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The Duke of Normandy by Unknown

A ROMANCE OP REAL LIFE.

The continental journals announced that, on the 10th of August 1845, there died at Delft, in Holland, Charles-Louis, known as the 'Duke of Normandy.' This individual presented one of those extraordinary instances of doubtful identity which we find scattered over ancient and modern biography. The mystery of his birth has not been cleared up by his death, and continues as impenetrable as that of the celebrated Man with the Iron Mask.

It is well known that, in 1791, Louis XVI. of France was overtaken during his attempted flight from France at Varennes, and afterwards dragged to the prison of the Temple. He was accompanied by his family, which consisted of his wife, Marie Antoinette, his sister, daughter, and his only son, the dauphin of France. On the 21st January 1793, the unfortunate monarch was beheaded; and his son, still a prisoner, was partially acknowledged as Louis XVII., though only in the ninth year of his age. This was but a mockery, for his captivity only became the more close and cruel. He was separated from his mother, and handed over to the custody of one Simon, a ferocious cobbler, and his wife, who, besides practising all sorts of external cruelties on him, tried every means to demoralise his mind. When this ruffian was promoted to a seat in the 'Commune' (a kind of common council), the royal prisoner's hardships increased. He was shut up in a room, rendered totally dark both night and day. In this he was kept for a whole year, without once being allowed to leave it; neither was his body or bed linen changed during that time. The filth, stench, and vermin amidst which the child dragged on his existence, at length, it is said, terminated it. On the eve of death, his persecutors sent the physician Dessault to see if his life could be prolonged by better treatment; but the doctor's reply was that it was too late: nothing could save him; and his demise was announced to have taken place on the 8th of June 1795, at the age of ten years and two months. The National Convention, which then managed the public affairs, appointed a commission to verify the event, and the body was opened by two surgeons, named Pelletan and Dumangin. In speaking of the remains, they describe them as a corpse 'represented to us as that of Charles-Louis.' The doctor Pelletan took out the heart, and preserved it in spirits of wine; which he gave to the deceased's sister when she had married the Duke d'Angoulême. The rest of the body was huddled with other corpses into a common grave in the cemetery of the parish of St Margaret; so that, at the restoration of the Bourbons in 1815, when Louis XVIII. desired that the remains of his predecessor should be disentombed, they could not be distinguished.

The equivocal wording of the medical report, aided by other suspicions, caused an idea to gain extensive currency that a dead child had been substituted for the royal infant; and that he had escaped from his jailers by a well-laid plan, carried out by his partisans. This notion was so prevalent, that we find, amongst the records of the Convention, a decree dated June 14, 1795—only six days after the date fixed as that of the young king's death—ordering him to be sought for along all the roads of the kingdom. However, the better-informed part of the community were firmly convinced that Louis XVII. was dead and buried; and from that time till 1832, the belief was never effectually disturbed. Taking advantage of the doubt, several impostors made their appearance, claiming to be the prince. The first of these was one Hervagaut, who, when discovered to be a tailor's son, was condemned in 1802 to four years' imprisonment. In 1818, Mathurin Bruneau, a shoemaker, tried the same trick; but failing, was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. In short, no fewer than fifteen impostors have been enumerated; all of whom pretended to be the wretched young prince, returned from exile after escaping from the Temple. The latest claimant is the subject of the present notice; and so startlingly do some of the circumstances of his career coincide with the short history of the son of Louis XVI., that many well-informed persons really believe he was the person he represented himself to be.

Between the termination of Charles-Louis's imprisonment by death or otherwise, and the appearance of this individual on the scene, it may be necessary to remind the reader that several revolutions and counter-revolutions had swept over France. Napoleon's career had begun and ended; the allies had seated the Bourbons on the throne in the person of Louis XVIII., brother to Louis XVI., and uncle to his latest predecessor; Charles X. had succeeded, and was driven from the throne by the revolution of 1830, which seated Louis-Philippe on it in his stead. All these events had taken place when the story of the so-called Duke of Normandy commences.

