"O God, protect us, direct us, we are too young to reign," cried the young king, Louis xvi. , falling upon his knees, his beautiful girl-wife by his side. He had just been told that his grandfather, Louis xv. , was dead, and he, the new king, was only twenty years old, his wife, Marie Antoinette, a year younger.
The young monarch was anxious to rule well, and so he called to his side a man who he believed could help him. This was Count de Maurepas, who was seventy years old.
Twenty-five years before the count had been sent away from the court by Madame de Pompadour. During these years he had studied the writings of great men, but he had not learned the secret of their wisdom.
The count believed, however, that all men, rich and poor, were equal, and that the rich had no right to oppress the poor. He made Turgot, a man who wished to put into practice the new ideas he had learned from Voltaire and Rousseau, Minister of Finance.
But though the young king wished to rule well, he was weak and easily led. Thus it was that he changed his ministers so often that they had not time to carry out the reforms which they had planned.
As the years passed, it seemed to Louis xvi. a hopeless task to try to improve the condition of his people. Little by little his interest in them passed away, and he showed no care for anything, save to hunt and to work at a forge which he had had set up in the palace.
As a boy Louis was awkward but intelligent; when he became a man he grew fat and dull, and showed little concern even when calamity after calamity overtook him.
The king's wife, Marie Antoinette, was the daughter of the brave Queen of Hungary, Maria Theresa. She had inherited her mother's pride and obstinate nature, but she was, in these early days, what Maria Theresa had never been—foolish, vain, and extravagant.
Marie Antoinette had been married when she was only fifteen years old. She had come to France a merry, happy girl, ready for fun and frolic wherever they were to be found.
From the beginning she disliked the formal ways of the French court. When she became queen on the death of Louis xv. , the older court ladies hastened to congratulate her. The girl-queen was amused at the strange, stiff manners of these dames, no less than at what seemed to her their old-fashioned garments and odd head-gears, and she made no effort to hide her amusement.
Forgetful of the respect due to those who were older than herself, as well as of her queenly dignity, Marie Antoinette almost laughed in the faces of the astonished ladies. And they never forgave her for the lack of courtesy with which she treated them.
Moreover, the queen had no wish to attend the long and stately banquets given by these ladies of noble birth, and so she went her own wilful, girlish way. She chose her favourites where she willed, she dressed as she liked, not as the etiquette of the court demanded, and she gave banquets and fêtes which were happy and informal, but which cost a great deal of money.
While the young queen spent her days in merry frolics and her evenings at balls or at theatres and dainty supper parties, the people of France were still starving, as they had done in former reigns. Only now they were less inclined to bear their misery in silence.
In their hunger and distress the Parisians accused the young queen of many things which she never did, for although she was thoughtless, which was wrong and was the cause of much trouble in France, she was not deliberately unkind.
But the people were quite sure that the queen used public money for her balls and fêtes. They even accused her of sending French money to her relatives in Austria, although she knew that the Austrians were hated by the French nation. She had persuaded the king, too, to spend large sums on a diamond necklace which she greatly coveted, so said the angry, famine-stricken people.
The king was devoted to Marie Antoinette, but the people of France were indignant on his behalf, believing that the queen cared little for him.
It is true that his wife showed slight interest in her husband's amusements.
Louis xvi. loved to hunt or to work at his forge more than anything else. He would spend long days at the chase or long hours over his forge, making locks and keys, and then, tired out, would go to bed and sleep soundly, while Marie Antoinette, paying little heed to her husband's ways, continued to play cards, to go to theatres and to masked balls.
Sometimes, in the evening, Louis would come into the queen's brightly lit apartments, but, tired with his day's hunting, he would not try to make himself pleasant to Marie Antoinette or her gay friends. Unaccustomed, too, to such society, he would soon withdraw to a window and stand there, carelessly tapping the panes with his fingers, until the queen would reprove him sharply for his unkingly ways.
The king was really loved by his people, but toward the queen the feeling of dislike was changing into an ever-increasing hatred.
As you know, the Parisian mob was always ready with nicknames, so now, because Marie Antoinette feasted while they had no food, they called her the "Baker's Wife." And because she belonged to Austria, a country they hated, the mob would also scornfully name her the "Austrian." Money was scarce, and for the deficiency or want of money the poor queen was blamed, while in mockery they gave her yet another name, calling her "Madame Deficit."
