Marie Antoinette Meets Fersen
On January 10th the Swedish Ambassador presented Fersen to the Queen. Perhaps even then, at this first meeting, Marie Antoinette was attracted by the chivalrous face of this frank, honest Northerner, a man so different from the polished sycophants who thronged her Court. Indeed, if ever there was a case of love at first sight, the finger of evidence would seem to point to this.
The next meeting was more dramatic; it took place three weeks later. The scene was a masked ball at the Opera, one of those dazzling, brilliant Bacchanalian revels which were brilliant and dazzling even for Paris in those days, a scene which has been described times without number, but which still baffles description. The young Swede, wrapt in wonder and admiration, was wandering among the throng of dancers, when, to his surprise, a domino approached and began to talk to him. Fersen immediately scented an adventure, and so attractive an adventure pleased him, for the lady's form was elegant and graceful, and her voice and conversation both were charming.
But presently he was conscious of being an object for all eyes. People were glancing at him and whispering. Why? Fersen was puzzled. The adventure was growing interesting. Who was the lady? At length, however, seeing that the crowd had recognised her, she decided to discard her domino, and, standing before him, Fersen saw the Dauphine herself. Passion stifled his bewilderment; the mere presence of the woman blinded him. At that dramatic moment he realised the intensity of love, and henceforth his one mission and ideal became to serve and comfort that lonely, loveless life. He was the last to leave the ball-room that night, and he carried away with him the vision of a lovely face which never faded from his mind.
Mdlle. Bertin, her dressmaker, has described Marie Antoinette as possessing "a dazzling fair complexion, in which the tints of the earliest summer roses are blended; large, prominent eyes of azure blue; a forehead crowned with luxuriant fair hair. . . . Her figure was shapely.
Marie Antoinette, the beautiful and ill-fated queen of Louis XVI. of France, whose indiscretion and extravagance hastened the downfall of the Bourbon dynasty but whose noble fortitude and patience in her tribulation render her one of the most pathetic and tragic figures in histony From the painting by Madam Le Brun at Versailles
. . her neck and bust perfect, her hands beautiful, her legs and feet worthy of the Venus de Medicis." Her lower lip, however, protruded slightly; this was the only mar upon her beauty, and this is a characteristic of her race.
Fersen's position, however, was now a strange and difficult one, for his was a rare, exalted passion, and it forbade him to imperil or compromise the princess further. There was, therefore, but one thing for him to do; he left France immediately, and set out again upon his travels. For three years he wandered, haunted by one thought, haunted by one face; but when again he found himself in France he hastened straightway to Versailles, there to present himself at Court.
" Ah! " exclaimed Marie Antoinette, as he was shown into her presence. ' An old acquaintance." She had not forgotten Fersen, and in her greeting was a depth of
Love feeling which her attendants did not fail to notice.
On the man time had wrought less change than on the woman. Fersen was still a boy, but Marie Antoinette was now a woman and a queen - a queen who had tasted the bitter fruits of sorrow, and knew that she was hated by her subjects. But Fersen saw no change; he saw still the gay and frivolous princess, the woman eager for adventure, and he loved her. Henceforth he is found constantly in attendance on her. At her informal parties at the Little Trianon he figured always, and although the Queen spoke and wrote of him indifferently, it was more than she could do to keep the secret of her heart from scrutinous eyes. A Court is a hot-bed for scandal. At Versailles many eyes noted her every action, and idle tongues found much to say, until at length Fersen, realising that by his presence he was compromising the Queen, decided once again to tear himself away from her.
Fersen Sails for America
An excuse was at hand, and in 1778, fortified by a woman's gratitude, he sailed with Lafayette for America, there to join the patriots in their strife for independence from Great Britain.
"I must confide to your Majesty," wrote the Swedish Ambassador to his king, shortly after Fersen's departure, "that Count Fersen has been so well received by the Queen that several persons have taken umbrage. I own that I cannot help thinking that she has a liking for him; I have seen indications of this kind too certain to be doubted. The young count has behaved, under these circumstances with admirable modesty and reserve, and his going to America is especially to be commended. By absenting himself he avoids danger of all kinds; but it evidently required firmness beyond his years to resist such an attraction. During the last days of his stay the Queen could not take her eyes off him, and as she looked they were full of tears. . . . When the approaching departure of the count was made known, all the favourites were delighted. How is this, monsieur?' said the Duchess de Fitz James. 'you forsake your conquest!' 'had I made one,' he replied, 'i should not forsake it. I go away free, and, unfortunately, without leaving any regrets.' Your Majesty will own that the count's answer was wise and prudent beyond his years. The Queen, moreover, behaves with much more self-restraint than formerly. The king not only complies with her wishes, but shares her tastes and pleasures."
The Storm Clouds Gather
Save for a visit of a few brief months on his return journey from America to Sweden after the surrender of Yorktown, Fersen contrived to keep himself from France until the very clouds of revolution were about to burst. Then he had to return; the
Queen was in danger; she needed him; he could keep away no longer; and with her he remained, loyal and true until the end. Neither time nor distance had killed or even cooled his love. Indeed, Marie Antoinette and Fersen did not love as do ordinary mortals; theirs was a love almost devoid of passion, a bond of perfect sympathy and trust. And now when, after long and sorrowful years of separation, once again they were brought together, they met quite naturally, without recrimination, each understanding the other absolutely. Perhaps it was because of this strange trait in her character that upon the head of Marie Antoinette was poured the hatred of a nation. The French, a passionate, warm-hearted people, could not understand their Queen; she was an enigma to them, an incomprehensible blend of reckless gaiety and austere pride.
These years of absence, moreover, were momentous years; both in France and in America great changes had occurred; events of which it is impossible here even to trace the sequence. They were years of plots and counter-plots, intrigues and countless follies. The Queen gambled heavily; she favoured foreigners; she offended her subjects, and refused to see whither the path which she had chosen was leading her. Fortune, moreover, instead of concealing, elaborated on her indiscretions. In 1785 she became implicated in the affair of the Diamond Necklace, which, perhaps, is the most celebrated of historical scandals. She was altogether innocent of complicity in the intrigue. This was proved at the trial. But that trial lasted nine months, and created an immense amount of popular interest. Moreover, the details of the unfortunate story, as they were gradually disclosed, served only to confirm France's opinion of the hated Austrian.
Thus Marie Antoinette drifted blindly and recklessly to ruin, and with her she carried France's most venerable and ancient institutions. But at last the day of reckoning drew near; like angry wolves howling around their prey, an outraged nation clamoured for the blood of a queen who was to it anathema. The Beginning: of the End
Fersen could not restrain himself; to him Marie Antoinette meant more than life; he hastened to her side to save her. And a loyal friend he proved himself, but a more ill-chosen counsellor the Queen could not have found. He encouraged her in her folly; in her he could see only that which was great and good, and he fanned her pride. The progress of the Revolution he watched in impotent anger; to him the wrongs of the people were mere fiction and their desires foul and evil.
In this way another scene in the greatest drama in history drew to its close. For a while the curtain must be lowered; the stage needs resetting; the greatest act is still to come, an awful, memorable finale - the slaughter of the Queen, the massacre of Fersen. To be continued.