Brave Men and Brave Deeds - M. B. Synge

The Flight to Varennes


The flight of Louis the Sixteenth, with his beautiful wife, Marie Antoinette, and his children, from Paris to Varennes is not merely one of the most pic¬turesque and thrilling episodes of the French Revolution, but it also marks a great crisis in European history.

It took place on the twentieth of June, in the year 1792. For some time past the position of the king and queen at the Tuileries had been intolerable, intolerable not only to themselves, but to poor, disturbed France too.

For months a rumour had been afloat that they were meditating flight. Indeed the National Guard had so suspected any movement on the part of Louis that they had actually stopped and detained by force the royal carriages as they were starting for the palace of St. Cloud, merely for change of air and peace—peace from the intense anxiety of his perilous position as king, peace from the feverish changes through which France was passing. This piece of tyranny, by which the royal family were forced back to the Tuileries, made them more determined than ever to escape from their unbearable position. Secretly their plans were made; the servants must suspect nothing of their preparations, and yet a good deal of preparation was necessary. The queen insisted on having new dresses; she must take with her a certain dressing-case of inlaid ivory and rosewood containing her perfumes too.

But at last the preparations were complete, thanks to many faithful friends, who were even more anxious to accomplish the king's escape than the king himself.

The plan was that the royal family were to escape by a glass door in the south wing of the Tuileries, and cross¬ing the two courts on foot, get into a carriage which was to be awaiting them at the corner of one of the streets. In this they were to drive beyond the outskirts of Paris, where a travelling carriage was to be ready to receive them. At each stage, where the post-horses were to be changed, a detachment of cavalry was to be ready to prevent interruption, and after a short interval these were to follow the royal carriage, picking up each detachment in turn, and thus at every stage the armed force would be increased.

It was Count Ferseu, a "gallant soldier and Swede," a devoted friend of the king and queen, who arranged most of these intricate plans. He was both head and hand. He it was who procured the duplicate of a passport which had been issued for a relation of his, the Baroness de Korff and suite; he it was who ordered the travelling carriage, which indeed he had built for the occasion; he it was who, dressed as a coachman, drove the royal fugitives beyond the barriers of Paris. Under the name of Baroness de Korff and suite the royal family were to travel.

The little dauphin was to be dressed as a girl. He and his sister, under the names of Amelia and Aglae, were to be travelling with their mother the Baroness de Korff, and their governess Madame Roche, who was to be the great Marie Antoinette herself. The king was to be dressed as a valet de chambre, and accompany the party in that capacity.

Thus far all seemed satisfactory and simple. But the story of this flight to Varennes is indeed a chapter of accidents. Mismanagement and misfortunes without end wrecked the whole, and placed the hapless king in a position worse, far worse, than he was in before.

On the afternoon of Monday, the twentieth of June, Count Ferseu paid his last visit to the royal family in the Tuileries. He had smuggled the last of the clothes into the palace—the frock-coat and round hat for the king, the travelling-dresses and bonnets for the queen, the frocks for the two children, all were concealed and ready.

The queen was weeping bitterly. A rumour was afloat that their preparations for flight had been discovered, but nothing would induce them to change their plans.

The king was deeply affected as he took leave of Ferseu, with the assurance that he could never forget all that he had done for him.

To avoid suspicion, the queen drove out with her chil¬dren to the gardens of the Tivoli in the afternoon. She took this opportunity to tell the children they must be surprised at nothing they might see or hear that night.

They returned at seven o'clock, and the queen then sat for her hair to be dressed in the elaborate manner of the age, a feat which took a whole hour. At nine supper was served as usual, and the queen dismissed her servants as soon as possible. She went to bed, or appeared to do so, and her attendant shut the door of the passage leading to her room.

The little dauphin had eaten his supper and been put to bed at nine o'clock.

About half-past ten the queen went to his room. The dauphin was fast asleep, unconscious of the coming danger. The queen woke him up. The little princess was already up and attired in a cheap dress of muslin, which had been bought a few days before at three and sixpence. Her account of this terrible night is touching in its simplicity and truth:—

"They dressed my brother as a little girl. He looked beautiful, but he was so sleepy that he could not stand, and did not know what we were all about. I asked him what he thought we were going to do. He answered, 'I suppose to act a play, since we have got these odd dresses.'"

