A Story in Praise of Freedom and in Pity for Marie Antoinette
This little story is taken from one of the saddest parts of the big story of France. It is about a beautiful Queen who was not very wise, but who went to her death as bravely as any hero; and about a great people who, having suffered much injustice and oppression, rose to right their wrongs, but in so terrible a manner that the glory of the freedom they won was greatly dimmed thereby.
Nevertheless, you must not forget when you read this most piteous story of the Queen Marie Antoinette, that the people she wronged and who wronged her did right when they tried to win their freedom. There was nothing else for them to do, although the way they took was an exceeding hard way and brought much and bitter sorrow in the land.
You may be sure that it was best for France to be rid of the terrible burden of her kings. For centuries kings had reigned in France like emperors, having all power put into their hands or into those of their favourites. Few of these kings thought of anything but their own pleasure. So that they and their nobles might live at ease and make merry, the common folk had to pay heavy taxes. The king must have money for his pleasures, and so must the queen, and so must the nobles and their wives.
If the crops were bad, or there was a fever or a famine or a frost on the land, what cared the great king so long as he was well-fed and housed and warm? But the people must pay their taxes whatever happened, and they did. They were too oppressed, too poor, too unhappy to complain, and what good would it have done?
According to the Feudal System, they belonged body and soul to their masters, to the nobles on whose lands they worked. Who would hear them if they complained? They would only be thrust into prison to suffer still more.
But this injustice could not last forever. As the world grows older, men learn more of the power and beauty of freedom. When came the time of Louis the Fifteenth, bad king as he was, to reign over France, the people were a little better treated than they had been for many a long year; and so they began to lift up their heads and look about them, and see what was going on in the world. They began to think, and some of them wrote down what they thought; and when men begin to think for themselves, and speak out their thoughts, they cannot be slaves much longer.
It was towards the end of Louis the Fifteenth's long reign that Marie Antoinette, the daughter of the Empress of Austria, came to the French Court. She was only fourteen years old, a sweet little princess, with blue eyes and golden hair, and the prettiest, sauciest ways in the world. She could sing, she could dance, she could chatter all day long, and was as ready for fun as any schoolgirl.
And she came to the Court to marry the Dauphin of France. His name was Louis; he was the eldest son of the eldest son of Louis the Fifteenth, and heir to the throne, for his father was dead. He was fifteen years old when he married the little Austrian princess—a great, heavy, awkward boy, rather stupid, but very good-natured. He loved to hunt more than anything else in the world.
He was very kind to his little young wife, however, and did what he could to make her happy, often shielding her when the King's aunts would have punished her, for she was very mischievous, and given to laughing at the stiff and prim ways of these great ladies.
So these two, boy and girl, grew up in the careless French Court. No one told them of the needs and sorrows of their people. They were only taught to amuse themselves, to behave well at Court ceremonies; how then could they know what the people wanted of them, when the time came for them to reign?
Five years after their marriage, Louis the Fifteenth died. When they told the Dauphin and his wife the great news, they both fell on their knees, crying, "Alas, alas! God help us! We are too young to reign!"
At first, however, all promised well. The people were proud of their King and his fair young Queen. It was very easy at first for Marie Antoinette, Austrian, foreigner though she was, to win the love of the whole gallant French nation. But it was not so easy to keep that love. Indeed, without knowing it herself, she very soon lost it.
She was very fond of pleasure. She went to balls and dances and card-parties, merry-makings of all kinds. She wore very fine dresses; she wasted a great deal of money; she gave honours and gold and lands to her favourite attendants and to all their relatives; and when she came to the end of her money, she went to the King and he paid her debts and gave her more. For he loved her and could refuse her nothing.
She wanted a house all her own. He gave her one called the Petit Trianon. It stood near the great palace of Versailles, and there she would give private parties to which only her friends were invited. She had this Petit Trianon refurnished, new gardens were laid out, a dairy and a small farm were built near it, and all the money needed for this came from the heavily taxed people.
Then some began to notice that the Queen never had money to give in charity, for all she spent so much on her own pleasure; and they did not like her any the better for it. They saw that the King, although so amiable, only did what the Ministers and the Queen told him to do, and they began to grow restless and rebellious.
One good Chief Minister might have saved France from the Revolution. A Minister named Turgot did try his best. He wanted to tax the rich people as well as the poor, but when this was suggested the nobles made such an outcry that the weak King refused his consent to the plan; so Turgot resigned. The Treasury grew emptier and emptier, the national debt rose higher and higher, and France was nearly bankrupt.
When the King's eldest son was born, Marie Antoinette regained the heart of her people for a time, for they were loyal still and rejoiced that an heir was born to France. But when famine spread over the land, and taxes were heavier, and money and bread more scarce, when the Treasury remained empty, and the King and his Ministers seemed to do nothing at all to fill it, the people began to hate the Queen. They began to blame her for all the sorrows that came upon them. They believed she made the King do foolish things; they believed that she hated them, and did all in her power to oppress them.
