Sample Chapter from The Song at the Scaffold by Gertrude von le Fort
Paris, October 1794-
In your letter to me, my dear friend, you emphasize the extraordinarily brave attitude with which women, the so-called weaker sex, face death every day of these terrible times. And you are right. With admiration you cite the poise of "noble" Madame Roland, of "queenly" Marie-Antoinette, of "wonderful" Charlotte Corday and "heroic" Mademoiselle de Sombreul. (I am quoting your own adjectives.) You conclude with the touching sacrifice of the sixteen Carmelite nuns of Compiegne who mounted the guillotine singing Veni Creator; and you also mention the poignant and steadfast voice of young Blanche de la Force who finished the hymn that the executioner's knife silenced on the lips of her companions. "How nobly," you say toward the end of your eloquent letter, "the dignity of man tri- umphs in all these martyrs of the kingdom, of the Girond~ and of the persecuted Church, martyrs caught in the waves of devastating chaos."
O dear disciple of Rousseau! As always I admire your cheerful and noble faith in the indestructible nobility of human nature even when mankind is tasting most desolate failure. But chaos is nature too, my friend, the executioner of your women martyrs, the beast in man, fear and terror-all these are nature too! Since I am far closer to the frightful happenings in Paris than you, who have emigrated, permit me to confess candidly that I interpret the amazing resignation of those who die every day, less as an inherent natural grace than as the last supreme effort of a vanishing culture. Ah, yes! you despise culture, my dear friend, but we have learned to appreciate its value again, to respect conventional forms which prescribe restraint even to mortal terror and - in a few cases - something quite different. Blanche de la Force was the last on your list of heroines. And yet she was not a heroine in your sense of the word. She was not elected to demonstrate the nobility of mankind but rather to prove the infinite frailty of all our vaunted powers. Sister Marie de l'lncarnation, the only surviving nun of Compiegne, confirmed me in this idea. But perhaps you do not even know that Blanche de la Force was a former nun of Compiegne ? She was a novice there for a considerable period of time.
Let me tell you a little of this exceedingly important episode in her life! For I believe it is the beginning of the famous song at the foot of the scaffold. You know the Marquis de la Force, Blanche's father. So I need not tell you of his esteem for the skeptical writings of Voltaire and Diderot. You have heard of his sympathy for certain liberal patriots of the Palais Royal. His trends were purely theoretical and he never dreamed of concrete results. This Sophisticated aristocrat did not think that the subtle spice of his conversation would ever season the crude cookery of the people. But let us not criticize the sad errors of our poor friend; for he, like so many others, has atoned for them. (Ah! my friend, when all is said and done, most of us were very like him. ) Here we are only concerned with the motive that could induce a man like the Marquis de la Force to entrust his daughter to a convent.
While Blanche was in Compiegne, I spoke to her father on a few occasions in the cafes of the Palais Royal where he was rhapsodizing about liberty and fraternity with similarly minded friends. Whenever anyone asked him about his daughter he answered ruefully that he considered "the prisons of religion" -this was his name for convents-as undesirable as those of the state. Nevertheless he was forced to admit that his daughter felt happy there, happy and safe. "Poor timid child," he usually added, "the sad circumstances of her birth apparently determined her whole attitude toward life." And this, indeed, was the common view of the matter .
You, my dear friend, will scarcely understand the Marquis' allusion, because at the time he has reference to, you yourself were still a child. He was speaking of the notorious fire-works catastrophe at the wedding of Louis the Sixteenth, then a dauphin, with the daughter of the emperor of Austria. Later this catastrophe was regarded as an evil omen that foreshadowed the fate of the royal pair . Well, perhaps it was not merely an omen but also a symbol of fate. (For revolutions are caused and conditioned, to be sure, by mismanagement and mistakes in the existing system. But their essential character is the violent outbreak of the deadly fear of an epoch approaching its end. And it is this I had in mind when I spoke of a symbol. ) For it is not at all true that neglect on the part of the authorities was responsible for the unfortunate accident on the square of Louis the Fifteenth. This rumor was spread by people who wished to delude themselves about the mystery of that sudden and vio- lent terror of the masses. Mystery, as you know, is intolerably annoying to enlightenment such as ours. As a matter of fact, the authorities were at their post. All the usual precautions had been taken with model efficiency. The carriages of the nobility, and among them the conveyance of the young Marquise de la Force, who was an expectant mother, were greeted respectfully by the crowd of pedestrians near the heavy water wagons of the pompiers, which were conscientiously held in readiness for all emergencies. Police officers stood at the intersections of the streets which ran into the square, and kept order. In spite of the "wretched times," which were almost pro- verbial, people looked well-dressed and well-fed. Practically every individual represented a well-to-do burgher of decent thinking and behavior. It was difficult to imagine them as part of the anarchistic chaos of half an hour later. For they were full of eager anticipation of a festive spectacle and re- sponded to the police in orderly fashion. In short, the dreadful incident which followed was sudden and inexplicable. For it was an omen.
