Gertrud von le Fort: Martyrs of the Guillotine
(original: Die Letzte am Schafott, 1931)

English translation by Richard Byrn, 2009
For convenience of file-size this story is divided into three parts:
Opening Middle Ending
 
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Now, my dear: there’s nobody to contradict us if we say that Blanche lost her nerve at that moment. But we can also say something different. ‘Poor child,’ writes Madame Lidoine, ‘she was the only one who wanted to remain by our Saviour’s side during his Agony, and when her strength gave way, she can be said to have fled into it’. — At this point I shall say no more of Blanche’s flight, for unfortunately she fled not just from the chapel but from the convent itself. A few days later the convent received a letter from the Marquis de la Force informing the Prioress that his daughter had reached his house in Paris in a truly deplorable state and was on her sick-bed.

I cannot resist devoting a couple of sentences to the Marquis’s letter, for Monsieur de la Force too had undergone a transformation which, in its own way, was hardly less surprising than Madame de Chalais’. He had discovered, it turns out, that certain ideas were far from willing to remain as decorative adjuncts to his conversation but had demonstrated a disturbing ability to become reality whilst showing no scruples about the means they adopted. In consequence, for some time now the Marquis heartily desired a strong monarchy and unyielding authority. Indeed, Monsieur de la Force surprised both himself and his entourage by acknowledging the necessity of religion, especially the church. It took only the first processions of the godless to render him speechless. (My heavens, but atheism takes on a far less subtle character in the coarse hands of the people than on the lips of witty aristocrats!)

‘These manifestations of mob-spirit are intolerable’, people heard him say at that time. ‘Something really must be done about it! This is certainly a matter for religious folk. I’m told there are still plenty of them about. I hope their numbers increase: people like them are of enormous value for the maintenance of Order and Public Decency. Why aren’t they doing something? Do they imagine in the monasteries that such dangerous assaults can be overcome by prayer and sacrifice? That would be a most fatal error!’ That, and the like, Monsieur de la Force wrote to all and sundry including Madame Lidoine. But I mention it only in passing in order to explain what follows. Regrettably it is not clear if the poor Marquis was now willing to act on his convictions because, unfortunately, circumstances took matters into their own hands, and, what’s more, so far as I can judge, the form they took mirrored his earlier opinions. In the first days of September Monsieur de la Force, like so many others of his ilk who sang Freedom’s praises, found himself incarcerated in prison.

And now, my dearest, for a while I shall continue our story drawing on my own experience. You know that at that time a rumour circulated in our circles in Paris to the effect that you, too, my friend, were amongst the aristocrats behind bars. In those days I dashed (I spare you an account of my state of mind) from one prison to another, dressed in the clothes of one of my servants, a tricolor cockade pinned to them; your carriage, however, was already rolling towards the safety of the Rhine. Dearest, how gladly would I spare you these memories! But I am not conjuring up Fear and Terror here in order to satisfy base curiosity: my purpose here is to portray them as Duty. My dear: Fear is a big subject. None of us has been sufficiently afraid! A society must know Fear, a state must know Fear, a government must tremble. In Trembling lies Strength! These things came to pass, and they can recur again any time.

By chance I entered the prison yard just as the Marquis was being struck down. It was night. The yard was filled with people — what am I saying — people? Such creatures had never been seen in Paris before. Where did they come from? What change had happened in the population that they were transformed into this rabble? (Ah, my dear, this transformation is exactly what we are speaking of!) There was a smell of wine, of coarse cheeriness, and some other ghastly intoxication seemed to have everyone in thrall. The pikes pointed towards the internal prison gate like a forest of leafless trees. Two torches were burning on either side of the entrance; in their flickering light the forest glowed an ominous red. From time to time the gate would open and emit one or more human figures. The pikes rattled, screaming was heard, and it was over. (You know that this continued for several days and nights.)

