Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The Night of Spurs

It had been the hope of Mirabeau to save the monarchy and establish the rule of a king who should be advised by representatives of the nation. The greatest genius of France distrusted the permanent rule of the six hundred. He knew that they might come to exercise the sway of tyrants, and therefore held it best for the liberty of the French that they should give back some measure of power to Louis XVI, a monarch not too greedy of authority.

How it might have fared with the Revolution none can tell, but it is certain that the death of the first man of the Assembly affected France disastrously. Henceforth, it was to be governed by men of ordinary talent, differing in aims, and, after the fiery splendor of an ardent patriot, burning with but a feeble luster before the people they would fain control. Mirabeau worked to the last, his enormous energy leading him to rise at seven and spend the whole day in laborious occupations. He spoke very often in the month of March, when fatal illness came upon him. There was much to do in the year 1791 and not many able to do it. He did not spare himself in the cause of friendship. It was to the interest of La Marck, who had introduced him to the Court party, that Mirabeau should speak on the question of some mining rights, and Mirabeau spoke, although begged to remain in the country, where he had gone to seek fresh air. "Your case is won," he said, "but I am dying." He had a strange revival of strength and visited the Italian opera, but in four days he saw the April sunshine from his bedroom and realized that his place on the world's stage would never more be filled. "I shall die to-day," he told his friends. "When we have come to that, nothing remains but to perfume ourselves, to crown ourselves with flowers, and, surrounded by music, to enter as pleasantly as we can into the sleep from which we shall never awake."

The King's cause was lost. There had been signs that the walls were closing round the royal prisoners in the Tuileries. The flight of the nobles had not been prevented, but there was much trouble to be met before Louis's old aunts, the former enemies of Marie Antoinette, were allowed to journey from Paris to Rome, where they hoped to practise the old faith. To be a priest now was as bad as to be a noble. Thousands of the clergy left France because they refused to take an oath which placed them under the government of the State, and bade them seek both wages and election to their office from the citizens.

There was renewed murmuring when the King expressed his intention to retire to Saint-Cloud to perform his Easter devotions. He was denounced for encouraging refractory priests, and though he entered his carriage with the Queen he was not allowed to proceed on his journey. For two hours the royal couple sat amid the insults of the raging crowd outside the Tuileries, whom Lafayette could do nothing to control, though there were National Guards among the people.

The King tried to pacify the Assembly the next morning by a speech declaring that he recognized the priests as servants of the State. It is doubtful whether he spoke truth to the people, for his mind was bent on flight from his tyrant subjects at all costs.

There was a Royalist in command at Metz, which was not too far from the domains of Leopold of Austria, the brother of the Queen. Thither a message was dispatched secretly, warning the fortress that the royal fugitives would leave Paris on June 19th. Mirabeau would have directed the plan had he lived, but now the desperate monarchs had to trust another man. Count Axel de Fersen was a Swedish noble, inspired by true devotion for Marie Antoinette ever since that day when, as boy and girl, they had met at a ball at Versailles. He was quiet and manly and had the qualities of a hero. It was his pleasure to make arrangements for the safety of the woman he loved so well. The risk of his own life meant nothing to him if the Queen were saved.

Every member of the party was to be disguised, since the Court was the object of suspicion. Fersen himself was to drive the great "berline," or black and green painted coach which would hold all the members of the little household. The passports were prepared with false names; the Duchesse de Tourzel, the royal governess, was to be the nominal head of the party under the title of Baroness de Korff. The Queen was to change places with her, and the King to be the great lady's valet; while the Dauphin, dressed in a girl's clothes, was to call the Baroness his mother. Three tall bodyguards accompanied the fugitives, chosen for their physical strength and power of remaining long hours in the saddle. They had to wear the yellow coats of couriers, a gorgeous habit which must have aroused attention in the streets.

The usual ceremony of le coucher  was performed on the night of June 19th. Then the disguises were assumed, and the runaways left the Tuileries to join Fersen, dressed like a coachman and playing his part to perfection. He drove the party to the gates of Paris in a cab, which was abandoned for the comfortable berline. Four horses were harnessed and set off at a fine speed, for it was two o'clock, and dawn was approaching. They reached Bondy, where fresh horses were ready, and Fersen was bidden to leave them. He was unwilling, but he had orders, and must console himself on his departure with the token of gratitude which the Queen gave him when he took her hand for the last time—a heavy ring he wore till death. The Queen's waiting women followed in another carriage, and as the summer morning dawned, the hearts of all were light. They were careless of maintaining their disguise, for the King sat in the same carriage as his supposed mistress, and continually exposed himself to the gaze of passers-by. The postilions were paid too royally, and the postmaster at Chalons was said to recognize the royal features. Even before this at Viels-Maisons a peasant had guessed the secret, but he said nothing, and the carriage and its occupants drove serenely off.

It was four o'clock when the clatter of horses sounded in the streets of Chalons. The fugitives were afraid of being arrested in this large town, where news might well have been received from Paris. They congratulated each other on good luck when the road was resumed again, but a well-dressed man passed the berline at the foot of a hill and muttered, "You have planned ill!