A harmless little blaze in the room where the fire- works were stored, and wild and instant panic, al- though there was absolutely no danger, caused mad confusion. At the street corner the policemen were unable to make a gesture-for they had disappeared!
The happy and loyal citizens had disappeared. There remained only a wild monster, a mass of human beings stifled by their own terror: it was chaos that slumbers in the depths of all things and breaks through the solid armor of habit and custom. Through the windows of her fine carriage, in the midst of that fearful throng, the Marquise saw a gruesome spectacle. She heard the despairing cries of those who had fallen to the ground, she heard the groans of trodden bodies. But she herself was as safe in her great coach as if she had been on a ship secure on storm-tossed seas. Involuntarily she put out her slender, aristocratic hand and bolted the door . The bolt was a little rusty because the coach hailed from the time of the Fronde, when all carriage doors had been supplied with bolts since one never knew when there might be occasion for flight. But these bolts had not been used for a long time! The Mar- quise felt quite safe though she was considerably disturbed. This is not surprising for the sight of a crowd is always painful to the individual. Now whether the horses, confused by the noise and the turmoil, began to run of themselves, or whether the coachman lost his head and tried to escape, at any rate the coach began to move and drove straight into the screaming, raging, despairing crowd. AImost at once the horses were stopped and the car- riage door forced open. Seething chaos followed. For a moment there was something that resembled the revolution to come.
"Madame!" shrieked a man who bore a blood- stained child in his arms, "you are safe and secure in your coach while the people are dying under the hooves of your horses! But soon, I tell you, it is you who will be dying and we shall sit in your coaches." And even as he spoke the Marquise saw his menacing expression mirrored in hundreds of terror-stricken faces. In another moment she had been dragged from her carriage and her own ex- pression of fear merged with that of the mass. Rumor had it later that Blanche de la Force was born in the half-wrecked carriage on the way home from the square. This is an exaggeration. But it is true that the Marquise arrived at her palace on foot with torn garments and the face of a Medusa, and that, as the result of her terrible experience, she was confined prematurely and died soon afterwards. Now I do not hesitate to associate the temperament of the poor child with the circumstances of her birth. Not only the superstition of the people but the opinion of qualified physicians consider such a connection quite possible. Blanche, thrust into the world too soon through the fright of her mother, seemed to have been dowered only with fear. At an early age she displayed a timidity which greatly exceeded the little fears one usually observes in chil- dren. (Children are afraid of all sorts of things and one is apt to consider this a lack of understand- ing.) If her own little dog barked suddenly, she trembled; and she recoiled from the face of a new servant as though he were a ghost. It was impossible to cure her of fearing a niche in the passage which she passed every day with her nurse. At the sight of a dead bird or snail in the garden she froze to a statue. It seemed as if this pathetic little person lived in constant expectation of some shocking event which she might perhaps avoid by eternal watch- fulness like that of small sick creatures who sleep with open eyes; or as if the great fear in her childish gaze penetrated the firm exterior of a sheltered life to a core of terrible frailty.
" Are you sure the stairs will not slip from under my feet ?" she inquired when she was taken to the solid tower of the Chateau la Force, the ancestral home of her race, where the Marquis spent the summer. This tower had already defied seven cen- turies and everyone could see that it was capable of lasting seven more. "Won't the wall tip over ? Are you sure the gondola will not sink? Won't people get angry ?" This was the kind of thing little Blanche was constantly asking. And there was no use explaining to her that there was no cause for alarm. She would listen attentively and reflect on everything she was told, for she was by no means unintelligent, but she continued to be afraid. Neither affection nor severity nor her own indubitable willingness to improve, altered her unfortunate temperament. Indeed her very willingness made matters worse for she became so depressed by the futility of her efforts that she considered the lack of that courage which everyone urged upon her as the most shameful disgrace. One might almost say that in addition to everything else she grew to be afraid of her own fear. I have said that Blanche was not unintelligent; she had a good mind and so in time she invented little devices to mask the true state of affairs. She no longer asked: "Won't the stairs slip from under me?" or, "Are you sure the gondola will not sink ?" But she would suddenly feel tired or ill, she had forgotten to learn her lesson or to fetch something she needed. In short there was some reason or other why she could not set foot on the stairs or in the gondola.
