October 16, 1793
Outwardly, I am calm and composed even as the rickety wooden cart jolts me over the cobblestones. I avert my gaze from the gleaming blade in the distance, turning to take in the sea of faces. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a little girl jumping up and down. I turn toward her as she points a grubby finger at me. “Mommy, Mommy, who is that woman? What did she do?”
I stare intently at the child’s mother. The woman’s clothes are dirty and torn in several places. As I watch, the woman’s calloused hands clench, and her lips tighten. The bedraggled peasant woman lifts her gaze to meet mine. I gasp when I see the undiluted hatred boiling in the woman’s eyes.
“That woman,” the peasant spits, “was once the queen. Child, that wretched woman feasted and danced while the people toiled under the hot sun. Your father worked himself to death to get us enough to eat! All the while, the queen and her lot were enjoying unimaginable luxury! The aristocrats didn’t care that the common people were starving. They didn’t care a bit when your father died. They were pitiless. Now it’s our turn to be pitiless!”
I turn away from my angry would-be executioner. Her fiery glare is too much to endure. The bitter answer to the child’s question is haunting. What could I have done differently? Why had it come to this? Do I deserve to die? A tear slips down my face. The whole world seems to hate me—and I can’t wrap my mind around that.
An impetuous, authoritative thought enters my consciousness. Obediently, I stand up in the wobbly cart and project my voice toward the peasant woman. “I am sorry about your husband, good woman! I pray you will forgive my shortcomings as your queen. I truly am sorry.” Puzzled expressions emerge on the faces of those who heard my words. Carefully, I sit back down in the bed of the cart, trying to preserve a little of my dignity.
Meanwhile, the peasant woman has gotten over her shock, and her expression has soured once again. “Pah!” she spits again. “Let’s see what Madame Guillotine thinks of your apology!”
My face crumples. Suddenly, I remember the words the priest whispered to me earlier. “Have courage, Majesty. Have courage.”
Yes. Courage. It is too late to avert my fate, but it is not too late to die with dignity. I lift my head high and wipe the stray tears from my cheeks.
“Queens never cry,” I whisper fiercely.
The cart rolls closer to the woman and her daughter. The girl pats her mother’s arm. “Mommy, are you sure it’s the queen’s fault Daddy died?”
The peasant woman is taken aback for a second. “Of course it’s her fault, Elise.”
Elise looks up at her mother doubtfully, then over at me. The look on her face tells me she disbelieves her mother. She witnessed my apology. She saw me wipe tears from my face. Perhaps she thinks I’m not the monster her mother says I am.
The crowd hushes as I mount the scaffold. The jeers subside for a few moments. It is just enough time. Elise climbs on top of a wagon and waves frantically at me. I face her, wiping a tear out of the corner of my eye. Elise gathers all the voice she can muster, and cries, “Majesty! I forgive you!”
The crowd buzzes. A rough-looking man yells at Elise to get down. She scurries away.
Those were the three most beautiful words to ever grace my ears. My eyes survey the enormous crowd, straining to catch a glimpse of Elise. Which direction did she go? There’s no sign of her. Perhaps she doesn’t want to watch me die.
As they cut my hair, I wonder what kind of life Elise will live. Will she grow up to be hardened and bitter like her mother, or will she chart a different, more forgiving path?
The time has come. I lie down on the coarse wooden frame, closing my eyes to avoid the grisly sight below. I prostrate myself before my people and, more importantly, before my God. I am humbled, but I am not afraid.
I nod to Sanson, the executioner. His hand is already on the rope. The drummer commences.