Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

The Pursuit

They reached Ste Menehould as the sun set and men were returning from the fields to the little town, where the arrival of a fine carriage caused a pleasant stir. The Queen looked out of the windows and was saluted by some soldiers as a young ex-dragoon sauntered past. This was Drouet, the postmaster, whose father had provided horses for the next stages of the journey.

Drouet knew the Queen, suspected flight, and readily undertook to ride hard after the royal fugitives when the Town Hall had held its meeting, and had resolved on the one action which might yet save France. He took, as companion with him, Guillaume, an innkeeper of the town. They were both accustomed to the saddle, and knew that stretch of country far better than the occupants of the heavy coach which drove swiftly to Varennes.

Drouet thought that Metz was the goal at which the King was aiming. He stopped his postilions as they returned along the road and learned that orders had been given for a new route to be followed. It was now his intention to enter Varennes first and give warning to the people of that town that they must prevent the coach and its occupants from leaving.

Hard and fast the horsemen rode, taking the high road above the plain where they could see sometimes a speck vanishing before them through the shadows of the night. The fate of France hung upon their efforts. Let Louis once reach Bouillé and his camp and the new work of Revolution would he at an end. Austria must cross the frontier then and crush the nation which had grown to hate the black cockade. It mattered not that horses panted and strained nerves seemed near breaking-point. The race was one for men of mettle, and it was a proud moment for Guillaume, at least, when he crossed the bridge into the silent town and saw that the beeline had not yet climbed the hill which led to the main street. The bridge was held, the carriage stopped, and the imperious voice of Marie Antoinette was heard, calling upon the outriders to proceed. Drouet took command then; he spoke roundly of treason to those among the townsfolk who would have suffered the Royal Family to escape.

The fugitives were taken to the inn, where they spent a sleepless, weary night, hoping for the daylight and the welcome sight of Choiseul's brave Hussars. These came, but not till ten thousand armed men had assembled at Varennes and were clamouring eagerly for a return to Paris. By seven o'clock the berline  bore its occupants back in the direction of the capital.

Louis had been resolved on flight till a message came from the National Assembly ordering his surrender. When he had read the document, he was willing to submit, but Marie Antoinette flung the paper down and trampled upon it in a rage.

At ten o'clock the news was brought to the Riding School in Paris—"The King is taken!" The man who carried it had a ride of eighteen hours, passing the captives in his furious haste and leaving them to chafe at the tedium of their own journey. How cramped the limbs were which had been at ease on velvet cushions during that first day of flight.

A crowd shrieked around the berline  as they neared each town, and the travellers thought of Paris as a refuge when they seemed so perilously near death. Barnave and Pétion had been sent by the National Assembly to see that all due precautions were taken in guarding against escape. The carriage was overcrowded, therefore, and the Queen had to put the little Dauphin on her lap, while Madame Royale stood upright before her aunt. The ladies were a sorry spectacle by this time, for they had lost their sleep at night and endured long agonies from insults and fear of violence from the mob.

The Queen won the heart of Barnave by her grace, talking with him privately at some stopping-place and encouraging her children to make friends with him. This man proved loyal and devoted, suffering for his courage at the last. It raised Marie Antoinette's spirits to see the honest admiration in his eyes in spite of her torn garments, as she flattered him.

The heat was intense, and it was not pleasant to eat and drink within the narrow space which held them all. Pétion became offensive in his manners, and was jocular with the Princess Elizabeth because she deigned to pour out wine for him. He did not understand her motives when she sought to win his favour by gentle, kindly words: indeed he made her suffer torture, for she looked in vain to Louis for protection from such slights.

The King was apparently unconscious of his sister's shrinking from the insolence of the Deputy. He slumbered as they drove along the dusty summer roads, and was not ill-pleased to approach the barriers of Paris on the western side. It was Saturday night and nearly a whole week since he had left the Tuileries.

The carriage passed the barrier, while a strange silence fell upon the mob. The soldiers who lined the way reversed arms, as they were accustomed to do for the burial of the dead. It was a solemn home-coming, but the Queen was not warned by the events of the past week. She still expected to be rescued by foreign aid. She wrote to Fersen, urging him not to come back again, and she appealed to her brother in Austria. Her demand was for an International Congress now.

Those who had fled the country earlier, joined the Allies, intending to march on France. In the spring of 1792 the Queen knew definitely that they would fight for her. She thought that Austria and Prussia would make short work of an undisciplined army raised by the disloyal citizens. Fate seemed against her when her brother Leopold died, but she thought there would not be a long delay before the white Austrian uniforms showed themselves victoriously in the Paris streets and brought back the sense of triumph to her heart. For yet a little while longer she must furnish a spectacle to the clamorous Parisian mob. And she was compelled to crown her son with the scarlet cap of liberty—the symbol of the people she despised.