[Trigger Warning:- The content comprises some descriptions of gore and death set at the backdrop of Historical incidents.]
July 12, 1789 C.E.
The Third Estate, the commoners, was getting more rebellious with each passing day. We had all the right to, given that we had been wallowing in appalling hardships for years.
Shouldn’t Monarchy provide for its subjects, rather than being the cause of the State’s economic downfall?
The undercurrent of discontentment with the Monarchy began right from the reign of the self-proclaimed Sun King of France, Louis XIV. Or so le pépé had told us. His absolutism, his lavish spending over parties for the Clergy and the Nobility, and the continuous and unjustified warfare throughout his rule crushed the State as a whole. We became helpless onlookers to our own slow and painful deaths. What began in the 17th century spilled over to its successor too. The Royals turned to us, the taxpayers, for refurbishment. Our money was splurged. The vicious cycle continued tainting their hands with our blood.
The tension below the surface began to cause ripples. A colossal upheaval was imminent.
When many citizens were still in a dilemma if it was possible to overthrow the Kingship, I, Estelle Corday, plunged into action.
‘Live with dignity or die a rebel. Vive la France’ were le pépé’s last words.
As I stood in the Versailles court of King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, with my chained hands expressing surrender, but, my sardonic smile betraying their sense of accomplishment, I reveled in my glorious past.
A past that defined my role in the mutiny.
Future didn’t matter to me.
For, I knew that I was going to die soon, right from the time I committed myself to my endeavour – to infiltrate into the realms of the Queen, her private hamlet le Hameau, and become her confidante.
November 15, 1788
I was one among them. Yes, I had always wanted to be, and there I was, sitting with a group of young soldiers from the French Revolutionary Army. We christened ourselves so, denoting the unified power of the oppressed commoners.
“Estelle.” Lazare Hoche’s husky pronunciation of my name pierced the grave silence that prevailed among us. I sat up in rapt attention.
“The Queen’s close friend, Marie Thérèse’s, trust is gained. You know what to do. Act fast. There should be nothing about the Queen and her hamlet that you’re unacquainted with. You have a fortnight to be prepared.”
Lazare’s voice had a menacing tone to it. I nodded with implicit obedience.
“The hairdresser will be ready for the game. I hope to live up to the standards of Léonard,” I remarked.
“Oh! Léonard’s her favourite hairdresser, Estelle. It’s tough to match his skills. But, he’s only done us well by being away from the Palace to set up his new theatre. Apparently, to honour the request of the Queen. She loves Italian Opera.”
“The news reached me. It’s going to be called Théâtre de Monsieur.”
“Right. We trust you with his job, Mademoiselle. Disperse. Vive la France.”
January 27, 1789
“Dearest Estelle! What would I do without you?”
The strange sing-song rendition jolted me back to where I resided then. I abandoned my work – my sixth attempt to write a letter to the soldiers – at the mention of my name.
I turned around to face the beautiful queen, Marie Antoinette. Her wispy brown hair flowed like wavy rivulets until her lower back. Her fair skin glowed golden reflecting the filtered sunrays gushing in through the high windows of her hamlet. Her brilliant blue eyes wandered to the quill in my hand and my unsteady disposition. I quickly composed myself and plastered a smile on my face, trying to mirror hers.
“How was the Opera at Monsieur Léonard’s theatre yesterday, Your Highness?” I asked inducing a note of casualness to the ambience.
“It staged the first show, dear. Magnificent, it was,” she was quick to reply and was quicker to have brushed aside even a trace of doubt at the sight that had met her eyes first.
That was what developed a fondness in me towards the Queen. Her simple thoughts; sometimes too simplistic for royal blood, almost bordering on naivety. She was soft-spoken and loved her privacy more than anything. Her seclusion even kept the King away sometimes for a long period.
She was indeed a kind and noble soul. She was more generous unlike our misconception about her. My opinion about her took a wide turn so gradually in the previous six weeks that I had known her. I seemed to have developed a liking for her, much to my dismay.
As she sat down opposite her enormous ornate mirror on her choicest of velvet chairs, I began styling her hair and her wig, like a proficient hairdresser. Not as a rebel in disguise. I had become adept at hairdressing by then and even owned some signature coiffers.
“Love the way your hands work on my tresses, Estelle. Thank you.”
I smiled. It was not those fake ones anymore. They were getting more genuine. I winced in an attempt to not lose focus of my mission.
“The bag of rice flour is in the next chamber, dear. Can you get it and powder my hair, please? I love it that way,” informed the Queen, admiring her hair’s reflection on the elaborate mirror. It looked exquisite, bedecked with feathers, jewels, and ribbons.
