‘I never liked crowds.’ – that was what he told me when I asked why the mansion was so quiet. ‘I value peacefulness more than anything, Father.’
I nodded and continued eating the soup.
But that wasn’t the case.
No one wants to have anything to do with the family, let alone work for them. Those who stay are faithful servants that have been working for generations. Everyone else in Paris avoids them like the plague. They believe that any contact with an executioner would bring a dark shadow into their lives.
‘Even for someone like you who has angels on his shoulders, try not to involve yourself with them,’ – a well-meaning friend had told me.
‘You shouldn’t be judged by your profession,’ I said.
The young man dabbed his mouth with the pristine white serviette. ‘That’s kind of you, Father.’
‘Aren’t you lonely?’ I asked.
He smiled. ‘Hardly the case if this is how you’ve been spending your entire life. It’s my privilege to be born in this established family of royal executioners.’
‘Monsieur, why are you forcing yourself to smile?’
To this, he couldn’t respond. Outside the window, a group of children were crossing the road. He looked at them with his deep blue eyes. The color reminded me of the water in L’lle de Riou. Pure and sparkling.
The young Charles was, at first, unlike any other noble child in Paris. He attended a convent school and got along well with his peers. Yes, he was quiet and kept to himself most of the time. Then again, politeness had always been preferred compared to boisterousness. But that ordinary life was shattered when another parent recognized Charles’ father when they met during visitation day. With heavy heart, the headmaster had to ask the family to pull little Charles from school to protect its reputation.
‘I asked Maman why I could no longer attend the school. Why do I need to study under home tutoring instead? But she was quiet. Instead, she hugged me and cried for a long time. She too, was raised under the same circumstances as a daughter of an executioner.’
Ever since, Charles had spent his entire childhood in the safety of the family’s mansion, sheltered from the prejudice of the outside world.
‘But I was a curious child. One day, I wandered out of the compound alone and visited the town center. The place was bustling, but it was different from what I had expected. Beggars roamed the street. Children, some younger than me, wore tattered clothes and held empty bowls. It never occurred in my mind that outside the mansion, people were dying out of hunger. Famine had hit hard. Farmers sold their lands to go to Paris with hopes of finding a job, but there were none. They ended up becoming beggars. It was a period of unrest.
That day, a crowd gathered to listen to a propaganda speech against the king,’ he recalled. ‘But soon, a man recognized me and shouted, “Look, that’s the executioner’s son! What is he doing here?” Everyone turned to me. One by one, they averted their eyes and walked away. The people dispersed, just like that. I would never forget how small they made me feel.’
He’d returned home on his own, looking pale as a corpse.
‘Even though I was gone for hours, no one dared to ask a question. They knew. They understood. That was what it meant, being the son of an executioner.’
He said that in a relaxed manner, as if it was a natural thing.
‘That’s why children from executioners’ families end up marrying each other. No noble would want to enter a family who’s making a living by ending others’ lives.’
‘So you never had any friend outside that circle?’ I asked.
He thought about it for a while.
‘When I was young, there was one girl I used to play with. The daughter of one of our neighbor’s servants, she used to wander to our garden.’ He rested his head against the window frame. ‘We have lovely rose bushes in our garden. Have you seen it? They were the pride of my late great-grandmother, and we maintain them until today.’
I told him I hadn’t, but I’d love to take a look before I departed.
‘That girl really loves roses. The first time I saw her from afar, I thought she looked like a doll. She had long, curly blonde hair that framed her delicate features. Her skin was pale, but her cheeks were rosy as apples. She had tiny freckles around her nose. I’m sure she would’ve grown out of them by now. But what pulled me to her were her eyes. One of them was green, the other one gray. How could that be possible?’
‘She must be beautiful.’
‘She is, Father. She was my first love. Her mother, though, is like a reincarnation of the devil. Whenever she caught us together, she would beat her daughter. Of course, she wouldn’t dare to touch me. People are afraid of the curse.’
‘That’s just superstition.’