On an unusually hot evening for the season—an early day in the May of 1832—a man covered with dust, and who appeared to be borne down with fatigue, entered Paris through the Barrier d'Italie. Still, he traversed the Boulevard de l'Hôpital with a firm step, being a fine well-made man, apparently about forty-eight years old. On arriving at the bridge of Austerlitz, he crossed to the toll-bar at the further extremity, and was accosted by the keeper, an invalid soldier, who demanded the toll. Upon this he made a sign that he did not understand French; but, on the other pulling out a sous piece, to intimate the nature of his demand, the stranger shook his head, heaved a deep sigh, and, after some hesitation, drew forth a fine handkerchief, which he threw towards the toll-keeper, and hastened away in the direction of the Boulevard Bourbon, to Père la Chaise. He got within the gates just before they were closed for the night, and concealing himself amongst the tombs and bushes, escaped the notice of the watchmen. It was thus that the stranger passed his first night in Paris.

The day was far advanced when he was found, too much overcome by hunger and fatigue to rise. A gentleman accidentally passing, observed and pitied his condition. After supplying him with some food, he recommended him to solicit the assistance of a benevolent lady whom he named, as she was known far and near for her readiness to help foreigners in distress; besides, she spoke the German language fluently, the only one the worn-out traveller understood. Acting upon this advice, he repaired to the generous Comtesse de R.'s residence, at No. 16 Rue Richer. She was a lady well stricken in years, and preserved an enthusiastic veneration for the Bourbon branch of the royal family, having been femme de chambre to the son of Louis XVI. When the wretched wayfarer presented himself to her, she naturally inquired who he was. To which he replied in German, 'I am Charles-Louis, Duke of Normandy, son of Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette.' Upon hearing this unexpected reply, the good old countess fainted. On recovering her senses, she exclaimed, 'Good Heavens! he is the very image of his unfortunate mother!' On calmer reflection, however, she was but half convinced, and determined to put the stranger's identity to another test. She had kept as a relic a little blue robe with metal buttons, which was worn by the royal infant when she nursed him. This she brought forth; and the stranger no sooner saw it, than he exclaimed, 'Ah, my little coat!' After this, Comtesse de R. declared her belief that he was her prince to be so firm that she would have died on the scaffold rather than recant. Without hesitation, she gave up the best apartments of her house for his use and occupation; she even offered for his acceptance the remains of her fortune. This, however, he at once refused, asking no more from her than that she would send for a tailor to equip him with habiliments more in accordance with his pretensions than the tatters he then wore. This the countess did, and was not slow in imparting to her royalist friends of whom she was the honoured hostess. All acknowledged the extraordinary similarity both in person and manner which the stranger bore to the royal family. Some were enthusiastic believers; others, with all their legitimist enthusiasm, were sceptical. Amongst the former was a certain Monsieur S. de L., who thought the appearance of the 'prince' a miracle in reference to that particular time. Louis-Philippe, when he accepted the crown nearly two years before, had done so with great apparent reluctance. 'How happy, therefore, will he be,' said this visionary politician, 'to remove the burden of the state from his own shoulders to those of the rightful heir to the throne!' But before so curious a proposition was made to the king of the French, the other royalists consulted M. de Talleyrand. He replied, with his usual epigrammatic irony, 'There are some people who are born with two left hands. This is poor S.'s case: added to which, he seems to have been brought into the world without brains.' Upon this the party wisely determined to keep the 'prince's' presence in Paris as quiet as possible. Another of his adherents, M. de Forbin Janson, the fiery bishop of Nancy, suggested that, as the illustrious stranger's chance of the throne was somewhat remote, he should enter the church, in which the highest dignities awaited him. This was also found to be impracticable when Neündorf (the name by which the 'prince' now declared he had hitherto been known) revealed that he was a married man, and the father of six children.