I stumbled from one corpse to another, assuring myself that it was not yours. The rabble, watching this bloody performance in the background, had its wicked sport with some of them. But meantime the gates of horror opened once again. The crowd fell silent like a rapacious animal — I had the impression that there were no individuals here any more — I couldn’t make out any apart from the victims; my attempts to do so led to the same horrifying confusion of each with everybody. Involuntarily I leaned up against the wall, expecting to hear the death-scream of the only individual present besides myself. But it did not come. Instead there was a wild commotion of voices. At last it stilled and a breathless hush descended.

Suddenly I heard a brief, very shrill girl’s voice screaming: “Vive la Nation!” The scream was by no means loud, but it struck through to the marrow. It was not a cry of fear, it could almost have been one of love-making; I had never heard anything like it. There was nothing macabre about it — it was just so strange, I would almost say transcendental. This scream sounded as if a redeemed soul were rising up from the material world, knowing nothing more of it. Involuntarily I opened my eyes.

An indescribable tumult now filled the courtyard. They crowded around someone I couldn’t make out. “Vive la Nation! Vive la Nation!” roared the crowd with truly frantic jubilation. Then I saw them lifting an old man and a young girl onto their shoulders: it was Mademoiselle de Sombreul and her father.

Now, my dear, you know the story of this famous martyr of filial love: her name figured in your list of heroines of the Revolution. Somebody shouted to me that this girl had just drunk a goblet of aristocrats’ blood to the honour of the Nation — the price demanded by those dehumanised rogues in return for her old father’s life. Meanwhile the macabre triumphal procession, for that is what it was, drew closer: the two who had but shortly been threatened with death were now the darlings of the people. I saw them carried close past me. They say that Mademoiselle de Sombreul had been a beautiful, bonny girl. I can’t tell: the person I saw seemed to me to be completely ethereal. You will hardly believe me, but her face was beatific, as if she knew nothing of either fear or disgust, only that her father had been saved.

The procession disappeared through the outer gate. The crowd pushed out after it. A gap opened in the direction of the prison. I saw the murdered body of the Marquis de la Force lying on the ground with his daughter Blanche leaning against the wall behind it. In front of her stood a ghastly fellow with a red cap on his head — of course it was not the same fellow who had looked into her cell months previously; and yet, by some infernal intuition, he seemed to know who she was. Or, could he tell from her frantically praying hands that she was a member of the Religious? Did her close-cut hair betray her as a nun? The fellow held a goblet in his hand and made a blasphemous gesture over it. (My friend, you know these things from the processions of our godless people.) “Communicate, citizeness!” he screamed and forced the goblet to her lips — plainly it was the same goblet that Mademoiselle de Sombreul had just emptied in order to save her father. Ah, my dear, in her case there had been a prize, some sense to the dreadful deed; here it was plain brutality with no sense to it at all! Or maybe there was some sense to it? Was this girl, at this instant, the personification of martyred France, forced to drink the blood of her own children? Horror of horrors — I shut my eyes once again.

But the crowd started up its wild “Vive la nation! Vive la nation!” again. It was done.

Next to me some women started complaining: “But this brave Mam’selle deserves to be carried too! Is she going to have to walk through this dirt? How rude!” (Dirt? — They meant blood, it would seem.)

Blanche was lifted up and carried triumphantly past me. How shall I describe her to you? The truth is, I didn’t recognise her at all. Her face was completely impassive, her expression not ethereal like Mademoiselle de Sombreul’s but sunk down into itself as it were — just not there. The close-cut hair over her forehead was in complete disorder — symbolic, it seemed to me, of her whole personality’s dissolution. (My dear, there is yet another death besides the one Marie de l’Incarnation had in mind!)

Meanwhile the crowd roared its “Vive la nation!” incessantly. A group of musicians started up, the Carmagnole began, and everything started moving. I felt it would be dangerous to remain in the empty courtyard, so I joined the procession. Alongside me walked some women from les Halles, the selfsame women who had shouted that Blanche shouldn’t be obliged to walk through the dirt. They told me they intended to walk to the Hotel de la Force and make sure the little citizeness got her supper. And I’m sure they attempted to do so. Ah, my dear, don’t imagine that these people were incapable of fine feelings! A rabble is quite capable of fine feelings too, for that is exactly what makes it a rabble — it’s capable of anything!

