Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Beginning of Louis XVI.'s Reign

While Louis XV. was slowly breathing his last, his grandson and heir, Louis XVI.,—then only twenty years old,—was waiting with his young wife, Marie Antoinette, for news of his death. A candle, burning in the king's window, was to be quenched as a signal when the end actually occurred, and as its light went out the young couple fell on their knees together, crying: "Oh, God, guide us and protect us! We are too young to reign!"

But only a moment was granted them in which to ask divine help for the great task awaiting them; for all the courtiers were already racing along the palace corridors, "making a noise like thunder," each anxious to be first to hail the new sovereign by name and do him homage.

The present king was a contrast to the last in every respect, for he was pious, virtuous, slow in motion and mind, and very anxious to do his duty so as to relieve the people, whom he sincerely pitied. Louis XVI. was also very modest. Even when he was a little boy, if some one praised him, he was wont to say, "You surely, mean my brother, for he is the clever boy!" His brothers were, indeed, far more clever than he, but unfortunately they were not nearly so good, for they thought only of their own advantage, and gave the slow-witted king very bad advice at times.

Although Louis really meant to do all that was right and proper, he had not been well trained for his position, and had, besides, grown up with the worst of models in the court ever before his eyes. He therefore did not know exactly where to begin or what to do, but set a good example in morals to court and people, dismissed the wicked persons who had had so much influence over his grandfather, and placed the government in the hands of good ministers, among whom we can name Turgot and Malesherbes.

Everybody now hoped great things for the country, for one morning an inscription was found upon the pedestal of Henry IV.'s statue to the effect that he had come to life again in Louis XVI. The next day, however, an addition was made to it, purporting that the good tidings would be believed only when every citizen had a chicken in his pot,—showing that mere promises would no longer satisfy the nation.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


In his leisure moments, when not busy with affairs of state, Louis amused himself with map making—for geography was one of his hobbies; taking lessons from a locksmith in the art of making keys and locks; and spending, besides, much time in hunting. For his young wife's amusement, he bestowed upon her the Little Trianon, a miniature palace with grounds of its own in the park of Versailles. There the queen laid out an English garden, and built a tiny model village, in which she, her husband, and the court could play at being rustics. Her chief delight was to make butter and cheese in her dainty dairy, while her husband, who prided himself upon his great strength, often acted the part of miller, carrying heavy sacks of grain to the mill to be ground into flour for his wife's bread and cakes! Another favorite pastime consisted in picnics, and once, when Marie Antoinette was thrown by a sportive donkey, she sat on the grass laughing merrily, and told the courtiers, who rushed up to help her remount: "Go get the mistress of ceremonies. She will tell you what etiquette prescribes when a Queen of France cannot manage to stay on her donkey!"

The simple occupations the court now affected would have been harmless, had not important duties been waiting, which should have occupied all the time of both the king and the queen of such a great country. But the poor young people—one nineteen, the other twenty years old—did not know any better, and in time had to pay not only for their own innocent shortcomings, but for the awful sins of their predecessors as well.

Meantime, every one was watching them closely, for it was whispered at court that two bad omens heralded an unlucky reign. The first was that, when the people assembled near the Tuileries—an old palace in Paris—to see fireworks set off in honor of their wedding, a misdirected rocket had occasioned a stampede, which caused the death of many persons. The second bad sign was that at the coronation the king complained of his crown, saying: "How heavy it is! It hurts me!" This was enough for superstitious people, and when the crown indeed became too heavy for this blameless but simple-minded ruler, many people declared they had long foreseen what would come to pass!

It was said that "under Louis XIV. no one dared speak, and under Louis XV. people spoke only with bated breath," but no one was at all afraid of good-natured Louis XVI., and therefore "everybody spoke aloud." Because the king hesitated, not knowing what to do, everybody felt called upon to give him good advice. His clever brother, called Monsieur, the young queen, and the courtiers all claimed his ear in turn. Like many dull people, Louis was always inclined to believe the last speaker, and therefore often changed his mind. One of his brothers accurately described the situation to a minister by saying, "When you can make a pyramid of a number of oiled ivory balls, you may do something with the king!"