The more sceptical part of his adherents very naturally wished to know—supposing his story to be true—how in his early years he escaped from the Temple; and when the stranger had sufficiently mastered the French language—which he took but a short time to acquire—he gave a most circumstantial and plausible account of his early adventures. His narrative was carefully noted down at the time, and, translated, consists in substance as follows: 'I cannot be said to have escaped from my jailers,' he began, 'for I left the prison in the most natural manner possible. Some time before the day of my supposed death, a royalist committee was formed for the purpose of saving me. One of these was M. Frotté, who, as the pupil of my physician Dessault, was allowed free ingress and egress to the Temple. One day he entered my cell, motioned me to be silent, seized me, and dragged me to a cabinet under the spire of the tower. A sick child who had been given over by the faculty was substituted in my place, and he, dying two days after (8th June 1795), was buried as Louis XVII. At my supposed death, there being no more prisoners in the Temple, all the keepers and guards were withdrawn, and I was conducted outside the walls without meeting a single official. The ruse, however, got wind, and the decree of the 14th of June was the consequence. To frustrate this, the royalist committee caused several children to personate me, imparting to the impostors several circumstances connected with my family. One they sent to Bordeaux, another to La Vendée, a third to Germany, and so on. These are the children who, when they became men, tried to keep up the character which they had been previously taught to play. This explains the incredible number of false dauphins who have appeared.' He ended by declaring that when, in 1814, the Congress of Vienna ceded the crown of France to Louis XVIII., they knew perfectly well of his existence; but the obligations the allies were under to 'his uncle,' overwhelmed the scruples they felt at investing that prince with a sovereignty to which he had no title.

One thing appeared improbable—how the assumed prince should have forgotten his native language. He was ten years of age at the period of his leaving France, and spoke French as cleverly as any other boy, if not more so. How, then, did he lose this faculty? A residence in Germany, even for so great a length of time as thirty-seven years, could hardly have obliterated the French language from his mind. This does not appear to have teen explained, and, with some other circumstances, it served to check the credulity of parties half inclined to believe the representations of M. Neündorf.

Further proofs were therefore required; and several were afterwards afforded. The details of the first are somewhat singular. At this time (July 1832) there lived in the village of Gallardon, at the extremity of Beauce, a peasant named Martin, who had the reputation of receiving revelations from above, which he acquired so far back as 1818, when Mathew Burneau and other spurious princes made their appearance. One Sunday in that year, during mass, Martin saw a vision in which he said an angel commanded him to get an interview with Louis XVIII., the purport of which should be afterwards revealed to him. Immediately after his return from church, Martin having taken leave of his wife and family, commenced his journey on foot to Paris. On the fifth day he arrived there, went straight to the palace of the Tuileries, and demanded to be admitted to the king. In the simplicity of his heart, he told the guards that his mission was of a celestial nature; but they, not finding messengers from above among the list of visitors set down in the orders of the day, handed poor Martin over to the municipal authorities, who transferred him to the Bicêtre lunatic asylum. Here he remained for some time, during which his exemplary piety and touching resignation attracted the attention and respect of the principal physician, who often made him the subject of general conversation. At the end of two months Louis heard of the circumstance, and actually consented to see the harmless man. At the interview, he imparted to the king the substance of a second revelation; which was, that his majesty's nephew, Louis XVII., was still alive, and would return at no very distant period; and that if the king he addressed attempted to undergo the ceremony of coronation, the direst calamities would follow; amongst others the dome of the cathedral (of Rheims) would fall in, and crush every soul taking part in the rites. Whether the majesty of France took any serious heed of this enthusiast's warning, it is impossible to say; but one thing is certain—Louis XVIII. never was formally crowned. When Martin returned to his village, he found that the king had bought the house which he rented, and presented it to him to live in for the rest of his days. This, together with his interview with royalty—of which he of course made no secret—elevated the poor visionary to the character of a prophet amongst the population of that part of the country; many of whom indeed formed themselves into a sect called Martinists, and devoutly expected the re-appearance of the son of Louis XVI.

As these facts were notorious in 1818, they had not been forgotten in 1832, and it was not at all unnatural that the least credulous of the Comtesse de R.'s friends should suggest that Neündorf should be shown to the Beauce prophet. Accordingly, in September, a journey to St Arnould, near Dourdan, was undertaken; and without saying who he was, or pretended to be, Neündorf was there confronted with Martin. In an instant, it is said, the prophet recognised him as the person he had seen in his second vision as Louis XVII. His enthusiasm knew no bounds; he embraced the 'prince' with tears of joy, and in the evening the whole party heard mass at the modest little church of St Arnould.