But what they did not believe or notice was that, after her children were born—and there were four of them—Marie Antoinette changed greatly in ways and deeds. She steadily grew more economical, less fond of pleasure and fine clothes; she lived very simply now, happy with her children, although two died before her greater sorrows came.
But the people knew not this; indeed, did not care to know it. They hated their Queen, and she feared them. As for the King, he tried to please everybody, and, of course, pleased nobody.
Meanwhile, matters grew worse and worse. Something had to be done or France would become utterly bankrupt. "Call a States-General," cried the people. They were bolder now. America had begun her War for Independence, and they were eager to follow the example.
Now the States-General was a gathering together of men from every city and town in the kingdom; whether they were rich or poor, they were allowed to speak. So that if the King consented to call a States-General, it meant that the people themselves, through the delegates—men whom they chose—would have at last a voice in the government.
Louis the Sixteenth consented, much against the will of the Court; and the Queen, Marie Antoinette, wept. She was afraid of the power it gave to the people. But the whole nation rejoiced, for not only had Louis consented to the States-General, but he decreed that the delegates chosen by the people should exceed in number the delegates of the nobles and clergymen. This meant that the people could outvote the nobles. Power was already theirs to govern, and they meant to keep it. The aristocrats were very angry indeed with Louis. Many of them, foreseeing the coming trouble, made ready for flight.
Upon the fifth of May 1789 the States-General was held at Versailles, but this new lift toward freedom brought little peace with it. The King did foolish things, and the Queen, understanding very little about politics, did not help him to set matters right.
For months famine and want had been sending thousands of miserable starving creatures to Paris, where they hoped find food. Now this rabble, among whom were thieves and robbers and murderers, was only waiting for the least excuse to plunder and pillage and riot.
Lack of bread soon gave them excuse. They came in hordes to the palace of Versailles. "Give us bread! Give us bread! O ye who spend our money!" they cried. The Queen could hear their terrible voices shouting underneath her windows: "Down with the Austrian! She is the cause of all our troubles!" All through the night the fierce mob surged round the palace gates, shrieking horrid words, threatening desperate deeds.
Towards four in the morning, the Queen was awakened by an attendant. "Save yourself, Madame, while there is yet time!" At the same time, a soldier called out, "Save the Queen! They come to kill her!" She fled to the King's apartment and found her frightened children there, half-awake and shivering.
The General La Fayette entered. "There is only one way to calm them and save your lives, Madame," he said; "it is to let them see you."
"No children! The Austrian!" cried the voices outside.
"They mean to kill me," whispered the Queen as if to herself.
"Madame, it is the only way," answered La Fayette.
Without a word, Marie Antoinette went to the little balcony outside the apartment, and stood there in full sight of the angry people. At first there was silence; then some one cried, "To Paris, to Paris with them!"
To Paris they had to go, the whole royal family in the royal carriage, followed by as strange and ugly-looking a crowd as ever you might wish to see. Beggars, bandits, robbers, soldiers, and women more terrible and fierce than the men, all marched together, singing, "Cheer up, friends! We shall no longer starve! We bring the baker, the baker's wife, and the baker's little boy," meaning, of course, the King, Queen, and little Dauphin.
Even the Republicans, however, could not deny that through all the rough treatment, in spite of the insults that were heaped on her as time went on, the Queen ever bore herself nobly and behaved with true courtesy and kindness to her gaolers. For although they were not called prisoners, the royal family were allowed no freedom, but were kept in the palace of the Tuileries.
In fact, the government when it made laws now paid little or no attention to the King, while every now and then the wild mob would assail the Tuileries gates and keep the Queen in constant terror.
On the fourteenth of July 1789 the nation declared its independence, and ever since has made merry upon that day in honour of its freedom. After this, the King and Queen were in danger from the mob morning, noon, and night. The Queen steadily refused to leave her husband and children and save her life, as she might have done. The whole family did try to escape, and managed to leave Paris, but were captured and brought back again.
By this time, the most of the nobles had fled to other countries and were doing their best to gather together an army to rescue their King and Queen. But there was little hope for them. Already the National Assembly, as the government was called, had found out that the mob was the real King in Paris; and the mob, led by a few violent men, was going mad with hatred and revenge.
They raised up a guillotine in a large square in the city, called the Square of the Revolution, where they brought the nobles and gentlefolk, both men and women, whom they had captured, and there they cut off their heads without mercy. No man's life was safe in those days. The King was put in prison, the Queen also and her children, and there they awaited their certain death.
It need not be told that they waited patiently and bravely. Both Louis and Marie Antoinette had done foolish things in their lives, and sometimes thoughtless and cruel things, but they knew how to meet death bravely. Louis went first to the guillotine and died as a gentleman should, forgiving his enemies their sin against him. And afterwards Queen Marie Antoinette followed. She, too, went uncomplaining and with a good heart, so that even her cruel captors were abashed at her heroism.
So France marched on her terrible way towards Freedom, a Republic with the whole of Europe against her to keep her from her goal. And so much blood did these poor mad people shed that very soon there was no government, no ruler at all in France, and only the army was left to uphold the nation; and of the army and its doings you shall hear in the next story.