For my part, I was convinced then that Blanche would die that night, indeed I hoped it; that hope was actually a source of comfort. But Blanche continued to live, or rather to exist. My dear, if she had been the symbol of our unhappy country that dreadful September night, her remaining alive had a tragic logic to it. How her remaining alive was possible — from Blanche’s point of view, I mean — I do not know at all, but in a deeper sense it doesn’t matter. I could imagine that she herself knew nothing about her own existence. Seen from the outside, her life appeared to be as follows: it is certain that the mob held her in some degree of respect, this most moody of monarchs continued to be proud of her action — nothing, indeed, speaks more eloquently of the complete destruction of her person than their dreadful favour! If we may believe the legend of Paris, then the ladies of les Halles continued to enjoy looking after their little heroine. It is known that some of them took up residence in the home of the murdered Marquis de la Force. They could be seen there, squeezing their bulky frames between the arm-rests of gilded settees, their fingers famously knitting and scattering the remainder of their meals onto the parquet floor. They shared these meals with Blanche. Come evening-time — I assume, anyway — the husbands or lovers of these ladies arrived: they chatted about the day’s bloody events, they sang the Carmagnole, they danced. Maybe somebody danced with Blanche: I believe I can picture her delicate, apathetic figure on these occasions as clearly as I saw her on the shoulders of the septembristes. But once again, all these details are no longer of any significance, and I can’t guarantee them either. Many people assert — and this I consider more likely — that Blanche languished in some back room, completely alone and hopeless; just occasionally she would be dragged out and paraded through the streets of Paris on the occasion of some women’s mass march or political demonstration. “We had to do this from time to time”, one of the terrible September mothers said to me later (she had meantime reverted to being a completely normal market trader) “for the poor Mam’selle was of course an aristocrat by birth, and what’s more a former nun, and in those days there were such excitable elements in our government. You will recall that, Monsieur.”

Ah, yes: I recalled it — so theirs was a protective measure! My dear friend, there’s nothing like the loyalty of a September heroine!

And now we face the question: did these horrific events become known to the convent at Compiègne? It seems certain to me that they didn’t, and that the Marquis’s letter was the last news they received of Blanche. (This is hardly surprising: we are now adrift on the high seas of chaos.) Madame Lidoine’s Journal has nothing at all to say about the former novice in these days; admittedly it also says nothing at all about Marie de l’Incarnation’s Act of Dedication nor anything about her person — she who was previously so often named and her opinions sought. This silence is especially eloquent. About the only exception relates to the day of the king’s execution. Undoubtedly the convent, which felt devastated, regarded this event as a rejection of its heroic readiness for sacrifice — let us recall that Marie de l’Incarnation’s Act of Dedication took place on the eve of the storming of the Tuileries. For this woman of the royal blood, the rescue of France’s religious identity was always tied to the rescue of the crown. Madame Lidoine reports that she had consoled her weeping sisters with the words: ‘The king is dead, long live the king!’ She was thinking of the unfortunate young dauphin, for Madame Lidoine continues immediately in regard to herself: ‘O my God, so Thou hast indeed made our earthly fatherland’s king into a poor, weak child like Le petit Roi de Gloire!’ And then, foreseeing clearly the inevitability of chaos: ‘So, my God, Thou dost desire us to bring Thee Sacrifice without Hope, unless it be hope in the unfathomability of Thy ways?’

