Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas
The mob had already assembled when the confession terminated. The king's children next arrived -- the Princess Charlotte, a beautiful, fair-haired child, with tears in her eyes, and the Duke of Gloucester, a boy eight or nine years old, whose tearless eyes and curling lip revealed a growing pride. He had wept all night long, but would not show his grief before the people.
Charles's heart melted within him at the sight of those two children, whom he had not seen for two years and whom he now met at the moment of death. He turned to brush away a tear, and then, summoning up all his firmness, drew his daughter toward him, recommending her to be pious and resigned. Then he took the boy upon his knee.
"My son," he said to him, "you saw a great number of people in the streets as you came here. These men are going to behead your father. Do not forget that. Perhaps some day they will want to make you king, instead of the Prince of Wales, or the Duke of York, your elder brothers. But you are not the king, my son, and can never be so while they are alive. Swear to me, then, never to let them put a crown upon your head unless you have a legal right to the crown. For one day -- listen, my son -- one day, if you do so, they will doom you to destruction, head and crown, too, and then you will not be able to die with a calm conscience, as I die. Swear, my son."
The child stretched out his little hand toward that of his father and said, "I swear to your majesty."
"Henry," said Charles, "call me your father."
"Father," replied the child, "I swear to you that they shall kill me sooner than make me king."
"Good, my child. Now kiss me; and you, too, Charlotte. Never forget me."
"Oh! never, never!" cried both the children, throwing their arms around their father's neck.
"Farewell," said Charles, "farewell, my children. Take them away, Juxon; their tears will deprive me of the courage to die."
Juxon led them away, and this time the doors were left open.
Meanwhile, Athos, in his concealment, waited in vain the signal to recommence his work. Two long hours he waited in terrible inaction. A deathlike silence reigned in the room above. At last he determined to discover the cause of this stillness. He crept from his hole and stood, hidden by the black drapery, beneath the scaffold. Peeping out from the drapery, he could see the rows of halberdiers and musketeers around the scaffold and the first ranks of the populace swaying and groaning like the sea.
"What is the matter, then?" he asked himself, trembling more than the wind-swayed cloth he was holding back. "The people are hurrying on, the soldiers under arms, and among the spectators I see D'Artagnan. What is he waiting for? What is he looking at? Good God! have they allowed the headsman to escape?"
Suddenly the dull beating of muffled drums filled the square. The sound of heavy steps was heard above his head. The next moment the very planks of the scaffold creaked with the weight of an advancing procession, and the eager faces of the spectators confirmed what a last hope at the bottom of his heart had prevented him till then believing. At the same moment a well-known voice above him pronounced these words:
"Colonel, I want to speak to the people."
Athos shuddered from head to foot. It was the king speaking on the scaffold.
In fact, after taking a few drops of wine and a piece of bread, Charles, weary of waiting for death, had suddenly decided to go to meet it and had given the signal for movement. Then the two wings of the window facing the square had been thrown open, and the people had seen silently advancing from the interior of the vast chamber, first, a masked man, who, carrying an axe in his hand, was recognized as the executioner. He approached the block and laid his axe upon it. Behind him, pale indeed, but marching with a firm step, was Charles Stuart, who advanced between two priests, followed by a few superior officers appointed to preside at the execution and attended by two files of partisans who took their places on opposite sides of the scaffold.
The sight of the masked man gave rise to a prolonged sensation. Every one was full of curiosity as to who that unknown executioner could be who presented himself so opportunely to assure to the people the promised spectacle, when the people believed it had been postponed until the following day. All gazed at him searchingly.
But they could discern nothing but a man of middle height, dressed in black, apparently of a certain age, for the end of a gray beard peeped out from the bottom of the mask that hid his features.
The king's request had undoubtedly been acceded to by an affirmative sign, for in firm, sonorous accents, which vibrated in the depths of Athos's heart, the king began his speech, explaining his conduct and counseling the welfare of the kingdom.
"Oh!" said Athos to himself, "is it indeed possible that I hear what I hear and that I see what I see? Is it possible that God has abandoned His representative on earth and left him to die thus miserably? And I have not seen him! I have not said adieu to him!"
A noise was heard like that the instrument of death would make if moved upon the block.
"Do not touch the axe," said the king, and resumed his speech.
At the end of his speech the king looked tenderly around upon the people. Then unfastening the diamond ornament which the queen had sent him, he placed it in the hands of the priest who accompanied Juxon. Then he drew from his breast a little cross set in diamonds, which, like the order, had been the gift of Henrietta Maria.
"Sir," said he to the priest, "I shall keep this cross in my hand till the last moment. Take it from me when I am -- dead."
"Yes, sire," said a voice, which Athos recognized as that of Aramis.
He then took his hat from his head and threw it on the ground. One by one he undid the buttons of his doublet, took it off and deposited it by the side of his hat. Then, as it was cold, he asked for his gown, which was brought to him.
All the preparations were made with a frightful calmness. One would have thought the king was going to bed and not to his coffin.
"Will these be in your way?" he said to the executioner, raising his long locks; "if so, they can be tied up."
Charles accompanied these words with a look designed to penetrate the mask of the unknown headsman. His cake, noble gaze forced the man to turn away his head. But after the searching look of the king he encountered the burning eyes of Aramis.
The king, seeing that he did not reply, repeated his question.
"It will do," replied the man, in a tremulous voice, "if you separate them across the neck."
The king parted his hair with his hands, and looking at the block he said:
"This block is very low, is there no other to be had?"
"It is the usual block," answered the man in the mask.
"Do you think you can behead me with a single blow?" asked the king.
"I hope so," was the reply. There was something so strange in these three words that everybody, except the king, shuddered.
"I do not wish to be taken by surprise," added the king. "I shall kneel down to pray; do not strike then."
"When shall I strike?"
"When I shall lay my head on the block and say `Remember!' then strike boldly."
"Gentlemen," said the king to those around him, "I leave you to brave the tempest; I go before you to a kingdom which knows no storms. Farewell."
He looked at Aramis and made a special sign to him with his head.
"Now," he continued, "withdraw a little and let me say my prayer, I beseech you. You, also, stand aside," he said to the masked man. "It is only for a moment and I know that I belong to you; but remember that you are not to strike till I give the signal."
Then he knelt down, made the sign of the cross, and lowering his face to the planks, as if he would have kissed them, said in a low tone, in French, "Comte de la Fere, are you there?"
"Yes, your majesty," he answered, trembling.
"Faithful friend, noble heart!" said the king, "I should not have been rescued. I have addressed my people and I have spoken to God; last of all I speak to you. To maintain a cause which I believed sacred I have lost the throne and my children their inheritance. A million in gold remains; it is buried in the cellars of Newcastle Keep. You only know that this money exists. Make use of it, then, whenever you think it will be most useful, for my eldest son's welfare. And now, farewell."
"Farewell, saintly, martyred majesty," lisped Athos, chilled with terror.
A moment's silence ensued and then, in a full, sonorous voice, the king exclaimed: "Remember!"
He had scarcely uttered the word when a heavy blow shook the scaffold and where Athos stood immovable a warm drop fell upon his brow. He reeled back with a shudder and the same moment the drops became a crimson cataract.
Athos fell on his knees and remained some minutes as if bewildered or stunned. At last he rose and taking his handkerchief steeped it in the blood of the martyred king. Then as the crowd gradually dispersed he leaped down, crept from behind the drapery, glided between two horses, mingled with the crowd and was the first to arrive at the inn.
Having gained his room he raised his hand to his face, and observing that his fingers were covered with the monarch's blood, fell down insensible.