"Life and Letters of Madame Élisabeth, Chapter I." by Madame Élisabeth, Sister of Louis XVI.; translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley.
MANY records of Madame Élisabeth exist, but only two of real authority: the "Éloge historique de Mme. Élisabeth de France," by Antoine Ferrand, minister of State and peer of France, first published in 1814 and again in 1861; and the "Vie de Madame Élisabeth," by M. A. de Beauchesne, Paris, 1869. Both works contain a number of her letters. From these volumes the following record has been made, chiefly in their own (translated) words. The parts selected are the simple historical facts of Mme. Élisabeth's story. The other parts may not be false,–far be it from us to say they are,–but they are so romantically tender as to convey a sense of extravagance, and thus do injury to the noble figure which the truth presents. For instance, it is recorded by her biographers that as her head fell into the basket a perfume of roses was wafted over the Place Louis XV. The impression that we of the present day receive from such a statement is [Page 2] of folly and fulsome flattery; yet the essential truth is in the simple facts, where the undying
actions of the just
Smell sweet, and blossom in the dust.
This record of Madame Élisabeth is here followed by the "Journal of the Temple," written by Cléry, the valet who attended on Louis XVI. to the last hour of his life, and by the far more valuable and even precious Narrative of that embodiment of sorrow, Marie-Thérèse de France, daughter of Louis XVI. and Marie-Antoinette, and later Duchesse d'Angoulême. There we see the end of the great monarchy (for the restored kings were not the monarchy). No one can read this series of Memoirs–Saint-Simon, d'Argenson, Bernis–without realizing the causes of that mighty fall; not to be found so much in the career of the Great Monarch as in the lowered standards he left behind him, the corruption of the regency, and the long reign of his great-grandson's vice and ineptitude which consolidated the wrongs of France.
One fact shines clear above this mass of evil; and it is allowable to call the attention of the reader to it forcibly. Beside the enervating depravity of the Regent, the personal cowardice and sloth of Louis XV., the lack of firmness and regal assertion of Louis XVI. and his brothers, stands the splendid courage, physical and moral, of the three women whose ends are here recorded.
Élisabeth-Phippine-Marie-Hélène de France, daughter of the Dauphin Louis, son of Louis XV, and Marie-Josèphe de Saxe, was born at Versailles, May 3, 1764. Her three brothers, the Duc de Berry, the Comte de Provence, and the Comte d'Artois, were taken to the chapel on the same day, immediately after the king's mass, to witness her baptism, at which were present also the king and queen, the king's sis- [Page 3] ters Mesdames Adélaïde, Victoire, Sophie, and Louise, the Duc d'Orléans, the Duc de Chartres, the Prince de Condé, the Prince and Princess de Conti, the Duc de Penthievre, the Prince de Lamballe, and others.
At her birth Madame Élisabeth was so delicate that for months her existence was a source of continual anxiety. Her father died the following year, and her mother, the wise and excellent Dauphine Marie-Josèphe, in 1767. The little orphan was then given wholly to the care of the Comtesse de Marsan (daughter of the Prince de Soubise), governess of the Children of France, who was already bringing up Élisabeth's sister, Madame Clotilde de France, afterwards Queen of Sardinia, who was four years and eight months older than Élisabeth. The difference in character and temper was greater still. Clotilde was born with the happiest disposition, which needed only to be encouraged and aided. Élisabeth was very different; it was often necessary to oppose her nature, and always to direct it. Proud, inflexible, passionate, she had defects to be mastered which would have been regrettable in a lower rank; in a princess of royal blood they were intolerable. The task of Mme. de Marsan was a difficult one. Madame Élisabeth's self-will was powerful, proud of her birth, she exacted around her supple instruments of it; she said she had no need to learn and tire herself uselessly, inasmuch as princes had about them persons whose duty it was to think for them. She stamped with anger if one of her women did not immediately bring her the thing she asked for. The difference in the characters of the sisters made a difference in the feelings of their governess towards each. Jealousy came to increase the asperity of the younger sister's nature. "If Clotilde had asked you," she said, one day, when Mme. de Marsan had refused a request, "she would have had it." [Page 4]
But Élisabeth was taken ill, and Clotilde insisted on taking care of her. This illness developed between them feelings of the tenderest affection; Clotilde taught her little sister the alphabet and how to spell and form words, she gave her little counsels which tended to soften her character, and she inculcated in her the first notions of religion with which she was already nourishing her own soul.