The two children, with their governess and two waiting maids, who were to accompany the royal party, met in one of the queen's apartments. The queen looked out into the courtyard. Everything was quiet. The hackney coach was standing by the glass door, in the farthest corner, by which it was arranged the royal family should escape. Ferseu sat on the box dressed as a coachman. This door had been little used, and was known to be un¬guarded. The queen solemnly entrusted her children to their governess, Madame de Tourzel, who was henceforth to pass as their mother, the Baroness de Korff. Through unknown passages they passed that June night, the faithful governess with the sleepy little dauphin and the bewildered little princess, till they reached the unlocked door and passed, under cover of the night, into the courtyard. Ferseu lifted the children into the coach and drove off. The queen was to meet them elsewhere. The little princess took in every event as it happened.

"To deceive any one that might follow us," she says, "we drove about several streets, till at last we returned to the Little Carrousel, close to the Tuileries. My brother was fast asleep in the bottom of the carriage under the petticoats of Madame de Tourzel."

Meanwhile both king and queen were going through hairbreadth escapes. The news of their intended flight had got abroad. About eleven o'clock the carriage of Lafayette, some time head of the National Guard, flashed through the darkness on its way to the king. The guards had been doubled. Every one was on the alert. Lafay¬ette rolled past the queen making her way to the carriage; he passed the carriage containing the royal children. He satisfied himself that the rumour was a false one, and at half-past eleven he drove away.

The king was seen to bed by the servant who had charge of his rooms, the doors of the great gallery were locked by the porter in attendance, and the keys were placed in his mattress, where they were found next morning undisturbed.

As soon as he was alone the king got up and dressed for his flight.

The hackney coach had been waiting nearly an hour when the king arrived, having escaped unnoticed by the great gate. So calm and unconscious was he of the vast importance of the enterprise that he told Madame de Tourzel on his arrival that his shoe-buckle had become loose on his way out, and he had stopped to fasten it with all the coolness in the world.

But where was Marie Antoinette, still Queen of France? This is Carlyle's story of her delay:—

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette


"She had issued safe through that inner arch, into the Carrousel itself, but not into the Rue de l'Echelle. Flurried by the rattle and rencounter, she took the right hand, not the left. Neither she nor her courier knows Paris; he indeed is no courier, but a loyal, stupid bodyguard disguised as one. They are off, quite wrong, over the Pont Royal and river, roaming disconsolate in the Rue du Bac, far from the glass-coachman who still waits—waits, with flutter of heart, with thoughts which he must button up under his coat. Midnight clangs from all the city steeples; one precious hour has been spent so; most mortals are asleep. The glass-coachman waits; and in what mood! Be the heavens blest! here at length is the queen-lady, safe after perils, who has had to inquire her way. She, too, is admitted; her courier jumps aloft, and now, O glass-coachman, Count Ferseu, drive!"

Crack! crack! the coach rattles along; crack! crack! through the slumbering city.

Paris slept on, unconscious that the King and Queen of France were driving through their very midst, unconscious that they should wake on the morrow to find the Tuileries empty, the royal captives gone!

On and on rumbles the hackney coach till the new travelling coach was reached, on the outskirts of the city. It had been waiting for two hours—two precious hours had been already lost. It was now two o'clock in the morning, and the dawn was already breaking in the east.

The hackney coach was driven up close to the new travelling carriage, with its six horses, and Ferseu's own German coachman on the box. It was but the work of a few minutes to transfer the whole party; the hackney coach, having served its purpose, was tumbled into the ditch. Ferseu jumped on to the box beside his coachman.

"Drive, drive, as fast as possible," he muttered, cracking the whip himself. "Go faster, faster!"

On they rushed through the ever brightening morn¬ing, till over seven miles were covered in half an hour. Then six fresh horses were put in, and on again, on, away from the sickening pomps and shams of Paris, to a free life beyond the frontier.

But the faithful Ferseu left them here. According to plans, another was to drive them on through the next stage of the journey. In vain he begged to be allowed to accompany them. The king refused his request, and after a touching and reverent farewell he rode away. The very anniversary of this day, on June 20, 1810, the faithful Ferseu was "beaten to death with umbrellas" at Stockholm, for the part he had played with regard to various events during the French Revolution.

