent words home with thrilling power to every heart. Those who were walking in the corridor, or who were the occupants of adjoining cells, often called for her to speak to them words of encouragement and consolation.
Standing upon a stool at the door of her own cell, she grasped with her hands the iron grating which separated her from her audience. This was her tribune. The melodious accents of her voice floated along the labyrinthine avenues of those dismal dungeons, penetrating cell after cell, and arousing energy in hearts which had been abandoned to despair. It was, indeed, a strange scene which was thus witnessed in these sepulchral caverns. The silence, as of the grave, reigned there, while the clear and musical tones of Madame Roland, as of an angel of consolation, vibrated through the rusty bars, and along the dark, damp cloisters. One who was at that time an inmate of the prison, and survived those dreadful scenes, has described, in glowing terms, the almost miraculous effects of her soul-moving eloquence. She was already past the prime of life, but she was still fascinating. Combined with the most wonderful power of expression, she possessed a voice so exquisitely musical, that, long after her lips were silenced in death, its tones vibrated in lingering strains in the souls of those by whom they had ever been heard. The prisoners listened with the most profound attention to her glowing words, and regarded her almost as a celestial spirit, who had come to animate them to heroic deeds. She often spoke of the Girondists who had already perished upon the guillotine. With perfect fearlessness she avowed her friendship for them, and ever spoke of them as our friends. She, however, was careful never to utter a word which would bring tears into the eye. She wished to avoid herself all the weakness of tender emotions, and to lure the thoughts of her companions away from every contemplation which could enervate their energies.
Occasionally, in the solitude of her cell, as the image of her husband and of her child rose before her, and her imagination dwelt upon her desolated home and her blighted hopes—her husband denounced and pursued by lawless violence, and her child soon to be an orphan—woman's tenderness would triumph over the heroine's stoicism. Burying, for a moment, her face in her hands, she would burst into a flood of tears. Immediately struggling to regain composure, she would brush her tears away, and dress her countenance in its accustomed smiles. She remained in the Conciergerie but one week, and during that time so endeared herself to all as to become the prominent object of attention and love. Her case is one of the most extraordinary the history of the world has presented, in which the very highest degree of heroism is combined with the most resistless charms of feminine loveliness. An unfeminine woman can never be loved by men. She may be respected for her talents, she may be honored for her philanthropy, but she can not win the warmer emotions of the heart. But Madame Roland, with an energy of will, an infallibility of purpose, a firmness of stoical endurance which no mortal man has ever exceeded, combined that gentleness, and tenderness, and affection—that instinctive sense of the proprieties of her sex—which gathered around her a love as pure and as enthusiastic as woman ever excited. And while her friends, many of whom were the most illustrious men in France, had enthroned her as an idol in their hearts, the breath of slander never ventured to intimate that she was guilty even of an impropriety.
The day before her trial, her advocate, Chauveau de la Garde, visited her to consult respecting her defense. She, well aware that no one could speak a word in her favor but at the peril of his own life, and also fully conscious that her doom was already sealed, drew a ring from her finger, and said to him,
"To-morrow I shall be no more. I know the fate which awaits me. Your kind assistance can not avail aught for me, and would but endanger you. I pray you, therefore, not to come to the tribunal, but to accept of this last testimony of my regard."
The next day she was led to her trial. She attired herself in a white robe, as a symbol of her innocence, and her long dark hair fell in thick curls on her neck and shoulders. She emerged from her dungeon a vision of unusual loveliness. The prisoners who were walking in the corridors gathered around her, and with smiles and words of encouragement she infused energy into their hearts. Calm and invincible she met her judges. She was accused of the crimes of being the wife of M. Roland and the friend of his friends. Proudly she acknowledged herself guilty of both those charges. Whenever she attempted to utter a word in her defense, she was brow-beaten by the judges, and silenced by the clamors of the mob which filled the tribunal. The mob now ruled with undisputed sway in both legislative and executive halls. The serenity of her eye was untroubled, and the composure of her disciplined spirit unmoved, save by the exaltation of enthusiasm, as she noted the progress of the trial, which was bearing her rapidly and resistlessly to the scaffold. It was, however, difficult to bring any accusation against her by which, under the form of law, she could be condemned. France, even in its darkest hour, was rather ashamed to behead a woman, upon whom the eyes of all Europe were fixed, simply for being the wife of her husband and the friend of his friends. At last the president demanded of her that she should reveal her husband's asylum. She proudly replied,
"I do not know of any law by which I can be obliged to violate the strongest feelings of nature." This was sufficient, and she was immediately condemned. Her sentence was thus expressed:
"The public accuser has drawn up the present indictment against Jane Mary Phlippon, the wife of Roland, late Minister of the Interior for having wickedly and designedly aided and assisted in the conspiracy which existed against the unity and indivisibility of the Republic, against the liberty and safety of the French people, by assembling, at her house, in secret council, the principal chiefs of that conspiracy, and by keeping up a correspondence tending to facilitate their treasonable designs. The tribunal, having heard the public accuser deliver his reasons concerning the application of the law, condemns Jane Mary Phlippon, wife of Roland, to the punishment of death."
