Excerpt: Confessions of Marie Antoinette



~October 5, 1789~

“We will take the queen dead or alive!” Louison’s voice is hoarse. Small wonder. She has been chanting the slogan several times a minute for the past few hours. But she is as impervious to the sting at the back of her throat as she is to the rain that lashes against her cheeks and spatters her only good skirt, now heavy with mud, as she trods along the unpaved road from the center of Paris to the palace of Versailles.

“I want a thigh!” crows the poissarde behind her, broader and beefier, brandishing an axe, her apron already stained with blood.

A deep voice cries, “I’ll fashion her entrails into a cockade!” Louison turns, expecting to see another fishwife, or perhaps one of the prostitutes from the Palais Royal who had joined their sodden march, now six thousand strong.  For the first time, she notices the Adam’s apple, and a faint hint of stubble on her confederate’s cheeks. Now she comprehends why the “poissarde” has been able to wield a pikestaff as if it were a mere baton for so many miles. “Pardon, monsieur,” she says, elbowing him. “Votre perruque—your wig is askew.” Sheepishly, the man adjusts the ratty hairpiece. It looks as if it had never seen a comb. She would have used it as a prop to sculpt Medusa. Whoever the disguised man is, if one doesn’t peer too closely, he resembles any number of the bedraggled army marching on Versailles.

He catches Louison by the wrist, taking her by surprise, then, puts a finger to his lips. “There are many of us here,” he says. The woman regards him with an odd expression. His accent is cultivated, like that of an educated man.

“I want the Austrian bitch’s heart!” shrieks a female from deep within the crowd, her voice emboldened with alcohol. Four leagues on an empty belly in the chilling, relentless rain requires fortification; many of the ragtag mob have stopped at every tavern along the route. By now, their aprons and wooden sabots are caked with mud as thick as pig slop. It is clear from their cherry-hued cheeks and noses that their guts are as full of brandy as their spirits are imbued with hatred.

Now that she has discovered a lion among the lambs, Louison glances about her to see who else comprises this unusual citizens’ army. She claps a hand to her mouth, astonished at the presence of many women with fashionably powdered heads, dressed all in white the way the queen had done when she, Louison, teetered on the verge of womanhood. She had girlishly dreamed of dressing in such flimsy, flowing gowns and attending fêtes champêtres on the verdant lawns of Versailles. These ladies who sing while they march with such gaiety—despite the rain, despite the mud transforming their pristine frocks into sodden rags—are no market women; Louison imagines them to be the sort who might frolic at the palace.

The drummers at the vanguard commence a new tattoo, this one more urgent and energetic than the slow and steady rhythm that has accompanied the march for the past six hours. “We must be nearing the town,” someone shouts.  Thousands of weapons that had begun their lives as agricultural implements—pitchforks, scythes, and mattocks—are thrust into the air as the news makes its way toward the rear of the mob. Ahead of the drummers, the four cannons in the van are fired, the hollow explosion of the twelve pound guns reverberating through the early autumn air. Amid the crowd, slick with rain and filth, dozens of muskets are discharged, as if in response. “I see the gates!” comes a cry from the vanguard. Louison shivers involuntarily. Her calloused palm closes more tightly about the handle of her chisel, the tool of her trade.

“I’m afraid,” she murmurs to the man striding alongside her, his body smelling more of civet and pepper than of sweat, the fish guts and chicken blood smeared so artfully on his muslin apron that they might have been painted there. By now, his lanky wig is firmly in place, secured with a triangular red cap—a liberty bonnet, they are being called, loaned to him by one of the drunken poissardes who mistook him for one of her own.

“Think of the gorgon and you will have nothing to fear,” he reassures her.

The young sculptress wonders aloud whether hunger is her greatest nemesis at this moment, but her companion hastily reminds her that there is only one reason her belly is empty. Louison shakes her wet skirts and draws in her breath. Reinvigorated, she resumes her battle cry.  “We will take the queen, dead or alive!”

I have taken to walking in the rain. The fine mist feels like falling tears. There are no visitors in the palace gardens today and the emptiness lends the vast parterres an eerie, elegiac aspect. I walk where my slippers take me. Inside my mind a solo cellist plays a nocturne. Beneath the soft leather soles, the gravel of the vast allées massage my feet as I leave the grounds of the château and in time I find myself in the gardens of Trianon. I have no companions and no body guard has shadowed me. Along my path the leaves cling to the dirt, shining wet and golden, pasted there by the gentle rain.