It is very often asserted that the carriage in which the royal family made their escape was a lumbering coach which crept along at the irksome rate of three miles an hour! On the contrary, it was a very ordinary carriage, the body painted black and green, the wheels a customary yellow. The whole party went on in full daylight to Meaux. The king's spirits rose.

"I have escaped from that town of Paris, where I have drunk so much bitterness," he said, joyously.

About eight o'clock he looked at his watch.

"Lafayette is now in a terrible fix," he said, thoughtfully.

It was the twenty-first of June, the longest day of the year. Between Chaintrix and Chalons the horses fell down twice and broke the harness. This took an hour to repair. Chalons was not reached till five o'clock in the afternoon, two hours late already!

The horses were changed at the Chalons post-house. Tradition says that as they were starting off again the team fell badly and again broke the harness. This was an evil omen. On, on they drove, past the triumphal arch which had greeted Marie Antoinette on her arrival, past the Pilgrimage Church with its miraculous well, past the road from Rheims, the coronation city, till in a deep and solitary valley they reached the lonely post-house where M. Choiseul was to be met with further help. Not a soldier was to be seen. Where was Choiseul? where were his hussars? The king felt as if an abyss had sud¬denly opened beneath his feet. The horses were quickly changed, and the carriage rattled on; but the hearts of the king and queen were heavy, and they felt as if some calamity were at hand.

Meantime Choiseul had been expecting the royal carriage much earlier in the day. As three o'clock came, then four o'clock, and no carriage appeared, no courier, no message reached him, he began to grow anxious. The peasants were wondering at the appearance of his hussars—he was evidently exciting suspicion—and at half-past five he gave up waiting any longer and left the appointed place with his soldiers, leaving no message as to where he had gone.

The royal party reached the next posting-station at half-past seven, to find appointments unfulfilled, and the town of Ste. Mdnehould excited at the arrival of their large and luxurious travelling-carriage with its outriders. A series of small accidents caused the peasants to assemble in knots about the streets.

Fresh horses were being harnessed in, when one Drouet, the post-master, came up to the carriage. He had served in the dragoons, and had seen the queen at Versailles. At the same moment the king put his head out of the window to speak, and Drouet recognized him as Louis, King of France. There was no mistaking the aquiline nose, the short-sighted look, the spotted complexion.

"It is the king and his family!"

The cry ran from mouth to mouth, the news spread like lightning.

Meanwhile, the royal carriage was posting on through the most picturesque parts of France, on with heavy hearts and straining ears toward Clermont. At Clermont more misunderstanding, more accidents. Damas, appointed to meet the king here, did not do his duty any better than Choiseul. He had expected the king at five o'clock. The king arrived at half-past nine to find no escort ready, no Damas awaiting him.

The next posting-stage on the great road was Verdun, which it was arranged the party should not pass through, but on leaving Clermont to turn off by a cross-road. The first place on this cross-road was Varennes, a small village with no post-house. Here the royal carriage arrived at eleven o'clock at night.

It was dark, and the whole place was fast asleep. There was no danger of their being recognized. It was about the only spot along the whole road from Paris, a distance of some one hundred and fifty miles, where no danger was to be expected. And yet here, to use the poor king's own expression, "the earth seemed to open and swallow them."

Meanwhile, through the dark night, two horsemen rode fast, faster than the royal carriage could rumble along. They passed the carriage, arrived at Varennes first, and dismounted at the tavern of the Bras d'Or as the clock struck a quarter-past eleven. They were Drouet, the post-master of Ste. Mdnehould, and another old dragoon. Drawing the landlord aside, Drouet whispered,—

"Comrade, are you a good patriot?"

"Yes," answered the landlord with decision.

"Then," went on Drouet, "go as quickly as you can and tell all trustworthy people that the king is entering Varennes, that he is coming down the street, and must be arrested."

Drouet himself went off to barricade the bridge over the river Aire which united the two parts of the town. To do this he overturned a heavy wagon of furniture which he found there.

Here is the princess's account of their seizure:—

"When we got into the village, we heard alarming shouts of 'Stop! stop!' The postilions were seized, and in a moment the carriage was surrounded by a great crowd, some with arms and some with lights. They asked us who we were. 'Madame de Korff and her family,' we answered. They thrust their lights into the carriage, close to my father's face, and insisted upon our alighting. We answered that we would not—that we were common travellers, and had a right to get on. They repeated their orders to alight, on pain of death, and at that moment all their guns were levelled at the carriage."

