Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The King's Flight

The king, who had not been very well in the spring of 1791, decided on keeping the festival of Easter at the Palace of St. Cloud. The proposed plan was published with a good deal of parade, as though he wished his subjects to take particular notice of it; which they did, in a very disagreeable manner. For when the day of his little jaunt arrived, and the old family coach, with its eight horses, rolled up to the grand entrance of the Tuileries, the bell of St. Roche pealed out its notes of alarm, and a crowd assembled with the rapidity of wild-fire to stop his Majesty's journey. In vain the king appealed to his loving subjects to let him go. In vain did General Lafayette fret and strive. It would not do. The king should keep his Easter at Paris and nowhere else. For one hour and three quarters did this strange contest go on; and then Louis had to give way, and descend crestfallen from his coach, feeling now that he was indeed a captive. This was on the 18th of April, just one fortnight after Mirabeau's funeral.

The king felt excessively mortified at this treatment, and nursed the plan of escape day and night from thenceforth. As it had now become a difficult matter to get away, he was determined to do it, and without much loss of time.

The queen does not seem to have acted very wisely in her preparations for the great event. As she was about to leave Paris, she thought it necessary to order a vast number of dresses and other toilet matters which she thought she could not live without; and so she managed to keep suspicion on the alert. A lady in her suite, who was a friend of the people, whispered her secrets to General Gouvion, second in command of the National Guard; and he looked the more carefully to his sentries, and kept a yet sharper watch on every carriage which came in or went out of the Tuileries.

Some rooms in the palace which had been occupied by a certain duke were now empty, the duke having emigrated in a pet; and as they had a convenient door of egress, the queen occupied them, intending to slip out when the important moment arrived. There was a certain Swedish count, named Fersen, who had much to do with the king's flight. He got a new coach built big enough to carry the whole royal family, a lot of luggage, and several Body Guards. He told the coach-maker that it was for a Russian baroness, and it was built accordingly, the count being very particular about its construction. This great lumbering affair did not come near the Tuileries, as it might have aroused the suspicion of the sentries on duty. An ordinary glass coach waited on the night of June 20, not far from the palace. The coachman on the box was none other than Count Fersen. By and by a lady with a hood, and two children, wearing hoods also, came from the duke's door into the court, and thence into the street, and entered the coach. Then came another lady, followed by a gentleman in a round hat, and they got in also, but the coachman still waited. Now the suspicious lady of the bedchamber had her own reasons for supposing the royal family meant to escape that very night; and she told Gouvion, and he told Lafayette, and Lafayette came himself in his carriage to see with his own eyes whether all was well or not at the Tuileries. Now the general's carriage, driven at a rapid pace and glaring with lamps, passed so close to a lady in a broad-brimmed gypsy hat, that she was able to touch one of its wheels with a light stick which she held in her hand. That lady was Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France. Somewhat flurried by the noise and lights of Lafayette's carriage, the queen, as she went to the glass coach that was waiting, took the wrong turn instead of the right one. A servant attended her; but the stupid man did not know his way about, and he and the queen wandered about the streets until they had wasted one precious hour. What must the gentleman in the round hat have felt all this time? For he was the king, and the two children were his children, and one of the ladies was his sister.

And how the count on the box must have fretted at the delay! But at length the queen appeared, and stepped in; the stupid servant got up behind, the count cracked his whip, and they were off. The poet in "John Gilpin "says,—

"The stones did rattle underneath,

As if Cheapside were mad;"

and, surely, not less did the stones of the Rue de Grammont rattle, as the royal family of France were borne away rapidly toward the Russian lady's big new coach. Before long it was in sight, waiting there with its six horses; and in a few moments the gentleman in the round hat, the lady in the gypsy bonnet, and the others were seated in it. As for the glass coach, the count turned it round, and left it to its fate, and it was found the next morning in the ditch. The count jumped on the box of the new carriage he had been so anxious about, cracked his whip, and made the six horses go as fast as they could; but the progress was dolefully small. The new coach travelled only sixty-nine miles in twenty-two hours.

Louis XVI


When Count Fersen had done his part, he made a low bow, and took his leave; and on went the king's new coach with its six horses, another chaise behind with a pair, and three couriers in yellow, each astride of a nag, making a cavalcade of eleven horses in all. What an unwise display! Now and then there was something amiss with the harness, and delays occurred; and when the huge machine had to be dragged up a hill, the king got out and walked. General Bouille had soldiers stationed here and there along the route, and everything was done which seemed best; but the whole affair was mismanaged, and ended in grievous failure.

At a village named St. Menehould there lived at that time an old soldier named Drouet. He had retired from service, and was master of the post there. He was a stanch patriot (as the favorers of the revolution were then called), and on that eventful night he happened to be in a very bad temper because someone had interfered with his privileges. Toward sunset the great coach rumbled into the village, attracting by its splendor everybody's notice, and especially that of the old soldier Drouet. His suspicions were at once aroused; and while the royal party were halting, he scanned carefully the side face of the gentleman inside, and thought he had seen him before somewhere. Was it in the Champ de Mars last July?

"Fetch me a new assignat," said he to someone near. An assignat was a sort of bank-note, with the king's head engraved on it. Drouet had no sooner compared the face on the assignat with the face under the round hat than he felt quite sure the gentleman was the king, attempting to escape.

As quick as thought Drouet told his mind to another old dragoon, and they two, mounting swift-footed horses, were off, having first whispered a word to the village authorities to rouse what National Guards and patriot men there might be in St. Menehould. Off then rode the two old dragoons, and after a rough night-ride reached Varennes before the king and his party had succeeded in leaving it. Bouille's son was here to receive them; but the foolish young fellow, thinking all was over for the night, had gone to bed.

While the king was trying to get fresh horses, a good half-hour was wasted, and during that half-hour Drouet and his comrade had reached the village and stopped the king's progress. They had found a light still burning in the Golden Arm Inn; and the landlord, whose name was Le Blanc, was serving guests. Entering in, Drouet called the landlord aside, and asked, "Art thou a good patriot?" Le Blanc said, "I am;" and then Drouet whispered his story in his ear. Then, while Le Blanc bestirred himself in his own way, the two old soldiers went out and blocked the road by overturning a furniture van, and by adding to it such other things as barrows, barrels, and the like. Le Blanc by this time had brought his brother and one or two other patriots; and the party then stood, muskets in hand, awaiting the arrival of the king and his cavalcade.

When the coach reached the place, its way was barred. It had to stop, and at the same moment the barrels of two guns were thrust into the coach windows, and a gruff voice demanded passports. There was no further advance to be thought of; no friendly aid was near; no young Bouille and his troopers; nothing was to be done but to stay the remainder of the short night in the village. The baffled royal party put up at a grocer's shop, where they were served with bread and cheese and a bottle of burgundy.

Thus was the king taken captive, and so did his attempted flight come to an inglorious end. About seven o'clock on Saturday night the great coach might have been seen returning to Paris. The king was carried through a vast crowd of silent and wondering citizens, who had been instructed by a widely circulated placard how to behave on the occasion. "Whoever insults Louis shall be caned," it said; "and whoever applauds him shall be hanged."