Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

The Flight of the King

At midnight of the 22nd of June, 1791, a heavy and lumbering carriage rolled slowly into the town of Varennes, situated in the department of Meuse, in northeastern France. It had set out from Paris at an early hour of the preceding day, and had now left that turbulent capital more than a hundred and fifty miles behind it, pursuing a direct route towards the nearest frontier of the kingdom.

There were in this clumsy vehicle several plainly-dressed ladies, a man attired as a servant, and a half-grown boy. They all seemed in the best of spirits, and felicitated themselves on having come so far without question or obstruction. As they neared Varennes, however, an alarming sound was borne on the midnight air to their ears,—that of a clanging bell, ringing quickly, as if in alarm. They entered the town and drove to the post-house.

"Let us have horses at once," was the demand of the outriders; "we must go forward without delay."

"There are no horses ready," was the reply. "Have you your passports?"

The papers were presented and taken to M. Sausse, the public officer of the commune, a timid little shop-keeper, sadly incompetent to deal with any matter that needed bold decision. He cast his eye over the passports, which shook in his trembling hand. Yet they appeared to be all right, being made out in the name of Baron Korf, the man in the carriage being named as a valet de chambre to the baron.

But the disturbed little commune officer knew better than that. A young man named Drouet, son of the postmaster at St. Menehould, had, a half-hour or so before, ridden at furious speed into the town, giving startling information to such of the citizens as he found awake. There quickly followed that ringing of the alarm-bell which had pealed trouble into the ears of the approaching travellers.

M. Sausse approached the carriage, and bowed with the deepest respect before the seeming servant within.

"Will you not enter my house?" he asked. "There is a rumor abroad that we are so fortunate as to have our king in our midst. If you remain in the carriage, while the municipal authorities are in council, your Majesty might be exposed to insult."

The secret was out; it was the king of France who was thus masquerading in the dress of a lackey and speeding with all haste towards the frontier. The town was alarmed: a group of armed men stood at the shopkeeper's door as the traveller entered; some of them told him rudely that they knew him to be the king.

"If you recognize him," sharply answered the lady who followed, "speak to him with the respect you owe your king."

It was Marie Antoinette, though her dress was rather that of a waiting-maid than a queen. The ladies who followed her were Madame Elizabeth, the princess, and the governess of the royal children. The boy was the dauphin of France.

This flight had been undertaken under the management of General Bouillé, who had done all in his power to make it successful, by stationing relays of soldiers along the road, procuring passports, and other necessary details. But those intrusted with its execution had, aside from keeping the project a secret, clumsily managed its details. The carriage procured was of great size, and loaded like a furniture van with luggage. There was a day's delay in the start. Even the setting out was awkwardly managed; the queen leaving the palace on foot, losing her way, and keeping her companions perilously waiting. The detachments of troops on the road were sure to attract attention. Careful precautions for the defeat of the enterprise seemed to have been taken.

Yet all went well until St. Menehould was reached, though the king was recognized by more than one person on the road. "We passed through the large town of Châlons-sur-Marne," wrote the young princess, "where we were quite recognized. Many people praised God at seeing the king, and made vows for his escape."

All France had not yet reached the republican virulence of Paris. "All goes well, François," said the queen in a glad tone to Valory, her courier. "If we were to have been stopped, it would have taken place already."

At St. Menehould, however, they found the people in a different temper. The king was recognized, and though his carriage was not stopped, a detachment of dragoons, who had followed him at a distance, was not suffered to proceed, the people cutting the girths of the horses. Young Drouet, of whom we have already spoken, sprang on horseback and rode hurriedly on towards Varennes, preceding the carriage.

The soldiers who had been posted at Varennes were in no condition to assist the king. The son of Marquis Bouillé, who had accompanied the royal party, found them helplessly intoxicated, and rode off at full speed to inform his father of the alarming condition of affairs.

Meanwhile, the king, who had taken refuge in the shop of the grocer Sausse, awaited the municipal authorities in no small perturbation of spirits. They presented themselves at length before him, bowing with great show of respect, and humbly asking his orders.