"If you go a step further, we fire!" they cried.

Nothing was left for the royal family to do but to get out.

The local grocer offered them hospitality. His house was but a few steps distant. The king himself led his two children into the grocer's shop, but there was a strong smell of tallow which the queen could not bear. Up a narrow corkscrew staircase the weary travellers were taken to two small rooms, one looking into the narrow street, the other into a courtyard. A little room, some fifteen feet by twenty, on that summer night in June, held the royal family of France. Seated in an armchair in the middle of the small room was the dejected king; while the queen occupied herself in putting the little dauphin and his sister to bed, where they were soon asleep, their faithful governess watching them.

The bodyguard sat on a bench beneath the window.

It was the middle of the night when at last Choiseul arrived, to hear the news of the king's arrest. He drew up his soldiers at once—he was anxious to retrieve his blunder. "The king and queen are prisoners in the town; we must rescue them or die," he told them. Then break¬ing his squadron into fours, he trotted up the street with drawn swords and halted at the grocer's house. Another friend of the king's had also arrived, and mounted the corkscrew staircase to ask for orders.

"I am a prisoner; I have no orders to give," answered the despairing king.

Even now a little firmness and decision might have saved him, and "French history had never come under this Varennes archway to decide itself."

But the moment passed, and the delay proved fatal. By two o'clock in the morning five thousand peasants from the neighbouring villages had reached Varennes; an hour later their number had doubled. The barricades were strengthened. The news was spreading far and wide that the king was a prisoner. As the sun broke over the lovely valley of the Aire, the grocer Sausse asked the king to show himself to the crowd from the window which looked on to the street. Louis obeyed. Below he saw a dense mass of peasants armed with muskets, scythes, and pitchforks. As he appeared at the window there was deep silence. He spoke a few words to them, at the end of which there was a thunder of applause.

"Long live the king! Long live the nation!" cried the swaying crowd enthusiastically.

At six o'clock it was full daylight, and the town offi¬cials collected to decide what they should do about the king. At this moment two messengers arrived from Paris, bearing the orders of the National Assembly. The king and his family were alone in the little back room when one of the messengers entered, his clothes covered with dust, his face hot with perspiration; he was almost too breathless to speak. He handed the queen the decree of the Assembly ordering the king's return to Paris. Louis read it over her shoulder. "There is no longer a king in France," he cried. The queen was angry. Seeing the paper had fallen on to the bed where the little dauphin still lay sleeping, she seized it and threw it on to the ground. "What insolence!" she cried; "it shall not sully my son's bed!"

In desperation the king and queen begged for an hour's respite before beginning the dreaded journey back. There was yet a lingering hope that some one might come to their aid.

But the crowd was growing impatient.

"Let us compel him to go by force; we will drag him into the carriage by his feet," they cried.

"Only give me till eleven o'clock," begged the king.

A hasty breakfast was served, the sleeping children were awakened, and the carriage was once more harnessed and brought to the door.

Slowly and sadly the royal family descended the narrow, winding staircase. The king walked first, fol¬lowed by the governess with the two children; the queen followed.

The bodyguards were placed on the box-seat in front, guarded by two grenadiers with fixed bayonets. When the royal party had entered the carriage, Choiseul, who had been the cause of all their misfortunes, closed the door with a pang of almost inexpressible anguish.

Through dust and heat the royal carriage rolled, bear¬ing its now hopeless victims back to their capital, back to a fate more horrible than they were capable of imagin¬ing at this time.

Escorted by six thousand National Guards—there was no fear of their escaping this time—they drove back through the glare of a midsummer sun, exposed to the insults of the mob, no blinds drawn, no windows closed; the little dauphin sleeping only to awake crying from terrified dreams that he was in a forest with wolves which were attacking the queen; the king silent and depressed. At last, on Saturday, the twenty-fifth of June, they entered the garden of the Tuileries by a swing bridge, the Tuileries from which they had stolen at dead of night only the Monday before so full of new hopes of freedom for the future.

They were infinitely worse off than ever—fettered, watched, humbled to the very dust as never royalty was before, till some eighteen months later the king's miserable life was ended by the guillotine.