She listened calmly to her sentence, and then, rising, bowed with dignity to her judges, and, smiling, said,
"I thank you, gentlemen, for thinking me worthy of sharing the fate of the great men whom you have assassinated. I shall endeavor to imitate their firmness on the scaffold."
With the buoyant step of a child, and with a rapidity which almost betokened joy, she passed beneath the narrow portal, and descended to her cell, from which she was to be led, with the morning light, to a bloody death. The prisoners had assembled to greet her on her return, and anxiously gathered around her. She looked upon them with a smile of perfect tranquillity, and, drawing her hand across her neck, made a sign expressive of her doom. But a few hours elapsed between her sentence and her execution. She retired to her cell, wrote a few words of parting to her friends, played, upon a harp which had found its way into the prison, her requiem, in tones so wild and mournful, that, floating, in the dark hours of the night, through those sepulchral caverns, they fell like unearthly music upon the despairing souls there incarcerated.
The morning of the 10th of November, 1793, dawned gloomily upon Paris. It was one of the darkest days of that reign of terror which, for so long a period, enveloped France in its somber shades. The ponderous gates of the court-yard of the Conciergerie opened that morning to a long procession of carts loaded with victims for the guillotine. Madame Roland had contemplated her fate too long, and had disciplined her spirit too severely, to fail of fortitude in this last hour of trial. She came from her cell scrupulously attired for the bridal of death. A serene smile was upon her cheek, and the glow of joyous animation lighted up her features as she waved an adieu to the weeping prisoners who gathered around her. The last cart was assigned to Madame Roland. She entered it with a step as light and elastic as if it were a carriage for a pleasant morning's drive. By her side stood an infirm old man, M. La Marche. He was pale and trembling, and his fainting heart, in view of the approaching terror, almost ceased to beat. She sustained him by her arm, and addressed to him words of consolation and encouragement, in cheerful accents and with a benignant smile. The poor old man felt that God had sent an angel to strengthen him in the dark hour of death. As the cart heavily rumbled along the pavement, drawing nearer and nearer to the guillotine, two or three times, by her cheerful words, she even caused a smile faintly to play upon his pallid lips.
The guillotine was now the principal instrument of amusement for the populace of Paris. It was so elevated that all could have a good view of the spectacle it presented. To witness the conduct of nobles and of ladies, of boys and of girls, while passing through the horrors of a sanguinary death, was far more exciting than the unreal and bombastic tragedies of the theater, or the conflicts of the cock-pit and the bear garden. A countless throng flooded the streets, men, women, and children, shouting, laughing, execrating. The celebrity of Madame Roland, her extraordinary grace and beauty, and her aspect, not only of heroic fearlessness, but of joyous exhilaration, made her the prominent object of the public gaze. A white robe gracefully enveloped her perfect form, and her black and glossy hair, which for some reason the executioners had neglected to cut, fell in rich profusion to her waist. A keen November blast swept the streets, under the influence of which, and the excitement of the scene, her animated countenance glowed with all the ruddy bloom of youth. She stood firmly in the cart, looking with a serene eye upon the crowds which lined the streets, and listening with unruffled serenity to the clamor which filled the air. A large crowd surrounded the cart in which Madame Roland stood, shouting, "To the guillotine! to the guillotine!" She looked kindly upon them, and, bending over the railing of the cart, said to them, in tones as placid as if she were addressing her own child, "My friends, I am going to the guillotine. In a few moments I shall be there. They who send me thither will ere long follow me. I go innocent. They will come stained with blood. You who now applaud our execution will then applaud theirs with equal zeal."
Madame Roland had continued writing her memoirs until the hour in which she left her cell for the scaffold. When the cart had almost arrived at the foot of the guillotine, her spirit was so deeply moved by the tragic scene—such emotions came rushing in upon her soul from departing time and opening eternity, that she could not repress the desire to pen down her glowing thoughts. She entreated an officer to furnish her for a moment with pen and paper. The request was refused. It is much to be regretted that we are thus deprived of that unwritten chapter of her life. It can not be doubted that the words she would then have written would have long vibrated upon the ear of a listening world. Soul-utterances will force their way over mountains, and valleys, and oceans. Despotism can not arrest them. Time can not enfeeble them.