I clutch my skirts and climb the rocky outcropping that leads to the grotto, lured by the sound of rushing water over a fern covered cliff. And there I sink to my feet, my gray silk skirts becoming one with the granite-colored ground. I gaze upon the water for several minutes, shoving my hands through the slits of my gown to warm them in the pockets. I close my fingers around my father’s timepiece, enjoying the weight of it in my hand. This watch on its slender chain is all I have left of Francis of Lorraine, the only possession I was permitted to take across the border when I left Austria forever to become dauphine of France. Removing it from my pocket I glance at the hour: nine past two. A slate-hued cloud rolls past. In sunnier days I reposed in this very spot with Count von Fersen. We would speak of anything and everything, unburdening our hearts. He came to me last week to say that he had taken a house in town here in Versailles in order to be nearer to me every day. I cannot fathom what I would do without him. Life has been unbearable enough these past few months. There have already been too many good-byes: ma chère coeur Gabrielle Polignac, all but banished from France. In July, after the Parisians stormed the Bastille, they cried out for her blood; what else could my husband do but tell her family to run. The comte d’Artois, too, and his family. I weep for Gabrielle, but can hardly begin to imagine what it must have cost my husband to exile his youngest brother, so detested by the populace, in order to appease their thirst for guts and thunder. My dear abbé Vermond, who had tutored me since childhood and accompanied me from Vienna; my reader, and a confidant of fifteen years. He, too, had hastily packed his belongings and taken one of the coaches for the border in mid July.

Autumn has descended on Versailles, thanks to the Revolution. The companions of my past have become their victims. Days of green and brightest blue are now gray and brown. As I gaze at the waterfall I see the face of an innocent, taken by God just as the crisis was beginning. The first dauphin Louis Joseph’s soft brown hair curls about his shoulders, his soulful eyes are still so large and blue. In the rushing water I hear his voice, a reassuring plea: Sois courageuse. Don’t despair, Maman.

Je te promets, mon petit—I promise,” I whisper, clasping my white fichu about my chest. I finally begin to feel the dampness in my bones and wonder how long I have been sitting in the grotto. As I take Papa’s pocket watch out again, I hear a distant “Haloo!” and glance toward the sound. One of the palace pages, a tall boy in royal blue, practically canters toward me, his long legs covering twice the distance a youth of lesser stature might manage. “Votre Majesté!” He points frantically toward the château, and beyond it the town. “It is requested that you return to the palace at once. Thousands of women are marching toward Versailles—all the way from Paris. Some say they are armed!”

My first thought is Louis and the children. “Where is His Majesty?”

“Still hunting at Meudon, Majesté,” he says breathlessly. “Several messengers have already ridden out to fetch him back. Please, you must come—now.”

By now the page has reached me and looks as though he does not know whether it is comme il faut to offer me his arm, so that I might rise more easily from my recumbent position on the rocks. He also looks as if he is about to cry. He cannot be older than twelve, no matter his height. I give him my hand as I ask who sent him to find me.

“Monsieur the Minister of War, the comte de La Tour du Pin.  He is quite agitated, Majesté.”

I try to calm the boy as we make our way back to the château, asking his name and inquiring about his family. It is a little more than a mile to the palace from the gates of le Petit Trianon, and Daniel and I must return on foot. In his haste to locate me, the page had not thought to request a carriage in my name.

I enter a scene of near chaos. Since the frightening news reached Versailles, with each passing hour the State Apartments had grown more crowded. With such a crush, one might have thought there was a ball about to commence in the Galerie des Glaces. The Oeil de Boeuf is thronged with ministers and courtiers, offering as many opinions as there are souls. “Messieurs, we can make no decisions until His Majesty returns from Meudon,” I tell them. While all about me are feverish, I feel strangely calm. “There is nothing to do but bide our time,” I inform the ministers. The former Finance Minister, Jacques Necker, who was given his congé in July after disagreeing with the king over how to treat the rebels, has returned, only to bicker, it seems, with the comte de Saint-Priest, who had been dismissed under the same liberal cloud. The comte de La Tour du Pin shouts to be heard above the pair of them.

The hundreds of courtiers who have remained at Versailles after the purge in July are in a panic.  And yet even as fear stains the dove gray and salmon colored silk of their jewel encrusted suits, their morbid curiosity has gotten the better of them, They rush to the tall mullioned windows of the Salon d’Hercule, hoping to spy the mob as it approaches.

With as much grace as I can muster I retreat to my private rooms, tucked away behind the enfilade of State Apartments. “Make sure we have plenty of firewood,” I tell Madame Campan.  She casts me a glance, immediately knowing my mind. Abandoning her book on the little marble side table, she joins me beside a carved tallboy. Taking a ring of keys from my pocket I open the lock. Together, we remove four weighty chests and carry them to the hearth. “Burn everything in them, Henriette,” I instruct her calmly. My memories turn to ash and cinder as the smoke rises up the flue. While the bright orange flames incinerate years of precious correspondence with my mother and brothers, I sit down to pen a final letter to my beloved duchesse in exile.

I dip my quill and write in fluid, even strokes, although my hand is not much finer than it was when I was a child, and bore endless corrections from my indulgent governess, the Countess von Brandeiss. Remembering the words I imagined my last son uttered to me this afternoon from the waterfall, I inform Gabrielle de Polignac of our circumstances, adding, “You may be sure, however, that adversity has not lessened my strength or my courage. These I shall never lose. My troubles will teach me prudence; and it is in moments such as these that one learns to know people and can finally distinguish the difference between those who are and those who are not truly attached.”

