Famous Affinities of History
By Lyndon Orr
Public Domain Books
Marie Antoinette a la Rose (detail)
by Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun
Charlotte Corday and Adam Lux
Perhaps some readers will consider this story inconsistent with those that have preceded it. Yet, as it is little known to most readers and as it is perhaps unique in the history of romantic love, I cannot forbear relating it; for I believe that it is full of curious interest and pathetic power.
All those who have written of the French Revolution have paused in their chronicle of blood and flame to tell the episode of the peasant Royalist, Charlotte Corday; but in telling it they have often omitted the one part of the story that is personal and not political. The tragic record of this French girl and her self- sacrifice has been told a thousand times by writers in many languages; yet almost all of them have neglected the brief romance which followed her daring deed and which was consummated after her death upon the guillotine. It is worth our while to speak first of Charlotte herself and of the man she slew, and then to tell that other tale which ought always to be entwined with her great deed of daring.
Charlotte Corday–Marie Anne Charlotte Corday d’Armand–was a native of Normandy, and was descended, as her name implies, from noble ancestors. Her forefathers, indeed, had been statesmen, civil rulers, and soldiers, and among them was numbered the famous poet Corneille, whom the French rank with Shakespeare. But a century or more of vicissitudes had reduced her branch of the family almost to the position of peasants–a fact which partly justifies the name that some give her when they call her “the Jeanne d’Arc of the Revolution.”
She did not, however, spend her girlish years amid the fields and woods tending her sheep, as did the other Jeanne d’Arc; but she was placed in charge of the sisters in a convent, and from them she received such education as she had. She was a lonely child, and her thoughts turned inward, brooding over many things.
After she had left the convent she was sent to live with an aunt. Here she devoted herself to reading over and over the few books which the house contained. These consisted largely of the deistic writers, especially Voltaire, and to some extent they destroyed her convent faith, though it is not likely that she understood them very fully.
More to her taste was a copy of Plutarch’s Lives. These famous stories fascinated her. They told her of battle and siege, of intrigue and heroism, and of that romantic love of country which led men to throw away their lives for the sake of a whole people. Brutus and Regulus were her heroes. To die for the many seemed to her the most glorious end that any one could seek. When she thought of it she thrilled with a sort of ecstasy, and longed with all the passion of her nature that such a glorious fate might be her own.
Charlotte had nearly come to womanhood at the time when the French Revolution first broke out. Royalist though she had been in her sympathies, she felt the justice of the people’s cause. She had seen the suffering of the peasantry, the brutality of the tax- gatherers, and all the oppression of the old regime. But what she hoped for was a democracy of order and equality and peace. Could the king reign as a constitutional monarch rather than as a despot, this was all for which she cared.
In Normandy, where she lived, were many of those moderate republicans known as Girondists, who felt as she did and who hoped for the same peaceful end to the great outbreak. On the other hand, in Paris, the party of the Mountain, as it was called, ruled with a savage violence that soon was to culminate in the Reign of Terror. Already the guillotine ran red with noble blood. Already the king had bowed his head to the fatal knife. Already the threat had gone forth that a mere breath of suspicion or a pointed finger might be enough to lead men and women to a gory death.
In her quiet home near Caen Charlotte Corday heard as from afar the story of this dreadful saturnalia of assassination which was making Paris a city of bloody mist. Men and women of the Girondist party came to tell her of the hideous deeds that were perpetrated there. All these horrors gradually wove themselves in the young girl’s imagination around the sinister and repulsive figure of Jean Paul Marat. She knew nothing of his associates, Danton and Robespierre. It was in Marat alone that she saw the monster who sent innocent thousands to their graves, and who reveled like some arch-fiend in murder and gruesome death.
In his earlier years Marat had been a very different figure–an accomplished physician, the friend of nobles, a man of science and original thought, so that he was nearly elected to the Academy of Sciences. His studies in electricity gained for him the admiration of Benjamin Franklin and the praise of Goethe. But when he turned to politics he left all this career behind him. He plunged into the very mire of red republicanism, and even there he was for a time so much hated that he sought refuge in London to save his life.
On his return he was hunted by his enemies, so that his only place of refuge was in the sewers and drains of Paris. A woman, one Simonne Evrard, helped him to escape his pursuers. In the sewers, however, he contracted a dreadful skin-disease from which he never afterward recovered, and which was extremely painful as well as shocking to behold.