Still, Mme. de Marsan felt the want of aid in seconding the reform in the child's nature which she had so much at heart to bring about, and she cast her eyes on Mme. de Mackau, whose husband had been minister of the king at Ratisbon. This lady was educated at Saint-Cyr, an establishment which kept notes of not only the character and merits of its pupils, but followed their careers in the world for which it had formed them. It was from information thus derived that Mme. de Marsan asked the king to appoint Mme. de Mackau, who was living in retirement in Alsace, as sub-governess. This choice proved to have all the elements required to work a happy change in the nature of a self-willed and haughty child. Mme. de Mackau possessed a firmness to which resistance yielded, and an affectionate kindness which enticed attachment. Armed with almost maternal power, she brought up the Children of France as she would have trained her own children; overlooking no fault; knowing, if need were, how to make herself feared; all the while leading them to like virtue. To a superior mind she added a dignity of tone and manners which inspired respect. When her pupil gave way to the fits of haughty temper to which she was subject, Mme. de Mackau showed on her countenance a displeased gravity, as if to remind her that princes, like other persons, could not be liked except for their virtues and good qualities. Distressed and disconcerted by this sudden and unexpected change, [Page 5] Élisabeth, whose nature it was to be unable to feign or to hide whatever was passing in her soul, gave in this way a great advantage to her governess, quick to profit by the knowledge she thus gained of the child's inner feelings.
Little by little, Élisabeth yielded to wise and friendly management, and the defects which retarded her progress and prevented her from getting the advantages of her education gradually effaced themselves. Her wise governesses neglected nothing that could form her mind; they accustomed her to discuss questions with ease and without pedantry; to pose an argument properly, to examine it with discernment, and to bring logic to bear upon it and solve it. As all progress is accomplished only by degrees, the young princess continued for some time to commit her early faults. On such occasions, becoming more and more rare, she met a stern look, a stiff manner; and that simple show of displeasure was an efficacious correction. The proud and violent qualities changed, little by little, into firmness of principles, into a nobility and energy of feeling which made her in after years superior to the trials that filled her life.
Deprived of her parents and of the tenderest emotions of nature, her heart turned to fraternal love, which became from childhood her dominant passion. She cherished her three brothers, but a sort of predilection drew her to the Duc de Berry, the Dauphin. Was it that she already felt he would be unhappy because he was fated to be king? This tenderness of heart, which had so far served to correct Élisabeth's defects, was destined to be the source of her consolation, her courage, her sorrows, and her devotion.
About this time, on certain days, when serious study was over, a few young ladies of merit, of religious principles and good education, were admitted to the privacy of the young princesses. It was a circle created to utilize their leisure [Page 6] as well as to amuse it, to form them to the customs of the world, to teach them to express their ideas with grace and concision, to judge of things with accuracy, and state their judgments clearly. These meetings had the precious advantage of being recreations which, under youthful gayety and perfect modesty, initiated them unconsciously in that divining tact, that knowledge of the of the world, so difficult to acquire, which consists in discerning at first sight the value of individuals, in estimating the nature and dominant spirit of each society under whatever form it presents itself: in short, the tact of sagacity, which became in the end so trained in Élisabeth that she was rarely mistaken in the opinion she formed of persons or of the spirit of the society in which she found herself. Madame Élisabeth seldom amused herself with frivolous talk, she was never really interested in a conversation unless there was something to gain from it. Time was precious to her.
The Abbé de Montégut, canon of Chartres, who was appointed, in 1774, tutor to the Children of France, contributed to develop in Madame Élisabeth the religious sentiments which never left her in after life. He explained to her the Gospels as being both the school of duty and the source of consolations. She applied herself to their study with a penetration above her age. One might almost say that a secret inspiration warned her that she was destined to find there the best and first of knowledge. As her intelligence developed, those two precepts became deeply rooted in her. Religion seemed to her a chain of duties and consolations, the first link of which, attached in heaven, was ever drawing humanity towards its origin and its completion.
Mme. de Marsan, on her side, took her often to Saint-Cyr. That royal establishment, which bore the imprint of a saintly and majestic thought, awakened all the sympathies [Page 7] of the young girl, who never left it without regret and promises to return.