Whatever effect this scene may have had upon Neündorf's more educated companions, it created a prodigious sensation in that part of the country, and one which was extremely beneficial to the 'prince.' The honest people could not do enough to testify their delight. After his return to Paris, they organised subscriptions, in collecting which the village priests took the lead. Under their influence the farmers and peasantry subscribed not only cash, but produce, a regular supply of which was sent every Saturday to Paris, under the charge of a farmer of St Arnould, named Noel Pequet. It was ascertained that, during the four months succeeding his appearance at St Arnould, the value of upwards of £16,000 sterling was remitted to him from various parts of France!

With these supplies, and the contributions of the Comtesse de R. and her friends, Neündorf was able to take a house, and set up an establishment, which he did as Duc de Normandie, the title which had been given by Louis XVI. to his son. He began housekeeping on a scale of regal magnificence. He bought a carriage, and collected a handsome stud of horses. His servants' liveries were splendid, and adorned with gilt buttons, on which was embossed a broken crown. He even went so far as to form a court and appoint a ministry; and, that nothing should be wanting, he actually started a newspaper to advocate his cause. The gentleman who undertook the responsible editorship of this journal having, however, neglected to deposit the securities required by law with the proper authorities, was arrested, and condemned to a long imprisonment; which he duly suffered. The unfortunate victim to loyal sentiments was one M. Widerkeer. This was the only evidence vouchsafed by the higher powers of their knowledge of the duke's proceedings. That the government of Louis-Philippe did not apprehend any very serious extent of belief in Neündorf's pretensions, must be inferred from the immunity with which they allowed him to carry on his proceedings, and to accept the contributions of the royalists. On the other hand, it must be noticed that Louis-Philippe's seat on the throne was not so firm as it afterwards became; and he may have been afraid to disturb Neündorf, lest he should have excited the enmity of a very powerful party.

It must be owned that the evidence which the pretender had hitherto produced, was only calculated to gain over persons of limited experience and strong legitimist prejudices. A circumstance, however, which afterwards took place, was of a nature to stagger more obstinate sceptics: it had indeed that effect. We translate it from the words of an individual who was present when it happened. The Duc de Normandie was at dinner, surrounded by several friends. 'Among the company was an old lady, who, having recently arrived from the provinces, had never heard of the "prince," and, on being presented to him, was extremely astonished to find herself in the presence of so illustrious a person. After dinner, the conversation turned upon the duke's younger days, and the lady referred to addressed him in these words—"I, monseigneur, never saw the dauphin; but an old friend, who was constantly near his person in his infancy, has described to me that from the midst of his lower jaw there sprung out two teeth. They were incisors, and as straight and pointed as the teeth of a rabbit." Without speaking a word, he pulled open his lower lip, and exhibited to the company such a pair of rabbits' teeth as were described.'

This occurrence confirmed the duke's adherents in their belief of his identity with the victim of the first revolution, and the presence of the rightful heir to the throne of France created some stir in Paris. Perhaps the aspirant to royalty and his friends felt disappointed that the government did not evince its dread by some little persecution, over and above the imprisonment of Widerkeer. To account for this forbearance, dark suspicions were whispered regarding the secret intentions of the ruling powers; and these were not long in being corroborated. One day in November, the duke expressed a desire to imitate certain other royalties by examining the streets of the capital, and mixing with its humble citizens incog. To this end he sallied forth alone, and even condescended to take his dinner at Véfour's celebrated restaurant. The evening was unusually dark, and while returning to his house across the open space at the back of the Tuileries (La Place de Carousal), he felt his shoulder suddenly grasped by a strong hand, and in another instant a poniard was plunged more than once into his breast, with the words, 'Die, Capet!' [*] Fortunately, the intended victim wore inside his coat a medal of the Virgin, which had belonged, it was understood, to Marie Antoinette, his mother; this, receiving the point of the dagger, preserved his life, though several flesh wounds were inflicted. The assassin fled; nor did the duke make any alarm for fear of being obliged to appear at the municipal guardhouse, and thus get into the power of the government. When he reached home, he was faint from loss of blood, and kept his bed for a fortnight.

[Footnote: Meurs, Capet!—Capet is the family name of the Bourbons, as Guelph is that of the House of Brunswick.]