God alone knows when, or whether, this missive will reach her.

I return to the Oeil de Boeuf where the comte de La Tour du Pin is vociferously insisting that our best course of action is to send the Flanders regiment of mercenary soldiers to cut off the road to Paris. “What good will that do?” argues Necker, who has too often been accused of being a man of the people.  “When the floodgates are already open and thousands of angry citizens have been on the move for hours?”

I remind the comte yet again that he cannot take such an initiative in the absence of the king. He regards me, his heavy jowls quivering in an effort to tamp down his rage.  “And so we pace and wring our hands like helpless maidens? Sacre Dieu! We may as well be lined up like waterfowl waiting for the hunter’s blunderbuss to pick us off one by one. By God!” He gestures about the grand salon, thrusting his arm toward the Hall of Mirrors where the anxious countenances of France’s nobility are reflected in multiples. “Every one of those peacocks wears a decorative sword that might just as well have been dispensed by your Intendant des Menu Plaisirs. They are little more than jewel encrusted stage props, no sharper I am sure, than a butter knife.  And I’ll hazard that among those who have seen combat, few remember how to wield their weapon against an adversary.  Were we at the gaming table, Majesté, I would place my money on an angry fishwife from the Paris Halles than on the marquis de Noirmoutiers or any of his ilk.”

Although in Louis’ absence the comte remains powerless to dispatch a regiment, he can take measures to protect us within the palace walls, ordering the great iron gates outside the Ministers Courtyard to be shut. The occasion carries significant portent and moment: Never before has the Château de Versailles been closed to the public. With brisk efficiency La Tour du Pin dispatches a detachment of guards to close the heavy doors that separate the grand chambers of the State Apartments, portals that have not met since the time of the Sun King. “Barricade all passageways!” he shouts, as the members of the royal bodyguard shrug their shoulders en masse and demand “With what?”

Soon, dozens of our periwigged guards in their blue coats with white facings, pristine stockings and polished shoe buckles, begin to stack gilded and brocaded furniture into piles as armchairs are precariously perched atop tables and heavy sideboards are rolled into place, blocking doorways as the comte de La Tour du Pin thunders, “We will not let ourselves be captured here, perhaps massacred, without defending ourselves!” Amid the mass of blue uniforms heaving furniture to and fro is a tall figure in a marron colored coat, his light brown hair barely powdered.

“Axel,” I murmur under my breath, wondering how I have been unaware of his presence until now. I cannot greet him without drawing attention to the act itself. But knowing each other as we do, the mere fact that he is the only courtier—and he is not even a Frenchman—who is willing to aid the soldiers in their efforts to safeguard us, is enough to demonstrate the depth of his feelings, not only for me, but for Louis as well. I pray that he will turn around so that I might catch his eye and convey the contents of my heart, but Axel is intent on his task, now transporting an armchair upholstered in sea-green brocade upside down above his head, with the beautifully turned legs in the air. He balances the seat upon an inlaid chest, which already sits atop a table, and orders a trio of guards to help him slide everything against the closed doors.

I am concerned that the children of France will be frightened by the commotion, so I hasten to my library, retreating into my private suite of rooms through a doorway cleverly concealed by the damasked wall covering. I find the four-year-old dauphin Louis Charles happily sprawled on the carpet, playing with his older sister Madame Royale, under the watchful eye of their new governess the marquise de Tourzel. My son has nicknamed her Madame Severe.

Louise de Tourzel rises when I enter the room.

“Maman!” The dauphin looks up and grins at me, holding aloft a yellow wooden ball in a chubby fist. Mousseline frowns and now that I am in the room, pointedly turns her back on her little brother. Nearly eleven, she makes it clear that she would rather not be cooped up with a little boy.

Catching the look of concern in my eyes the marquise approaches and I take her hands, drawing her close enough to whisper, “Who can say what will happen, but the children’s routine should not be disrupted, unless of course—”.

There is a scratching at the door. Madame Campan opens it to admit a footman who pauses breathlessly at the threshold. I can see that he is about to shout, but spying the royal children, he whispers urgently, “Votre Majesté, the king has returned!”

I sweep my son and daughter into my arms and press my lips to their sweet brows. Campan and Tourzel curtsy to me as I head to the door, placing my finger to my lips as a reminder not to unduly alarm the children, even as I wonder how much longer I can shield them from the events that threaten our doorstep.

I glide through the State Rooms, entering the Salon de Mars to see Louis, still wearing his tall hat, his hunting suit of olive-hued velvet spattered with mud. His ministers cluster around him like colorful lichens on a stone wall. I spy the powdered head and incongruously dark eyebrows of the loudest speaker, Jacques Necker, who strains to be heard over their cacophony of raised voices.  The council chamber now honors its celestial namesake; it has become a war room.

“You must stay here, Sire.”  Necker glares at the comte de Saint-Priest, Sécretaire d’État of the royal household. “Think of how it would appear to the mob if you were to flee!” he insists.