And now, my dear, there come the preparations for the Carmelite Convent of Compiègne’s second Act of Dedication: Madame Lidoine herself introduces it; this is their preparation for the unavoidable sacrifice, or, in their own terminology, the ‘providential’ sacrifice; at the same time it is also the preparation for unconditional sacrifice. ‘Sacrifice without Hope’, ‘Sacrifice for God alone’, ‘Sacrifice without Heroism’, ‘Sacrifice through God alone’, ‘Sacrifice in the midst of Night’, ‘Sacrifice in the midst of Chaos’ — such phrases recur constantly in her journal at that time. She does not say ‘Sacrifice to avert Chaos’ — that was of course now out of the question — now the formulation is: ‘Sacrifice of pure Obedience’, ‘Sacrifice of pure Love’. (My dear friend, I do not believe she imagined she was now creating a new, enhanced value in sacrifice, rather, the issue for this humble soul was the special nature of the challenge posed by her own times.) Undoubtedly it was in this spirit that she prepared the convent of Compiègne for their impending catastrophe. But what was Marie de l’Incarnation’s attitude to the altered nature of this sacrifice? I believe we can see it already in that cry ‘Vive le roi!’ ‘Assault on Chaos’ is how Madame Lidoine describes Marie’s religious frame of mind at that time. Ah, my dear, in this small observation we see reflected once again the whole, captivating personality of this great Carmelite! At that time she was still quite unbroken. For her, it seems, Blanche’s flight to her father signified only a deep source of reassurance — I can even hear her asking Madame Lidoine: ‘My Mother, isn’t it a good thing that we no longer have anybody amongst us who might fall short?’ (This remark is recorded several times by the Prioress; Marie de l’Incarnation evidently repeated it often.) My dear friend, if we want to detect any feeling of guilt within her, it can only be suggested by this remark. It’s just that we probably can’t, unless it be in the abyss of unconsciousness; this consideration is probably what provides the key to Madame Lidoine’s silence regarding the first Act of Dedication: here too she refuses to anticipate the hour that was not yet providentially set. Meanwhile, however, this hour had already struck.

At that time the Carmelites of the Rue d’Enfer had found ways of enquiring from the convent of Compiègne if there was any chance of their sending to them in Paris Le petit Roi de Gloire, or rather, the poor, patched-up ruin of him, without attracting attention, so that he would be closer to the unfortunate young dauphin, or — as Marie de l’Incarnation put it — so that he could save him. (Ah, she did not yet know what it meant that the Dauphin was in the hands of Simon the Cobbler!) She herself had been summoned to Paris by the Revolutionary Authorities concerning the matter of the liquidation of her royal pension. (You do recall, my dear friend, this legacy of her royal descent?) Madame Lidoine writes that Marie had welcomed this summons with delight because she believed it would give her the opportunity to bear witness to Christ. She also undertook without hesitation to use this opportunity to deliver Le petit Roi.

Aged Sister Jeanne de l’Enfance de Jésus wept on his departure, for she had tended Le petit Roi for almost 80 years. Even on the last day before he left she had sewn a little cloak for him (out of a patched old Carmelite cloak!) It was somewhat crooked — just as the little shirt had been; but in the little clothes-list furnished with Le petit Roi they still called it the ‘Royal Cloak’, just as his previous purple and gold one had been named.

Now, my dear, I naturally regard it as pure nonsense to suggest that this touching little clothes-list which was confiscated later in the Rue d’Enfer (Le petit Roi also fell into his enemies’ hands on that occasion) caused the catastrophe for the convent of Compiègne. True: the charge read that the nuns had purposed to hide the ‘Royal Cloak’, and that the three poor, crooked shirts sent along with Le petit Roi to Paris had been intended for the ‘young Capetian’. And yet, such stupidities were the order of the day at that time. My dear, the ‘Royal Cloak’ was but a smokescreen to cloak their murky plans: on this charge-sheet, the ‘young Capetian’ was Le petit Roi himself. — In reality, the trial had already been decided by the time they summoned Marie de l’Incarnation to Paris.

Advocate Sézille, who stood by her during the negotiations, got the impression right from the beginning that the matter of liquidating her pension was merely an excuse to engage with her person whom they evidently regarded as the most important in her community; thus it was the start to a quite different process which was to be imposed on countless non-state-sponsored priests and members of outlawed Orders. (As you know, my dear, they had decided to worship only Reason in future — ah, but Reason was betrayed then no less than Faith!)

Thus Advocate Sézille feared for his client from the outset — perhaps he also feared her passion before the Tribunal. I suspect at least that this was what decided him to ask Madame Lidoine to come to Paris too. And yet, it seems to me, things progressed without mishap — the personal superiority of a Marie de l’Incarnation was quite enough to deny her enemies the triumph of being able to accuse her with even a hint of justification. (And she desired real martyrdom!)

