There is nothing so corrupt as history when it enters the service of the state. — Edgar Quinet

Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead




Madame Deficit

Though the brightest days of Marie Antoinette had passed, she was still a personage of note, an adviser of the King in State matters, and the ruling spirit of the Royal Council. Calonne was nearing his fall, a minister who had done his best to establish the security of France by summoning the meeting known as the Assembly of the Notables. There was little money left, and the people groaned beneath the burden of their wrongs. He called the foremost men to give up some privileges of rank. If they would pay taxes, there might be hope even now for France.

The Assembly opened its session at Versailles in January, 1787. An enormous animal deficit was disclosed. Calonne declared that not more than 2,400 francs (less than £100) had been in the treasury when he became the Minister of Finance. The needs of the King's State had been met by heavy loans. Only at the cost of some personal sacrifice could payments be met. The nobles shrugged their shoulders and were not inclined to respond to this appeal. Calonne resigned, and left the country for London in great haste.

The Queen had played her part in sending him away. All her extravagant whims had been encouraged by his system of incurring national debts. She was blamed once more for wasting public moneys as Calonne passed into exile in April of that year. She was "Madame Deficit" now, and the alarm which spread upon the failure of that Assembly of the Notables did her no service in the public eye. St Cloud had been an unnecessary purchase, though she wanted it for her children's sake. Great offence was caused by the notice put up within the royal domain, De par la seine  (By the Queen's orders). What Queen of France had ever taken so much upon herself? Even the private livery the servants wore, and their black cockade, reminded French subjects of Austria. The King's prerogative had been infringed. Louis did not feel the slight, but many of her friends remonstrated with Marie Antoinette. She refused to heed their objections and went her way unmoved. She was busied with a plan for appointing a successor to Calonne.

Stories were whispered of the gallant offering made by the ex-Minister of Finance to fascinating Madame Vigée le Brun, the portrait-painter, whose salons  were so crowded by great folk that ladies sat on the floor to wait their turn to be painted. Madame Vigée le Brun was said to have had a marvellous present at the New Year of 1786. A satin bag containing bonbons was presented to the artist, and, to her vast surprise, each sweet-meat was wrapped in a papillote  that was a fortune in itself, containing an order for payment of a certain sum from the treasury of State. There was a box, too, of equal worth. It was costly in itself and filled with glittering louis d'or. The artist denied the suggestion that she received money from the State. M. de Calonne was paying for his portrait—that was all. In fact, he had not rewarded her lavishly enough. She had many debts to meet and an avaricious husband. She did not think it possible to accept an elderly lawyer with a wig as an admirer.

The ugly story, however, caused trouble to Calonne. He was dragged from his carriage as he drove to a ball, and the cry "Voleur de papillotes"  raised. The incident was a warning that caused him to leave France. He felt sore against the Queen and not disposed to stem the tide of evil rumour that flowed toward the throne. In London there was a feeling that the "Austrian's" time would not be long. She had sent millions of francs to her brother Joseph when France was in sore need, and that alone would not be forgotten when the nation rose. There were demands now for a meeting of the States-General, the Representative Assembly of France. It had not met since 1614, being judged unnecessary by an absolute king, but it had existed originally as a power not unlike the old Cortes  of Spain and the Parliament of England.

M. de Vergennes died, full of years, and the Queen herself was First Minister of State. She had Abbe Vermond by her side. He had a suggestion to make as to the new Minister of Finance. There was Loménie de Brienne, Archbishop of Toulouse, who thought that he could restore the credit of the State. The people longed for Necker and his solid wealth, but the "Genevese charlatan" was no favourite with the King, who thought Necker dominated too much by his wife! He agreed with Marie Antoinette that the suggestion of Vermond had been wise. In May, 1787, de Brienne became Minister of Finance. He had opposed Calonne in the Assembly of the Notables. By his will that Assembly was dissolved. It had done little more than expose the imminent peril of the State, he thought; yet a voice was raised to ask for an appeal to be made to the Three Estates. The voice was that of the Marquis de Lafayette, who had already done well for the cause of freedom in America.

The new minister could raise no money, impose no taxes, since the Parlement  would not register his new decree. He banished the Parlement, but the step was useless. Away from Paris, the body of lawyers talked of the States-General, too. Nobles, clergy, and people must concur before fresh imposts were put upon the realm. Lomenie de Brienne was baffled in his plans. He was supported by Vermond, his old protégé, and by Marie Antoinette. He struggled for a time to maintain the position he had been presumptuous in assuming. In August, 1787, he resigned, and the joy of France found expression in lighting a bonfire, where an effigy of the Archbishop burned merrily to the music of such instruments as tongs, shovels, kettles and pans. These clashed to the saying "Vine Henri Quatre,"  for the King of Navarre was remembered always as one who had dealt kindly with the poorest in his realm.

The Queen alone lamented Lomenie de Brienne. She gave him her portrait set in diamonds and paid much honour to Madame de Canisy, his young niece. She extended a cold welcome to Seeker's ugly, clever daughter that made this first cordiality more conspicuous. There had been some plan to marry Count Axel de Fersen to Mlle Necker, but the Swedish noble declined to be the rival of de Stael, the Ambassador of Sweden, who duly won his suit.

Fersen had come back to Europe, honoured for the part he had played in colonial warfare. Steadfast and silent, he appeared at Versailles, for he loved the Queen, and his devotion was returned, but the hour of service had not yet come. He seemed very far from the thoughts of Marie Antoinette. She recalled Necker as she had dismissed Calonne—to show her power and her desire to rule, but she did not share in the wild enthusiasm which welcomed the stately return to Paris of the former Director of Finance. She heard rather scornfully that buttons, waistcoats and snuff-boxes were adorned with likenesses of his heavy, pompous face, and smiled a little sourly as she saw the rapture of the well-dowered Madame de Stael. It did not seem expedient to her to assume a joy she did not feel. Therefore she had sped Madame de Canisy with most gracious words, and turned slightingly from the ill-dressed Republican ambassadress who despised the elegancies of life. She had not won popularity by recalling Necker, though France had longed for his return. She was "Madame Deficit" still, forgotten for a while because the people had room for one thought alone. The States-General was to meet in the May of 1789.

The Queen's boudoir-council was occupied with discussing this vast meeting of men from all parts of France, representing the Three Estates (nobles, clergy, and commons). The last had double the number of deputies because their numbers were so great, but these were to be clothed still in the ancient fashion of the vilains, leaving the plumed head-dress and broideries of Henri Quatre to their betters in the State. Marie Antoinette's imagination had been pleased by a revival of the old court-dress when she designed new pleasures for the court. In solemn conclave she decided with her friends that the humblest of her subjects must be content with the plain felt hat, without feather or ribbon how, the muslin cravat, and sombre cloak that marked the plebeian. It had long been easy to distinguish a poor man in the Paris streets. He must wear black clothing that would not be spoilt by the mud from carriage wheels.