What have they been discussing in my absence?

“I was not the one who suggested that His Majesty abandon the throne,” Saint-Priest hotly retorts. “I merely said that—for their own safety—the queen and the children of France should be taken under escort to Rambouillet. If you were listening, you would have heard my proposal that the king ride with his body guard of eight hundred men and the two hundred troops of the Chasseurs des Evêchés to meet the advancing Parisians. A force of a thousand men is confrontation, messieurs, not retreat!”

It would not be a long ride to the Île de France; Rambouillet is not far. Still I worry about making the journey. Six years earlier Louis had purchased the château, a medieval fortress in its early days, purely for its location at the perimeter of a lush game forest. The children and I would be secure, at least for the time being. My husband had even established a seat of government there.

The comte de La Tour du Pin clearly agrees with Saint-Priest; however, being Minister for War, he sees ahead, as if everything is an enormous game of chess. “But it is said that there are some six thousand on the march. When a thousand men stand to be outnumbered, you have two alternatives: to attack with the element of surprise and then fire upon them, and to have another plan, should the first one fail.”

“I will not order the blood of any Frenchmen shed—especially on my account,” Louis says definitively. “And you tell me these are disgruntled women. Under no circumstances will I give the order to fire upon women!”

The War Minister inclines his head. “With your permission, Majesté, these are very angry women. Now, if by some misfortune the rebels will not turn back, nor will they heed reason, then, as you will be under heavy guard, you will have adequate time to withdraw to Rambouillet and from there, you and the royal family can set off for Normandy, placing greater distance between yourselves and the disturbance.”

I spare a beseeching glance at the portraits of Louis XV and my late mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, suspended on opposite walls of the vast salon, gazing at each other from a sea of blood red damask. What would they do in our place: Louis the monarch who would dither and delegate and my autocratic Maman, always so certain, so decided about everything?

“I don’t want to compromise anyone,” Louis says. Does he refer to our safety, to the ministers’ conflicting advice, or to the good will of the people? Within the enfilade of State Apartments hundreds of courtiers continue to pace without direction, their anxious inner compass propelling them in wide concentric circles as they await a decision from the king.  They murmur amongst themselves, averting my inquiring gaze, marquises and duchesses hide behind their ivory handled fans, snapped open and fluttering nervously. None dares address me.

The men continue to debate the subject as the hour strikes four. At the sound of the chime I turn my head to look out the window toward the parterres where the topiaries are silhouetted against the encroaching dusk. What will the end of day bring? A tingling begins in my legs and creeps up the small of my back along the length of my spine. When it reaches my hairline I shiver.

Suddenly Louis’ voice rises above those of his sparring ministers. “Messieurs, I will make no decision unless Her Majesty agrees.” The Mars Salon grows suddenly silent, the hubbub diminishing to a hush within a moment and all heads turn as one, swiveling upon silken shoulders to stare at me.

I have but one thought at this moment. I look across the room at my husband, my gaze meeting his, although with his short-sightedness I doubtless resemble no more than a silvery gray blur. “I do not wish the king to incur a danger that I cannot share.”

“Then for the nonce we remain,” says Louis with finality. “And remain together.” The comte de La Tour du Pin emits an exasperated roar.

In every room the clocks of marble and gold tick and chime as the hours inexorably proceed. By five o’clock we receive word that the mob, fortified on brandy had stopped at the National Assembly, the entity formed by the Third Estate this past June. They call themselves a people’s government, but thus far all they preach is hatred and intolerance and all they seem to wish for is blood. Not a one of them knows how to govern; none has formed an acceptable solution to the nation’s ills, and yet they deplore the monarchy, blaming it, and us, for their every misfortune.

News arrives from the mob’s effort to meet with the Assembly. Evidently we have been misinformed. There are men amid the rabble as well, including an anatomy professor from the University of Paris, a Docteur Guillotin. Not every marcher is purportedly disenfranchised and impoverished. Someone has goaded them into this act of rebellion, each footstep taken by a fishwife in wooden sabots is shared by an intellectual in buckled shoes.

“What more do they desire?” Louis asks the messenger from the National Assembly. “They now have freedom of the press. The Church has been forced to forgo lucrative rents and revenues. The perquisites of the nobility have been abolished—all within the last three months. And now this new hubbub about the ‘Rights of Man’—what more do they want?” he repeats.

It is incomprehensible. Everything is moving so fast.  Yet for the rebels, the world cannot change quickly enough.

“They are hungry Your Majesty,” says the messenger, a Monsieur Laborde. “They believe the Assembly contains enemies of the people who are the cause of the famine. They say wicked men are giving money and bonds to the millers so they will not grind their grain. When the president of the Assembly, the Bishop de Langres, demanded specific names they told him that the Archbishop of Paris was one of them. At this, the deputy from Arras, Monsieur Robespierre, urged the women to climb upon the benches and shout for bread.” Laborde casts a desperate glance in my direction. “It is not good for the queen, Sire. One of the fishwives pulled a hunk of black bread from her filthy apron and announced to everyone that”—he pauses, and inhales a gulp of air.