Monsieur Séville acknowledges that she carried herself before the section overseeing her affairs with unbelievable majesty but at the same time with consummate skill. And indeed, no provocation was needed — this is also most likely the reason why the news of the Dauphin, which she received in Paris, did not depress her. (Ah, the Carmelites in the Rue d’Enfer had imagined that the arrival of Le petit Roi was only for the aid of a mortally ill child facing death!) The charge was crystal clear! Certain questions they asked, the whole way they drew the matter out and tried to extend it to other areas, proved they had another agenda.

Monsieur Sézille explained this carefully to the two Carmelites as he accompanied them to the post-coach after the case was terminated.

They were in the Rue des Prêtres de Saint Paul where it crosses the Rue Saint Antoine. At that moment it was swollen by an agitated crowd. The Advocate noticed in their midst one of those infamous, miserable carts which conveyed the unfortunate victims of the guillotine to the Place de la Révolution. In order to spare his clients this depressing sight he wanted to make some excuse to enter a house, but Marie de l’Incarnation’s fiery eyes had already spied the wagon. “No, M. Sézille,” she said quickly, “I see priests on that cart: please allow us to draw strength by admiring the witnesses of Christ on their way to execution! You have already told us yourself that we need to be prepared to go the same way.” And then, turning to Madame Lidoine, she added: “Is it not good now, my Mother, to know that there is nobody in our company who might not be ready …” Even as she said this (ah, it was the last time she defended her Act of Dedication) she suddenly paled and broke off mid-sentence.

Madame Lidoine and the Advocate followed her eyes: they were looking past the unfortunate victims on the cart and rested on a group of women accompanying the cart. My love, you know about these gatherings of women on the way to the guillotine — I spare you the rest.

“O Jesus Christ, now I understand your Agony!” she cried out. Straightaway she rushed to the procession and disappeared into the crowd. Madame Lidoine and the Advocate looked at each other uncomprehending; they waited a few minutes, but Marie de l’Incarnation did not reappear. Meantime the coach for Compiègne was due to depart, and Madame Lidoine was obliged to enter it alone. Immediately after her return, she and the whole convent were arrested.

It was evening before Marie de l’Incarnation turned up, completely exhausted, at Advocate Sézille’s house. Now he was a sober-thinking man — my heavens, he was an excellent advocate! — and yet he immediately recognised that something profound had happened within her. He told me later: “She was like a ship in apparently still conditions but whose masts were tossing as if in a storm.” Meantime she informed him, superficially calm, she had imagined she recognised amongst the women accompanying the cart with the condemned men a former novice of the convent at Compiègne and had rushed after her in order to rescue her from that terrible company, but in vain: the woman she sought was as if swallowed up by the earth. I can understand this. My dear friend, do you recall my feelings on that September night — that terrible sense that all individuality had gone? Ah, Chaos is a dreadful parody of universal Equality! In chaos you have no face of your own: Blanche’s small, expressionless face was unrecognisable! The only wonder is that Marie de l’Incarnation had been able to spot it even for a moment! She now began to assume she was mistaken, and she evidently drew some comfort from that. Even so she asked Advocate Sézille to institute enquiries as to the whereabouts of this former novice, while she, as she put it, was bound in obedience to follow her Prioress without delay to Compiègne. But it transpired meanwhile that permission to leave Paris had been suspended and, what’s more, for several days (that was a frequent provision here at that time): Marie de l’Incarnation could no longer leave the city. Meanwhile news arrived of the arrest of the Carmelites at Compiègne: Marie de l’Incarnation had escaped — she who had personified their readiness for sacrifice now found herself excluded from that sacrifice.

