Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

The Court of Versailles

Vienna assembled when the state carriages passed through the streets bearing Marie Antoinette away to her French bridal. She sat erect, as she had been taught to sit, smiling mechanically upon the people of whom she knew so little. The crowd was a mass of blurred, pleasant faces to the Archduchess, accustomed all her life to believe that the sight of royalty was enough to make the people happy. She thought then all kinder than Joseph, her elder brother, who accompanied her upon this journey, and listened rebelliously to his advice, which was given in a rather patronizing manner. She rejoiced secretly that she was so soon to see the King of France for Louis XV had captured her imagination far more than his grandson, the Dauphin.

Excitement prevented the bride-elect from feeling the fatigue that she would otherwise have experienced. Marie Antoinette had led a very quiet life, and found constant novelty when she left her own country.

She was delighted to look upon French scenes and see French faces when the frontier had been passed that separated her from Austria for ever. She had to put off her Austrian clothes and array herself in new robes when she reached the splendid pavilion erected to receive her. She looked curiously upon the tapestries covering the walls, and shrank when she realized the cruel scenes depicted. Jason and his two brides were shown—Creusa, on the left, struggling with the merciless flames of a garment, poisoned by the hatred of her rival, the dark witch-woman of Colchis; while the king saw, on his right, the children whom the sorceress had murdered. Above the distracted forms, Medea drove her chariot among the clouds and exulted in her awful vengeance.

The gloomy atmosphere had its effect on the spirits of Marie Antoinette, which had been so hopeful. She flung herself into the arms of the Comtesse de Noailles as soon as she was fully attired, and burst into a storm of weeping. The new French waiting-woman was a little shocked and responded coldly to a request for guidance.

The Comtesse de Noailles was punctilious in her regard for forms, and thought it her duty to insist on rigid conventionality to the young Dauphine-elect, who had begun by showing weakness. She promised to be ever at hand to caution and remind, and fulfilled her promise so well that Marie Antoinette remembered the Abbe and decided to profit by his lessons. She dubbed de Noailles "Madame l'Etiquette," and satirized her freely. She was resolved to go her own way from the time of that first encounter.

As the forests of Compiegne stretched before the bridal escort, the bride felt a certain trepidation. In the distance she could see a knot of gentlemen with their attendants, and knew them to be members of the Royal family who had come to meet her. The King himself was there, she was informed with due solemnity. All Madame de Noailles' warnings were heeded just this once, for it was important to make a good impression. Instinctively Marie Antoinette stepped from the carriage, her hands in those of her attendants, and sank upon her knees in the profoundest reverence. The King raised her with a kindly word and seemed pleased by her fresh beauty. By his side the Dauphin looked both awkward and ungracious. He would not speak to his betrothed more than was strictly necessary, but turned away and avoided her society. He was clumsy and plebeian in appearance and untidy in his dress.

The King, well pleased with the Austrian bride, showed her a marked cordiality. He liked to give jewels to beautiful women, and had given orders that a famous diamond necklace should be placed in the chamber at La Muette, where supper was prepared for the court party. Marie Antoinette began to love jewels mightily when she saw how these transformed her. In shimmering white and silver she looked older than her years, and Anne of Austria's necklace made her carriage appear even stately. One or two great ladies disliked the exaggerated dignity of her movements from seeing her on that first public occasion. There were two parties at the court, one of which disliked intensely this Austrian marriage which had been urged on by the other.

The King was courteous but as ill at ease as so polished a gallant could be when he glanced round the table and saw the cold looks of his courtiers, A magnificently dressed woman sat by his side and was talking rather loudly. All glanced at her now—then glanced away with a disdain that the bride noticed with great wonder. She was told that Madame Dubarry appeared in public for the first time at this betrothal banquet, and the proud Archduchess was offended by the intimation. There had been mention of the adventuress in letters to the Austrian court though none realized her importance. It would have been Maria Theresa's part to conciliate, even though she despised. Marie Antoinette concealed her annoyance, but she would not stoop to veil it with a show of friendship to Dubarry. When an inquisitive noble asked what she thought of the court beauty, she replied, "Charming," and the matter ended.

At Versailles was celebrated the ceremony which united the boy and girl who presented a curiously incongruous appearance. Louis' heavy face did not light up, though his bride was flushed with triumph. She revelled in the admiration excited by her vivacity and bridal finery. When she signed the register in a big childish hand there were covert sneers on the faces of one or two who detected a mistake in the spelling, but smiles surrounded her—the gallantry of Louis the Well-Beloved ensured a court of adulation. She looked even more attractive, it was said, when she put off the heavy bridal robes and dressed simply in the gauze and taffeta that showed her resemblance in figure to the Atalanta at Marly or to the Venus de Medici.

Painters began to flatter her on their canvases, which were bought by the King and by his court always willing to follow his example. A portrait of Marie Antoinette, blooming in the heart of a rose, pleased Louis so much that he gave the artist a pension to reward him for the loyal sentiment. Dubarry began to lose her charm now that the little Dauphine had come to Versailles. The favourite would have propitiated, but the younger woman was too firm in her resolve never to acknowledge one who had neither birth nor honourable position to recommend her. She pointedly ignored all overtures, and Maria Theresa's letters advising her to be tactful and gracious were not impressive enough to change her.

