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Marie Antoinette And Count Fersen

The English-speaking world long ago accepted a conventional view of

Marie Antoinette. The eloquence of Edmund Burke in one brilliant passage

has fixed, probably for all time, an enduring picture of this unhappy


When we speak or think of her we speak and think first of all of a

dazzling and beautiful woman surrounded by the chivalry of France and

gleaming like a star in the most splendid court of Eu
ope. And then

there comes to us the reverse of the picture. We see her despised,

insulted, and made the butt of brutal men and still more fiendish women;

until at last the hideous tumbrel conveys her to the guillotine, where

her head is severed from her body and her corpse is cast down into a

bloody pool.

In these two pictures our emotions are played upon in turn--admiration,

reverence, devotion, and then pity, indignation, and the shudderings of


Probably in our own country and in England this will remain the historic

Marie Antoinette. Whatever the impartial historian may write, he can

never induce the people at large to understand that this queen was far

from queenly, that the popular idea of her is almost wholly false, and

that both in her domestic life and as the greatest lady in France she

did much to bring on the terrors of that revolution which swept her to

the guillotine.

In the first place, it is mere fiction that represents Maria Antoinette

as having been physically beautiful. The painters and engravers have so

idealized her face as in most cases to have produced a purely imaginary


She was born in Vienna, in 1755, the daughter of the Emperor Francis

and of that warrior-queen, Maria Theresa. She was a very German-looking

child. Lady Jackson describes her as having a long, thin face, small,

pig-like eyes, a pinched-up mouth, with the heavy Hapsburg lip, and

with a somewhat misshapen form, so that for years she had to be bandaged

tightly to give her a more natural figure.

At fourteen, when she was betrothed to the heir to the French throne,

she was a dumpy, mean-looking little creature, with no distinction

whatever, and with only her bright golden hair to make amends for her

many blemishes. At fifteen she was married and joined the Dauphin in

French territory.

We must recall for a moment the conditions which prevailed in France.

King Louis XV. was nearing his end. He was a man of the most shameless

life; yet he had concealed or gilded his infamies by an external dignity

and magnificence which, were very pleasing to his people. The French,

liked to think that their king was the most splendid monarch and the

greatest gentleman in Europe. The courtiers about him might be vile

beneath the surface, yet they were compelled to deport themselves with

the form and the etiquette that had become traditional in France. They

might be panders, or stock-jobbers, or sellers of political offices;

yet they must none the less have wit and grace and outward nobility of


There was also a tradition regarding the French queen. However loose

in character the other women of the court might be, she alone, like

Caesar's wife, must remain above suspicion. She must be purer than the

pure. No breath, of scandal must reach her or be directed against her.

In this way the French court, even under so dissolute a monarch as Louis

XV., maintained its hold upon the loyalty of the people. Crowds came

every morning to view the king in his bed before he arose; the same

crowds watched him as he was dressed by the gentlemen of the bedchamber,

and as he breakfasted and went through all the functions which are

usually private. The King of France must be a great actor. He must

appear to his people as in reality a king-stately, dignified, and beyond

all other human beings in his remarkable presence.

When the Dauphin and Marie Antoinette came to the French court King

Louis XV. kept up in the case the same semblance of austerity. He

forbade these children to have their sleeping-apartments together. He

tried to teach them that if they were to govern as well as to reign they

must conform to the rigid etiquette of Paris and Versailles.

It proved a difficult task, however. The little German princess had no

natural dignity, though she came from a court where the very strictest

imperial discipline prevailed. Marie Antoinette found that she could

have her own way in many things, and she chose to enjoy life without

regard to ceremony. Her escapades at first would have been thought mild

enough had she not been a "daughter of France"; but they served to shock

the old French king, and likewise, perhaps even more, her own imperial

mother, Maria Theresa.

When a report of the young girl's conduct was brought to her the empress

was at first mute with indignation. Then she cried out:

"Can this girl be a child of mine? She surely must be a changeling!"

The Austrian ambassador to France was instructed to warn the Dauphiness

to be more discreet.

"Tell her," said Maria Theresa, "that she will lose her throne, and even

her life, unless she shows more prudence."

But advice and remonstrance were of no avail. Perhaps they might have

been had her husband possessed a stronger character; but the young Louis

was little more fitted to be a king than was his wife to be a queen.

Dull of perception and indifferent to affairs of state, he had only two

interests that absorbed him. One was the love of hunting, and the other

was his desire to shut himself up in a sort of blacksmith shop, where he

could hammer away at the anvil, blow the bellows, and manufacture small

trifles of mechanical inventions. From this smudgy den he would emerge,

sooty and greasy, an object of distaste to his frivolous princess, with

her foamy laces and perfumes and pervasive daintiness.

