Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

The Queen's Ring

Fersen busied himself with certain orders for a great lady, named the Baroness de Korff, who was making a long journey and had need of a new coach. Five attendants would go with her and two others would follow in a small chaise.

The Swedish noble, it was rumoured, was about to leave the court, but the King and Queen would stay in Paris until after Corpus Christi day.

On the 20th of June 1791, Fersen drove through Paris in a strange disguise, waiting apparently for some fares to fill his coach. A tall, hooded lady stepped into the Rue de l'Echelle with two children closely muffled. No sentry stopped the royal governess and her charge, whom Fersen greeted with respect, for Madame de Tourzel was none other than his so-called mistress, the Baroness de Korff. It was eleven o'clock and others were retiring from the King's couchée  just performed. A second lady took her place beside the first, and then a short, stout man appeared in a peruke and round hat that seemed to mark him as a servant of some sort. But it was Louis XVI who greeted his young sister with inquiries for his wife. They were uneasy as an hour passed by and Fersen jested with other coachmen of the Paris streets, drinking and taking snuff with them, while his heart beat fast with fears for Marie Antoinette's safety on this fateful night.

As the clocks struck midnight, a lady in a gipsy-hat came hurrying to the coach. She had lost her way, being unfamiliar with the Paris streets, and had seen Lafayette's carriage pass. There was talk of pursuit as the Queen stepped into the hired coach. Fersen drove off furiously, realizing how much time had now been lost. Every moment was precious that carried the royal party on their way before the people awoke to the fact that they were gone. In the Rue de Clichy the coachman had to stop and ask, "Did Count Fersen's coachman get the Baroness de Korff's new berline?" "Gone with it an hour ago," they said, and the driver whipped his horses to their utmost speed.

Passing the Barrier de Clichy, Fersen saw at last the great berline  with six horses and his own German coachman holding them. He drew up and helped the sleepy children to alight. The Queen and the royal governess had reversed their ranks. It was Madame de Tourzel who stepped out first and took her place in the more comfortable berline. The King and Madame Elizabeth followed her, and last came Marie Antoinette, in gipsy-hat and plain grey gown that would not burden her too heavily on that summer's day, the 21st of June. Other robes were in the band-boxes, at Bondy, where they should find the chaise and waiting-maids. New clothes had been ordered for the journey as though it were a bridal march.

They reached Bondy at dawn, and hope seemed to beckon them to the east, where Bouillé waited with the army that would take Paris and give it to its King again. The chaise was there and postilions with noisy whips to take the loyal Fersen's place and drive the Queen to safety and a happier life.

The farewell was short between the two, destined to meet but once again, though nineteen years should pass before the Swedish hero would forget his love in his last sleep. As he turned to Bourget and the Brussels road he wore a ring the Queen had slipped into his hand when he came to the carriage window and spoke some words to her.

That ring was still on Fersen's hand at Stockholm when he met his death. It was on another 20th of June that he fell, defending himself gallantly from the populace who hated him. Though love of life had ended for him long before, he drew his sword and flashed the ring upon his hand that Marie Antoinette had given him. The ignorant said it had some supernatural power of bringing death with it, and, after Fersen's death, they cut the finger from his hand and flung it with the ring into the stream. But the traitor who did this deed had to restore the jewel in strange circumstances, and it shone upon Fersen's coffin before they put him in the tomb, though the grave-diggers would not bury it, fearing that madness or some other evil curse would come upon them unless the jewel shone where its light was not obscured.

There was ease within the carriage which Fersen's care had built for the use and comfort of the Queen. She thought of him as she leaned back upon white velvet cushions, and hoped that it would soon be in her power to reward his devotion. She rehearsed her part gaily with de Tourzel and the rest. It would not be hard to assume the duties of royal governess to the children she passionately loved, and she had the prudence not to show herself at Meaux, the little town where the berline  halted for relays. The horses were fatigued by the heavy burden they had drawn so far. It was seventy miles to Chalons, the next large town, where rumours of the flight might come from Paris at any time.

Through the pleasant summer day they ate and drank, and were shaded from the excessive sun by green blinds that had been ordered for the fastidious Baroness de Korff. At Viels-Maisons, one Picard, a postilion, recognized the King.

Loris felt himself secure now that he was fifty miles from Paris and driving quickly to the royal camp. He said some foolish words when one of his attendants remonstrated with him as he talked to the poor peasants they met along the road. He did not fear discovery at Chaintry, where, however, a travelled man recognized the Royal Family and, unlike Picard, did not hold his tongue. Louis gave lavish presents at the inn, and entered Chalons, unconscious that the news had travelled fast along the road.

None detained the fugitives at Chalons and they felt confident of meeting the first soldiery from Bouillé's camp at Somme-Vesle, a deserted spot whence they could travel to Montmedy through Varennes. It had been arranged that the berline  should reach the stables at Somme-Vesle at one o'clock, but the delays had kept them on the road till after five and, when the travellers looked from their windows, they found no soldiers at the posting-house. A body of Hussars, under Choiseul, had been there at three and, fearing to arouse suspicion if they waited long, had left the place not half an hour before the berline began to drive up the hill which hid the soldiery from sight.