T HESE events bring us to the verge of one of the most thrilling and terrible stories in modern history—the great French Revolution.
If the young colonists in America had cried out against unjust taxation, far more grievous was the cry wrung from the peasants of France under a system of taxation that had long existed in their own country. The mass of the people lived and struggled, suffered and died, under painful and cruel conditions. Pitiless indeed were the burdens laid upon the land, until the very life and hope of the nation seemed to be sapped away. The poor were taxed while the rich went free. Duties were laid on articles of daily need—candles, fuel, wine, and grain, while the tax on salt was the hardest of all. Every man, woman, and child over seven years of age had to buy 7 lb. of salt a-year, and a heavy fine was inflicted on those who could not or would not pay. So the nation groaned under its burden. Young women grew old before their time with toil, men worked under a cloud of hopeless gloom, and the nobles of France grew rich and prospered.
Such a state of things could not last. All knew that a change must come sooner or later. Great men—Voltaire and Rousseau—arose and wrote against the existing evils. Voltaire called on the king to take the work in hand. But the years passed on and little was done till, in 1774, the king, Louis XV., died, to be succeeded by his grandson as Louis XVI.
Now four years before this Louis—the Dauphin, as he was called—had married Marie Antoinette, the beautiful young daughter of Maria Theresa, Empress of Germany. The little Marie Antoinette was but fourteen, and the Dauphin fifteen, when a marriage was arranged between them, to cement the peace made a few years since between Austria and France.
Marie Antoinette was the youngest of sixteen children. She was a pretty, careless, pleasure-loving child, captivating all who came near her, and her mother had set her heart on her becoming the Queen of France some day.
It was yet early in the morning of April 21, in the year 1770, when the little Austrian girl left Vienna, her old home, for the long drive to Paris. The streets were thronged, as the long line of carriages rolled through the city gate on their way to the French frontier. A fortnight's driving brought them to Strasburg. The young German poet Goethe has told us, how here she was met by her new French suite. Her Austrian clothes were taken off, and she was dressed in new clothes from Paris. French ladies, provided for her by the King of France, now came forward to take charge of her. Weeping bitterly, the child kissed her Austrian attendants, sending messages of love back to her mother and sisters at home.
"Pardon me," she said, turning to her French suite and smiling through her tears. "Henceforth I shall never forget that I am French."
On May 16 she was married to the Dauphin, whom she had seen for the first time two days before. A terrific storm burst over Versailles on the wedding-day, causing many a Frenchman to shake his head and prophesy evil.
The young bridegroom himself was but sixteen. He was grandson to the present king. Having lost his father some years before, he was now heir to the throne of France. He had led a solitary life among the splendours and luxuries of the court at Versailles. He was shy and awkward, fond of hunting, but knowing little enough of the pitiable state of that country he would soon be called upon to govern.
Four years after the marriage Louis the king died of smallpox. His grandson and the beautiful young Austrian were King and Queen of France.
"O God! guide us, protect us; we are too young to reign," they cried, falling on their knees with streaming eyes.
For a time it seemed as if brighter days might be dawning for France under the new King Louis XVI. and his minister Turgot, the greatest statesman in France since the days of Richelieu. Turgot tried to make the young king understand how dangerous was the state of his country, how badly in need of reform. He would tax the rich as well as the poor, would abolish forced labour, would give France a national life in which each citizen must bear a part. But Louis was incapable of grasping the great crisis through which his poor country was passing.
"The king is above all, for the good of all," said Turgot.
Louis could not rise to this ideal of kingship, and in 1776 Turgot was dismissed.
"Do not forget, sire, that it was weakness which placed the head of Charles I. on the block," he said at parting. The words were prophetic of what should happen, but his reminder was in vain.
The luxuries at the court now increased. The winter of 1776 was bitterly cold, and bread was very dear. Deep snow lay in the streets of Paris, and the poor suffered acutely.
One day a gay train of sleighs drove through Paris. With every appearance of wealth, comfort, and luxury, Marie Antoinette, the Queen, was enjoying the snow and keen air, with no attempt to hide her merriment. The poor people shivered at their doors. They had never seen sleighs before.
"The Austrian," they muttered with displeasure; for the marriage had never been popular in France, and a feeling grew up between the irresponsible young queen and her unhappy subjects.
It was not till her tragic death seventeen years later, that she atoned for the past by the courage and dignity with which she met her fate.