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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

THE FISHWIVES AT VERSAILLES

[381] THE National Assembly meanwhile had sent to the king, begging him to recall his troops and to dismiss the nobles who had advised him to send them to Paris.

Louis XVI., knowing that his army could not be trusted, was helpless, so he made up his mind to go to the Assembly to try to regain its confidence.

When Mirabeau heard that the king was coming, he bade the Assembly receive him in silence. But when Louis arrived, guarded only by his two brothers, and promised to recall the troops and to help the deputies to restore peace, the whole Assembly rose to its feet to cheer their king.

And it did more than cheer. When Louis left the hall, the Assembly accompanied its sovereign. Putting him in their midst, the deputies then joined their hands to form a guard, so that the people might not jostle him.

When they reached the palace, the queen came out on the balcony with the little dauphin and his sister. Then happy cries filled the air as the people shouted, "Long live the king! long live the queen!" For once again the people were sure that all was well.

The Parisians, hearing that the king had gone to the Assembly, demanded that he should also come to his capital.

So Louis, not sure that he would ever be allowed to return to Versailles, took the sacrament and set out for Paris.

Without a military guard, escorted only by about a hundred members of the Assembly, the king reached the city [382] gates. Here the keys were brought to him, after which he rode on to the Town Hall, where a great crowd of armed men bade him welcome.

Louis was then constrained to listen to the chief orators of the Assembly until they had tired themselves out, after which, pinning a Tricolour cockade in the king's hat, they led him out on the balcony that the crowds might see that he was one of themselves.

Again the shouts of the people rang out, as they cried, "Long live the king! long live the nation!"

Louis's subjects were now content, and the king was free to go back to Versailles, where the queen welcomed him as one returned from the dead.

But although the mob cheered the king, it still cherished its anger against the nobles.

Foulon, the minister who had bade them eat grass if they were hungry, who had dared to raise the price of bread in the face of their misery, was alive. The very thought incensed the people.

One day they succeeded in capturing the old man, who was seventy-four years of age. Tying a bundle of grass on his back and a bundle of nettles round his neck, the mob dragged him with ropes to the Town Hall.

He must be judged. Yes, if the mob would but be patient. But it would listen to no one, not even to Bailly, the mayor of the city.

Heedless of the old man's cries, the rabble pushed Foulon impatiently out of the Town Hall, across the street to the nearest lamp or lantern, and there it hanged the man who had mocked at its hunger.

"Still the people felt their vengeance was incomplete, so they fixed Foulon's head on a pike, first stuffing his mouth with grass, and carried it through the streets of Paris. Had the noble not bidden them eat grass?

From that day the cry "à la lanterne" ("to the lantern") was no strange sound in the streets of Paris.

[383] After Foulon's death, Charles, the brother of the king, as well as many of the nobles, felt that their lives were not safe in France, and they escaped to other lands.

It was selfish to leave their king, but it was treachery to sell their country as they tried to do when they went to foreign courts. For the French nobles begged the princes of Europe to send armies into France to conquer it, and to restore to them rank and riches.

The queen, too, was forsaken by her favourites. It is true that she bade them go where they would be safe, yet she had hoped that they would not all desert her. It is true that some of the nobles had begged her to leave France, but Marie Antoinette had too much of the pride and obstinacy of her mother to desert a difficult post. She determined to stay with the king.

It was not only in Paris that the people began to wreak their anger on the nobles. In the country the peasants rose against their lords, so that they were forced to fly from their castles and their palaces.

The National Assembly encouraged the rebellion of the people, for in August of this fateful year, 1789, it made a new law, by which all the rights of the nobles as well as their titles were taken away. There were no longer to be princes, dukes, marquises; henceforth every one was to be addressed as "citizen" or "citizeness."

Louis XVI., having now no soldiers and not too much courage, was forced to sign the new constitution or form of government planned by the National Assembly. In reality he lost the last trace of his kingly power thereby, placing it in the hands of the deputies of the people.

Soon after this a regiment was ordered to relieve the guards at Versailles. A great banquet was given by the guards to welcome the officers of the new regiment.

The king and queen went to the feast to show their pleasure at the arrival of the regiment. They were greeted with cheers, while the officers, being young and thoughtless, [384] began to sing a well-known national song, "O Richard, O my king, all the world deserteth thee."

Then, tearing the Tricolours from their hats, they flung them down, trampled upon them, and in their place put the white cockade, the emblem of the Bourbons.