My thoughtless adoration, just a few moments earlier, vanished into thin air. My smile got wiped off as I struggled not to grimace. I was ruefully reminded of the depressing famine conditions of the State, while I powdered her hair white with handfuls of rice flour.
While we longed for a piece of bread to satiate hunger, the Queen was mindlessly satiating her desire for a great countenance.
The incomplete letter to the Army was all I could think of for the next few days.
I was stunned beyond sanity to see the arrival of 100 gowns. Though designed in simple muslin cloths, the fact that she used to wear them only once before discarding sent a poisonous dart to our economic conditions. Her love for tastefully designed shoes, high-quality pomade, rouge, and trinkets paved way to the construction of another chamber for its storage.
She founded a home for unwed mothers, visited them regularly, and even offered support for their children’s education. On occasions, she also provided food to poor families and money to the needy.
My skewed perception of her being a pouf-headed monster was faltering.
Pieces of information about the American Revolution receiving aid from our Monarchy fueled the storm inside me. I was enraged at the idea of taxpayers’ money being used to serve political interests when a wayside commoner was left to die of hunger.
I realized a harsh truth. The Queen’s expensive whims weren’t the only reasons to blame for our State’s economic woes. It was not out of choice that she continued the opulent tradition of the royalty but she was compellingly bound to it. She was conditioned to be oblivious to an alternate way. Le pépé had been quite right.
In fact, the State was in deep trouble even as King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette had ascended the throne. Sadly, they were totally ignorant of it.
Years of oppression led to the Revolution.
But the wheels of time eventually steered to a point of intolerance only during the reign of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately!
I took a deep breath attempting to imbibe what I was trained on; we soldiers are driven by our obedience to supplied commands; not by listening to our brain or heart.
Death knocked on the door
July 11, 1789
Léonard visited the Queen at her hamlet.
“It’s always a pleasure to have you back here, Monsieur Léonard,” the Queen squealed like an ecstatic child and clapped her hands. Léonard bowed to her in deep reverence. I ambled to an insignificant corner and paid attention to their chatter, as the Queen’s favourite hairdresser began doing her hair.
His doleful countenance was suggestive of some unwelcome news he was waiting to share with her. His invitation to the latest Opera at the Theatre was not the only reason behind his visit.
“I hope the Monarchy is aware of the situation outside Versailles grounds, Your Highness?” Léonard’s concerned voice floated through the chamber.
The Queen’s vacant expression that the mirror registered revealed her lack of knowledge of her citizens’ plight.
“The citizens are growing increasingly unhappy with the Royals, dear Queen. Criticisms are rising. It could explode any day. The atmosphere is extremely sombre. The rise in bread prices at this juncture is only adding more fuel to the fire.” Léonard continued his baritone.
“Have bread prices increased?” The Queen asked, tucking a stray strand off her face. Léonard shook his head slowly.
“Riots might break out, Your Highness. Are we prepared?” His voice was turning graver.
“Well? I remember the King mentioning about orders to place the Army around Paris. He should have the situation under control.”
I heard what I wanted to. I ascertained it was time to send another letter to my warring soldiers on the field.
At the Queen’s behest, Léonard decided to stay at her private court for a couple of days.
July 12, 1789
The day dawned with a lot of tension in the air. The city of Paris was under attack by its own people. News about tax collectors being apprehended and beaten up on the roads spread like wildfire. It reached the high walls of the Royal Palace sooner than expected. I wished to join my soldiers, but, awaited my orders. I sat down at my chamber that afternoon scribbling away what I wanted to be my last letter to Lazare Hoche. It was, indeed.
A loud knock at the door at the oddest hour startled me. It followed quickly with the knob giving away under pressure and the door opening to face Léonard.
“Mademoiselle Corday!” He called out as his eyes scanned my chamber and landed on my quill and letter.
“Monsieur Léonard, is there something…”
Even before I could complete my sentence, his long strides filled the distance between the door and my table and his bony hands snatched the letter from mine. He quickly read it.
“Ah! I see… A rebel, are you? … There was always something suspicious about you, Corday. Right from you mentioning about being referred by the Queen’s friend, Madame Thérèse to your strange coiffers on her which were so low class. I’m too skilled to not see the difference, dear.” There was something sinister about his voice and it only sparked my determination even further.