The party in opposition to Choiseul became more openly hostile to the Austrian as they marked her treatment of Dubarry. They resented her frankness of speech and haughty manner. They twisted her words until they assumed different meaning, and made innocent actions appear questionable. Rumours even reached Vienna of the bride's head-strong conduct, and, unfortunately, Louis de Rohan was French ambassador there in succession to Mercy-Argenteau, who had accompanied the young Archduchess as a kind of guardian. It was very dull at Versailles for the lively girl of fifteen who had never been accustomed to the restraints of court life. The day began early in the morning when she drank coffee with the King before he went out hunting. His unmarried daughters had been wont, year after year, to comply with the rules of etiquette. Louis demanded their presence not only early in the morning, but also late at night, when they longed to retire instead of attending, in their heavy brocaded trains and taffetas cloaks which they would fling over their night apparel, the ceremony of débotter  or "unbooting."

Adelaide, Victoire, and Louise were better known in court circles by the names which their father had given them in derisive playfulness. Stately Adelaide, once beautiful, but harsh and overbearing when the bride came to Versailles, was Loque, or Rag, in the common parlance of the Paris streets, which; Louis learnt readily enough from favourites J of such humble origin as Dubarry. She never forgot her rank, and disapproved of childish levity. She gave the key of her apartments to Marie Antoinette, but did not I encourage her to use it very frequently.

Victoire, known as Coche, or Pig, had lost her first grace through the indolence which made her love her sofa in the window looking on the beautiful park of Versailles. She was religious enough to give up her favourite food on fast-days, but was always too self-indulgent and lazy in her habits.

Louise always ran up very breathless when the bell rang to summon the princesses to the royal apartments. She was lame and deformed and had a furtive side-long glance greatly disconcerting to her niece, who delighted in all beauty. She was too shy to speak freely except during thunder-storms, which made her very nervous and anxious for society. Chide, or Bad Silk, did not receive the most gracious of salutes from Louis XV when he rode off to his hunting.

Sophie, nicknamed Graille, or Snip, had met Marie Antoinette as she passed through Paris. The Austrian had been very much surprised to see a royal princess washing the linen of the Convent of Saint Denis, but true nobility, they told her, had brought this King's daughter from a palace. Sophie proved her devotion to the Catholic Church by forswearing silk dresses and donning rough frieze, by dining on meagre fare and relinquishing banquets. Marie Antoinette decided that France was a strange country and went heedlessly to Versailles where a thousand wonders banished that childish consternation with Sophie had awakened.

The Dauphine shared the life of dull routine natural to the three elderly women, and found that there were many matters upon which jealousy was roused. Madame Adelaide was bitterly chagrined to find that the card-tables had been placed in the Dauphine's apartments for the evening games, and resolved to form a separate circle. Play was not high, and the bride began to long for new diversions which the Count of Artois suggested. Louis had two younger brothers, the Count of Artois and the Count of Provence, both married to daughters of the House of Sardinia. The three families chose to dine together, and passed merry days acting privately some of the plays the King would have forbidden. There was no audience save the Dauphin, who enjoyed the performance, and there was a spice of danger in what they did which gave pleasure to the actors.

Letters passed frequently between Versailles and Vienna, the Empress wishing to keep in close communication with her daughter. The letters sent from the Dauphine were scrawled at the last moment before the royal messenger started. It would have been unwise to write earlier because there were spies everywhere at court watching the Austrian Princess very closely. Remonstrances from Maria Theresa were met by childish petulance or quick contrition. Marie Antoinette was aggrieved that she must not hunt. She rode a donkey, not a horse, while she longed for vigorous exercise. Court ladies drove out in heavy berlines  when they took an airing. She escaped when she could and spent an hour romping with the Versailles children. Artois was only a boy, and Elizabeth, his little sister, was a charming baby. In consequence, malicious tongues accused the Dauphine of strange, uncouth manners. The Comtesse de Noailles was ever at her heels enjoining the behaviour that should accompany rightly the cumbersome court dresses. Some had praised the bride's taste, but others declared she dressed hideously and yet spent too much money. An allowance of 120,000 livres was made for her clothes, but she had often not a single crown in her pocket.

There were real vexations rising from the Dauphin's lack of response to his wife's affection. He did not care for her pursuits, but had delightful hours with Gamain, a working smith, who taught him to make locks cleverly. He had pored over maps during a lonely childhood, and swept the heavens through a glass as often as he could manage to slip away to the little platform whence he overlooked all Versailles. He inherited the skilful fingers of his grandfather, who had made boxes of much elegance before he ceased to care for hobbies. The Dauphine pouted when she saw Louis disappear, and was frequently annoyed when he burst into her rooms with dusty clothes and blackened hands, for she was dainty in her habits.

Provence was sly, and his wife was a jealous woman; Artois led the Dauphine into escapades that gave rise to scandal. The Dauphin was neglectful and Vermond was always ready with advice both wrong and foolish. It was well that Louis XV admired the auburn-haired young bride still. She grew to stately womanhood and roused enthusiasm in Paris that atoned for the coldness of court circles.

Her first appearance in Paris had been successful. Accustomed as she was to crowds, Maria Theresa's daughter yet shrank from the huzzaing populace that greeted her when she stood on the balcony of the Tuileries. "Madame," the gallant old governor of Paris made haste to reassure her, "I may tell you without fear of offending the Dauphin that they are so many lovers."

Very often, therefore, the Dauphine went, accompanied by the Count of Artois, to Paris. Masked balls were a delight to her because she could mix quite freely with the people. They recognized her and loved her while marvelling at her gaiety of spirits. She had a sad life at court, where there were jealous tongues assailing both character and conduct. She fled from Versailles, to be received with cheers and the eager tributes that proclaimed her Queen of Beauty. Citizens came out to the royal parks for a glimpse of the Princess who satisfied their ideas of a truly royal bearing.