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Doth in the temple of Tragedy and in the gorgeous temple of Romance place should be found for shrines to Marie Antoinette, shrines dedicated to her alone and worthy of her. As the queen of Tragedy and as the queen of Romance she reigns supreme, and the mere recollection of her name gives birth immediately to a thousand thoughts of wonderment and sympathy.
To France she may have been a bad queen, bigoted and reckless; as a woman she may have been foolish, proud, and vainglorious; her influence, perhaps more than any other, may have been instrumental finally in hurling the Bourbon dynasty from the dizzy heights of power and in causing it to crash upon the ground, where it broke into a thousand pieces which themselves denounce the divine right of kings. These, however, are matters for the historian to decide. This is no occasion for a diatribe on the misuse of queenly power; this is no occasion for criticism; here not even will be told the story of Marie Antoinette, for that story is history, and too full of incident to be compressed.
In short, this article is but the record of a splendid passion, a tribute to a noble love - the blind devotion of a man and the trustful love of a heroic woman, who merited the service of that man as greatly as he merited her love. Marie Antoinette was heroic. In spite of all her faults, in spite of her foolishness, she was a magnificent woman, and at the end she showed herself as such. Death found her grand, lovely, and pathetic, a woman worthy of the man who, for her sake, risked everything and who longed to sacrifice his life upon the altar of his love.
The man, perhaps, was as blind and foolish as the woman, but the proud and unbending dignity of Count Fersen arrests attention no less than does that of the queen. One can but admire him; he was a man who schooled himself to that noble, pure, self-sacrificing love which is greater and more rare than genius.
For many of her faults and many of her weaknesses Marie Antoinette cannot be blamed with justice. She was born a princess, and therefore it was not for her to plan her course of life. There were reasons of State to control her actions. and reasons of State deemed an alliance with the Royal House of France advisable. The result was that, in 1770, while still only in her fifteenth year, Marie Antoinette was brought from Vienna to Versailles and there married to the Dauphin. A mere child, spoiled but beautiful, she was thus placed amid the most unlovely of surroundings, the decadent Court of France under the ancien regime. Here there was nobody to love her, nobody to understand her. The Court was a Court of intrigue; the King, the smouldering ember of an illustrious but degenerate house, was dying, worn out by his excesses; and the Dauphin - the man to whom, on May 16th, Marie Antoinette was married - could he be expected to understand her? A grandson of the King and the heir to the throne, he himself was but a boy, a lanky, bashful youth, weak physically, weak mentally. Was such a man a fitting mate for Marie Antoinette, the brilliant, sparkling daughter of the Hapsburgs, a girl bubbling with enthusiasm, thirsting for life?
His diary alone serves to tell the melancholy story of his marriage. Tuesday, 15th. - Supped at La Muette. Slept at Versailles. Wednesday, 16th. - My marriage. Apartment in the gallery. Royal banquet in the Salle d'opera. Thursday, 17th - Stag hunt. Meet at La Belle Image. Took one." And so forth, and so forth. His marriage was a mere incident in his career, and his tutor, the Due de la Vauguyon, strove hard to prevent it from becoming more by keeping the young couple apart whenever it was possible. That they should ever have learned to love one another is indeed surprising. This, however, common adversity taught them, and in the end they were bound together by an affection which was as beautiful as it was pathetic.
For the first seven years of her married life, however, Marie Antoinette's sole wifely privilege was to see her husband as he ate, as he drank, or as he hunted. Is it a matter for wonder, therefore, that she craved for light and laughter, that she became reckless and extravagant, or even that she drove a sledge unescorted through the snow-clad streets of Paris to the indignation of the populace?
It was, however, just these little matters which ruined Marie Antoinette. She was proud of her indiscretions; she boasted of them. This offended France, for it was unworthy of the monarchy. The crown Louis XV. already had degraded. Marie Antoinette degraded it further. And in the eyes of the Frenchmen the monarchy was more than a mere office; it was an institution, and a sacred institution.
Again, Marie Antoinette was recklessly extravagant at a time when the State was hovering on the brink of bankruptcy. This was tactless, and caused the crown to become involved directly in the folly of the Queen. Her greatest fault, however, was that she never became a child of the country which had adopted her. She admitted the fact, and remained always an Austrian. For this France could not pardon her; the country hated her, and in their hatred for the Queen the citizens of France destroyed their monarchy.
It is, however, these very traits in her character which call for love as we to-day look back with impartial eyes on her career. Proud, wayward, and inconstant, Marie Antoinette was a most fascinating woman. She was intensely human, and, like a true daughter of her sex, she craved for love and laughter. Laughter she found, although it led her but to sorrow, Love she was offered, and offered often; men of power and position laid themselves before her - Baron Besenval, the Due de Lauzun, and many, many others. But these, as were all other influences in her life, were overshadowed by one great personality.
Count John Alex de Fersen was a Swede, and he arrived in Paris for the first time at the beginning of the year 1774. He was then in his nineteenth year, and, accompanied by a tutor, was beginning on the grand tour, which was regarded as a necessary part in the education of a youth of his position. In Paris the young man's dignity and bearing soon called for notice. "His large, limpid eyes, shaded by thick black lashes, had the calm outlook of the northern people, the impress of whose melancholy he bore; but this did not always or completely conceal the warmth of a generous nature quite capable of passion. He had a small mouth with expressive lips, a straight, well-formed nose, the fine, thin nostrils which are sometimes a sign of shyness, or, at least, of caution and reserve. His manner bore the impress of nobility and simplicity; his attitude was in every respect that of a true gentleman."