Continuez, s’il vous plait, monsieur,” I say softly.

Monsieur Laborde’s eyes dart anxiously about the room. “She said she wanted to make l’Autrichienne swallow it before she wrings her neck.”

The room falls silent again, but only for a moment. Then the uproar begins anew as every courtier sputters in outrage and every minister tenders his opinion at the top of his voice.  But they are drowned out by a clamor at the gates.

Outside, darkness is falling and a heavy mist blankets the sky. A member of the royal guard informs us that hundreds, if not thousands, of women are pressing up against the iron bars, demanding entry. Regardless of their cries, I know that what they really crave is my blood. They have said as much and I do not think it hyperbole. I would be a fool not to fear them.

“I cannot ignore them,” Louis insists. “A king is the father of his people, and even the rebellious are my children.  If they are merely disgruntled market women, I see no present reason for panic.” He agrees to meet a delegation of five of them, chosen from among the mob. They are to be escorted to the Oeil de Boeuf by deputies from the Assembly. I pray that none conceals a weapon that will not be detected in advance by our body guard.

Yet when the delegation arrives I fret that perhaps there was more to fear from the deputies. The man from Arras, introduced to Louis as Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre, quite a patrician name for such a vociferous rebel, seems a stranger to smiles. His face is an insolent as a rat’s and his bearing and manner of dress are more fastidious than that of many courtiers. The spill of white lace at his throat and cuffs are pristine, as are his hose, and his shoe buckles are polished to such a sheen that they glimmer in the candlelight. As he traverses the vast hall on his way to the Oeil de Boeuf, Robespierre’s dark eyes dart avidly, if not enviously, about the Galerie des Glaces as if to make note of the magnificent trappings of the monarchy he so despises. And yet he dresses like a marquis. It is enough to convince me that he cannot be trusted.

Scurrying alongside Monsieur Robespierre is one of the more moderate deputies, Monsieur Mounier, who takes a moment to bow to me when the man from Arras is looking elsewhere, most likely at his own reflection in the myriad mirrors. “Robespierre is piqued, Your Majesty,” Mounier whispers loudly, “because word reached the Assembly this afternoon that the king has refused to ratify the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man.’ ”  He speaks as he trots along the parquet, struggling to keep pace with the rest of the delegation, even as he lags behind to communicate this turn of events. “After all, the Assembly ratified it on the twenty-sixth of August and they have been waiting more than a month for His Majesty’s imprimatur. Their patience has reached its limit. But I do believe that violence may be averted if he can be persuaded to sign it immediately.”

I blanch. I have read this document and recall with clarity what the people demand: Sovereignty residing not within the monarchy but in the “nation,” whatever that means? Citizens determining of their own accord whether or not to pay taxes? “Today?”

“You must convince him, Majesté. It may be the only way.”

“Monsieur, I would never attempt to persuade my husband to do something that runs contrary to our sacred belief. Louis Seize rules by divine right. The members of your National Assembly are nothing more than self-anointed usurpers, and if the ‘principle of sovereignty’ according to the ‘Rights of Man,’ resides in every man and woman then you have nothing but anarchy. Who therefore reigns? I will tell you, Monsieur Mounier: Chaos.”

We reach the end of the Hall of Mirrors and round the corner into the Oeil de Boeuf where Louis, surrounded by guards, permits the market women to have their say. I hear him asking each of them about their métier, their husbands and children. He speaks kindly to them, without condescension. Instead he offers paternal solicitude. There is genuine concern in his light blue eyes. A pretty young woman in a leather apron smeared with mud, her brown curls spilling out of a tricolor tied about her head like a scarf tells him her name is Louison Chabry. “I am a worker in sculpture,” she says, putting the lie to the rumor that we have been set upon by thousands of poissardes. “We are hungry,” she adds, clutching her chisel.  I eye it warily, fearing that she might prove a madwoman who at any moment might attack him. My thoughts are not so unfounded; Louis XV was nearly assassinated by a deranged man right in the Cour Royale.

“The millers are not grinding,” the girl says. “We have no bread. I have not eaten for two days.” She points to Louis’ head. His jowls have recently become so much fuller. When he becomes anxious he eats even more than usual. Mademoiselle Chabry’s gaze darts around the Oeil de Boeuf, taking in the grandeur of the salon, the vast marble pilasters, the unusual ox-eye window that gives the anteroom its name, the enormous chandelier fashioned from thousands of glittering crystals and her eyes appear to glaze over.  “Your head, Sire,” she murmurs. “The same profile I see on every coin!” She is clearly overwhelmed in the presence of the monarch, by his own majesty and by the splendor of Versailles. Her eyes roll back in her head as she sinks to her knees and a moment later she is lying on the floor supported by her sisters in rebellion.

It is the king himself who calls for smelling salts. As the courtiers look about helplessly, no one wishing to be the first to offer a vinaigrette to the young sculptress, the hubbub of raised voices carries all the way from the courtyard. One cry pierces the air so distinctly that it feels as Damiens’ dagger must have done to the heart of Louis Quinze. “We will bring back the Queen’s head on the end of a pike!”

