Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

A Lily for Lily

The second of November 1755 was the ill-omened birthday of the eighth child of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, and Francis I of Lorraine, Emperor of Germany. The envoys, sent to Portugal to beg sponsors for the royal infant, hurried back with news of terrible disaster. An earthquake had destroyed Lisbon and no less than one-third of the total population. Horror at such a catastrophe cast a deep gloom over Europe, and especially saddened the allies of the House of Bourbon. It was the fate of Marie Antoinette Josephe-Jeanne de Lorraine, to give her name its French form—to open her eyes upon a world which was shocked by a calamity that no man could have foreseen.

The Empress, having daughters in plenty, had wished for a son to fulfil her hope of an alliance with the House of Bourbon. It was Kaunitz, her minister, who was able to console her for this disappointment. The glory of his mistress was dear to him, and he 14) ?> meant to combine the two great Catholic powers of France and Austria against the enemies of the spirited woman-ruler. Maria Theresa had found herself in grave peril as soon as her father died, despite that father's efforts to secure her wide possessions.

"To win a lily we must give a lily," Kaunitz said, and began to unfold a plan which destined the slumbering infant for a seat on the throne of France. Maria Theresa listened, trusting her minister though he vexed her by a thousand foibles.

No breath of air must enter the room where they held these royal conclaves, and every window had to be shut as soon as Kaunitz' carriage drove up to the palace. The Empress smiled in spite of her annoyance when she heard the quick tripping of feet that announced Kaunitz' haste to cover the distance between carriage and palace.

Maria Theresa prized faithfulness the more in that she had once been almost without a friend to defend her from the attacks of enemies in Europe. She was anxious to keep what she had won, and lent a ready ear to the scheme which would advance the interests of her children. She was troubled overmuch by affairs of State for her husband had little time to spare from his sports and pleasures. Gay Francis preferred to hunt rather than to arrange for the marriages of his well-loved daughters.

Elizabeth, the third daughter of the Empress, was originally intended to be the lily offered France by Austria. Louis XV's first wife was dead, and he liked youth and beauty. Smallpox, then a scourge even of courts, ruined the prospects of Elizabeth. She was too faded when she rose from her sick-bed to win the favour of the French King. A certain party at Versailles rejoiced over her misfortune, for they did not think it desirable that Louis XV should remarry.

Kaunitz was still bent on an alliance with France, and now decided that Louis' heir should find a wife in Austria. The young Marie Antoinette was of a suitable age and must be trained with a view to this high destiny.

Louis XV was indifferent to the wonderful tales that were duly brought to the French court to win favour there for the merry Archduchess, still engaged in the pastimes of a tomboy. He yawned when the ambassador waxed eloquent on Marie Antoinette's fine nature, her generosity and her quick desire to relieve the wants of poor children. He was not much interested, truth to tell, in that most moving narrative of her kindness to Mozart, the boy-musician. He roused himself when her beauty was described, and even asked to have her picture. When the saw it, he wondered cynically that they should intrigue to gain for so fair a thing a seat on the throne which he knew to rest on insecure foundations. The glory of Louis XIV still rested on Versailles, but the realm of France was fast decaying.

Louis had a new favourite whose fortunes had been pushed by the party at Versailles who were opposed to the Austrian alliance. Madame Dubarry was beautiful though she had not the advantages of high birth. In the course of time she gained such influence over the King that he squandered gold recklessly to gratify her slightest whim, and disdained the appeals of subjects in dire poverty, It was not in his nature to trouble himself about the results of the discontent caused by such extravagance. He wondered  at times why his ministers made so many mistakes, and his indifference to affairs of State was generally expressed by a mocking wish to know how Louis, his successor, would get on when he succeeded to the tiresome task of government. Not that this weighed too heavily on the House of Bourbon then! "To-day the King will do nothing" was announced whenever Louis XV did not intend to go a-hunting.

The court life at Vienna had a homelier aspect that was pleasant to ambassadors wearied by much grandeur. The whole family was gathered round the table when the Empress entertained. She had reason to be proud of her fine children, and saw them as often as was consistent with her other duties. She examined them upon their progress occasionally, and put them in the charge of governesses. Marie Antoinette clearly was not under the care of conscientious women, for at thirteen she could barely read and write, and her ignorance for a future Queen of France was mortifying.

At this age France and Austria finally agreed on her betrothal to the Dauphin Louis. Choiseul, the prime-minister then ruling France, was a partisan of Maria Theresa. If the Archduchess were to present a creditable appearance at Versailles, there was much to be done in the two years before the marriage. She was handsome and graceful, but she hated books and did not find it easy to learn the language of her future kingdom. French actors were engaged to teach her a correct accent, and the Abbe Vermond came to the Austrian court to give useful lessons on the manners and customs that would befit the wife of Louis.

Vermond had not been a happy choice; he owed his position as tutor merely to the patronage of Lomenie de Brienne, Archbishop of Toulouse, and was inclined to be presumptuous. He determined, at the outset, to gain the favour of Marie Antoinette, and was not too conscientious in discharging his new duties. Only an hour a day was devoted to instruction when at Vienna, and very little more when living in the country residence, where the Austrian children ran wild every summer. The crafty Abbe soon learned that his pupil was easily bored, and therefore he talked of subjects that were likely to appeal to a hoyden with a share of vanity. He did not find her affection difficult to win, though he was singularly ill-favoured in appearance and of repulsive manners. Flattery and amusing chatter about the new French fashions were weapons which he found useful for his purpose.

Marie Antoinette tried on the head-dresses sent from Versailles, and became much fascinated by the descriptions of court life that were given by her tutor. She laughed with him at the ridiculous stiffness of royal etiquette and those observances of formality which were unknown at Vienna. It was natural that she should agree with Vermond that Austrian ways were best. She believed all his hints that she had power to make herself beloved, because she possessed beauty. She was willing to listen to frivolous advice, and charmed by the respectful attention which the Frenchman paid when she had some whim that made her disinclined to read either literature or history. She contrasted her Italian tutor unfavourably with Vermond because he was strict and insisted on teaching her his language.

With such an influence on her mind, Marie Antoinette could not profit by the solemn days of preparation for her marriage. She attended her first Mass without knowledge of the grave duties that awaited her in France. She was absorbed in dreams of the delightful freedom she should have as she said farewell to Maria Theresa, who had been inclined to serious exhortations lately. More fondly she reverted to the memory of her father, now dead for some eight years, and the sincere lamentation of the people pleased her.