“Off with their heads!” the insolent crowd chanted outside the prison.
Commoners, slaves, and self-proclaimed French Revolutionists had gathered for the highlight of the day: the beheading of the de Beaumont family. It promised to be a grand occasion – even the premier of a new play was delayed so as not to detract attention from the execution of a family destined to inherit the throne.
Charles winced and blinked as he was pushed past the heavy prison door into the bright summer day, then took his place in line behind his father, mother, and two older brothers. The three men were clad only in shirts and trousers; Madame de Beaumont appeared in a simple, white muslin dress that fluttered slightly with the early summer breeze. Beneath the balmy sun, the thought of the cold blade that awaited Charles sent a chill down his spine. Terror squeezed his chest with its jagged claws as the pounding in his ears rose to a deafening level.
The guillotine had been erected in the Place de Roquette, a few feet from the prison. Shortly before the de Beaumont family emerged from the double doors of the prison, the State Executioner appeared and tested the machine of death. He examined the pulleys and after he determined that they functioned properly came the final touch – with great reverence he inserted the foot-wide blade with the diagonal razor edge; the bloody stains of the many who preceded the de Beaumonts permanently etched into its metal.
Trembling, Charles stepped up to the platform where his family awaited and scanned the crowd. Amidst the throngs of men, women, and children, he spotted a silent woman knitting. She glanced toward the guillotine and their eyes met briefly; her stony glare sent a wave of goose bumps over Charles’ flesh. Then he raised his eyes upward as his attention was drawn to the raucous groups of people standing on rooftops, jostling to gain a better view of the bloodbath. How did it come to this? Is there no mercy? he thought.
His father, stoic but unable to withhold his tears, turned to address his wife and three sons. “And so our meetings and our partings do now end! The sorrows we gave each other; the poor joys we faithfully shared, all our lovings, our sufferings, and our confused toilings under the Earthly sun, are over. Thou good souls, I shall never, never through all ages of Time, see thee anymore! Never! Yet I will always be with thee …” his quivering voice trailed off as he was led away to the plank by guards.
It was customary for the executioner’s assistants to shove the condemned criminal’s body against the plank, but Monsieur de Beaumont voluntarily placed himself against it. The plank dropped and within seconds his neck was placed below the glistening knife and his body was secured in place. The moment he was in position, the State Executioner touched the spring. In a silvery flash, the heavy blade fell. The spectators witnessed a splash of blood as the head dropped and turned face up into the waiting crimson-stained basket, the eyes still open. His body was quickly unfastened and as the plank was raised to one side, the headless corpse slipped off into a waiting empty box.
The executioner triumphantly raised the blood-drenched severed head to a loud cheer from the crowd. As the head slowly rotated in his grasp, Charles caught a glimpse of his father’s open eyes, still paralyzed with terror. A sudden tightness in his throat felt like a noose had suddenly been yanked around his neck. Father! he cried out, unable to silence his pain. His voice was lost in the clamor of people as they rushed the platform. Police quickly barred the crowd as the body and head were loaded onto a tumbrel for transportation to the cemetery.
Twenty-one year-old Charles watched as his two elder brothers met the same demise: the unmistakable swish of the falling blade heralding yet another excruciating loss. Sweat dripping from his brow, his stomach wrenched with terror. He looked over to his mother and saw her flawless porcelain skin grow ashen as she swooned on the brink of unconsciousness, forced to watch her family’s violent death. Feeling like they had been seared with hot coals, Charles’ eyes burned as he briefly caught his mother’s gaze – her hazel eyes seemed to plead for at least one son to be spared. He struggled to reach out to her but the fiber of the coarse twine bit into his hands, bound tightly behind his back. Everything inside him screamed in agony yet formless, silent words fell from his lips. His eyes, the color of malachite crystals, glazed over as he realized that he was next in line to meet the National Razor.
As Charles stepped forward, a strong hand yanked the twine on his wrists backward and his mother was unexpectedly pushed ahead of him, forced against the plank in his place. Within seconds, she was quickly and expertly fastened onto the plank. As Charles was pulled back from the platform, a mob of unruly people rushed forward, their attention focused on the rare royal female beheading. He caught a final glimpse of his mother as the straps were being tightened; he heard her faintly uttering her favorite passage from the Book of Common Prayer. She did not see him as her eyes were shut tightly against reality. Acid rose in the back of his throat as the knife swiftly lowered with a swish, followed by a wet thunk. Charles cringed and looked away, unable to watch – the horrid sound forever seared into his consciousness.
As Charles returned his gaze to the guillotine, he briefly saw a hand thrust above the crowd holding up his mother’s most prized possession – a spectacular black amethyst worn about her neck. Even though it was tinged with her blood, it shot out dazzling rays of rich purple into the cheering crowd. People immediately surged the platform and, in a frenzy, vied for articles of her clothing – the bloody fabric of her dress a prized possession, tangible evidence of the end of the monarchy.
Suddenly, a scratchy canvas sack was thrust over his head and he was yanked backwards again. His hands were grabbed and he was turned around, pushed hurriedly into the merciless crowd of onlookers.
“Who are you? What are you doing? I demand you to answer me!” he shouted. There was no reply, only more pushing and pulling.
After what seemed like a lifetime, Charles noticed that the roaring of the crowd had diminished to a low hum. He felt the ties around his hands being loosened. Now I shall see my captor! he thought. He struggled to reach up toward the sack on his head, but his hands were held together firmly by a strong, calloused grip. He heard a man’s voice say, “Out of generosity, your life has been spared, Aristocrat – but mark my words, you will be cursed with death forever!” The voice sounded vaguely familiar – a distinct Haitian accent tinged his French. And those rugged hands… A slave, perhaps? The man continued emphatically, “You will hear this often: You are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Today you have been transformed into an angel … an angel of death! By day and by night, only your strongest vision will set you free.” The grip on his hands tightened for a moment. Familiar with practices of the Haitian slaves who worked for his family, he knew a voodoo curse when he heard one. “Now leave, and never look back!”
In one movement, his hands were abruptly freed and the sack stripped away. Charles whipped his head right to left, craning his neck as his bloodshot eyes scoured the crowd to find the owner of the leathery voice and hands. He did not recognize anyone. Fear of being discovered then overtook him; he pulled his shirt around his ears and mussed his mane of thick chestnut hair. His heart thumped wildly as he wracked his brain to understand why he was pardoned while his family was brutally beheaded. Why? What will happen to me? Will I be stoned or torn apart by an angry mob if I am discovered? With no time to spare, he quickly ducked into the crowd and pushed ahead, seeking refuge among the throngs of commoners and serfs.
He would never know who saved him from his gruesome fate or why his life was spared, but he would never forget the last words which preceded his freedom, “an angel of death… you will be cursed with death forever!”