Count Axel von Fersen, who tried to help the French royal family escape in 1791.
Our narrator is once again Mr Augustus Hare.
Lord Ravensworth welcomed me with such cordial kindness, and has been so genial and good to me ever since, that I quite feel as if in him I had found the ideal uncle I have always longed for, but never before enjoyed. He is certainly the essence of an agreeable and accomplished scholar, with a faultless memory and apt classical quotations for every possible variety of subject. He told me, and made me write down, the following curious story:
It is going back a long time ago – to the time of Marie Antoinette. It will be remembered that the most faithful, the most entirely devoted of all the gallant adherents of Marie Antoinette was the Comte de Fersen. The Comte de Fersen was ready to lay down his life for the Queen, to go through fire and water for her sake; and, on her side, if Marie Antoinette had a corner in her heart for anyone except the King, it was for the Comte de Fersen. When the royal family escaped to Varennes, it was the Comte de Fersen who dressed up as a coachman and drove the carriage; and when the flight to Varennes failed, and when, one after another, he had seen all his dearest friends perish upon the scaffold, the Comte de Fersen felt as if the whole world was cut away from under his feet, as if life had nothing whatever left to offer, and he sunk into a state of apathy, mental and physical, from which nothing whatever seemed to rouse him; there was nothing whatever left which could be of any interest to him.
The physicians who were called in said that the Comte de Fersen must have absolute change; that he must travel for an unlimited time; that he must leave France; at any rate, that he must never see again that Paris which was so terrible to him, which is stained for ever with the blood of the Queen and Madame Elizabeth. And he was quite willing; all places were the same to him now that his life was left desolate: he did not care where he went.
He went to Italy, and one afternoon in November he drove up to what was then, as it is still, the most desolate, weird, ghastly inn in Italy the wind-stricken, storm-beaten, lava-seated inn of Radicofani. And he came there not to stay; he only wanted post-horses to go on as fast as he could, for he was always restless to be moving – to go farther on. But the landlord said, ‘No, it was too late at night; there was going to be a storm; he could not let his horses cross the pass of Radicofani till the next morning.’ – ‘But you are not aware,’ said the traveller, ‘That I am the Comte de Fersen.’ – ‘I do not care in the least who you are,’ said the landlord; ‘I make my rules, and my rules hold good for one as well as for another.’ – ‘But you do not understand probably that money is no object to me, and that time is a very great object indeed. I am quite willing to pay whatever you demand, but I must have the horses at once, for I must arrive at Rome on a particular day.’ – ‘Well, you will not have the horses,’ said the landlord; ‘at least to-morrow you may have them, but to-night you will not; and if you are too fine a gentlemen to come into my poor hotel, you may sleep in the carriage, but to-night you will certainly not have the horses.’
Then the Comte de Fersen made the best of what he saw was the inevitable. He had the carriage put into the coach-house, and he himself came into the hotel, and he found it, as many hundreds of travellers have done since, not half so bad as he expected. It is a bare, dismal, whitewashed barracky place, but the rooms are large and tolerably clean. So he got some eggs or something that there was for supper, and he had a fire made up in the best of the rooms, and he went to bed. But he took two precautions; he drew a little round table that was there to the head of the bed and he put two loaded pistols upon it; and, according to the custom of that time, he made the courier sleep across the door on the outside.
He went to bed, and he fell asleep, and in the middle of the night he awoke with the indescribable sensation that people have, that he was not alone in the room, and he raised himself against the pillow and looked out. From a small lattice window high in the opposite whitewashed wall the moonlight was pouring into the room, and making a white silvery pool in the middle of the rough boarded oak floor. In the middle of this pool of light, dressed in a white cap and jacket and trousers, such as masons wear, stood the figure of a man looking at him. The Comte de Fersen stretched out his hand over the side of the bed to take one of his pistols, and the man said, ‘Don’t fire: you could do no harm to me, you could do a great deal of harm to yourself: I am come to tell you something.’ And Comte de Fersen looked at him: he did not come any nearer; he remained just where he was, standing in the pool of white moonlight, halfway between the bed and the wall; and he said, ‘Say on: tell me what you have come for.’ And the figure said, ‘I am dead, and my body is underneath your bed. I was a mason of Radicofani, and, as a mason, I wore the white dress in which you now see me. My wife wished to marry somebody else: she wished to marry the landlord of this hotel, and they beguiled me into the inn, and they made me drunk, and they murdered me, and my body is buried beneath where your bed now stands. Now I died with the word vendetta upon my lips, and the longing, the thirst that I have for revenge will not let me rest, and I never shall rest, I never can have any rest, till I have had my revenge. Now I know that you are going to Rome; when you get to Rome, go to the Cardinal Commissary of Police, and tell him what you have seen, and he will send men down here to examine the place, and my body will be found, and I shall have my revenge.’ And Comte de Fersen said, ‘I will.’ But the spirit laughed and said, ‘You don’t suppose that I’m going to believe that? You don’t imagine the you are the only person I’ve come to like this? I have come to dozens, and they have all said, “I will,” and afterwards what they have seen has seemed like a hallucination, a dream, a chimæra, and before they have reached Rome the impression has vanished altogether, and nothing has been done. Give me your hand.’ The Comte de Fersen was a little staggered at this; however, he was a brave man, and he stretched out his hand over the foot of the bed, and he felt something or other happen to one of his fingers; and he looked, and there was no figure, only the moonlight streaming in through the little lattice window, and the old cracked looking-glass on the wall and the old rickety furniture just distinguishable in the half-light; there was no mason there, but the loud regular sound of the snoring of the courier was heard outside the bedroom door. And the Comte de Fersen could not sleep; he watched the white moonlight fade into dawn, and the pale dawn brighten into day, and is seemed to him as if the objects in that room would be branded into his brain, so familiar did they become – the old cracked looking-glass, and the shabby washing-stand, and the rush-bottomed chairs, and he also began to think that what had passed in the earlier part of the night was a hallucination – a mere dream. Then he got up, and he began to wash his hands; and on one of his fingers he found a very curious old iron ring, which was certainly not there before – and then he knew.