‘The mind is powerful. When you’re convinced that a bad thing will befall you, it will likely to happen.’ He stopped and turned to me. ‘I know as a man of God, you wouldn’t believe in such things.’
‘We don’t believe in self-prophecy,’ I said. ‘So what happened to the girl?’
‘One day, she stopped coming. Her mother probably found a new employment and they moved out. To be honest, I’m glad that she did. If she were still be around, sooner or later she would see me with fear in her eyes, just like the rest of the townspeople.’
‘It must be hard to live as an executioner.’
He shook his head. ‘A horse tolls his whole life, but he wouldn’t think that being a horse is hard. It’s the same with me. All my life, this is what I’ve been preparing for. If I’m not an executioner, then I wouldn’t have been me.’
He lifted up his hands. They were rough and hardened.
‘Since young, I’ve been trained to be the family successor. I spent my days cutting haystack and livestock since I was five. After I turned seven, I’ve also been dissecting dead bodies to learn about anatomy,’ he said. ‘The job might appear brutal, but it demands precision and strength. We need to carry our duties with utmost care, to not prolong the suffering of the convicts and subject them to unnecessary pain.’
But it wasn’t as easy as the way he said it. He was human, after all.
The first time Charles stepped onto the execution platform, he had felt nauseous. His legs wobbled when the convict knelt in front of the jeering crowd. With shaking hands, he swung his sword down to the exposed neck and missed the vital spot.
The man screamed in agony. Charles dropped his bloodied sword. His mind went blank and he slipped into the darkness.
‘Charles!’ His grandmother’s loud voice pulled him back into consciousness. ‘Remember who you are and finish your duty.’
With trembling hands, he picked up his sword and sent a series of fatal blows into the convict. Blood spattered everywhere, painting the wooden platform in crimson red. The convict’s severed head was beyond recognition.
The execution became the talk of the town and people grew to see him as a cold-blooded murderer.
‘But now, I’ve learned to control myself and carry out my duty with dignity. I couldn’t allow myself to hesitate.’ He turned to me. ‘I shouldn’t keep you so late since you need to leave in the morning.’
I nodded. ‘Is there anything I can do to thank you for your hospitality?’
‘There’s no need to thank me. It’s my pleasure to have you here with us. But if you insist, would you lead me in prayer?’ he asked.
‘If you excuse me.’
He knelt in front of me and clasped his hands together. I laid my hand on his shoulder and began to pray.
When I’d decided to devote my life to God, I wouldn’t have dreamed that I would end up serving the criminals just before their executions. These people, they only had a few hours left.
The guard brought in another convict.
Her hair was short, chopped in haste to prevent friction with the sword. She was limping and dressed in rags. Her body covered with open wounds, her head hung low.
‘Marie-Jeanne Autellier, the illegitimate child of Count Autellier has been sentenced guilty on the charge of attempting an incestuous relationship with her father,’ announced the guard who brought her in.
I came closer to her. ‘Mademoiselle, is there anything I could pray for you?’
She lifted up her head. Her face was bruised and swollen. With the tiny strength she still had in her, she said, ‘Father, I’ve been framed. I’m innocent.’
I felt a lump in my throat. I would never forget those eyes.
One of them was green, the other one gray.
The servant ushered me into the study room where the young executioner was.
Upon seeing me, Charles put down his book. ‘Father, what bring me the pleasure to have you here?’
‘The young lady who was executed this morning, was she…’
I couldn’t finish my sentence.
‘Yes, that was she,’ he said. ‘Most likely a victim of circumstances.’
I searched for sadness in him, but there was none. The man who stood from me was devoid of any emotion.
‘Forgive me for being rude, but I’m exhausted and need to rest. Would you like stay here for the night? Let’s continue our conversation in the morning.’
I shook my head. ‘Monsieur, how can you possibly sleep at night?’
‘Father…’ He looked at me with his deep blue eyes. ‘If emperors, kings and dictators can sleep well, why shouldn’t an executioner?’
Note. The story is loosely based on Charles-Henri Sanson, The Royal Executioner of France, who executed nearly 3,000 people, including King Louis XVI.