“This letter to your dear soldiers is going to slay you to pieces, Mademoiselle.” He left with a lop-sided smile. The next thing I knew was that I was being chained heavily by the palace guards and dragged by my hair mercilessly to King Louis XVI’s court.
I knew I was going to die. Die for my country.
July 13, 1789
Le 14 Juillet – The State Prison stormed
I was going to die, but, fate had it delayed. There was no trial, yet, a verdict was delivered. It sentenced me to the State Prison, Bastille. The Bastille was a splendid fortress in itself.
I was jailed in one of the cells in its Eastern towers. I was trapped under the insidious walls of the prison, unable to contact my soldiers. I looked around. For the first time ever in my two decades of existence did I feel helpless.
July 14, 1789
The deafening silence inside the fortress was slowly killing me before my final judgement was written. Yet, I preferred it over dying in the hands of the ignominious Monarchy.
Hurried footsteps announced the arrival of one of the Bastille guards to the Eastern tower. I could hear him talking to his counterparts.
“Uproar outside the walls. The citizens are negotiating with the Bastille governor for the ammunition stored inside the fortress. They seemed to have gotten hold of cannons and rifles already.” He informed breathlessly.
“The Governor would never give in,” said another firmly.
“Not even if his life was at stake?” questioned another.
The conversation stopped abruptly at the appearance of the Head Guard. I could only hear them taking orders.
All I could fathom and smile about was that the citizens had finally turned into their revolutionary selves. It was high time they joined hands to bring down the absolutist Monarchy that we had been through for so long.
I waited with keen anticipation to hear further about the uprising. But, nothing at all for the whole day.
A huge explosion at the north-eastern part of the fortress rang through the blood-stained walls of the prison. Minutes later, another explosion resounded and a lot of footsteps running hither and thither gave a picture of the commotion outside.
“Hack them to death.”
“This place should be demolished…”
Prayers for mercy and contiguous explosions turned the stillness within the fortress’s walls a distant dream. A maelstrom ensued.
The Bastille, the symbol of monarchical power as well as the embodiment of royal tyranny in people’s minds, was getting demolished in front of me. There couldn’t have been a happier moment in my life. If I were to die that second, I would have embraced it without complaints.
But, destiny had other plans. The insurgents began to set the prisoners free.
“Estelle Corday…you. Out of this place. You’re free.” An unidentified high-pitched voice was heard and his burly hands broke open my cell to set me free.
Freedom from the Bastille.
Freedom from the jaws of Death.
I was free to join my soldiers on the field. I wasn’t a rebel in disguise anymore. A proud rebel in action.
I knew for sure that July 14th was going to be a day written in blood in French History as one of the first events leading to the fall of the Monarchy and the rise of the commoners.
The Reign of Terror
Versailles was a mad sight to see. My warring soldiers were all over the place, gathered in mobs. Angry crowds of peasants threatened to attack the Palace of Versailles, the royal family’s home.
My thoughts wandered to the hamlet, le Hameau, and settled on Queen Marie Antoinette. The Austrian-princess-turned-Queen-of-France deserved better. It was not her fault to have stuck in the wrong place at the wrong timeframe. The rebels would definitely not spare her.
Fearing for life, the royal family had fled to Paris from Versailles and stayed in the Tuileries Palace.
The year marked the onset of the Reign of Terror in my country.
It was horrifying to see my revolutionary counterparts turn into power-hungry and bloodthirsty maniacs. They became divided and fought among themselves.
“Estelle, remain true to what you choose…” The man I looked up to, Lazare, often reminded me and I did. I was always on his side. He climbed to the ranks of a General in the new French Revolutionary Government that was set up.
People who abided by the new Constitutional law lived. Those who resisted were hacked to death in public. Blood flowed like rivers on the streets. The State was bathed in red.
Was that what I fought for?
Had the citizens turned into monsters in the hunt for power and equality?
Was that even called Freedom?
While the Reign of Terror continued in the name of revolution, the King and Queen were spared under the agreement that they accepted the new Constitutional Monarchy and remained to be just citizens of the newly formed Government.
They did. And, lived for as long as they didn’t hatch a plan to escape.
I was appointed as one of the Head Guards of the Tuileries Palace where the royals stayed. Despite the agreement with the King, the Revolutionary Government wasn’t ready to trust them yet. The Palace was on watch, round the clock.
One morning, as we took our positions for duty, a certain servant was caught under the grounds of suspicion by one of my men. When interrogated, she confessed her possession of a letter from the Queen to her nephew in Austria. An escape from the Revolutionary Government was the intention behind it. The servant was allowed to do her job as a messenger, but, was killed the same night.
