It is what happened after the death of Louis XVII, that is so amazingly interesting. Through various entries Cardinal Beneventy’s diary, we can follow the drama step by step and I have taken the liberty of forming from these fragments a coherent story—the life story not of the rescued Dauphin himself, for that was uneventful, but that of his son, known to a narrow but intensely loyal circle of royalists as Louis XIX.
289 pages, with a reading time of ~4.5 hours (72,449 words), and first published in 1935. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2016.
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On a cold winter’s morning in the year 1794 the Reverend Prior of the Dominican order at Gmünd stood in the porch of the monastery church. The monks, fifty or sixty in number, were grouped in a semicircle around him. Their heads and shoulders under the black hoods were lost in the surrounding gloom; only their white robes caught a glimmer of the pale blue light of early dawn, as did also the knuckles of their toil-worn hands, clasped tightly in prayer.
The church clock struck seven. Thin flakes of snow fell from a leaden sky. The wind came moaning and soughing over the snow-clad Styrian Alps and the pine trees on the foothills sighed and shivered and bent their stately crests to the blast. Above the sighing of the trees and the soughing of the wind rose the monotonous voices of the monks chanting their morning orisons. But all the while that they mumbled their prayers, those men in the long white robes, with hands reverently clasped, seemed to be straining their ears as if to catch a sound—the rumble of coach wheels perhaps—the jingle of harness, or the crack of a whip. They prayed, but, intent and eager, they also listened, and the Prior appeared to be listening too, more eagerly than they. It was very cold. The snow fell thicker and faster as slowly the grey dawn chased away the lingering gloom of night.
And suddenly the Prior straightened his tall figure, the black hood fell back from his tonsured head. He craned his neck, listening more intently than before. The murmured prayers of the monks became a mere jumble of incoherent words, for they, too, were craning their necks and listening. Listening! From the remote distance there had come the scarcely perceptible sound of coach wheels and the clatter of horses’ hoofs on the hard, frozen road.
The monks continued to mumble prayers, but they only did it with their lips. Mechanically. Inwardly every man was murmuring: “Here they are!” and “At last!” Only the rigid discipline of self-effacement prevented these men from running out into the snow; from running out in order to lessen the distance and the time that separated them from that coach. But the Prior was still standing motionless in their midst. His tall, erect figure looked soldierly even beneath the voluminous, effeminate white robes. And not until the Prior gave the word would any of those men have dared to move. All they did was to crane their necks and to keep their eyes fixed on one spot in the landscape—the edge of the forest, where the winding road emerged out of the thicket.
The rumble of coach wheels gradually became more distinct and all at once a heavy coach, drawn by four bays, came out of the thicket, travelling at a round pace up the road. It appeared and disappeared alternately in and out of clumps of fir trees and intervening cottages, with harness jingling and leather creaking, until, after a few more minutes of anxious waiting, it came rattling on the cobble-stones of the precincts and came to a halt in front of the church porch.
The Prior alone advanced to meet it. A groom jumped down from the box seat and opened the carriage door. A tall man in a magnificent caped coat stepped out of the coach. He had a child in his arms. The Prior approached and took the child from him.
“He is tired now,” the tall stranger said, “but he has borne the journey remarkably well!”
The Prior held the child in his arms, closely pressed to his breast; a limp, emaciated little body it was, wrapped in a thick rug; a pale face with sensitive mouth, drooping pathetically at the corners; closed eyes circled with purple, and fair, lank hair falling over the forehead. The Prior gazed on the sleeping child in a kind of ecstasy, whilst two tears coursed down his furrowed cheeks. The snow fell on his tonsured head and covered his shoulders. His lips moved in soundless prayer.
The monks began to chant in unison the hymn which Simeon the Jew intoned close on eighteen hundred years ago:
“Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace … ”