October 5, 1789
“We will take the queen dead or alive!”
Louison’s voice is hoarse. Small wonder. She has been chanting the slogan 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. 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 is 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 reverberates through the early autumn air. Dozens of muskets are discharged, as if in response. “I see the gates!” comes a cry, and 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 smells 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. His lank wig is now 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 aspect. I walk where my slippers take me. Inside my mind a solo cellist plays a nocturne. I have no companions as I enter the gardens of Trianon and no bodyguard 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 the granite-colored ground and gaze upon the water for several minutes, shoving my hands through the slits of my gray silk 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: mon cher 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, like Gabrielle and Vermond, have become their victims by virtue of their exile. Most of my beloved Trianon cercle, such as the princesse de Lamballe, have fled for their own safety. 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. I finally begin to feel the dampness in my bones and wonder how long I have been sitting here. 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. “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.” He 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, the State Apartments had grown more crowded with each passing hour. 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 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 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. Remembering the words I imagined my 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.
Excerpted from Confessions of Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey. Copyright © 2013 by Juliet Grey. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.