The long procession arrived at the guillotine, and the bloody work commenced. The victims were dragged from the carts, and the ax rose and fell with unceasing rapidity. Head after head fell into the basket, and the pile of bleeding trunks rapidly increased in size. The executioners approached the cart where Madame Roland stood by the side of her fainting companion. With an animated countenance and a cheerful smile, she was all engrossed in endeavoring to infuse fortitude into his soul. The executioner grasped her by the arm. "Stay," said she, slightly resisting his grasp; "I have one favor to ask, and that is not for myself. I beseech you grant it me." Then turning to the old man, she said, "Do you precede me to the scaffold. To see my blood flow would make you suffer the bitterness of death twice over. I must spare you the pain of witnessing my execution." The stern officer gave a surly refusal, replying, "My orders are to take you first." With that winning smile and that fascinating grace which were almost resistless, she rejoined, "You can not, surely, refuse a woman her last request." The hard-hearted executor of the law was brought within the influence of her enchantment. He paused, looked at her for a moment in slight bewilderment, and yielded. The poor old man, more dead than alive, was conducted upon the scaffold and placed beneath the fatal ax. Madame Roland, without the slightest change of color, or the apparent tremor of a nerve, saw the ponderous instrument, with its glittering edge, glide upon its deadly mission, and the decapitated trunk of her friend was thrown aside to give place for her. With a placid countenance and a buoyant step, she ascended the platform. The guillotine was erected upon the vacant spot between the gardens of the Tuileries and the Elysian Fields, then known as the Place de la Revolution. This spot is now called the Place de la Concorde. It is unsurpassed by any other place in Europe. Two marble fountains now embellish the spot. The blood-stained guillotine, from which crimson rivulets were ever flowing, then occupied the space upon which one of these fountains has been erected; and a clay statue to Liberty reared its hypocritical front where the Egyptian obelisk now rises. Madame Roland stood for a moment upon the elevated platform, looked calmly around upon the vast concourse, and then bowing before the colossal statue, exclaimed, "O Liberty! Liberty! how many crimes are committed in thy name." She surrendered herself to the executioner, and was bound to the plank. The plank fell to its horizontal position, bringing her head under the fatal ax. The glittering steel glided through the groove, and the head of Madame Roland was severed from her body.
Thus died Madame Roland, in the thirty-ninth year of her age. Her death oppressed all who had known her with the deepest grief. Her intimate friend Buzot, who was then a fugitive, on hearing the tidings, was thrown into a state of perfect delirium, from which he did not recover for many days. Her faithful female servant was so overwhelmed with grief, that she presented herself before the tribunal, and implored them to let her die upon the same scaffold where her beloved mistress had perished. The tribunal, amazed at such transports of attachment, declared that she was mad, and ordered her to be removed from their presence. A man-servant made the same application, and was sent to the guillotine.
The grief of M. Roland, when apprised of the event, was unbounded. For a time he entirely lost his senses. Life to him was no longer endurable. He knew not of any consolations of religion. Philosophy could only nerve him to stoicism. Privately he left, by night, the kind friends who had hospitably concealed him for six months, and wandered to such a distance from his asylum as to secure his protectors from any danger on his account. Through the long hours of the winter's night he continued his dreary walk, till the first gray of the morning appeared in the east. Drawing a long stiletto from the inside of his walking-stick, he placed the head of it against the trunk of a tree, and threw himself upon the sharp weapon. The point pierced his heart, and he fell lifeless upon the frozen ground. Some peasants passing by discovered his body. A piece of paper was pinned to the breast of his coat, upon which there were written these words: "Whoever thou art that findest these remains, respect them as those of a virtuous man. After hearing of my wife's death, I would not stay another day in a world so stained with crime."
The daughter of Madame Roland succeeded in escaping the fury of the tyrants of the Revolution. She lived surrounded by kind protectors, and in subsequent years was married to M. Champeneaux, the son of one of her mother's intimate friends.
Such was the wonderful career of Madame Roland. It is a history full of instruction, and ever reminds us that truth is stranger than fiction.
1. Minor changes have been made to correct typesetters' errors, and to ensure consistent spelling and punctuation in this etext; otherwise, every effort has been made to remain true to the original book.
2. The sidenotes used in this text were originally published as banners in the page headers, and have been collected at the beginning of each chapter for the reader's convenience.