There was once a king of France so splendid and powerful that he has ever since been called the Grand Monarch. His name was Louis, and as there had been thirteen kings of that name before him, he is known in history as Louis the Fourteenth.
Now this grand King Louis had many fine palaces and strong castles. In his palaces was everything that could make life joyous and gay. In some of his castles there were gloomy prisons where men whom he did not like were shut up. One of these prison castles was on a small island called Sainte Marguerite. A dark and lonely place it was, built close by the shore of the sea. The prisoners gazing out of the narrow windows saw only the water and the sky; and the only sound they heard was that of the waves lapping on the cold stones.
The king was only a boy with long curls brushing his cheeks, when a strange man was put in this prison. Who he was, or why he was there, nobody could tell. The secret was known only to the king and perhaps two or three others. No one was allowed to talk with him. No one ever saw his face; for this mysterious prisoner always wore a black mask which men said was made of iron. There were holes in the mask through which he could see, and the part over his mouth could be lifted up when he ate or drank; but never, by day or by night, was he allowed to take it off.
Men sailing in boats near the castle sometimes saw the strange prisoner at his iron-barred window. Often he would stand there for hours, gazing out upon the sea. Sometimes he was seen sitting by the window and playing sad tunes on a guitar. But never for a moment was his face uncovered.
"Who is this man in the iron mask?" people asked. Nobody could tell. Some guessed that he was the king's cousin who had done some rash things and offended the grand Louis. Some said that he was the king's own twin brother. Others said that perhaps he was a certain English prince whom his people wished to keep out of the way. But the secret was well kept, and nobody to this day knows who the mysterious prisoner was.
Perhaps the prisoner tried to escape. Perhaps he tried to remove the iron mask. But, if so, he was guarded so closely that no one outside of the castle ever heard about it.
One day as a fisherman was rowing underneath the prison window, something round and bright fell into his boat. He picked it up. It was a beautiful silver plate, with words written all over the under side of it. The writing seemed to have been scratched there with the point of a knife. It was bright, as though it had just been done.
The fisherman could not read. Poor people did not read in those days. But he knew that the plate came from the man in the iron mask. The jailer often served the prisoner's dinner in silver dishes. The prisoner had hidden one of the plates, and when he was alone had written his history on it. Then he had thrown it out of the window, hoping that some pitying friend might find it.
The fisherman was frightened almost out of his wits as he looked at the plate. What if the king should hear about it! Would he not think that the fisherman was plotting with the prisoner? Many a poor fellow had been shut up in a dungeon for less than that. He rowed to the shore as quickly as possible. He ran to the castle and called for the governor. The governor was astonished when he saw the plate.
"Where did you get this?" he asked.
The fisherman told him how it had fallen into his boat.
"Did you read what is written here?"
"No, sir. Such men as I do not know how to read;" and the fisherman trembled as he said it.
"Has any one else seen the plate?" asked the governor.
"No one, sir. I held it under my coat and came to the castle as quickly as possible."
When the governor had made sure that the man was telling the truth, he sent him away. "You are lucky," he said, "not to know how to read. For if you had learned the secrets written on this plate, you would never have gone out of this castle."
After that, the man in the iron mask was seen less often at the window. The tunes which he played on the guitar were sadder than before. He became quieter day by day, and at length fell sick.
A doctor was brought to the prison to see what could be done for him, and it was this doctor who afterwards wrote an account of the man in the mask. But he never learned the secret of the prisoner's name, and he never saw his face.
"He was a fine-looking man, with a dark skin and a very pleasant voice," said the doctor. "He never spoke of himself and never complained."
At last, after having been kept in prison twenty-five years, the man in the iron mask died. His name and the story of his life will forever remain a mystery.