The servants laughed and dubbed her "rabbit- heart" but she did not improve, she even suffered more than formerly from her weakness because now she was trying to hide it. Sometimes one could see the agonies she was enduring. Never before had there been a comely child of noble birth who moved with such awkward timidity, who blushed so unfortunately as Blanche de la Force. The great title of her family was like a placard she bore unrightfully; the proud name of de la Force was idle mockery. No one who remembered her little face that paled so easily could call her anything but just Blanche. But "rabbit" was after all the most suitable name of all. This was the state of affairs when the Marquis de la Force engaged Madame de Chalais. This excellent governess undertook Blanche's religious instruction with decision and thoroughness and by this approach succeeded in overcoming the child's fears to a certain extent. For because of the liberal tendencies of the Marquis, this aspect of her education had been deplorably neglected up to this time, and since Blanche, unlike her father, had the pronounced needs of a religious nature, the omission must have been especially fatal for her. From a psychological point of view Madame de Chalais was probably wise in directing her young pupil's attention to the Christ Child before everything else. It was Blanche's first encounter with "le petit Roi de Gloire." (You, my dear friend, are acquainted with this charming little wax figure of the Carmelite convent in Compiegne, a figure that delighted the children at Christmas time when it was exhibited in the chapel. ) Le petit Roi had a crown and a scepter of gold which the King of France had given Him to show that le petit Roi was the ruler of heaven and earth. In gratitude for his gift, le petit Roi protected the King and his people: and so it was quite possible to live safely in France without having to think of slipping stairs and tottering walls. Only, of course, one must give due reverence to le petit Roi, just as the King always did. One could do this without bestowing crowns and scepters, by prayers and little acts of love, obedience and worship. If one was conscientious in all these things one might depend upon the protection of le petit Roi as confidently as the King of France himself. Well, I have told you that Blanche had a religious nature and yet in the beginning Madame de Chalais met with unexpected obstacles. In later years she preferred to keep silence on that score, although as a rule she liked to indulge in reminiscences of her educational methods.
"Surely you must see how easy it is for the King of Heaven to protect you," she once said to Blanche in her gentle obstinate way when the child was again hesitating to go upstairs. "Only think of the great power of even our own king on earth !" Blanche lifted her troubled little face to her governess. Sometimes her tremulous glances resembled flocks 0f restless birds. "But if He lost His crown ?" she asked pensively.
For a moment Madame de Chalais was non- plussed. It was true that this objection had never occurred to her. But almost instantly she rejected it-she was very apt in rejecting uncomfortable questions. Blanche sometimes imagined that they rebounded from the whalebones of her bodice which was a little too tight for her .
"You cannot believe in all seriousness, Blanche," she said, "that one loses one's crown as easily as a handkerchief. But one must have the proper respect for it! You promised me never to omit your prayer, and so you may rest assured that the King of Heaven will never fail to protect you. You can really go up the stairs without worrying."
Blanche quailed. It was the very stairway about which she had always asked whether it would slip from her. Involuntarily she freed her hand �rom the clasp of her governess and groped for one of the supports of the banister. And Fate had it that the support broke!
The little frightened birds in Blanche's eyes fluttered to Madame de Chalais in terror. For a mo- ment fear and security regarded each other almost with hostility. Then it suddenly seemed as if not the stairs but Madame de Chalais slipped, as though she had assumed the role of the child.
"How can you frighten me so ?" she cried. And she recoiled a little so that the bones of her tight bodice crackled softly.
Of course this mood did not last long. Madame de Chalais was not accustomed to yield to moods. And, as I have already said, Blanche's resistance weakened at that time when the ideas and symbols of Christian piety were crowding out the uncertain phantasies of fear from her imagination. I can quite understand this. Ah, my friend, what consolation there is in faith I From my own childhood days I remember the strange penetration of prayer through all the layers of being down to the very foundation of all things where falling is possible no longer. Undoubtedly Blanche must have had similar sensations. The poor child who had stubbornly refused all earthly guaranties of safety began to confide her little anxious heart to the shelter of the Supreme Power. The little rabbit took courage. Madame de Chalais even had the satisfaction of seeing her smile at her own former fears and of mocking them in mischievous jests that savored a little of youthful boasting but satisfied everyone nevertheless.
She was sixteen now, slender, with a small delicate mouth and a face that looked a little peaked and strained. Madame de Chalais had been careful to accustom her to a bodice as tight as her own, and so the girl's movements were graceful but some what constrained. No one, however, would have called her shy. Since everything had turned out so favorably, the Marquis de la Force set about planning a suitable marriage. for his daughter. But Madame de Chalais surprised him with the information that Blanche did not wish to marry, but that she desired to become a nun.
Excerpted from The Song at the Scaffold by Gertrude von le Fort
Lepanto Press, Used with permission.