Louis XV. died on the 10th of May, 1774, when Élisabeth was ten years old, and the Duc de Berry, the Dauphin and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, became King and Queen of France; the first nineteen years of age, the second a year younger. That year and the next were passed by the young princesses in their secluded school life, but always accompanying the Court, whether at Versailles, Fontainebleau, Marly, Compiègne, or La Muette. The following year Madame Élisabeth was confirmed and made her first communion, and the sisters were parted by the marriage of Clotilde to the Prince of Piedmont, afterwards King of Sardinia. No sensation of sorrow had as yet affected Élisabeth's heart; her sister's departure was her first experience of it, and when the moment of separation came, she clung to her with such force that they were obliged to tear them apart. Queen Marie-Antoinette, writing a few days later to her mother, the empress, says:–
"My sister Élisabeth is a charming child, who has intelligence, character, and much grace; she showed the greatest feeling, and much above her age, at the departure of her sister. The poor little girl was in despair, and as her health is very delicate, she was taken ill and had a very severe nervous attack. I own to my dear mamma that I fear I am getting too attached to her, feeling, from the example of my aunts, how essential it is for her happiness not to remain an old maid in this country."
It was on the 12th day of May, 1776, that Turgot and Malesherbes, the two ministers whom the philosophical party, the "party of progress," had brought into power to effect reforms at the beginning of the new reign, quitted their ministry. "Ah!" cried Louis XVI., as Malesherbes asked him to accept [Page 8] his resignation: "how fortunate you are! Would that I could get away also!" It would take too long here to enter into public details which have not as yet a close connection with the life of Madame Élisabeth; suffice it to say briefly, that all efforts at reform on the part of these ministers and the young monarch miscarried. The king's edicts which suppressed the corvée (forced labor) and abolished corporations and their privilege, were bitterly opposed in parliament; and it required a lit de justice to enforce their registration. All attempts to reform the army made by the Comte de Saint-Germain, minister of war, and his auxiliary, M. de Guibert, 1 also failed. With singular unwisdom they contrived to displease the officers and discontent the troops at the very moment when it was so necessary to be able to count upon the inviolable fidelity of the army.
Nothing, therefore, of all that was attempted succeeded well, and Louis XVI. began the second portion of his reign with vanished illusions and fears for the future.
On the 17th of May, 1778, the Court went to Marly. The king having determined to give his sister an establishment, she was on that day resigned into his hands by her then governess, the Princess de Guéménée, and His Majesty gave her the Comtesse Diane de Polignac as lady of honor, with the Marquise de Sérent as lady-in-waiting. From that moment there was question of her marriage. Her hand seemed, in the first instance, destined to the Infant of Portugal, Prince of Brazil, who was the same age as herself and would eventually have brought her the title of queen. While she saw the conveniences of this alliance, Madame Élisabeth was far from wishing it, and though she personally put no obstacle in the way, she was comforted on learning that the negotiations were broken off. [Page 9]
Shortly after, two other princes sought the honor of obtaining her hand. One was the duke of Aosta, who was five years older than herself and could give her, in a neighboring and friendly Court, a place on the steps of a throne beside her sister Clotilde; but the political pride of the government asserted that a secondary place at the Court of Sardinia was not becoming to a Daughter of France. Her third suitor was the Emperor Joseph II., brother of Marie-Antionette, who on the occasion of his journey to France the preceding year had been struck by the vivacity of her mind and the sweetness of her nature. But the anti-Austrian party, which by that time (1783) prevailed at Court, where it had already sown around the queen distrust and hatreds, dreaded an alliance which might be contrary to its ascendancy, and set to work to prevent it. The intrigue succeeded. It was said, without grounds, that Madame Élisabeth felt some regret at this conclusion. The emperor had not yet shown in politics the eccentricities of his mind, and he had just lost a wife whose youth, virtues, and piety had won the love and benedictions of a whole people. 1 But Madame Élisabeth, although she assuredly possessed all the qualities that fitted her for such an inheritance, seemed to attach no greater value to this union than to the other marriages with which policy had interfered.
As time went on, Madame Élisabeth strengthened herself perceptibly against the dangers of her nature, her age, and the Court; she felt more and more what was lacking in her. Her efforts increased from her self-distrust, and the more she acquired higher qualities the less she knew herself capable of the perfection she sought to attain. It was this feeling [Page 10] of humility which gave to her speech an exquisite restraint, to her actions a prudent reserve, and to her charity a wise discretion.
All the young girls who had been brought in contact with Madame Élisabeth or had grown up with her, sharing her studies and her pleasures, gave her a warm and sincere devotion; to them she was not the princess but the friend. "How lovable you are, my heart," she says in one place, "to wish to forget that I am princess; nothing could give me greater pleasure than to forget it myself; I say it as I think it. Friendship, you see, my Bombelles, is a second life, which sustains us in this low world."