It was hinted in many quarters, and it has been many times repeated,

that Louis was lacking in virility. Certainly he had no interest in the

society of women and was wholly continent. But this charge of physical

incapacity seems to have had no real foundation. It had been made

against some of his predecessors. It was afterward hurled at Napoleon

the Great, and also Napoleon the Little. In France, unless a royal

personage was openly licentious, he was almost sure to be jeered at by

the people as a weakling.

And so poor Louis XVI., as he came to be, was treated with a mixture

of pity and contempt because he loved to hammer and mend locks in his

smithy or shoot game when he might have been caressing ladies who would

have been proud to have him choose them out.

On the other hand, because of this opinion regarding Louis, people

were the more suspicious of Marie Antoinette. Some of them, in coarse

language, criticized her assumed infidelities; others, with a polite

sneer, affected to defend her. But the result of it all was dangerous to

both, especially as France was already verging toward the deluge which

Louis XV. had cynically predicted would follow after him.

In fact, the end came sooner than any one had guessed. Louis XV., who

had become hopelessly and helplessly infatuated with the low-born Jeanne

du Barry, was stricken down with smallpox of the most virulent type. For

many days he lay in his gorgeous bed. Courtiers crowded his sick-room

and the adjacent hall, longing for the moment when the breath would

leave his body. He had lived an evil life, and he was to die a loathsome

death; yet he had borne himself before men as a stately monarch. Though

his people had suffered in a thousand ways from his misgovernment, he

was still Louis the Well Beloved, and they blamed his ministers of state

for all the shocking wrongs that France had felt.

The abler men, and some of the leaders of the people, however, looked

forward to the accession of Louis XVI. He at least was frugal in his

habits and almost plebeian in his tastes, and seemed to be one who would

reduce the enormous taxes that had been levied upon France.

The moment came when the Well Beloved died. His death-room was fetid

with disease, and even the long corridors of the palace reeked with

infection, while the motley mob of men and women, clad in silks and

satins and glittering with jewels, hurried from the spot to pay their

homage to the new Louis, who was spoken of as "the Desired." The body of

the late monarch was hastily thrown into a mass of quick-lime, and was

driven away in a humble wagon, without guards and with no salute,

save from a single veteran, who remembered the glories of Fontenoy and

discharged his musket as the royal corpse was carried through the palace


This was a critical moment in the history of France; but we have

to consider it only as a critical moment in the history of Marie

Antoinette. She was now queen. She had it in her power to restore to

the French court its old-time grandeur, and, so far as the queen was

concerned, its purity. Above all, being a foreigner, she should have

kept herself free from reproach and above every shadow of suspicion.

But here again the indifference of the king undoubtedly played a strange

part in her life. Had he borne himself as her lord and master she might

have respected him. Had he shown her the affection of a husband she

might have loved him. But he was neither imposing, nor, on the other

hand, was he alluring. She wrote very frankly about him in a letter to

the Count Orsini:

My tastes are not the same as those of the king, who cares only for

hunting and blacksmith work. You will admit that I should not show to

advantage in a forge. I could not appear there as Vulcan, and the part

of Venus might displease him even more than my tastes.

Thus on the one side is a woman in the first bloom of youth, ardent,

eager--and neglected. On the other side is her husband, whose

sluggishness may be judged by quoting from a diary which he kept during

the month in which he was married. Here is a part of it:

Sunday, 13--Left Versailles. Supper and slept at Compignee, at the house

of M. de Saint-Florentin.

Monday, 14--Interview with Mme. la Dauphine.

Tuesday, 15--Supped at La Muette. Slept at Versailles.

Wednesday, 16--My marriage. Apartment in the gallery. Royal banquet in

the Salle d'Opera.

Thursday, 17--Opera of "Perseus."

Friday, 18--Stag-hunt. Met at La Belle Image. Took one.

Saturday, 19--Dress-ball in the Salle d'Opera. Fireworks.

Thursday, 31--I had an indigestion.

What might have been expected from a young girl placed as this queen was

placed? She was indeed an earlier Eugenie. The first was of royal

blood, the second was almost a plebeian; but each was headstrong,

pleasure-loving, and with no real domestic ties. As Mr. Kipling

expresses it--

The colonel's lady and Judy O'Grady

Are sisters under their skins;

and so the Austrian woman of 1776 and the Spanish woman of 1856 found

amusement in very similar ways. They plunged into a sea of strange

frivolity, such as one finds to-day at the centers of high fashion.

