Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

The Meeting at Saint-Cloud

There was but one man who might avail to save the tottering throne of France—Gabriel Honore Riquetti de Mirabeau, most famous of the Third Estate. He ruled the National Assembly by his powerful voice. There were rumours that he might desert the popular cause and adopt that of the royal party in the end. He had been heard to say that Marie Antoinette was "the only man" Louis had about him now. Maria Theresa's daughter had a regal spirit still. Yet it was with reluctance that she gave consent to meet "the monster" in a secret conclave at Saint-Cloud. She had dreaded his coarse countenance since the terrors of that October night at Versailles, blaming him for the outrage that had seared her very soul.

Mirabeau divined her dread, but still he pressed desperately for the interview. The Comte de la March was prevailed upon to arrange a meeting with the Queen. Mirabeau's nephew rode out with him from Paris, and at the postern gate a few grave words were spoken and the younger horseman rode off with a note to the National Assembly to be given them if the other did not reappear. The giant had lived through evil days, and the thought of assassination haunted him. But he braced himself and passed into the park, hoping that the power he loved might be his at last. He was poor, and dreamed of gold, poured forth at his desire. He was talented and ambitious, and prisons had held him often within their walls. He saw himself chief Minister of France with Marie Antoinette as Regent for her son. Poor, helpless Louis was not in his mind as he stood within the palace and held audience with the Queen.

Marie Antoinette let "the monster" kiss her hand, half-scornful of his ease. She believed his promises, and promised, in her turn, that she would work with him for the Bourbon throne. Her son's heritage must not be lost though she had to defend and save it with the help of foreign soldiers who would shed the blood of French citizens. Bouillé, the old Royalist general, had his camp at Montmedy, and was ready to crush the malcontents. The Queen would not listen to any plan of Mirabeau that did not tally with this scheme.

In imagination, the leader of the National Assembly began to see Maria Theresa's daughter leading out her troops against Paris from some "near and loyal town." He was disappointed when he heard her say that she would not leave the capital without the King. He knew that it would be impossible soon for the Royal Family to take any step without the sanction of their zealous captors. The flight of the King's aunts from Versailles had been followed by a riot. Logue  and Graille  were old women now, trembling at the strange violence of the times. They would have taken the Dauphin to Rome with them if the Queen would have consented to part with her little son. It was well for the princesses that they crossed the frontier before the populace could insist on their return. As it was, the Versailles women kept their boxes at the palace and tumbled their possessions out on to the ground. Loque  and Graille  were thankful enough to reach their destination safely, and bore the loss with almost a sense of gratitude to the captors since their lives were spared. Marie Antoinette was not warned by the incident, for she had her nécessaire made ready, a costly ivory box containing all the requisites for a toilette in the old court days.

Mirabeau, still playing a double game, knew that treason was whispered in connection with his name as it passed from one to another in the capital Yet he continued to intrigue, sending many letters to the Queen, He found that his irreligion was displeasing to Marie Antoinette, who had become a devout Catholic of late. Yet they had one quality in common which helped them in their alliance—a disdain of the masses and a certain loftiness of mind that would enable them to take action, however dear it cost.

In the National Assembly, the mighty voice of Mirabeau was still swaying the enemies of the Queen. He spoke constantly in their debates, for he felt that his strength was declining and that his body would fail long before his mind. "Take me out of this," he said after his last speech; the people were thronging eagerly about him in the gardens of the Tuileries. The news spread then that Mirabeau was dying, and the city mourned. Guilty of treason he had certainly been, but the influence of his dominating personality would make him sorely missed.

He met death courageously, though he would fain have lived a few years longer to complete his tasks. He was without religion and would not be confessed.

A great cry arose when the doctors came from his room. There had not been such lamentation since the death of Louis XII. Those who would have danced that night were threatened by the weeping mob. The theatres closed, and all carriages drove slowly through the streets. "Fine weather, but Mirabeau is dead," they said in Paris, on the following morn.

A hundred thousand mourners followed Mirabeau's coffin to the grave. The National Guards were there and ministers of the King. Side by side with these were the members of the National Assembly and the Jacobin Club. Mirabeau lay in the Pantheon, the last resting-place of the greatest ones of France, honoured by men of every rank. No such respect had followed Louis XV, nor would be paid to Louis XVI at his death.

The French monarchy was lost henceforth, though the Queen had desperate hopes, and her energy was bent on effecting an escape from Paris. There had been talk of the Royal Family leaving the Tuileries for a whole year at least. She was tired of the vacillation and inactivity of the King. She looked for an ally and found Count Axel de Fersen, whose love still endured. He had been waiting to do her service since that first encounter long ago when they were boy and girl. It was for him to run the risks that must necessarily attend an enemy of the people who took from them the prize they held—the royal captives of the Tuileries.