It is small wonder that the stories about Marat circulated through the provinces made him seem more a devil than a man. His vindictiveness against the Girondists brought all of this straight home to Charlotte Corday and led her to dream of acting the part of Brutus, so that she might free her country from this hideous tyrant.
In January, 1793, King Louis XVI. met his death upon the scaffold; and the queen was thrust into a foul prison. This was a signal for activity among the Girondists in Normandy, and especially at Caen, where Charlotte was present at their meetings and heard their fervid oratory. There was a plot to march on Paris, yet in some instinctive way she felt that such a scheme must fail. It was then that she definitely formed the plan of going herself, alone, to the French capital to seek out the hideous Marat and to kill him with her own hands.
To this end she made application for a passport allowing her to visit Paris. This passport still exists, and it gives us an official description of the girl. It reads:
Allow citizen Marie Corday to pass. She is twenty-four years of age, five feet and one inch in height, hair and eyebrows chestnut color, eyes gray, forehead high, mouth medium size, chin dimpled, and an oval face.
Apart from this verbal description we have two portraits painted while she was in prison. Both of them make the description of the passport seem faint and pale. The real Charlotte had a wealth of chestnut hair which fell about her face and neck in glorious abundance. Her great gray eyes spoke eloquently of truth and courage. Her mouth was firm yet winsome, and her form combined both strength and grace. Such is the girl who, on reaching Paris, wrote to Marat in these words:
Citizen, I have just arrived from Caen. Your love for your native place doubtless makes you wish to learn the events which have occurred in that part of the republic. I shall call at your residence in about an hour. Be so good as to receive me and give me a brief interview. I will put you in such condition as to render great service to France.
This letter failed to gain her admission, and so did another which she wrote soon after. The fact is that Marat was grievously ill. His disease had reached a point where the pain could be assuaged only by hot water; and he spent the greater part of his time wrapped in a blanket and lying in a large tub.
A third time, however, the persistent girl called at his house and insisted that she must see him, saying that she was herself in danger from the enemies of the Republic. Through an open door Marat heard her mellow voice and gave orders that she should be admitted.
As she entered she gazed for a moment upon the lank figure rolling in the tub, the rat-like face, and the shifting eyes. Then she approached him, concealing in the bosom of her dress a long carving-knife which she had purchased for two francs. In answer to Marat’s questioning look she told him that there was much excitement at Caen and that the Girondists were plotting there.
To this Marat answered, in his harsh voice:
“All these men you mention shall be guillotined in the next few days!”
As he spoke Charlotte flashed out the terrible knife and with all her strength she plunged it into his left side, where it pierced a lung and a portion of his heart.
Marat, with the blood gushing from his mouth, cried out:
His cry was meant for one of the two women in the house. Both heard it, for they were in the next room; and both of them rushed in and succeeded in pinioning Charlotte Corday, who, indeed, made only a slight effort to escape. Troops were summoned, she was taken to the Prison de l’Abbaye, and soon after she was arraigned before the revolutionary tribunal.
Placed in the dock, she glanced about her with an air of pride, as of one who gloried in the act which she had just performed. A written charge was read. She was asked what she had to say. Lifting her head with a look of infinite satisfaction, she answered in a ringing voice:
“Nothing–except that I succeeded!”
A lawyer was assigned for her defense. He pleaded for her earnestly, declaring that she must he regarded as insane; but those clear, calm eyes and that gentle face made her sanity a matter of little doubt. She showed her quick wit in the answers which she gave to the rough prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville, who tried to make her confess that she had accomplices.
“Who prompted you to do this deed?” roared Tinville.
“I needed no prompting. My own heart was sufficient.”
“In what, then, had Marat wronged you?”
“He was a savage beast who was going to destroy the remains of France in the fires of civil war.”
“But whom did you expect to benefit?” insinuated the prosecutor.
“I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand.”
“What? Did you imagine that you had murdered all the Marats?”
“No, but, this one being dead, the rest will perhaps take warning.”
Thus her directness baffled all the efforts of the prosecution to trap her into betraying any of her friends. The court, however, sentenced her to death. She was then immured in the Conciergerie.
