Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

The Call to Arms

More and more Marie Antoinette began to hate all those who were preparing to attack the birthright of the children whom she fondly loved. She believed that the people were cowards at heart, and cherished a desire to beat them to submission if they should rebel. Paris could be chastised by mercenaries until it acquiesced in the old Order which was so sharply criticized.

Strange rumours spread through the streets, of regiments assembling to guard the throne of France against the French. The National Assembly formed a National Militia when they heard, and organized it with a rapidity that proved their military skill. Lafayette was placed at the head of the Militia, to the desperate chagrin of Marie Antoinette. He had once been a gallant of her court, and the Queen did not like to think of the spirit of enthusiasm which had led her to drive in her carriage with the democratic hero's wife when he returned to France. It was some consolation to reflect that Count Fersen at least was an aristocrat. He was still loyal to his King and Queen, though he had helped to win liberty for the revolting colonies.

The mercenaries would have to be dismissed. There were protests against them as early as the month of June. Meantime old Maréchall Broglie visited the court and promised to treat Paris as a hostile camp, if there should be continued resistance to the Crown. He looked with disdain upon the new spirit of the age, having placed his confidence in soldiers for more than seventy years.

The Queen and the Count of Artois warmly seconded the Marshal's plans. Versailles was like a camp, and the German and other mercenaries were drawing near. "In a word," said Mirabeau, enraged, "preparations for war strike every eye and till every heart with indignation." He spoke truth.

Necker was to be dismissed, and Breteuil, a Queen's man, should take his place, discouraging the people in their unreasonable demands for power. The Swiss minister had lost control, and the King was impatient to take charge himself. On the 11th of July, the messenger arrived to bid Necker leave at once. He was dining when he heard the news, and stayed comfortably enough to end his meal. Much wine was drunk before he started out, but there was no time for him to take leave. The royal command was unmistakable and it had to be obeyed.

The minister drove with all speed to Brussels, and meditated upon the fickle nature of the Queen. She would attempt to rule, but the people would not let themselves be ruled. Necker remembered the slight to his daughter at the court and the ominous words which had been spoken when Madame de Stael rejoiced to see the Three Estates pass by.

"Great troubles will come from all this for France and for us." It was Madame de Montmorin who spoke, and her prophecy should be remembered well. She died on the scaffold, where her son died too. Dr Guillotin had walked before her, the grave deputy of Paris, with a name never to be freed from thoughts of horror, since it became attached to the instrument which afterwards cut on so many heads. He was chiefly concerned with the ventilation of the Great Hall, where the National Assembly had met in 17S9. He was a humane man, ever anxious to preserve the health of all and to make death more merciful.

With Necker beyond the frontier, there was new hope in Marie Antoinette, now free to choose her own creatures to fight against the mob. But Paris became violent when the news spread that their minister had been dismissed,

Camille Desmoulins, a young student, rose and flung all prudence to the winds as he harangued the crowd from a favourite meeting-place. His gipsy face and long black hair inspired others with the same frenzy as he spoke of the "St Bartholomew's bell of patriots," which had now been rung. The Swiss and German mercenaries would come and kill the French by order of the Queen, who had sent their minister away. There was no time to lose if they intended to save themselves. Let all wear a green cockade, for green was the colour of eternal hope, and the trees could furnish leaves abundantly.

Swayed by the orator, the listeners did his will. The cry "To Arms!" was given as Camille held two pistols high above his head. A multitude of eager men then rushed through Paris and seized the busts of Necker and of Orleans, whom they believed to be the People's Friend. They bore these through the streets in triumph, and clamoured for weapons of defence.

There was a store of weapons in the Invalides, which was captured by the mob, and powder, being brought down the Seine and intended for the other troops, was intercepted by the patriots burning with new military zeal. New cockades were manufactured—the red and blue of Paris on a white ground—the famous "tricolour," and these were worn instead of green.

[Illustration] from Marie Antoinette by Alice Birkhead


On the 14th of July 1789 the Bastille, that stronghold of the State, was stormed by the people as their first act of violence, They exulted when they saw it fall—tyranny was defied and the cruelties of many years exposed by the half-dazed prisoners they led through the crowded streets. The key was sent to General Washington, who rejoiced that the national independence of Trance would soon be won. The deed rang through Europe and through the whole world afterward. A new era was beginning. "It is a revolt," Louis exclaimed, awakened from his sleep that night. "Sire, it is not a revolt—it is a Revolution," one replied.

The King went to Paris on July 17th, entering the capital under the protection of the National Militia with Lafayette at their head. He had to pin the tricolour cockade upon his breast and mount the Town Hall steps beneath the arch of steel formed by the drawn swords of the citizens.

Necker was recalled, and Artois fled with many another who had advised the Queen. Old Abbe Vermond was with the first emigrants who sought shelter in a foreign land—Enghien and Condé, princes of the blood. The Comtesse de Polignac parted with tears from the mistress whose danger she would have shared. "Good-bye, dearest of my friends; it is a dreadful and a necessary word. Good-bye!" So read the note which proved the passionate love that would send a beloved companion to safety. Marie Antoinette had wept as she wrote this, and thought of Trianon and youth and all the vanished pleasures of her world.