When Louis XIV became King of France, an event occurred which has ever since been shrouded in the mystery with which it was first involved.
One day there arrived under armed escort at the chateau of Pignerol an unknown prisoner, whose face was concealed by an impenetrable mask. Where he came from, why he was so closely guarded, or who he was, no one told at the time, and no one has since been able to discover.
All that one could observe was that he appeared to be young, for he stood erect and moved easily; that he was rather tall and well-formed and had a wealth of rich dark hair, and a voice indicating refinement and culture. He never said who he was, nor complained, nor asked questions, nor gave any clue as to why he was thus made prisoner. He was treated with the greatest deference by those who had him in charge.
His face was hidden by a mask of iron covered with velvet, the lower part of which was made movable by springs, so that the prisoner could expose his mouth when eating and drinking. So far as one knows, the mask was never removed. Whether he was handsome or otherwise, of noble or base family, there was no way of telling. The man himself gave no sign. He became known then and is still known as the Man with the Iron Mask.
For a number of years the prisoner remained at Pignerol, under care of the governor, St. Mars, who seemed to have been a custodian of great discretion. If any one asked him who the prisoner was that wore the iron mask, St. Mars always replied, "It is not becoming in you to ask, nor in me to reply. We will talk of something else."
After a few years the prisoner was removed to the Isle of St. Marguerite on the coast of Provence, where he remained in the same seclusion and surrounded by the same mystery. The other prisoners regarded him with the greatest curiosity and respect, and the attendants tried in vain to secure from him any word of his identity or the cause of his imprisonment.
He walked about his prison halls and the yard with silence and dignity as if unmindful of those who were about him, rarely saying a word and never uttering a complaint. His mask was never removed day or night, so far as anyone knew. Throughout the kingdom the mystery became common talk, but no one could offer a satisfactory explanation.
"Who is the Man with the Iron Mask?" was the general inquiry.
"He is not an ordinary criminal, for he is treated by the governor of the prison with the respect and consideration that belong to those of noble birth," said one.
Another remarked, "I have heard that the Marquis of Louvois, the minister of war, visited him, and treated him with the respect due to one of royal birth. While he spoke to the Mask, the minister stood hat in hand, and though no one heard what was said, yet the attendants declare the minister bowed very low, with the deference due to royalty."
"It could not be a royal personage," was the answer, "for no member of the royal house of France or of any other country has disappeared. They are all too well known by name and station. No, they are all accounted for." And so it was, for every reigning house was checked off and its members located beyond dispute.
It was also proved that no leading personage in France or Europe had disappeared. Everyone that should have been treated with the deference that was paid the Iron Mask was named as free and going about his ordinary affairs. The mystery remained unsolved. Probably the minister of war knew to whom he was talking, and St. Mars, the governor, may have known. If so, they never divulged the secret.
After thirty-six years at St. Marguerite, and after the Iron Mask had grown to be a middle-aged man and the people had ceased to wonder at the mystery, St. Mars was made governor of the Bastille in Paris. When he moved to his new position he took his prisoner with him. Some details of the journey are given in a letter written by the grand-nephew of St. Mars.
"When he set out to enter on his office he stayed at his estate at Palteau for a short time. The Mask was in a litter, accompanied by men on horseback. The peasants went out to meet the company and greet their seigneurs. St. Mars ate his meals in the chateau with his prisoner, who sat with his back to the windows which overlooked the courtyard. The peasants could not see whether or not he removed his Mask while he was eating.
"They observed that St. Mars, who sat opposite the Mask, had a pair of pistols by his plate. The valet who waited on them took away the dishes from an ante-chamber, the dining-room door being carefully closed beforehand. When the prisoner crossed the courtyard a black mask was always over his face."
At the Bastille the secret which involved the prisoner was as closely guarded as ever. His mask was never removed, and he spoke in a guarded voice and to very few persons. St. Mars was still his constant companion, though always with great courtesy. He never sat in the presence of the Mask except when at meals, and even then observed a great deal of formality.
"See that the prisoner has everything his comfort demands, and spare no expense," were the mysterious orders the governor received, and they were rigidly obeyed. The best food was supplied to his table, the finest linen and china for his service. If he wished for fine laces, they were provided; if he wished for music, it was forthcoming; if he called for rare wines, they were sent for.
The only request that was never made was that the mask should be removed. The only name forbidden to be uttered was the name of the man who wore it. St. Mars, with all his deference, stood with pistols by his side, probably with secret orders to end the life of the Mask if he should show his face or utter his name.
One day word was sent to the prison doctor, "The Man with the Iron Mask is ill. You will attend him." The doctor came into the rooms of the prisoner and saw him lying on the bed with his mask still covering his face. He examined his tongue after lifting the iron frame, and then looked over parts of his body. Not a word was uttered, while St. Mars stood by grimly to see that the old secret was kept.
"There is nothing particular the matter with the prisoner. He is worn with much confinement, and is feeble with anxiety and concern." And with that the doctor departed.
The next day the prisoner was worse and the doctor prescribed some remedy which was of no avail. During the day he sank rapidly, uttering no sound, making no confession, calling no name, carrying his secret with him into his grave. That night he died and was buried with his mask on him. He had been a prisoner for forty-one years.
Who was the Man with the Iron Mask? That is a question which has been debated for two hundred or more years and without conclusion. Chamillard, the last minister of Louis XIV, knew, but on his dying bed he declared it was a secret of state, which he had sworn never to reveal, and died leaving it untold. If St. Mars knew, he never said so, and never ventured to make a conjecture. Louis XIV knew, but that mighty monarch kept to himself and his trusted agents the mystery of the Man with the Iron Mask.