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The despotism of Louis XIV. and the exhaustion of the finances by his wars and his reckless extravagance had reduced France to a very unhappy condition. His son, the Grand-Dauphin, died four years before his father, and his grandson, the Duke of Burgundy, a year later. Louis the Great was therefore succeeded by his great-grandson, Louis XV. During this reign the nation continued on the decline. He was followed by his grandson, Louis XVI., a better man than his immediate predecessor, but too weak to carry out the reforms necessary to restore the prosperity of the nation. Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and many other writers, as well as the influence of the American Revolution, had fostered democratic ideas among the people, for the government was reeking with abuses.
Charlotte Corday and Marat.
The Montagnards (mountaineers) or Montagne (Mountain) was the term applied to the Democrats holding the most extreme views, though its members were also Jacobins and Cordeliers. Among them were the most blood-thirsty, unreasonable, and intolerant men of the time, for Danton, Robespierre, Marat, St. Just, and others of that stamp, affiliated with them. They took their name from the fact that they were grouped together in the uppermost seats of the chamber of the Convention. The Cordeliers was hardly more than another name for a club of the same men, so called from the chapel of a Franciscan monastery where they held their meetings.
Jean Paul Marat was one of the most prominent personages of the Revolution, whose infamy will continue to be perpetuated down to generations yet to come, with other of his red-handed associates. He was a Frenchman, though he spent considerable time in Holland and Great Britain, where he practised medicine, having studied the profession at Bordeaux. He made some reputation as a political writer, and in Edinburgh obtained a degree. It is believed that he was convicted for stealing, and sentenced to five years imprisonment at Oxford under several aliases. Perhaps he was sincere in his opinions, and he threw himself vigorously into the work of the Revolution in Paris, issuing inflammatory pamphlets, which he caused to be printed and circulated secretly. He established an infamous journal, attacking the king and all his supporters, and especially the Girondists, whose moderation disgusted him. His virulence caused him to be intensely hated, and twice he was compelled to flee to London, and once to hide in the sewers. In the latter he contracted a loathsome disease of the skin which soon began to eat away his life; and his sufferings from it intensified his zeal and his hatred.
Marat was elected to the Convention as a delegate from Paris. Perhaps he was to a greater degree responsible for the September massacre than any other man. While he was dying of his malady he was urging on his fanatical measures, and declared that most of the members of the Convention, Mirabeau first, ought to be executed. His most virulent hatred was directed against the Girondists, whose execution he advocated with all the venom of his nature. Though he could write only when seated in a bath, he continued to hurl his invectives against them, impatient for the guillotine to do its gory work upon them.
The avenger was at hand. Charlotte Corday d'Armont was the granddaughter of Corneille, the great tragic poet of France. Though of noble descent, she was born in a cottage, for her father was a country gentleman so poor that he could not support his family. His daughters worked in the fields like the peasants, till he was compelled to abandon them. Then they obtained admission to a convent in Caen, where they were received on account of their birth and their poverty. The library furnished Charlotte abundant reading matter, and she read works on philosophy, though she also rather inflated her imagination by the perusal of romances, which had some influence on her after life.
When monasteries and convents were abolished, she was turned loose upon the world; but her aunt, as poor almost as her father, took the young woman, now nineteen years old, to her home in Caen. Charlotte had developed into a beautiful girl, rather tall, honest, and innocent. She had imbibed republican sentiments from her father in spite of his nobility, and Caen was the head-quarters of the Girondists. She was familiar with the details of the struggle between the Jacobins and the Girondists, and they inspired her with an intense feeling against the persecutors of her people, as she regarded the latter. The members of that party who had been driven from Paris instructed her. She was a woman; but if she had been a queen she had the nerve to rule a nation and fight its battles.
A tremendous purpose took possession of her being. It was not prompted by the spirit of revenge. She was mistaken, but she believed that the removal of Marat was the remedy for the evils of the time; and this became the work of her life, upon which she entered, fully conscious that her path ended at an ignominious grave. She had an admirer in a young man by the name of Franquelin, and though she favored him she sacrificed her attachment to what she regarded as a lofty, even a sublime duty. She had the means to proceed to Paris and she went by the coach. She deceived her aunt, her father, and her sisters with the statement that she was going to England in search of remunerative employment. She went to a hotel in the great city which had been recommended to her in Caen.
A friend had given her a letter of recommendation to Duperret, a Girondist deputy, by the aid of which she hoped to get into the presence of Marat. She had arranged a plan for the assassination of the brawling fanatic, and it was to take place at the celebration of the anniversary of the destruction of the Bastille, July 14th, on the Champ de Mars. She desired to do the deed as publicly as possible, not to make it sensational, but in order to produce the stronger impression upon the minds of the people. The postponement of the celebration, for the suppression of the rebellion among the Vendeans, prevented the execution of her first plan, and she then decided to strike down her victim in his seat at the "summit of the mountain," in the midst of the victim's accomplices. Then she learned that Marat was confined to his lodgings by his malady. She promptly determined to confront him in his own home.
She wrote a note to him, professing to be a sufferer at the hands of the Girondists, asking for an appointment at his house. He made it, but was unable to keep it. She wrote another note, and then went to the house in the Rue de l'Ecole de Medecine, now a part of the Boulevard St. Germain. The woman with whom Marat lived refused to admit her, and she crowded up a short stairway. Her intended victim heard the altercation, and suspecting it was the person who had sent him two notes, he called out to Catherine Everard to admit her. Charlotte had visited the Palais Royal and purchased a knife, which was concealed in her bosom in readiness to do the deed.
Marat, though at the height of his pernicious influence, lived in mean and squalid apartments, in a sort of pride of poverty as "the friend of the people." In spite of his disease, which compelled him to work in a bath, he was always busy. The room was littered with papers and pamphlets. He was only five feet in height, with a naturally disagreeable face, increased by his malady. At the very time his visitor entered his den, he was making out on a board before him a list of Girondists to be executed. She would not look at him, but she told him a story she had invented, and gave him the names of Girondist refugees at Caen; to which he replied as he wrote them down, that "they should have the guillotine before they were a week older."
At these words, as though they had steeled her arm, she drew the knife from her bosom, and with superhuman power, plunged it to the hilt and to the heart of Marat. He called for help and then expired. Assistance came, and the house was thronged with National Guards and policemen. They were necessary to save the murderess from the fury of those who forced their way into the house. She was arrested, and conveyed in the same carriage in which she had come to the Conciergerie. All Paris groaned and howled.
She had the form of a trial, and the guillotine quickly followed it. Her fortitude did not forsake her at any time, and she died as firmly as any martyr ever went to the stake. Her beauty and her heroism excited the sympathy of the crowd, but they could not save her. She was a mistaken heroine, but her courage and fortitude were sublime.
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