As much as I was satisfied to have intercepted this secretive attempt, I also hoped that the Queen would be freed from her predicament in some miraculous way. But, my hopes didn’t see the light.
The revolutionaries let them escape for the fun of it and captured them within 24 hours.
The incident of their failed flight out of Paris instigated a furore among the commoners. Hatred towards the royal family increased manifold. It only provoked charges of treason on them. Anger swelled among the citizens who demanded wiping off the royal blood in the entirety, right till their children.
The Reign of Terror rang true to its name.
The Guillotine’s Vengeance
The French Guillotine had a horrendous history.
It was designed to kill. But, to kill with dignity.
Its function was to chop off an anarchist’s head. But, without the prolonged pain of multiple blows until the victim was beheaded.
I witnessed the creation of the killing machine. It was named after its creator, Dr. Guillotine. Ironically, he was one of the machine’s victims himself.
January 21, 1793
The Guillotine beheaded King Louis XVI.
The crowd roared in lunatic excitement when the executioner held a tuft of hair and swung his head to the frenzied audience. As a bystander, I realized that that was not the kind of revolution that the State had expected to go through. We had fallen into the hands of a ruthless Government from a nonchalant Monarchy.
The Queen was next in line. Shortly after the King’s execution, Queen Marie Antoinette was imprisoned in a cell with no contact.
Using my power then, I used to sneak trips to see her. I was one of those unfortunate few to have seen her at her best and at her worst times. Her hair was so unkempt that I was miserably reminded of the days when her accessorized coiffers rose to four feet above her head.
I tried to strike a conversation with her during one of my visits.
“Need a change of robe, Your Highness?” I asked her.
My words penetrated the silence around her as much as her gaze towards me. I was not sure if she recognized me. Her expression betrayed nothing. It remained as vacant as ever.
October 16, 1793
I ensured that I led the group of guards who brought the Queen to the Guillotine on her execution day.
As we reached her cell, one of the guards threw the white Guillotine robe on her face and asked her to change. She looked up at them pleading for privacy. The guards jeered at her demanding to change in front of them.
The revolution was all about equality and respect. Had it gotten lost on the way to capturing power?
The feminist in me screamed and hit one of them with a rifle.
“Be it a man or a woman; a ruler or a prisoner; respect the human in them.” My sudden outburst shut them up. We stepped out of the cell asking her to change.
She did and she was brought to Place de la Concorde where the Guillotine stood. Her head was axed by the machine in no time and the executioner showed it off to the sadistic crowd.
A lone tear slipped out of my eyes as I watched the last Queen of France get victimized by fate.
Here comes a time in the history of France when the Monarchy rises again.
As I look back at the bloody path I have trodden across, I wonder if we have just defeated the core purpose of the revolution that began more than a decade ago.
I’m one among those who attend the coronation of Napolean Bonaparte in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The Pope hands him the crown and the conqueror places it on his head. He becomes the first Frenchman to hold the title of Emperor in a thousand years. He is sure to rewrite history for the same.
He, a key General during the Revolution and the first consul of France in 1799 after the revolution ended, establishes himself in my country with a military rule. He announces to the citizens that Monarchy is abolished and Napolean’s Empire is set up to serve people.
Serve, will he? Or, rule?
Has Monarchy extended its venomous tongue again through a different Head?
Absolutist, is he? Or, a people’s Emperor?
The answer rests with time.
- C.E – Instead of BC and AD, BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) got popularized to avoid reference to a particular religion.
- Le pépé – Grandfather
- Third Estate – The French society then was divided into three estates – first estate being the Clergy, the second being the nobility and the third being the general public.
- Vive la France – Long live France
- The Bastille – State Prison during the King Louis’s reign. The storming of the Bastille is celebrated even today as the National Day in France with a fancy display of crackers.
- Monsieur – Sir
- Mademoiselle – Used to address an unmarried woman
- Madame – Used to address a married woman
- Le 14 Juillet – July 14
- Coiffer – Originally a French word used to refer to elaborate hairstyles, its usage became more common in the English language too later on.
Image Courtesy:- Pixabay (shows a grill architecture of the Sun King of France, Louis XIV)
Except the narrator, all the characters in the story are real and are set at the backdrop of the French Revolution. Since the story is from the point of view of a fictional character, I have assumed poetic liberty to make slight alterations of the occurred events based on her persona, perceptions, thoughts, emotions and perspective. (Eg. 1. Her altered opinion about the Queen. 2. Her standing up for the Queen when she was asked to change in front of the guards etc.,)
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