"Have the horses put to my carriage without delay," he said, with no further attempt at concealment, "that I may start for Montmédy."

They continued respectful, but were provided with various reasons why they could not obey: the horses were at a distance; those in the stables were not in condition to travel; pretext after pretext was advanced for delay. In truth, no pretext was needed; the adjoining street was filled with armed revolutionists, and in no case would the carriage have been suffered to proceed.

As daybreak approached a detachment of dragoons rode into the town. They were those who had been posted near Châlons, and who had ridden on towards Montmédy after the king's passage. Missing him, they had returned. Choiseul, their commander, pushed through the people and entered the shop.

"You are environed here," he said to the king. "We are not strong enough to take the carriage through; but if you will mount on horseback we can force a passage through the crowd."

"If I were alone I should try it," said Louis. "I cannot do it as matters stand. I am waiting for daylight; they do not refuse to let me go on; moreover, M. de Bouillé will soon be here."

He did not recognize the danger of delay. The crowd in the streets was increasing; the bridge was barricaded; the authorities had sent a messenger in haste to Paris to tell what had happened and ask orders from the National Assembly.

"Tell M. de Bouillé that I am a prisoner," said the king to Captain Deslon, the commander of a detachment, who had just reached him. "I suspect that he cannot do anything for me, but I desire him to do what he can."

The queen meanwhile was urgently entreating Madame Sausse to use her influence with her husband and procure an order for the king's release. She found the good woman by no means inclined to favor her.

"You are thinking of the king," she said; "I am thinking of M. Sausse; each is for her own husband."

By this time the throng in the streets was growing impatient and violent. "To Paris! to Paris!" shouted the people. The king grew frightened. Bouillé had failed to appear. There was no indication of his approach. The excitement grew momentarily greater.

During this anxious interval two officers rode rapidly up on the road from Paris, and presented themselves before the king. They were aides-de-camp of General Lafayette, commander of the National Guard. One of them, Romeuf by name, handed Louis a decree of the assembly ordering pursuit and return of the king. It cited an act which forbade any public functionary to remove himself more than twenty leagues from his post.

"I never sanctioned that," cried the king, angrily, flinging the paper on the bed where the dauphin lay.

The queen snatched it up hastily, exclaiming that the bed of her children should not be soiled by such a document.

"Madame," said Romeuf, warningly, "do you wish that other eyes than mine should witness your anger?"

The queen blushed, and recovered with an effort the composure which she had suffered herself to lose.

A messenger now arrived from Bouillé bringing word that the detachments he had posted were moving towards Varennes, and that he himself was on the way thither. But the tumult in the streets had grown hour by hour; the people were becoming furious at the delay; it seemed certain that the arrival of the troops would be the signal for a battle with the armed populace, who had strongly barricaded the town. Utterly disheartened, the king gave orders for the carriage; he had decided to return to Paris.

An hour afterwards Bouillé, breathless from a long and hurried ride, arrived within sight of Varennes. Its barricades met his eyes. He was told that the king had set out on his return an hour before. The game was up; Louis had lost his last hope of escape; the loyal general took the road for Stenay, and that same evening crossed the French frontier.

The king's carriage made its way back to Paris through a throng that lined the roads, and which became dense when the city was reached. The National Guards held their arms reversed; none of the spectators uncovered their heads; the flight of the king had put an end to his authority and to the respect of the people. It was a sad procession that slowly made its way, in the evening light, along the boulevards towards the Tuileries. When the king and queen entered the palace the doors were closed behind them, and armed guards stationed to prevent egress. The palace had become a prison; Louis XVI. had ceased to reign; the National Assembly was now the governing power in France.

What followed a few words may tell. In the succeeding year the Reign of Terror began, and Louis was taken from the Tuileries to the Temple, a true prison. In December he was tried for treason and condemned to death, and on January 21, 1793, his head fell under the knife of the guillotine. In October of the same year his unhappy queen shared his fate.