Grey and melancholy dawned that October morning; it was the fifth day of the month, and in the year 1789, a memorable day and a memorable year in the proud history of the Bourbon dynasty. Events of great moment had preceded that day, but here it is impossible even to trace their sequence. Here not even can be told the story of that day and the day which followed. It has been told a hundred times; Carlyle has told it. Moreover, to repeat it here would be superfluous, for at this time Fersen does not appear upon the stage.
As soon as that raging storm of starving humanity which had come from Paris to Versailles to seek its King, "the living deluge," as Carlyle calls it, had broken down the bounds of reason and had begun to advance with destructive fury through the palace, Fersen fled from the presence of the Queen and hid himself. This was no act of cowardice; to hide was more heroic than to act. Fersen knew too well that his presence, should it be detected, would serve only to stimulate the hatred of that crowd.
While, however, he lay concealed, the Queen fled for her life towards the King's apartments. Here, with her children, she waited expectantly. In the distance could be heard the clamour of insurrection; each minute it seemed to be approaching nearer. Fersen, in his place of refuge, heard it also, but he could do nothing; although filled with heroic thoughts, he was impotent.
It was not for him to prove himself a hero. On this occasion it was Lafayette who saved the Queen - Lafayette, himself a friend of the people, their leader, who persuaded her to yield, and who led her in safety to the Tuileries.
As one of the members of the Royal household, Fersen also travelled to Paris, and when Marie Antoinette took up her abode at the Tuileries he sought rooms in the Rue du Bac, and set to work to save her. The Tuileries was almost devoid of furniture; dust and the marks of negligence were everywhere. "Indeed," writes Belloc, "no more exact emblem of the divorce between the Crown and Paris could be found than the inner ruin of that Royal town house." Even now, however, all might have been well; it was still possible for the monarchy to ride the storm. For the present, Paris had achieved her object; the King was in her midst, and had that King been able to lay his hand upon his subjects' pulse, he might have regulated and controlled their heart.
The Queen, however, was inflexible; yield she would not; temporise she would not; the good advice of Mirabeau she ignored. Her pride was magnificently foolish, and Fersen encouraged it. He kept in constant communication with the palace, and, after the death of Mirabeau, persuaded her to do the very thing which Mirabeau's sage counsel had forbidden. In escape across the frontier, in the protection of foreign troops, Fersen alone saw safety. It was he who planned and arranged that ill-omened flight which ended at Varennes in capture, and which, in fact, sealed irrevocably the fate of the monarchy.
His plans were clever and precise; he executed them with brilliance; not a detail escaped his attention. Fate, however, was unkind; bad luck followed the fugitives' coach persistently. Small mishaps, petty delays a mortal cannot guard against, and it was these very trifles which wrecked the expedition. Lying in the road to success, moreover, were other obstacles. There was the King's unwillingness to fly; there was his reckless rashness on the journey; there were the elaborate preparations made beforehand by Marie Antoinette.
For her flight she ordered dresses by the score; she insisted that two maids should accompany her, and so she afforded a thousand opportunities for rumour to take wing. Moreover, at the very outset, she courted disaster by her culpable unpunctuality.
In spite of annoyances such as these, however, Fersen remained undaunted; his tact and patience were indomitable.-at last all was ready; the passports were prepared, the route mapped out, and the arrangements perfected. The Queen was to travel as governess to her own children. The Duchess de Tour-zel, under the name of the Baroness de Koriff, was to figure as the chief personage on the journey; the King was to travel as her valet.
On the evening of June 20, a few hours before the time chosen for the start, Fersen visited the Tuileries to impart his last instructions. At six o'clock he left the palace; everything seemed to be in order; all that he could do for the present had been done.
There was one element, however, with which he had not reckoned. The suspicions of the guard had been aroused. They summoned Lafayette, who hastened to the Tuileries, arriving there just before midnight.
His "carriage," writes Carlyle, "flaring with lights, rolls . . . through the inner arch of the Carrousel - where a lady, shaded in broad gypsy hat, and leaning on the arm of a servant . . . stands aside to let it pass, and even has the whim to touch the spoke of it with her badine. . . . The flare of Lafayette's carriage rolls past.
Count Axel de Fersen at the age of 28, the young Swede, the story or whose romantic and chivalrous attachment to the ill-fated Marie Antoinette is here told is found quiet in the Court of Princes; sentries at rest, their Majesties' apartments clothed in smooth rest. Your false chambermaid must have been mistaken. But where is the lady that stood aside in gypsy hat . . .? O reader, that lady that touched the wheel-spoke was the Queen of France." In her hurry, however, she mistook the path leading to the spot where the coach was waiting for her, and so, continues Carlyle, "one precious hour has been spent. . . . The glass coachman waits, and in what mood? Be the heavens blest! here at length is the queen-lady in gypsy hat, safe after perils, who has had to inquire her way. She, too, is admitted; her courier jumps aloft, as the other, who is also a disguised bodyguard, has done; and now, O glass coachman of a thousand-count Fersen, for the reader sees it is thou - drive! " The outskirts of Paris were reached in safety. At the Barrier de St. Martin a berline was waiting for the Royal fugitives. To this heavy travelling coach they were quickly trans-ferred; not a minute was wasted; once again Marie Antoinette and Louis were hastening towards the frontier. At daybreak Bondy was in sight; many miles now separated them from Paris; within two days, if all went well, they would be at Montmedy, and in safety. Perils, however, lay before them, and further than Bondy Marie Antoinette refused to allow Fersen to escort them. He was a foreigner, and, in the event of the flight proving unsuccessful, she knew that no mercy would be meted out to him. This was one of the many instances of her noble solicitude for the welfare of her friends, especially for that of the man who already had proved himself the most true and loyal of friends, the man who loved her and in whom she confided all her fears.