I myself had my first conversation with her at that time. Monsieur Sézille, who had met me in the course of my enquiries for Blanche, led me to her. At that time I could not imagine what an impression my recollection of those September days would make on her. She received me with the request: “Speak frankly. Do not spare me anything.” So that is what I did — my dear, I provided her with the eyewitness account of Blanche’s dreadful fate! She listened to me with her wonderful self-control; but suddenly I became aware that she had lost her composure completely. It was almost as if, listening to me, she were drinking that same goblet of horror as had been given to Blanche! She trembled from head to toe — what an extraordinary spectacle! — this superb nun, whose every feature spoke of absolute personal fearlessness, trembling. I assure you, my friend, never have I seen horror expressed so vividly — not even in that September night on the faces of the murder-victims — as on this, the most heroic of faces that I ever beheld. I would have considered it an insult to attempt to help her with so much as one word. Purely as an observation of fact, I expressed the view that Blanche couldn’t possibly be alive still. She shook her head heavily. (I felt as if she had completely forgotten my presence.) At this instant she evidently gave up all hope.

“Oh no, she’s still alive”, she said quietly, “she’s still alive.” And with amazing intuition: “Isn’t this most sad country of ours still alive? Isn’t the unfortunate young King of France in all his torment still alive?” Then, as if jumping to her own death in the midst of her despair: “Ah, living is harder than dying! Living is harder than dying.”

And now, my dear, the real sacrifice of this great soul can start to be made out. We see Marie de l’Incarnation striding towards it and disappearing into it as into a dark entrance — completely. This sacrifice has no proud name: nobody has admired it, nobody has written about it, nobody has even noticed it. The only priest who was made party to it at confession will take it with him to the grave. Madame Lidoine’s journal ceases, of course, on the day of their arrest; and the biography Marie de l’Incarnation devoted to her Sisters does not refer to her own person at all. And yet, there is a sacrificial death in this too: we have here the silent suppression of all that had provided meaning for a particular person’s life: we have here the sacrifice of Sacrifice itself.

Monsieur Sézille feared then that she would try to rejoin her sisters. This would certainly have been no problem, because they were looking for her everywhere, since they hated in her both the soul of the Carmelites of Compiègne and her royal blood. (In the minds of those people, it was she above all who was intended for martyrdom!) But it remains a fact that, during the trial, she did nothing at all which might have endangered her. On the contrary, with admirable obedience she submitted to every precaution that the Advocate, in whose house she remained to start with, considered necessary. Indeed, this man acknowledges that her caution was so painfully conscientious that base souls might jump to the conclusion that she trembled for her life the way ordinary people do. She was also clear this might happen but made no attempt to challenge it.

The little opera-singer Rose Ducor, into whose house she was moved during the trial — this precaution she accepted too, without protest — insisted from the beginning that her caution was the truly saintly thing about her. (You will recall that it was Rose Ducor who later spread the legend of the stigma on her guest’s neck.) She believed, you see, that Abbé Kiener, an old Alsatian priest whom she also hid in her house during that time, had made it her duty to stay alive. “Marie de l’Incarnation”, as little Rose Ducor put it, “took it upon herself to stay alive as if it were a heavy penance.” (Ah, Rose Ducor did not guess how truly she spoke!)

Then, to substantiate her opinion, she tells of the final greeting which Marie de l’Incarnation attempted to convey to Madame Lidoine. It comprised a tiny scrap of paper bearing nothing but the words: ‘Give me the martyr’s crown, or withhold it from me!’

Resolute little Rose Ducor, who had admirers amongst all groups, hoped to persuade one of the prison warders to convey it to her hidden under his ring, but in vain. (My love, such plans work out only in fiction, real life is much more cruel.) And thus the sacrifice of Marie de l’Incarnation ends in deep silence in this regard also.

Meanwhile the Carmelites of Compiègne had been transferred to the Conciergerie in Paris: their trial was reaching its conclusion. I gave you the details, dear friend, in an earlier letter. It was both short and typical. In such cases the decision was known in advance. My dear, I do not hesitate to call it one of the darkest chapters in the history of our Revolution. (Except that chaos is not really history; we had already reverted beyond that.)