Marie Antoinette bedecked herself with eccentric garments. On her head

she wore a hat styled a "what-is-it," towering many feet in height and

flaunting parti-colored plumes. Worse than all this, she refused to wear

corsets, and at some great functions she would appear in what looked

exactly like a bedroom gown.

She would even neglect the ordinary niceties of life. Her hands were not

well cared for. It was very difficult for the ladies in attendance

to persuade her to brush her teeth with regularity. Again, she would

persist in wearing her frilled and lace-trimmed petticoats long after

their dainty edges had been smirched and blackened.

Yet these things might have been counteracted had she gone no further.

Unfortunately, she did go further. She loved to dress at night like

a shop-girl and venture out into the world of Paris, where she was

frequently followed and recognized. Think of it--the Queen of France,

elbowed in dense crowds and seeking to attract the attention of common


Of course, almost every one put the worst construction upon this,

and after a time upon everything she did. When she took a fancy for

constructing labyrinths and secret passages in the palace, all Paris

vowed that she was planning means by which her various lovers might

enter without observation. The hidden printing-presses of Paris swarmed

with gross lampoons about this reckless girl; and, although there

was little truth in what they said, there was enough to cloud her

reputation. When she fell ill with the measles she was attended in her

sick-chamber by four gentlemen of the court. The king was forbidden to

enter lest he might catch the childish disorder.

The apathy of the king, indeed, drove her into many a folly. After four

years of marriage, as Mrs. Mayne records, he had only reached the point

of giving her a chilly kiss. The fact that she had no children became

a serious matter. Her brother, the Emperor Joseph of Austria, when he

visited Paris, ventured to speak to the king upon the subject. Even

the Austrian ambassador had thrown out hints that the house of Bourbon

needed direct heirs. Louis grunted and said little, but he must have

known how good was the advice.

It was at about this time when there came to the French court a young

Swede named Axel de Fersen, who bore the title of count, but who was

received less for his rank than for his winning manner, his knightly

bearing, and his handsome, sympathetic face. Romantic in spirit, he

threw himself at once into a silent inner worship of Marie Antoinette,

who had for him a singular attraction. Wherever he could meet her they

met. To her growing cynicism this breath of pure yet ardent affection

was very grateful. It came as something fresh and sweet into the

feverish life she led.

Other men had had the audacity to woo her--among them Duc de Lauzun,

whose complicity in the famous affair of the diamond necklace afterward

cast her, though innocent, into ruin; the Duc de Biron; and the Baron

de Besenval, who had obtained much influence over her, which he used for

the most evil purposes. Besenval tainted her mind by persuading her to

read indecent books, in the hope that at last she would become his prey.

But none of these men ever meant to Marie Antoinette what Fersen meant.

Though less than twenty years of age, he maintained the reserve of a

great gentleman, and never forced himself upon her notice. Yet their

first acquaintance had occurred in such a way as to give to it a touch

of intimacy. He had gone to a masked ball, and there had chosen for his

partner a lady whose face was quite concealed. Something drew the two

together. The gaiety of the woman and the chivalry of the man blended

most harmoniously. It was only afterward that he discovered that his

chance partner was the first lady in France. She kept his memory in her

mind; for some time later, when he was at a royal drawing-room and she

heard his voice, she exclaimed:

"Ah, an old acquaintance!"

From this time Fersen was among those who were most intimately favored

by the queen. He had the privilege of attending her private receptions

at the palace of the Trianon, and was a conspicuous figure at the feasts

given in the queen's honor by the Princess de Lamballe, a beautiful girl

whose head was destined afterward to be severed from her body and borne

upon a bloody pike through the streets of Paris. But as yet the deluge

had not arrived and the great and noble still danced upon the brink of a


Fersen grew more and more infatuated, nor could he quite conceal his

feelings. The queen, in her turn, was neither frightened nor indignant.

His passion, so profound and yet so respectful, deeply moved her. Then

came a time when the truth was made clear to both of them. Fersen was

near her while she was singing to the harpsichord, and "she was betrayed

by her own music into an avowal which song made easy." She forgot that

she was Queen of France. She only felt that her womanhood had been

starved and slighted, and that here was a noble-minded lover of whom she

could be proud.

Some time after this announcement was officially made of the approaching

accouchement of the queen. It was impossible that malicious tongues

should be silent. The king's brother, the Comte de Provence, who hated

the queen, just as the Bonapartes afterward hated Josephine, did his

best to besmirch her reputation. He had, indeed, the extraordinary

insolence to do so at a time when one would suppose that the vilest

of men would remain silent. The child proved to be a princess, and she

afterward received the title of Duchesse d'Angouleme. The King of Spain

asked to be her godfather at the christening, which was to be held in

the cathedral of Notre Dame. The Spanish king was not present in person,

but asked the Comte de Provence to act as his proxy.

