Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The Lighted Candle

Maria Theresa, the powerful Empress of Austria, planned a marriage for a fair child in her cradle, all unconscious of the mighty change that was preparing. The Empress's father had striven to secure her succession by binding the other monarchs of Europe to support her.

Frederick of Prussia was Maria Theresa's enemy and neighbor. She had a bitter struggle to endure before she triumphed over her most aggressive foes. The Hungarians rallied round her, swearing to die in defense of "their King, Maria Theresa!" She appealed to their chivalry by professing a woman's helpless dependence on their strength. She was a mother with young children; she was beset by treachery and scheming. So she gathered powerful armies beneath her banner and thus kept her vast dominion. She was ruthless in determination, subtle in maneuvers. She had decided that France must help Austria long before the marriage of her daughter to the Dauphin.

The ambitious mother's scheme was not concealed from the child, Marie Antoinette. Her name was changed to the French fashion. She was drilled in the speech of her future kingdom, though her general education was neglected. She danced gracefully, but cared not at all for books and refused to attend to studies. The old Abbe, who became her tutor, did not accomplish his task successfully, When she was of an age to be married she wrote a shocking hand and spelled incorrectly. She was untrained in mind, and hoydenish in movements. She had no conception of the duties of a queen, and would have been surprised to hear that she ought to study the people of the nation she would govern. They were merely smiling faces, seen in dense crowds from the Royal carriage. They said nothing of more importance than their salutations to Royalty. It was good for them to see grand spectacles; if they asked more, surely they were wrong the poor should he contented always.

She was fourteen when they sent her to France to marry the awkward lad who was only a year older. She was given "a plan and rule of life "and told to read it every month, and was advised to adapt herself to a new Court and a new way of thinking. She left Vienna in April 1770, deeply mourned, for she was the youngest and fairest daughter of the great Empress.

Marie Antoinette, no doubt, enjoyed the long journey that took her through scenes she did not recognize. She had Austrian attendants with her but said farewell to them as soon as she reached the French borders. She was bidden to remove the clothes she had brought with her, and clad from head to foot in the garments of her marriage state. She felt strangely ill-at-ease, and natural trepidation seized her when thunder heralded her arrival at the town of Strasburg. It was an evil omen, and she was superstitious in her girlhood. The day would come when she was to shudder at the recollection of that storm and the tapestry of the room where she was royally welcomed. The scenes were wrought by skilful hands, but they presented a strange subject—Medea, rending her own children, was depicted, and other episodes from mythology, terrible in their grim tragedy.

The Princess met King Louis XV and the Dauphin in the forest of Compiegne. She was anxious to produce a favorable impression on the monarch, as splendid as the Sun-King in appearance, but differing widely from him in command of self and subject. Louis XV could maintain the royal state of Versailles, though he shocked the Court by his lavish gifts to favorites, worthless women for the most part, who took greedily the offerings given them at the cost of a ruined government. Millions were spent on residences where costly whims could be indulged. Millions were spent on giving incomes to recipients who did nothing to deserve them. It was well for Marie Antoinette that she pleased Louis. Her first act was to fall down at his feet in real humility. He raised her, and she gave her hand to Louis the Dauphin, who had no more notion than a rustic how to bear himself toward his bride. He was kind, but he had no presence. The King looked handsome and polished by his side. Neither barber nor valet could make the heir of the noble Bourbons stately; moreover the Dauphin was slovenly and of a heavy countenance.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


The marriage was celebrated with solemn rites at Versailles in the May of 1770. The Court life proved baffling to the new-made wife, who forgot her lessons in deportment and conducted herself like the noisy romp of fourteen she was in reality. Her dame d'honneur was punctilious about the manners of a Dauphine who would soon be Queen of France, they said. "Madame l' Etiquette"  the girl named de Noailles, and mimicked the elder woman with youthful want of feeling. She was only allowed to ride a donkey; she was rebuked for the merry games she enjoyed whenever other children of her age gathered at the pompous Court. She wrote to complain of these restraints to her mother, and that august lady was uneasy. She bade her daughter conform to French usages, which were strict and liable to prove a stumbling block to foreigners.