On the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne were condemned to death by guillotine. — Marie de l’Incarnation was included in this verdict. Can you imagine, dear friend, what a storm of emotion was unleashed in her by this fact? Advocate Sézille conveyed it to her. He bore the honourable but nonetheless hopeless duty of defending the sixteen Carmelites.

Marie de l’Incarnation believed — for they had evidently agreed this in advance at Compiègne — that her sisters would mount the scaffold singing. She begged Abbé Kiener earnestly for permission to accompany him. The latter had undertaken to dispense Absolution to the condemned on their way to the place of execution (wearing the Carmagnole, mixing with the jeering rabble, since that was the only way to succeed in such circumstances!), but he refused her request. “This”, said Rose Ducor later, “was the moment of her greatest pain.”

“My Father”, she broke down in tears, “you are robbing me of my last hope!”

“And what is it you hope for?” he asked her almost severely.

At this question the splendour of her personality broke through — she was overcome; it was not indignation. “I wanted to sing with them!” she cried out. “Ah, if only I could be the last, the very last, the one who has it hardest!”

He replied: “Sacrifice your voice too, my daughter — sacrifice it to the very last!” Once again she broke down in tears. “My Father”, she cried, “my sacrifices are not accepted, you know it! I shall be the most desolate of all!”

“Think of Christ’s desolation on the Mount of Olives”, he replied gently, “and think of Mary’s silence.”

At this moment her resistance broke. “It was then”, said Rose Ducor, “that her face bore for the first time that strange expression which suddenly let you picture how she looked as a child. It was like when a magnificent Baroque painting is being restored and an earlier, very delicate painting comes to light.” She crossed her arms over her chest without a further word.

From this moment on Marie de l’Incarnation falls completely silent — her voice passes over to another.

And now, my dear, we have reached your letter’s actual question. It related to — as you put it — ‘the deeply moving voice of young Blanche de la Force’.

That same day Monsieur Sézille asked me to be present at the Place de la Révolution. The purpose was to establish whether Blanche was the same person as a one-time nun whom, as the advocate had learned, the women of les Halles intended to bring along to the scaffold when the Carmelites of Compiègne were being executed. (Just another protective measure, no doubt!)

But do not be afraid, my dear: I am not about to impose the spectacle of the bloody guillotine on you! I cannot bear the spectacle of that dreadful machine myself, my dear — please believe me: I would find it easier to watch a live executioner at work, a human being with the courage to wield the sword himself, a hand made of flesh and blood which at least knows that it is carrying out the dreadful deed! Life should not be blotted out by a machine! But this has become the very symbol of our fate: ah, my dear, machines make no distinctions, they answer to nobody, they fear nothing, they are moved by nothing, they trample down everything brought before them, the most noble and pure no less than the most criminal — truly, the machine is rightly the instrument of Chaos; it is its crown, as it were, worn by an excited, soulless mob which no longer acknowledges the divine ‘Let there be!’, only the satanic ‘Let us destroy!’

I stood in the midst of the jostling, jeering rabble; never, my dear, has the hopelessness of our situation made me feel so desperate as I felt then! You know that I am not particularly tall: I was literally standing to the top of my head in chaos, my face sunk in the midst of it, as it were; I simply couldn’t see what was happening, I could only hear. Please understand, my friend, that all my senses were concentrated into this one faculty so that it gained almost superhuman power.

The Carmelites came to the Place de la Révolution singing, as Marie de l’Incarnation had anticipated. Their chanting could be heard from some distance, penetrating the rabble’s shouts with remarkable clarity — or did the cruel mob’s excesses fall silent at the spectacle of its victims? I could make out quite clearly the final words of the Salve Regina (this, you know, is sung when a nun is dying), and immediately after it the opening words of the Veni Creator. There was something light and charming in their singing, it was delicate but at the same time firm and calm — never could I have believed that such emotions could flow from the lips of condemned people! Beforehand I had been very agitated: at the sound of this singing I became strangely calm. Creator spiritus, creator spiritus — I believed I was hearing these two words repeated constantly; it was as if they took anchor within me.