On the appointed day the royal party proceeded to the cathedral, and the

Comte de Provence presented the little child at the baptismal font. The

grand almoner, who presided, asked;

"What name shall be given to this child?"

The Comte de Provence answered in a sneering tone:

"Oh, we don't begin with that. The first thing to find out is who the

father and the mother are!"

These words, spoken at such a place and such a time, and with a strongly

sardonic ring, set all Paris gossiping. It was a thinly veiled innuendo

that the father of the child was not the King of France. Those about the

court immediately began to look at Fersen with significant smiles. The

queen would gladly have kept him near her; but Fersen cared even more

for her good name than for his love of her. It would have been so

easy to remain in the full enjoyment of his conquest; but he was too

chivalrous for that, or, rather, he knew that the various ambassadors

in Paris had told their respective governments of the rising scandal.

In fact, the following secret despatch was sent to the King of Sweden by

his envoy:

I must confide to your majesty that the young Count Fersen has been so

well received by the queen that various persons have taken it amiss. I

own that I am sure that she has a liking for him. I have seen proofs of

it too certain to be doubted. During the last few days the queen has not

taken her eyes off him, and as she gazed they were full of tears. I beg

your majesty to keep their secret to yourself.

The queen wept because Fersen had resolved to leave her lest she should

be exposed to further gossip. If he left her without any apparent

reason, the gossip would only be the more intense. Therefore he decided

to join the French troops who were going to America to fight under

Lafayette. A brilliant but dissolute duchess taunted him when the news

became known.

"How is this?" said she. "Do you forsake your conquest?"

But, "lying like a gentleman," Fersen answered, quietly:

"Had I made a conquest I should not forsake it. I go away free, and,

unfortunately, without leaving any regret."

Nothing could have been more chivalrous than the pains which Fersen took

to shield the reputation of the queen. He even allowed it to be supposed

that he was planning a marriage with a rich young Swedish woman who

had been naturalized in England. As a matter of fact, he departed for

America, and not very long afterward the young woman in question married

an Englishman.

Fersen served in America for a time, returning, however, at the end of

three years. He was one of the original Cincinnati, being admitted

to the order by Washington himself. When he returned to France he was

received with high honors and was made colonel of the royal Swedish


The dangers threatening Louis and his court, which were now gigantic and

appalling, forbade him to forsake the queen. By her side he did what

he could to check the revolution; and, failing this, he helped her to

maintain an imperial dignity of manner which she might otherwise have

lacked. He faced the bellowing mob which surrounded the Tuileries.

Lafayette tried to make the National Guard obey his orders, but he was

jeered at for his pains. Violent epithets were hurled at the king. The

least insulting name which they could give him was "a fat pig." As for

the queen, the most filthy phrases were showered upon her by the men,

and even more so by the women, who swarmed out of the slums and sought

her life.

At last, in 1791, it was decided that the king and the queen and their

children, of whom they now had three, should endeavor to escape from

Paris. Fersen planned their flight, but it proved to be a failure. Every

one remembers how they were discovered and halted at Varennes. The royal

party was escorted back to Paris by the mob, which chanted with insolent


"We've brought back the baker, the baker's wife, and the baker's boy!

Now we shall have bread!"

Against the savage fury which soon animated the French a foreigner like

Fersen could do very little; but he seems to have endeavored, night and

day, to serve the woman whom he loved. His efforts have been described

by Grandat; but they were of no avail. The king and queen were

practically made prisoners. Their eldest son died. They went through

horrors that were stimulated by the wretch Hebert, at the head of his

so-called Madmen (Enrages). The king was executed in January, 1792. The

queen dragged out a brief existence in a prison where she was for ever

under the eyes of human brutes, who guarded her and watched her and

jeered at her at times when even men would be sensitive. Then, at last,

she mounted the scaffold, and her head, with its shining hair, fell into

the bloody basket.

Marie Antoinette shows many contradictions in her character. As a young

girl she was petulant and silly and almost unseemly in her actions. As

a queen, with waning power, she took on a dignity which recalled the

dignity of her imperial mother. At first a flirt, she fell deeply in

love when she met a man who was worthy of that love. She lived for most

part like a mere cocotte. She died every inch a queen.

One finds a curious resemblance between the fate of Marie Antoinette and

that of her gallant lover, who outlived her for nearly twenty years. She

died amid the shrieks and execrations of a maddened populace in Paris;

he was practically torn in pieces by a mob in the streets of Stockholm.

The day of his death was the anniversary of the flight to Varennes. To

the last moment of his existence he remained faithful to the memory of

the royal woman who had given herself so utterly to him.