The Queen's request was a command, and Fersen, reluctant and sorrowful, obeyed it. While, however, he was bidding her farewell, Marie Antoinette took his hand and placed a ring upon his finger; it was a massive ring of gold in which was set an unknown stone, and in this story further mention will be made of it.
The Count then set out on horseback alone along the Brussels road; he had arranged to rejoin the Royal party at Montmedy; he was confident now and full of hopes. But soon his hopes were dashed ruthlessly to the ground. To him the capture must have been a cruel disappointment.
Here, however, it is impossible further to follow that ill-fated dash for freedom. It is a well-known story: "three nights without sleep, two of agony; three days, one of flight, two of intolerable heat, insult, violence, and a snail's pace progress" (Belloc); then that tragic entry into Paris, that awful procession through the grimy crowd of citizens, a vulgar, leering, human swarm, which thronged the streets to see its King and Queen as captives.
The Queen's Loyalty
One little incident, however, calls for mention. Barnave hinted to the Queen that a Swede had organised the flight, and had driven her from Paris. Then he glanced at her and hesitated, pretending that he did not know the name. But Marie Antoinette did not betray herself. "I am not in the habit," she replied, "of learning hackney coachmen's names." Then she was silent. Indeed, even when beset with dangers, and when the sword of retribution was waving with angry menace above her head, she remained true and wonderfully considerate. "Be at ease about us," she wrote to Fersen, shortly after her return; "we are alive. The heads of the Assembly seem inclined to behave with some kindness. Speak to my relations about taking steps from outside; if they are afraid, term's must be made with them." On the next day she wrote again, this time to say that it would be impossible for her to communicate with him in future; but in spite of this they remained in constant communication until the end. Before they had parted, they had arranged a cipher, and later they adopted the device of writing with invisible ink between the lines of uncompromising letters.
The letter which has been quoted above, however, lays bare the true secret of the subsequent disaster. "Speak to my friends about taking steps from outside." It was to do this that poor Fersen was trying to persuade them, and it was the intervention of foreigners, the inadequate, boastful intervention, which finally cost the King and Queen their lives. For a long while, however, Fersen's urgent pleas made no deep impression on the Powers of Europe, save on his own King, Gustavus III. of Sweden; he was a warm partisan, and strongly urged an attempt at flight to England.
Fersen immediately set to work to execute the plan. At first, however, Marie Antoinette would not listen to his proposals; she knew that for Fersen to set foot in Paris, or even France, was tempting Providence, for already he had been indicted as one of her accomplices in the former plot. Fersen, however, knew not fear; his love and his devotion had strangled it, and he was determined to try again to save the Queen. Accordingly, he arranged to set out for Paris on February 3; he took elaborate but most necessary precautions for the journey, and, in order to frustrate the scrutiny of the French police, he was provided with letters of credit as Minister of the Queen of Portugal.
Just before he started, however, it was rumoured in Paris that the King was about to attempt a flight via Calais. This was unfortunate. Intense excitement prevailed in the capital, and the Queen wrote to tell Fersen that so rigorous a watch was kept over her that escape was impossible.
The Count, however, was undaunted. On February 11 he began his journey, and on the 20th he reached the French capital in safety. That very evening he contrived to see the Queen, but his diary is the sole record of that interview: "Went to the Queen; passed by my usual way; fear of the National Guards; not seen the King."
On the following evening he entered the Tuileries again, and on this occasion saw the King. For a long while he discussed with the Queen possible means of escape, but persuade the King to make the attempt he could not; Louis had promised that he would not try to fly, and he refused to break his word, "for," declared Fersen, "he is an honest man."
There was nothing more, therefore, which Fersen could do in Paris. Accordingly, he set out for Brussels, and never again did he see Marie Antoinette. He made prodigious efforts to rouse Europe to arms, but those efforts only hastened the culmination of the tragedy.
Marie Antoinette, however, encouraged him in his endeavours; in him she placed the most implicit trust, and she corresponded with him regularly. Her letters, moreover, show that his welfare concerned her more than did the imminence of the danger which surrounded her. "Our position is frightful," she declared in one letter, "but do not disquiet yourself too much." In another letter she implored him not to be reckless. "Do not trouble yourself on my account, "she wrote. "Take care of yourself for our sake." These simple and unselfish notes, however, served only to fan the flames of Fersen's passion and devotion; he knew of the secret fear and anguish which was gnawing at her heart; he loved her for her pride and dignity, and was determined not merely to save her, but also to restore her to that position of magnificence and power which, of right, it befitted the Queen of France to fill.
Meanwhile, however, the King was showing unexpected signs of wisdom; he was bowing his head to the inevitable and wisely yielding to the storm. Indeed, had he been left alone to act, it is quite possible that Louis XVI., King of France, might have become, as his
Love subjects would have had him become, Louis, King of the French, not a despot, but a constitutional monarch, the head of a national executive. But all the good that he was doing, his wife was undoing. She had placed her hope in foreign intervention; nothing would move her from her purpose, and it was foreign intervention which finally ruined her cause. The battle of Valmy and the disastrous defeat at Jamappes, on November 6, 1792, sealed the doom of the Bourbons