Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

The Flight to Varennes

"Before man made us citizens, great Nature made us men."


T HERE was now growing a feeling among the people of Paris that the king and the National Assembly should be in their midst, and no longer away at Versailles. So on October 1789, a great mob of citizens, mostly women, set out from Paris to walk to Versailles and bring the king back to his capital.

Lafayette was commander-in-chief of the troops, but it was with a heavy heart that he led the soldiers to Versailles. He felt the Revolution was getting out of all control.

It was a day of rain, and when the mob reached their destination they were weary, hungry, and wet. All through that day and during the night fresh bands of men and women from Paris kept arriving, until early next morning they broke into the palace.

"The king to Paris," shouted the dense throng outside.

Louis stepped on to the balcony and assented to their will.

Then arose a yet more furious cry—

"The queen! the queen!"

Marie Antoinette, with her children clinging to her, now stepped out on to the balcony and looked down on to the sea of furious faces below.

"No children!" was the rough cry.

Pushing them back, the poor queen advanced alone. It was a moment of great peril. Lafayette, afraid for her safety, stepped forward and sought to make her peace with the people. He stooped before them and kissed her hand.


Marie Antoinette on the balcony at Versailles.

The royal family was then forced to leave Versailles, the palace of Louis XIV. They were never to return. They were taken to a palace in Paris known as the Tuileries,—a cold, deserted dwelling,—where for the next two years they lived the life of captives. The queen spent most of her time with her two children, fearing to venture often beyond the gardens. The king, deprived of his hunting, grew gloomy and ill.

He was powerless in his own kingdom, a mere tool in the hands of the Revolutionists. At last he and the queen resolved to escape from the misery of it all, from a life that had grown almost unbearable. Very quietly they made their plans. The night of Monday, June 20, was fixed for the attempt. Everything was arranged for them by Count Fersen, an intimate friend. In the afternoon the Count paid his last visit to the Tuileries. He had smuggled the last of the clothes for the disguise into the palace. There was a frockcoat and round hat for the king, who was to be a valet; a travelling dress and bonnet for the queen, who was to be governess to her two children; a frock for the little six-year-old dauphin, Marie Antoinette's second son, who was to be dressed as a girl.

Fersen left the queen weeping bitterly, for there was a rumour that the plan had been discovered. The children were put to bed as usual. At nine o'clock supper was served; the queen dismissed her servants and retired to rest. At half-past ten she crept to the little dauphin's room. The child was fast asleep, all unconscious of coming danger. The queen woke him. His sister was already disguised in a cheap muslin dress.

"They dressed my brother as a little girl," she said afterwards, when telling the story of this terrible night. "He looked beautiful, but was so sleepy that he could not stand, and did not know what we were all about."

The queen was dressed as a governess. All was ready. She looked out into the night: everything was quiet. Stealthily the royal fugitives crept through dark unknown passages that warm June night, till they reached the appointed door, which stood unlocked. Then they crossed the courtyard and stepped into the coach, which awaited them with Count Fersen, disguised as a coachman, on the box. Here the king joined them as their valet, and the carriage drove hastily off, through the sleeping streets of Paris.

Outside the city they changed into a new yellow coach, which was to convey them towards the frontier of France. It had been waiting for two hours owing to delays, and the dawn was already breaking in the east.

"Drive—drive as fast as possible," muttered Count Fersen, jumping on to the box beside the German coachman and cracking the whip. "Go faster—faster!"

On they went through the ever-brightening morning, away from the pomps and shams of Paris to the free life beyond the frontier. The king's spirits rose.

"I have escaped from that town of Paris, where I have drunk so much bitterness," he cried joyously.

But he rejoiced too soon: a chapter of accidents now befell the royal family. The horses fell down and broke the harness, which took an hour to mend. They missed a carriage sent to meet them beyond Chalons. But, most fatal of all accidents, the king was recognised by a postmaster named Drouet, who belonged to the Revolution party. The royal party reached Varennes at eleven o'clock that summer night to find they had been discovered.

"If you go a step farther we fire!" cried threatening voices, while guns were levelled at the carriage window. The poor disguised royal family got out. They were led to a grocer's shop hard by and taken up a narrow corkscrew staircase to two small bedrooms. The unhappy queen put her tired children to bed, while the king sat in an arm-chair in the middle of the room in the deepest despair.

In the course of the night a friend of the king arrived and made his way up the narrow staircase to ask for orders.

"I am a prisoner: I have no orders to give," answered Louis in despair.

Even now a little firmness might have saved the situation, and "French history had never come under this Varennes archway to decide itself." But the moment passed. By dawn thousands of peasants had assembled in Varennes. As the sun broke over the lovely valley of the Aire, the grocer begged the king to show himself to the growing crowds in the streets below. Louis obeyed.

"Long live the King! Long live the nation!" cried the people.

"There is no longer a king in France," muttered Louis to his queen, as he read the message from the National Assembly ordering him to return at once.

Slowly and sadly the royal family descended the narrow stairs and entered the carriage once more. Escorted by six thousand guards, they drove back through the glare of a midsummer sun, exposed to the insults of the mob, with blinds up and windows open. The little dauphin slept at intervals, only to awake screaming that he was in a forest where wolves were attacking his mother, the queen.

On Saturday the 25th of June they entered the gloomy palace of the Tuileries again, which they had left so full of life and hope but five days since.

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