Meanwhile the hymn continued loud and clear. Judging by the sound (I couldn’t see anything, of course) the carts were moving very slowly; the crowd was probably blocking them. I had the impression they still had some way to go. But this hymn banished all sense of time and space too; it banished the whole blood-stained Place de la Révolution, the guillotine, it banished — creator spiritus, creator spiritus — the impression of chaos; suddenly I got the feeling that I was amongst human beings again! Meanwhile somebody seemed to be saying right in my ear: “France isn’t just drinking her children’s blood, she is also shedding her noblest, purest blood for them!” Suddenly I was startled: all went dead quiet on the Place de la Révolution. (Dearest, even at the King’s execution it wasn’t so quiet!) The singing, too, now seemed softer; the carts had evidently moved away, their task accomplished. My heart began to thump. At the same time I sensed that one very high-pitched voice in the choir was missing — a moment later another one was missing.

I had believed that the execution had not yet begun, but in reality it was almost over.

Now the hymn was being sung by two voices only: for a moment they soared over the Place de la Révolution like a luminous rainbow; then one side, as it were, fell silent; the other side still sang radiantly. But at that moment the gap on the first side was filled by a second voice — it was a very thin, delicate, childlike voice. I got the impression that it did not come from the height of the scaffold but from somewhere deep down in the crowd, as if the crowd itself were responding. — (Strange thought!)

At the same instant a violent movement spread through the packed ranks — a gap opened up in front of me (exactly as on that September night). I saw — again just as on that earlier occasion — there, in the midst of the crowd of terrifying women, Blanche de la Force; her pale, pinched little face broke out of her surroundings, as it were, throwing them off like a cloth — I recognised this face in every feature, and yet I did not recognise it: it was wholly without fear — she was singing. She sang with her thin, weak, childlike voice without a single tremor, no, with the jubilation of a bird; completely on her own she sang out across the Place de la Révolution, singing her sisters’ Veni creator to the end:

“Deo patri sit Gloria
Et filio, qui a mortuis
Surrexit, ac Paraclito
in saeculorum saecula!”

I heard her naming the triune God clearly — I did not hear her Amen. (You know that the furious women murdered Blanche on the spot.) And now, my friend, the rainbow over the Place de la Révolution was gone, and yet I got the feeling that the Revolution was over. (In actual fact, the reign of terror ceased 10 days later.)

When I entered Rose Ducor’s house in company with the Abbé from Alsace, an unknown little girl was perching on the doorstep. She approached us confidingly and, drawing a little bundle from under her apron, she handed it over to the priest: it was Le petit Roi de Gloire. The child had picked it up out of the gutter somewhere, plastered in mud, flung there after some blasphemous procession.

We then went together to Marie de l’Incarnation. Now she had the appearance of a Mater dolorosa. The priest took her hand: “Come, Maria of Christ’s Humanity,” he said. In the unfamiliar dialect of his country her name seemed to carry greater meaning, or did he just say the name with special emphasis? He drew her to the cupboard where Rose Ducor concealed her little altar to the Madonna, opened it and laid Le petit Roi on it. Then he began to pray: he prayed the Regina coeli laetare, the Easter greeting to the Mother of God.

I prayed with him: yes, my dear, in those moments I sank, as I had done as a child, down through all the levels of consciousness to the ground of our being which is an eternal ground because it is divine.

And now, dear friend — over to you: how will you respond?

I believe I see two tears in your warm-hearted eyes, dropping slowly and solemnly onto your hands; your lips remain closed — I might almost say sealed in prayer. You are deeply moved but at the same time troubled, and I know why: you had been expecting a heroine’s victory, but what you have been given is a Miracle of Weakness.

But isn’t that very fact a source of infinite hope? Humanity on its own is not enough, not even ‘noble humanity’ which we once used to enthuse about so much — before the Revolution. (Ah, my friend, basically that whole stupendous movement taught us only the one same thing as poor little Blanche!) No, Humanity on its own is not enough — it cannot even rise to the sacrifice of human beings! — Dear heart, the bond between us has always been at the level of such ideas: can you cope with the change in your friend? Again: how will you respond?

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