All eyes turn from the fallen mademoiselle to me. I stand up straighter and hold my head high. I do not want these market women to see that I am afraid. They do not see me bite my lower lip. Louis sighs with the weight of all France upon his broad shoulders and turns to the woman collapsed on the floor. “Have you come to harm my wife?” he pointedly asks her. I do not hear her reply.

I hear Louis promise the delegation of women that they shall have bread—they shall all have bread—from the palace stores. We have plenty of it, he says. Let it not be said that the king of France does not comprehend his subjects’ pain.

One of the marquis de Lafayette’s aides-de-camp presses his way through the audience, interrupting the tête-à-tête. During the American colonies’ revolution against the British the redheaded marquis had been a general in their Continental Army serving under George Washington, the man who has just been elected the infant nation’s first president. Regrettably, Lafayette returned with the rebellious fire still pulsing in his blood. After the Bastille was stormed in July he answered the call, not to help the crown, but to aid our enemies instead, accepting the appointment as commander-in-chief of the Garde Nationale, the militia formed by the citizens.

Elbowing his way to the king, “A word, Majesté!” he demands, then realizes he has intruded upon something. Louis holds up his hand, but the adjutant insists, “Sire, it cannot wait.” He announces that the commanding officer of the Paris Garde Nationale is marching on Versailles with thirty-thousand men at arms, including the former French Guards, soldiers once loyal to the crown.

As the comte de La Tour du Pin demands the immediate removal of the market women and the Assembly deputies, Saint-Priest reiterates his recommendation for the royal family to remove to Rambouillet. Maximilien Robespierre and I cross paths as he exits the antechamber and our eyes lock. His are black and cold, like those of a fish. Someone jostles me and presses a paper into my hand, but I cannot, dare not, read it in the middle of a crowd.

The king quits the Oeil de Boeuf leaving a sea of confused courtiers in his wake and the two of us repair with the ministers to his private apartments. In the quiet of Louis’ library Saint-Priest actually throws himself at his sovereign’s feet and passionately urges a decision. “If you are taken to Paris tomorrow, Majesté, you will lose your crown!” The clock atop the mantel strikes the hour of eight. For the second time today, my husband looks to me for advice before he will commit to a course of action.

There is no thought of leaving him, especially as the peril draws even closer. “We go now,” I say. I kiss his cheek and turn on my heels, racing downstairs to the children’s apartments where I instruct Madame de Tourzel and one of their sous-gouvernantes to pack as much as they can. “Vite, vite! We depart in a quarter-hour!”

By the next chime of the clock the family, including the king’s sister, the princesse Élisabeth, are gathered in the hall below the Salon d’Hercule by the foot of the grand marble staircase. My son and daughter are wrapped in cloaks of inky blue wool and cling to the skirts of their gentle aunt. Madame Élisabeth’s lower lip trembles with fear. Thinking first of the safety of my children, I usher them outdoors into the night. As we set foot in the Cour de Marbre a jeer rises. The Place d’Armes just outside the gates is filled with market women. They raise their weapons in the air, holding aloft scythes and pikes. I am grateful that the king’s eyesight is so poor he cannot see these implements raised against us.

We scuttle along the edge of the buildings like rats, headed for the royal stables where our carriages await. “A fugitive king, a fugitive king,” Louis repeatedly mutters, as if the phrase is the most distasteful to ever enter his mouth.

But no sooner are the gates to the stables thrown wide than the mob cries as one hysterical, furious voice, “The king is leaving!” They surge toward our coaches and hurl their bodies upon the carriages, cutting the harnesses and leading the terrified horses whinnying into the night. We are trapped. Saint-Priest and the comte de La Tour du Pin who have come to see us depart offer their own carriages as a last resort. They are harnessed beyond the gates of the Orangerie, if we can manage to make it there without hindrance; and from there we can hope for a more discreet exit from Versailles.  But the mob now presses toward us and the regiment of Flemish mercenaries—the only thing that stands between us and this sea of human vitriol—does all they can to keep them in abeyance without firing a single round, for Louis still forbids any attack upon his subjects. There is nothing for us to do but retreat.

Back upstairs, in the State Apartments, my heart beats beneath my stays, but I betray no emotion. I must be strong for everyone. They have enough fear of their own. Every candle is lit, as if to stave off the demons of the night by creating a perpetual day with such massive illumination. Some courtiers silently pace the Galerie des Glaces, their red heels echoing upon the gleaming parquet. Others sit in the Games Room, playing hand after hand of piquet or écarté, laying their cards and markers upon the green baize with eerie deliberation, as if by prolonging the game they forestall whatever fate lies in store for us.

At eleven o’clock Louis and I receive a number of courtiers as well as a handful of officers, among them, Count von Fersen. I can read Axel’s annoyance with the Frenchmen on his countenance and in the set of his body. His chin juts angrily and his eyes, their color so changeable, are steel gray tonight, conveying much, even as he speaks little and directly.