The suspicions of foul-play entertained by his 'court' were confirmed; they regarded the bravo as an emissary of the government, and the 'Meurs, Capet!' as an acknowledgment of the duke's right to the crown! There were, however, ill-natured people who went about hinting that, as the victim was quite alone, and became the teller of his own story, the diabolical deed might have been done by himself, to strengthen the faith of his followers. Nor were these sceptics silenced when the gashes in the coat, the dents in the medal, and the blood of the royal sufferer was pointed out. But upon the whole, whether true or false, the circumstance materially strengthened the duke's position; and, on recovery, he began to play the prince in earnest.

He wrote to the Duchess of Berri, and to 'his sister' the Duchess of Angoulême. To the latter he offered to prove his identity in the following manner: 'When in the Temple,' he said, 'our royal mother and our aunt wrote several lines on a paper, which paper was cut in halves. One piece was given to you, and when we meet I will produce its fellow, which has never been out of my possession since our fatal separation.' The truth of this was never put to the test, for no answer was deigned to his letter.

At length the state in which the Duke of Normandy lived, the constant visits of his increasing partisans, and his general proceedings, attracted the attention of the police; and the heir to the French throne was made to understand that he stood a likely chance of being thrown into prison, and brought up to answer for his conduct before the Court of Assize. Upon this he determined to live less ostentatiously, and withdrew to a hotel in the Rue St Guillaume (No. 34), with which address none but a chosen few of his devoted partisans were made acquainted. Though formerly disappointed at having been passed so contemptuously over by the authorities, he now seemed in great dread of them. He never dared to appear abroad, and instituted particular signs and modes of knocking at his door, when those in the secret wished admittance. The proprietor of the house entertained from these proceedings very disagreeable suspicions, and, lest he should get into trouble himself, gave his illustrious lodger notice to quit. Some weeks after, the claimant of the crown was really arrested; but exile, and not imprisonment was his doom. He was placed in the coupe of a diligence between two policemen, and conducted beyond the frontiers of France. In 1838 we find him in England, still calling himself the Duke of Normandy.

He took up his quarters in Camberwell Green, near London, and in November of the above year, suffered a second attempt upon his life. He was, it seems, returning from an outhouse in the garden, when a man confronted him, and fired two pistols at his breast. He pushed aside the weapons with the candlestick he happened to be carrying; but two bullets entered his left arm. The assassin escaped over a drain into a back-street; but having been recognised, was subsequently captured. A surgeon was sent for, and the bullets extracted, after having done no serious injury. The criminal turned out to be one of his late adherents, by name Desire Rousselle; who, on examination before the magistrates of the police-office at Union Hall, could assign no motive for the deed; and after two more examinations he was discharged, the duke declining to prosecute. The next appearance of his grace of Normandy at a police-office was in character of defendant. It seems that he had turned his attention to the art of pyrotechnics, and his explosive experiments were so alarming to the quiet neighbourhood of Camberwell, that he was summoned to answer for his conduct; but on promising not to repeat it, the complaint was dismissed. It would appear that his experiments were not altogether useless; for at a trial of newly-invented shells before the Board of Ordnance at Woolwich, the duke's missiles were declared either second or third, we forget which, in point of efficiency. Indeed he seems to have occupied himself almost exclusively with scientific pursuits whilst in England. At Chelsea, whither he removed, the duke constructed a set of work-shops and laboratories, in which he, with his assistants and pupils, diligently wrought. In what his scientific labours and experiments would have resulted, it is impossible to say, for they were interrupted by a third attempt on his life. While alone in one of his work-shops, late at night, a bullet was fired at him from a hidden and still undiscovered enemy. The shot missed him; but, afraid to remain in this country any longer, he retired to Delft, in Holland, where it seems he died a natural death on the 10th of August 1845.

Whatever opinions may be formed of the truth of this individual's story of his birth, it is certain that a great many persons in France, whose opinions are entitled to respect, believed him to have been Louis XVII. Amongst the notices in the French papers to which his decease gave rise, was a note written by M. Herbert, once director of the military posts in Italy. It appears that when in that office, the man Neündorf was, in 1810, arrested at Rome, and interrogated by M. Radet, chief of police in that city: the latter, pronounced him to be in reality the son of Louis XVI. Than M. Radet, there could not be a better judge of the matter, for he happened to be one of the five persons who arrested Louis and his family when they tried to quit France, and were intercepted at Varennes. Our own impression is, notwithstanding this and all other circumstances to the contrary, that the man was an impostor, and such we believe will also be the impression generally among our readers.