And the Comte de Fersen went to Rome, and when he arrived at Rome he went to the Swedish minister that then was, a certain Count Löwenjelm, and the Count Löwenjelm was very much impressed with the story, but a person who was much more impressed was the Minister’s younger brother, the Count Carl Löwenjelm, for he had a very curious and valuable collection of peasants’ jewelry, and when he saw the ring he said, ‘That is a very remarkable ring, for it is a kind of ring which is only made and worn in one place, and that place is in the mountains near Radicofani.’
And the two Counts Löwenjelm went with the Comte de Fersen to the Cardinal Commissary of Police, and the Cardinal also was very much struck, and he said, ‘It is a very extraordinary story, a very extraordinary story indeed, and I am quite inclined to believe that it means something. But, as you know, I am in a great position of trust under Government, and I could not send a body of military down to Radicofani upon the faith of what may prove to have been a dream. At any rate (he said) I could not do it unless the Comte de Fersen proved his sense of the importance of such an action by being willing to return to Radicofani himself.’ And not only was the Comte de Fersen willing to return, but the Count Carl Löwenjelm went with him. The landlord and landlady were excessively agitated when they saw them return with the soldiers who came from Rome. They moved the bed, and found that the flags beneath had been recently upturned. They took up the flags, and there not sufficiently corrupted to be irrecognisable was the body of the mason, dressed in the white cap and jacket and trousers, as he had appeared to the Comte de Fersen. Then the landlord and landlady, in true Italian fashion, felt that Providence was against them, and they confessed everything. They were taken to Rome, where they were tried and condemned to death, and they were beheaded at the Bocca della Verità.
The Count Carl Löwenjelm was present at the execution of that man and woman, and he was the person who told the Marquis de Lavalette, who told Lord Ravensworth, who told me. The by-play of the story is also curious. Those two Counts Löwenjelm were the natural sons of the Duke of Sudomania, who was one of the aspirants for the crown of Sweden in the political crisis which preceded the election of Bernadotte. He was, in fact, elected, but he had many enemies, and on the night on which he arrived to take possession of the throne he was poisoned. The Comte de Fersen himself came to a tragical end in those days. He was very unpopular in Stockholm, and during the public procession in which he took part at the funeral of Charles Augustus (1810) he was murdered, being (though it is terrible to say so of the gallant adherent of Marie Antoinette) beaten to death with umbrellas. And that it was with no view to robbery and from purely political feeling is proved by the fact that though he was en grande tenue, nothing was taken away.
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Henry Lidell, 1st Earl of Ravensworth was Augustus Hare’s mother’s first cousin. Hare lived and travelled extensively in Italy and wrote several guide books about the country’s attractions. As one can deduce from his relation of this ghost story’s pedigree, he was an inveterate name-dropper.
Count Axel von Fersen, who was devoted to Marie Antoinette and tried to help the French royal family escape in the ill-fated flight to Varennes in 1791, was very popular with the ladies. While some—particularly sentimental females with three names—believed that he was a “parfait gentil knight,” it seems plausible that his devotion to the doomed Queen was expressed in the usual way. But Mrs Daffodil regrets the umbrellas. It was a sordid, shabby way to die.
For other stories related by that master raconteur Augustus Hare see “Saved by the Bell (wire)” and “The Ensign Sees a Horror.” You will find a story of Marie Antoinette’s death warrant here.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.