“Give me an order, Your Majesty, authorizing us to take horses from the stable so we might defend the royal family if you are under attack,” he insists.

I look at my husband but he is deep in conversation with deputy Mounier, who never left the château and is still pressing him to sign the “Declaration of the Rights of Man.”

“I will consent to give the order on one condition,” I tell Axel. “If His Majesty’s life is in danger, you must use it promptly.  But if I alone am in peril, you will not use it.” Count von Fersen gives me an inexorable look and tears spring to my eyes. “Those are my orders,” I repeat.

I had already informed the marquise de Tourzel to convey the dauphin and Madame Royale to the king’s private apartments, should she feel the slightest cause for alarm.

“But where will you spend the night, dear sister?” Madame Élisabeth’s dark eyes are red rimmed from crying. Her dame d’honneur, the marquise de Bombelles, seems powerless to comfort her. “Won’t it be safest with the king?”

I know what these market women want. By now I have I read the anonymous note I was passed in the Oeil de Boeuf. You will be murdered at six in the morning. But the poissardes and their confederates still trusts Louis. I feel my chest constrict within my stays. “I know they have come from Paris to demand my head. But I have learned from my mother not to fear death and I shall await it with firmness. I prefer to expose myself to danger, if there is any, and protect His Majesty and the children of France. I shall sleep alone tonight.”

Yet sleep remains a long way off. His eyes brimming with tears, Louis reluctantly agrees to sign the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and deputy Mounier watches each stroke of the pen like a vulture eyeing fresh carrion. I have never seen my husband looking more defeated. I stand behind his chair and wrap my arms about his shoulders, pressing my lips to the top of his head. Although his face betrays no perspiration, his scalp is damp, sticky with fear.

Shortly after the clocks strike the hour of midnight the mud spattered marquis de Lafayette arrives at the palace, so exhausted from riding posthaste from Paris, that he all but limps into the Salon de Mars. His face is drawn, drained of its customary ruddiness, and he struggles to remain on his feet. With a dramatic sweep of his arm worthy of the great Clairval he announces to Louis that he has left his men in the Place d’Armes. “Sire, I thought it best to die here at Your Majesty’s feet than to perish pointlessly in the shameful light of the torches at the Place de Grève.”

“Are you turning your coat yet again, monsieur le général?” I inquire pointedly of the commander of the Garde Nationale. “Have you abandoned your citizens’ militia and come back to offer your assistance to your king?”

Lafayette shakes his head. I have misapprehended. He is here instead to inform us of the true intentions of the Parisians, although that in itself would seem to violate whatever piratical code of honor the revolutionaries abide by. Evidently, hotter heads would string him up on a lantern post in the square for his willingness to broker an understanding between the protestors and the monarchs. “They want to be heard,” he assures the king. “They want to know that you have listened to their concerns and that action will be taken.”

Louis splays his hands. “They demanded bread and I have already promised it from our own stores. It seems imprudent to dispense it in the damp dead of night. At daybreak there will be bread aplenty. You may reassure them of this.” He looks imploringly at the general. “I have always been a man of my parole. A man of honor.” He lowers his voice to a whisper that could still be heard on the stage of the Comédie Française. “But they must promise not to think of harming the queen.”

The men speak among themselves for several minutes as I strain to overhear. “Tell her to set her mind at rest and go to bed,” Lafayette says to the king. He has convinced Louis to entrust him with the security of the palace. The French Guards will resume the posts they deserted a month ago. Is this wise?

Louis retires for the night as well. I cannot imagine how he will sleep. I do not wish to endanger my women, so at two o’clock I urge them to leave me. My first waiting woman Madame Thibaut, and Madame Campan’s sister Madame Auguié are in attendance this night, along with their own maids. But they will not depart even after I insist that they go to the room where my other ladies have gathered. Madame Auguié is weeping. She looks to Madame Thibaut for reassurance as she reminds me that there are thirty thousand troops and ten thousand brigands, with forty cannons mustered outside our gates. “Once upon a time they would have protected Your Majesty. Now the world has turned upside down and it is just the four of us,” she says, indicating Madame Thibaut and their maids as she sniffles back her tears. “We are your only sauvegarde now. It would be wrong of us to desert you.”

We compromise. I will not place their lives at risk by allowing them to sleep in my bedchamber. And so they drag four armchairs outside my door and prepare to spend the night in these fauteuils. The muffled sound of tattoos beaten on sodden drumskins reverberates all the way from the Place d’Armes where the market women and soldiers are encamped, a hoarse, frightening call to protest that has lasted through the night without surcease. Try as I might, I do not think I will be able to sleep after all.

I lie upon the featherbeds gazing at the underside of the pink and gold brocade canopy. With no comprehension of how much time has passed, suddenly I bolt upright, my eyes blinking open, my chest pounding. Below my windows, a commotion seems to be coming from the direction of the Orangerie. A single chime strikes and I look at the clock. Half past five. My feet bare, I rush to the bedroom doors, clutching my night rail to my breast. Madame Thibaut nearly jumps out of her chair, then quickly rearranges her skirts and sinks into a curtsy.