This dramatic court scene was the beginning of that strange, brief romance to which one can scarcely find a parallel. At the time there lived in Paris a young German named Adam Lux. The continual talk about Charlotte Corday had filled him with curiosity regarding this young girl who had been so daring and so patriotic. She was denounced on every hand as a murderess with the face of a Medusa and the muscles of a Vulcan. Street songs about her were dinned into the ears of Adam Lux.
As a student of human nature he was anxious to see this terrible creature. He forced his way to the front of the crowded benches in the court-room and took his stand behind a young artist who was finishing a beautiful sketch. From that moment until the end of the trial the eyes of Adam Lux were fastened on the prisoner. What a contrast to the picture he had imagined!
A mass of regal chestnut hair crowned with the white cap of a Norman peasant girl; gray eyes, very sad and serious, but looking serenely forth from under long, dark lashes; lips slightly curved with an expression of quiet humor; a face the color of the sun and wind, a bust indicative of perfect health, the chin of a Caesar, and the whole expression one of almost divine self-sacrifice. Such were the features that the painter was swiftly putting upon his canvas; but behind them Adam Lux discerned the soul for which he gladly sacrificed both his liberty and his life.
He forgot his surroundings and seemed to see only that beautiful, pure face and to hear only the exquisite cadences of the wonderful voice. When Charlotte was led forth by a file of soldiers Adam staggered from the scene and made his way as best he might to his lodgings. There he lay prostrate, his whole soul filled with the love of her who had in an instant won the adoration of his heart.
Once, and only once again, when the last scene opened on the tragedy, did he behold the heroine of his dreams.
On the 17th of July Charlotte Corday was taken from her prison to the gloomy guillotine. It was toward evening, and nature had given a setting fit for such an end. Blue-black thunder-clouds rolled in huge masses across the sky until their base appeared to rest on the very summit of the guillotine. Distant thunder rolled and grumbled beyond the river. Great drops of rain fell upon the soldiers’ drums. Young, beautiful, unconscious of any wrong, Charlotte Corday stood beneath the shadow of the knife.
At the supreme moment a sudden ray from the setting sun broke through the cloud-wrack and fell upon her slender figure until she glowed in the eyes of the startled spectators like a statue cut in burnished bronze. Thus illumined, as it were, by a light from heaven itself, she bowed herself beneath the knife and paid the penalty of a noble, if misdirected, impulse. As the blade fell her lips quivered with her last and only plea:
“My duty is enough–the rest is nothing!”
Adam Lux rushed from the scene a man transformed. He bore graven upon his heart neither the mob of tossing red caps nor the glare of the sunset nor the blood-stained guillotine, but that last look from those brilliant eyes. The sight almost deprived him of his reason. The self-sacrifice of the only woman he had ever loved, even though she had never so much as seen him, impelled him with a sort of fury to his own destruction.
He wrote a bitter denunciation of the judges, of the officers, and of all who had been followers of Marat. This document he printed, and scattered copies of it through every quarter in Paris. The last sentences are as follows:
The guillotine is no longer a disgrace. It has become a sacred altar, from which every taint has been removed by the innocent blood shed there on the 17th of July. Forgive me, my divine Charlotte, if I find it impossible at the last moment to show the courage and the gentleness that were yours! I glory because you are superior to me, for it is right that she who is adored should be higher and more glorious than her adorer!
This pamphlet, spread broadcast among the people, was soon reported to the leaders of the rabble. Adam Lux was arrested for treason against the Republic; but even these men had no desire to make a martyr of this hot-headed youth. They would stop his mouth without taking his life. Therefore he was tried and speedily found guilty, but an offer was made him that he might have passports that would allow him to return to Germany if only he would sign a retraction of his printed words.
Little did the judges understand the fiery heart of the man they had to deal with. To die on the same scaffold as the woman whom he had idealized was to him the crowning triumph of his romantic love. He gave a prompt and insolent refusal to their offer. He swore that if released he would denounce his darling’s murderers with a still greater passion.
In anger the tribunal sentenced him to death. Only then he smiled and thanked his judges courteously, and soon after went blithely to the guillotine like a bridegroom to his marriage feast.
Adam Lux! Spirit courtship had been carried on silently all through that terrible cross-examination of Charlotte Corday. His heart was betrothed to hers in that single gleam of the setting sun when she bowed beneath the knife. One may believe that these two souls were finally united when the same knife fell sullenly upon his neck and when his life-blood sprinkled the altar that was still stained with hers.