Thus the people let themselves grow careless of the dignity of their royal family. And the insolent crowd would wander about the streets shouting such foolish rhymes as this:
"My little queen, not twenty-one,
Maltreat the folks as you've begun,
And o'er the border you shall run."
The day, alas, was not far off when Marie Antoinette would have been glad had she been free to cross the frontiers of France.
Yet for all her foolish, wayward ways the queen had, as I told you, a kind heart. When, in 1773. the people were perishing from cold, the king sent sledges to them filled with logs, and the queen gladly helped him in his charities.
But her kindness and, as troubles thickened, her thoughtfulness for others, could not soften the hearts of the people. Always she seemed to them to be the cause of their misery, and their hatred followed her even to her death.
Turgot, as I told you, was made Minister of Finance at the beginning of the reign of Louis xvi. , and at first the king did all he could to support his minister.
The minister needed support, for before long he brought on his head the anger of the queen, the nobles, and the people.
Marie Antoinette's anger was easy to understand, for the Minister of Finance cut down the expenses of the royal household, and she could no longer spend as much as she pleased on balls and fêtes.
The dislike of the nobles was as easily explained, because after Turgot began to take charge of the finances, their salaries were reduced, and some of their useless offices were swept away altogether.
As for the people, they hated Turgot because he had always some new scheme on hand by which he hoped to make them better citizens, and they grew tired of his reforms, wishing only to be left alone to live as they pleased.
But the minister's greatest enemy was the Parliament of Paris, which Louis xv. had banished, but which Louis xvi. now in 1774 recalled.
Again and again this Parliament refused to sign the reforms which Turgot had at heart.
Once the king was present, listening to the members as they fought against Turgot's wish that the taxes should be more equally divided, and that the nobles should bear their proper share.
Suddenly the king's voice startled lawyers and courtiers alike.
"Come," said Louis, "I see there are only Monsieur Turgot and I who love the people," and without another word the king himself signed the new measure the minister had laid before the Parliament of Paris.
When the nobles came with tales about Turgot, trying to make Louis distrust his minister, he still stood by him.
"People may say what they like," said the king with unusual earnestness, "but he is an honest man."
Little by little the queen's dislike of the minister who had spoiled her fêtes, and the jealousy of the nobles, began to tell upon the king. Perhaps, too, he was growing tired of Turgot's never-ending reforms.
However that may be, in 1776 Turgot was dismissed, and in spite of all that the minister had tried to do, the peasants in the country, and the poor folk in Paris, were still starving.
The new Minister of Finance was a banker named Necker. At first he was more successful than Turgot had been, and he even made the taxes less heavy.
But war broke out in 1778 between North America and England, and when France determined to send help to the Americans, Necker found it almost impossible to provide money to raise a French fleet and send an army to help his country's allies. He was therefore dismissed.
But in 1789 the people demanded that Necker should be recalled. As there was now no money in the Treasury, the minister persuaded Louis to call together the States-General to discuss the situation.
Now in the States-General there were nobles and priests. But there was also a Third Estate, as it was called, which was composed of the deputies of the people, and the deputies of the people numbered many more than the nobles and priests added together.
The winter before the States-General met was a terrible one. There was no bread to be had, and famine stared the country in the face.
Louis and Marie Antoinette did what they could to help the poor of Paris, and for a little while the hatred against the queen was forgotten.
For months before, the queen had scarcely been able to go into Paris. Angry looks had followed her if she dared to drive through the streets, while if she ventured into a theatre she was hissed. The head of the policemen had even warned her that he might not be able to save her from the sudden violence of the mob.
Now hatred was for a little while destroyed by gratitude, for the queen had helped to feed the starving mob.
It was winter, and the snow lay thick on the streets. The fickle people rolled the snow into huge balls, and then shaped the balls into images of the king and queen. They even sang verses in praise of Marie Antoinette, and when she ventured to the theatre they cheered her lustily.
Yet the queen was not happy. A foreboding of evil hung over her. She knew that the meeting of the States-General was no good omen, that it threatened, indeed, the power of her husband the king.