The first soldiers to accompany the royal family to Varennes, en route for Montmedy and the frontier, were to have been waiting at the posting-house of Somme-Vesle, but the house was silent and the road deserted when they reached there. They saw a few peasants going to work, but the uniforms of their protectors were nowhere to be seen. The troops had been waiting at this station anxiously, and had been objects of interest to all passing them. Now they had given up the hope of the King's appearance, and left the posting-house. If the berline had been fifteen minutes earlier the lives of all within it might have been saved.

The next stage was reached with a like hope and like disappointment. No troops were waiting. It was evening now, and every one was tired. Sainte-Menehould was in arms when the berline drew up there—two forces with conflicting patriotism were the dragoons of D'Andoins and the local contingent of the National Guard. The square of the little town was full of evening saunterers, and the Queen looked out to be saluted. The dragoons were to withdraw lest the people should suspect the handsome carriage, but it was useless now to plan well or badly. Drouet, a young man of twenty-eight, was returning from work and examined the countenance of the Baroness de Korff narrowly. He had been a soldier, and had seen the Queen at Versailles. He thought he knew Marie Antoinette's turn of the head and shoulders. He was certain that Louis Seize was in the carriage, and he let it go with a flourishing of whips, knowing that he could overtake it. The Town Council were acquainted with the matter, and plenty of men and women added evidence to prove that the soldiers in the neighbourhood must have been waiting for the King. It was decided that Drouet, the postmaster's son, should ride after the berline and arrest the King, unlawfully about to leave his dominions. He was a stalwart young fellow, and could ride furiously if necessary.

To Drouet the mission was congenial. He took with him only one companion, an innkeeper, Guillaume, and rode down the eastern road towards the frontier. The heavy carriage had rolled before the riders and sent back its postilions. Drouet changed his plan when he heard that the pursued were not going straight to Metz, but heading northward to Varennes. He must take to the woods, avoiding the royal troops, and seek to intercept the berline before it was beyond the reach of French law. With his companion he galloped along the forest ridge, high above the open plain where Louis and his Queen were sleeping as they drove. It was a race between the dreamers and the wakeful. The dreamers had the start, but they would have hastened yet faster if they had realized those two figures intent on cutting them off. France should never own the rule of Austria. So the ex-dragoon had determined, when he received the honor of pursuing royal quarry. He was afraid of the troops which would protect the King and Queen, but he rode undaunted. It was eleven o'clock when he reached Varennes, to find that the berline had not yet arrived.

The berline, indeed, was on a hill-top, and might be dragged through the town before its inhabitants had heard of its strange occupants. Drouet rushed to "The Golden Arm" and gave warning at the inn that the King of France was bound for Austria. His vehemence startled men to action, and the dreamers were awakened by the crash of misfortune. They had no need to fumble for the passports or urge their drivers to complete the journey. All was lost, and they stepped into a street where the drum and tocsin sounded and the voices of a numerous populace were raised to a pitch of burning patriotism.

The local National Guard opposed the belated troops when they came upon the scene. In vain for the King's men to shout "Montmedy." There was a deafening cry "To Paris!" and by seven o'clock the berline was rumbling back again with its unsuccessful fugitives, disheveled and faint from their long journey of the day before.

"The King is taken." The news reached Paris, where many rumours had been afloat before the 20th of June. The fear of an invasion of foreign armies was banished. Bouillc, the treacherous commander of the Royalist troops, should be deprived of his command, while three men were appointed by the Assembly to secure the return of the King to Paris.

The commissioners met the royal carriage about half-way to the capital, and two of them—Barnave and Potion—took their seats in the berline, after reading the decree of the Assembly. Barnave sat between the King and Queen, while Madame Royale had to stand to make room. The Dauphin sat on his mother's lap, and Potion was packed between Madame Elizabeth and the royal governess. It was an uncomfortable drive, particularly for the hapless captives. They had suffered for one day the heat and dust of summer and the agony of fears that they might never reach the frontier. They had two more days of misery to undergo, for the progress was slow and impeded by crowds at every stopping place. They had lost dignity and the appearance of it. The King, as usual, cut a most unkingly figure in a soiled brown coat and unkempt wig. The Queen wore a grey dress which was stained and torn, but she bore herself with fortitude, offering refreshments to the jailers and talking rapidly to friends and foes.

The Dauphin was friendly and spelt out the words on Barnave's coat buttons, "We will live free or die." He was to learn the meaning of them later. Meanwhile his mother gained a friend and drew a Revolutionary from his party. She had several interviews with Barnave, which ended in the young man's devotion to her cause.

Petion was coarse and behaved with much familiarity, eating and drinking and enjoying the consternation of Royal ladies at his manners.

The carriage reached Paris in the evening, but the sun shone brilliantly, revealing the sorry spectacle over which the people feasted brutally. The King was surrounded by a double line of soldiers but they did not pay him royal honours. They reversed arms, as was the custom at a military funeral. The Parisians beyond them remained covered and, for the most part, silent. Strict discipline ensured the safety of the captives, but they were too wretched to feel grateful for this silently contemptuous reception.

The Queen entered the Tuileries last of all, placing her husband and children first, as she continued to do from the moment of that ill-fated flight to Varennes. Paris hated the Austrian long years before she attempted to revisit her own kingdom. Paris would hate her more fiercely since it knew that she would have called her brother to her aid to regain the power that had been won by the citizens of France. She understood the feeling of the mob but did not fear them. She entered the palace, a Queen still, though she had lost her crown.