It was too dull for lively Marie Antoinette to submit to the routine of Court life without an occasional diversion. She had to curtsey to the King at stated hours, to play cards with little interest in the game, to put on and off the cumbersome Court dresses. She was surrounded by spies, who suspected the voluminous correspondence with her mother. She was short of money, although a large sum was allowed for her dress, and since she neither liked nor respected Madame du Barry, Louis' greatest favorite, and refused to notice her at functions, she made enemies.

The King's daughters, nicknamed, Rag, Snip, and Pig, were prim and elderly unmarried ladies. They did not gain Marie Antoinette's affection in her early days at Court. They were shocked by her levity and want of dignity. They heard with horror of her play with dogs and her rides on horseback, a forbidden pleasure in which however she indulged. They were good according to their lights, but they began to form a party in opposition to the Austrian princess. She would never be a Frenchwoman. She was too free in speech, too careless of the impression she created.

The Dauphin was not a companion for his young bride. He could ride well, and was immoderate in his love of hunting. But he was without charm or gaiety, and his jokes were boyishly offensive. His hobbies did not attract anyone who was dainty in habit. He was fond of manual labor, and had a workshop, where the smith Gamain treated him as though he were an ordinary apprentice. He was scolded rather sharply for coming to his wife's apartments with dusty clothes and dirty hands, for he was neglectful of all ceremony. He would retreat then with a bad grace and mount to his observatory, watching the heavens and studying the stars.

Marie Antoinette declared that she preferred her husband to his brothers, but she was too friendly with the younger, the Count of Artois, an idle, frivolous boy, who led her into mischief. The elder, nicknamed Tartuffe by the Dauphin, who said he played the hero of Moliere's comedy to perfection, was hypocritical, as the name implied, and kept a steady furtive eye on the two heirs of the throne. All knew that Louis XV could not live long. He was worn out by a life of selfish follies, and when the zest of youth was gone he cared for nothing.

Louis, the Well-Beloved, had a shrewd idea that trouble was brewing for the successor to his kingdom. He shrugged his shoulders indifferently, however, and wondered aloud how "Berry" (the Dauphin) would manage to pull through it. He judged "Berry" to be a weak stripling, not clever enough to play his part, if it were difficult. And it was going to be very difficult to rule a country, seething with discontent that, at times, even now rose to the surface. "After me, the deluge," Louis said cynically, and smiled to think that he would be well out of it. He had gained what he wanted, he had eaten and drunk and had what he would of pleasure. He did not care for his family or the nation, placing always their welfare second to his own desires. The daughters he named so contemptuously were afraid of him, knowing that he despised their single state and scant claim to admiration. He did not deserve that they should tend him so devotedly when he was seized with deadly illness and the Court fled panic-stricken from infection.

Small-pox was the scourge of prince as well as peasant. Louis suffered the agonies of disease at Versailles, deserted by all except the chosen few, whose duties constrained them to remain. The trembling courtiers waited in the outer chamber for the news of the King's demise.

The Oeil-de-Boeuf  was crowded with a throng, no longer eager to demand an audience. They knew that a lighted candle, put in the window of the King's apartment, would go out when the Well-Beloved drew his last breath. They saw the carriages in the courtyard with horses harnessed in readiness to take the new King and Queen to Choisy. Suspense made them haggard beneath the rouge and powder. Their dress was slightly disarranged, though the polite conversation of the courtiers was worldly, as it had been under the rule of the man now seeking late absolution from a priest.

The great clock struck three, and the fatal hour, prophesied by a daring preacher as the time appointed for the King's reign to end, was come. The candle was extinguished by an unseen hand, the palace roused to sudden animation. There was a noise like thunder when the courtiers rushed to the presence of the Dauphin and his wife and made the usual declaration. "The King is dead. Long live the King!"

Louis XVI and his young wife clung together, weeping. They were alarmed by the awful responsibility that was thrust upon them. They fell on their knees and raised their hands to heaven, praying for guidance because they were too young to reign.