In my ingenuous youth, when studying French history, I evolved a theory which seemed, to myself at least, to account satisfactorily for the radical differences distinguishing Louis XVI. from his brothers and antecedents. Finding that, when a delicate infant, he had been sent to the country to nurse, I rushed to the conclusion that the royal infant had died, and that his foster-mother, fearful of the consequences, had substituted a child of her own in his place. The literature of the nursery is full of instances that seemed to suggest the probability of my conjecture being correct.
As a youth, Louis had proved himself both awkward and clumsy. He was loutish, silent in company, ill at ease in his princely surroundings, and in all respects unlike his younger brothers. He was honest, sincere, pious, a faithful husband, a devoted father; amply endowed, indeed, with the middle-class virtues which at that period were but rarely found in palaces. To my childish reasoning the most convincing proof lay in his innate craving for physical labour; a craving that no ridicule could dispel.
With the romantic enthusiasm of youth, I used to fancy the peasant mother stealing into the Palace among the spectators who daily were permitted to view the royal couple at dinner, and imagine her, having seen the King, depart glorying secretly in the strategy that had raised her son to so high an estate. There was another picture, in whose dramatic misery I used to revel. It showed the unknown mother, who had discovered that by her own act she had condemned her innocent son to suffer for the sins of past generations of royal profligates, journeying to Paris (in my dreams she always wore sabots and walked the entire distance in a state of extreme physical exhaustion) with the intention of preventing his execution by declaring his lowly parentage to the mob. The final tableau revealed her, footsore and weary, reaching within sight of the guillotine just in time to see the executioner holding up her son’s severed head. I think my imaginary heroine died of a broken heart at this juncture, a catastrophe that would naturally account for her secret dying with her.
[Illustration: Madame Sans Tete]
During our winter stay at Versailles, my childish phantasies recurred to me, and I almost found them feasible. What an amazing irony of fate it would have shown had a son of the soil expired to expiate the crimes of sovereigns!
But more pitiful by far than the saddest of illusions is the sordid reality of a scene indelibly imprinted on my mental vision. Memory takes me back to the twilight of a spring Sunday several years ago, when in the wake of a cluster of market folks we wandered into the old Cathedral of St. Denis. Deep in the sombre shadows of the crypt a light gleamed faintly through a narrow slit in the stone wall. Approaching, we looked into a gloomy vault wherein, just visible by the ray of a solitary candle, lay two zinc coffins.