“Did you hear that?” I ask her. The other women are now wide awake.

“Some of the marchers must have made their way to the parterres,” she says. With nowhere else to sleep, perhaps they sought refuge on the terraces.” The regiment of French Guards, so newly reinstated, had been assigned to patrol the gates and entrances to the parks. But are they to be trusted, despite the general’s assurances? Had Lafayette been naïve, deceived, or an outright liar?  “I think it is safe to go back to bed, Majesté,” says Madame Thibaut. “In any case, the men of the gardes du corps are stationed in the hall. Try to sleep, Madame,” she adds gently, closing the heavy wooden doors.

As the clock strikes six I hear a fearful pounding. My ladies throw open the doors to my bedchamber. Their faces are drained of color. Madame Auguié is hysterical. “Rise, Your Majesty! They are coming up the marble staircase—hundreds of them—armed with pikes and muskets and broomsticks and knives.  They are headed through the Galerie des Glaces, making straight for your bedchamber.” The two maids cry for help and frantically wave their arms as if to simultaneously stave off the stampede and summon the royal bodyguard.

“It is as if someone has given them a map of the palace,” adds Madame Thibaut. “Otherwise, how would they know exactly where you sleep?”

Fractured phrases reach our ears. “Kill! Kill!” “No quarter!”  “. . . make a cocarde from her entrails!”

“There is no time to dress, Madame!” says Madame Auguié. “Vite, vite—you must make for His Majesty’s petits appartements.” With Madame Thibaut’s assistance they open the doors to my wardrobe and pull out the first petticoat they find, along with a wrapper or lévite, a loose fitting dressing gown of pale yellow and cream striped silk. There is no time to search for stays. From a drawer I grab a pair of white stockings and a fichu but canot stop to don them. Madame Thibaut pulls a black velvet hat with a white plume from the top shelf of the wardrobe and thrusts it in my other hand, while Madame Auguié shouts “shoes!” and gives me the first pair of black satin heels she finds.

The din of the approaching mob increases, their resounding footsteps augmented by guttural shouts, blood curdling screams, and the ear-splitting sounds of splintering wood, shattering glass and porcelain.

I remind myself to keep my wits, though my bedroom threatens to become a blur of rose and gold. My hands are full of accessories and so I use my shoulder to press against the secret panel beside my bed, thrusting my weight against it as I fumble for the hidden latch that will release the door.

“We must have the bitch’s heart?” “Where is she?” I hear, the voices growing closer. My women are now right behind me and we disappear behind the door into the passage that connects the queen’s bedchamber to Louis’ rooms. What a stroke of brilliance of the comte de Mercy to have suggested its construction all those years ago! Who could ever have foreseen that the secret passage intended to facilitate the creation of life, that of the children of France, would one day play a role in saving mine?

I finally reach the heavy door to the Oeil de Boeuf, but find it locked. My breath is ragged and my heart pounds beneath my breast. The intruders have reached my bedroom. I can hear them through the wall. I must find Louis—and safety. I race down the corridor to his apartments and, dropping my garments in a heap, I begin to pound upon the first door I come to, flailing upon the wood with both fists. “Save me, mes amis!

From the direction of the State Apartments I hear the rioters’ shouts and the sound of an axe shattering wood. They are breaking down the door to the Oeil de Boeuf.  Only Providence has saved me. Had the door not been locked from the corridor, I’d be in the antechamber now, and doubtless torn to ribbons by a mob that is baying quite literally for my blood, my entrails, and my head.

Finally, after what feels like an eternity, the door to Louis’ bedroom opens and a tiny face peers out. It belongs to a frightened page, who apologizes for not having heard my frantic entreaties for entry. “The noise has been so great, Majesté.” He is trembling.

I scan the room. Madame Élisabeth is there already, along with Madame de Tourzel. But where—where are my children? Finally I spot them. Madame Royale is standing on a chair, looking out the window. The dauphin has his back turned to me. He is clutching her skirts. I throw my arms about the pair of them, clutching them to me. Then the dauphin says, “Papa?” and I realize something is horribly wrong.

Where is the king?

“He went to search for you, ma soeur,” says Madame Élisabeth. Her face is as white as parchment. “You must have missed each other in the corridor beneath the Oeil de Boeuf.”

Merciful God! Was Louis inside the antechamber when the mob . . .? My chest seizes with dread.

My ladies-in-waiting have entered the room and placed my pile of garments on a chair. They urge me to finish dressing as I continue to ask the empty air, “Where is my husband?” Realizing the door remains open, I run to tug it shut, only to hear a familiar voice shout hoarsely, “Attends! Wait, ma chère!”

I fall weeping into Louis’ embrace, never so happy to see him as in this moment. But it is impossible not to think of the future as well. Choking on ragged sobs, I tell him, “They will kill our son.”

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