When the people of Paris heard of the banquet and of the trampled Tricolours, they were roused to fury, which partly at least was due to their desperate hunger.

The king and the queen could feast, but they must starve or wait for hours outside a baker's shop, a long line of hungry folk, waiting to buy a loaf, if perchance their turn should come before the day was ended.

Starving women determined to go to Versailles. A banquet of bread, that they must have ere they would be content.

So, early in October, thousands of hungry women, many of them fishwives of the roughest manners, met together. Armed with tongs, brooms, rusty pistols, anything indeed that they could find, they set off for Versailles. "Bread! Bread!" they shouted as they marched along.

Having reached Versailles these hungry women broke into the hall of the National Assembly, crying, "Bread! Bread!" and demanding to be taken to the king.

After some delay five women were chosen and actually taken into the presence of Louis XVI.,who received them graciously, and sent them away promising that bread should be sent into Paris.

The five women came back to the crowd, pleased to have seen the king, content with his gracious promises. But the others, cold and wet, weary, too, with long waiting, mocked at "mere words." They must have the king's promise in writing.

La Fayette, Captain of the National Guard, now arrived at Versailles with his troops, followed by a great crowd of idle cruel men. The National Guard, as well as the mob, encamped for the night in the open squares and avenues of the town.

[385] La Fayette believed he had guarded all the entrances to the palace, but he had left one door unwatched, and early in the morning some of the mob found it out and tried to enter the palace.

The soldiers inside the palace tried to push them back, and when they persisted, one of them fired among the crowd.

In a frenzy of rage the people then poured into the palace, heedless of the royal guard. Up the great staircases they ran, reaching at length the door of the queen's own bedroom.

Here the Swiss Guards held them back, while Marie Antoinette escaped by a secret passage to the king's apartments.

A moment later, killing two of the Swiss Guards, they forced their way into the queen's room, only to find it empty. In their anger they thrust their pikes into the bed from which the queen had but just fled.

Before more mischief was done. La Fayette arrived with his National Guard. He speedily cleared the mob out of the palace, and then persuaded the king to go out on the balcony that the people might see him.

"Long live the king!" cried some, as they looked at Louis XVI., more kingly in the time of danger than ever he had been before. But others shouted fiercely, "The king to Paris! the king to Paris!"

Louis bowed his head to show that he was willing to go to the capital, and at that sign the cheering was redoubled.

Urged by La Fayette, the queen also stepped out on the balcony, holding her little son by the hand.

"No children," yelled the mob, and Marie Antoinette obediently put the child behind her, and stood there, quiet and proud, facing the crowd who hated her. If she knew that there was danger, she showed no sign of fear.

Seeing her courage. La Fayette knelt to kiss her hand, and the people, moved, it may be, by her beauty or her bravery; shouted, "Long live the queen!"

The officers, who had so lately boasted of their loyalty [386] and trampled the Tricolour under their feet, had been unable to do anything to help their king. If they had moved, their own soldiers, who had deserted to the National Guard, would have killed them.

Meanwhile the mob never ceased to shout, "The king to Paris! the king to Paris!" So the royal carriages were ordered, and at length Louis, Marie Antoinette, and their children set out for the capital. La Fayette riding close to the royal coach, which could move but slowly through the dense crowd that surrounded it.

The fishwives, too, formed part of the procession, all fear of starving forgotten. They were bringing the king with them, and now he would allow no minister to raise the price of bread.

So, marching gaily behind the royal coach, the women cried in their rough and ready way, "We shall not starve any longer. We have got the Baker, the Baker's wife, and the Baker's little boy with us." They meant, as you know, the king, the queen, and the little dauphin.

Paris was reached at last. The king and queen were taken to the Town Hall, where, weary as they were, they were forced to listen to long and tedious speeches. When they were ended, the king gravely declared "that he came with pleasure and with confidence among his people."

Then the king and queen went out in the torchlight and stood on the balcony, the king wearing no longer the Lilies of France, but the Tricolour. Once again the people appeared to be content.

As the long day drew to a close, the royal family was conducted to the Tuileries, which had long been unused, nor did the hurried preparations that had been made to receive the king hide its gloom.

Even the little dauphin, child as he was, felt the terror of its forlorn and empty look, and clung to his mother, crying, "Everything is ugly here."

"Louis XIV. lodged here, my son, and was content, answered the queen. "We must not be more exacting than he."


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