Among these young girls were two or three whom her heart distinguished specially, and with them she corresponded steadily to the last of her living life. One was Mlle. de Mackau, the daughter of the lady to whom she owed so much, who was early married to the Marquis de Bombelles, then ambassador to Portugal, and at the time of the Revolution ambassador to Venice. Another was Mlle. Marie de Causans, third daughter of the Marquise de Causans, who was appointed by the king, at the time Madame Élisabeth's establishment was formed, as lady of honor and superintendent of his sister's household. Her second daughter, Virginie, was chanoinesse at Metz, who spent the months of her vacation in Madame Élisabeth's establishment. The love between them became so strong that the princess dreading the moment of the young girl's return to her Chapter endeavored to make her one of her own ladies-in-waiting; but the Marquise de Causans, although a widow of small means and a large family, made it a principle that none of her four daughters should hold office at Court unless she was married, and she turned a deaf ear to Madame Élisabeth's entreaties. Then a thought came to the princess; [Page 11] she went one morning to the queen and said in her coaxing, gentle way: "Promise to grant me what I am going to ask of you." The queen, before promising, wished to know the request, and a playful battle ensued. Finally Madame Élisabeth yielded and said: "I want to give Causans a dot; ask the king to advance me for five years the thirty thousand francs he always gives me as a New Year's gift." The queen very willingly took charge of the commission, and the king as willingly granted the request. The Marquis de Raigecourt presented himself as a husband, and Louis XVI. appointed the young wife as lady-in-waiting to his sister. Her joy knew no bounds. For five years she received no presents, and when the matter was mentioned she would say, "I have no presents yet, but I have my Raigecourt." The fifth year expired in 1789, but by that time public difficulties intervened, and the custom of years was given up.
A brother of Mme. de Raigecourt, the Marquis de Causans, a member of the States General, was also a friend of Madame Élisabeth, who kept up a close correspondence with him on the events of the time. Her letters were said by him to contain very just and lofty conceptions on passing events, and especially on what was taking place in the Assembly. That collection of letters, in which the energy of her spirit and the penetration of her views were visible, it is said, on every page, was confided by the Marquis de Causans, at the time he was compelled to emigrate, to hands which he had every reason to consider peculiarly safe; but it disappeared in one of those cataclysms of which the revolutionary tornado produced so many examples.
Madame Élisabeth's letters to Mme. de Bombelles and Mme. de Raigecourt, while somewhat cautious as to public affairs, nevertheless express, as we shall see later, a sound [Page 12] and independent judgment on principles and passing events, and are the only personal revelation of her heart and mind which we possess before the black pall drops forever, on the 10th of August, 1792, between the family in the Temple and the world.
The domestic happiness which Madame Élisabeth now began to enjoy in her own little circle seems to have reigned in the palace of Versailles as well. Never before did the Court of France present such a sight: a young queen living in perfect harmony with two sisters-in-law of her own age, and a young king liking to lean on the friendship of his two brothers. "The greatest intimacy," says Mme. Campan, "existed between the three households [that of the king, that of Monsieur, the Comte de Provence, and that of the Comte d'Artois]. "They met together at meals, and ate apart only when their dinners were in public. This manner of family living lasted until the time when the queen allowed herself to dine occasionally with the Duchesse de Polignac, but the evening meeting for supper was never interrupted, and it took place always in the apartments of the Comtesse de Provence. Madame Élisabeth took her place there as soon as she had finished her education, and sometimes Mesdames, the king's aunts, were invited. This family intimacy, which had no precedent at Court, was the work of Queen Marie-Antoinette, and she maintained it with great perseverance."
The interests and pleasures of a young Court nevertheless gave rise to intrigues which at times divided the members of the royal family. The king and his brothers were each of different natures. Louis XVI., who possessed the virtues of an honest man, was far from having all those which are required in a king. His self-distrust was extreme. While he was still dauphin, if a question arose that was difficult [Page 13] to decide, "Ask my brother of Provence about that," he would say. Trustful in others, he surrendered his own will readily; but if he discovered that any one deceived him he flew into fits of passion. He had neither firmness of character nor grace of manner. Like certain excellent fruits with a knotty rind, his exterior was rough, but the heart perfect. Stern to himself alone, he kept the laws of the Church rigorously, abstained and fasted during the forty Lenten days, but thought it right that the queen should not imitate him. Sincerely pious, but trained to tolerance by the influence of the century in which he lived, he was also disposed, too disposed perhaps, to yield the prerogatives of the throne whenever the interests of his people were alleged to him; forgetting that one of the first interests of a nation is the maintenance of a strong and incontestable power. A weak royalty is impotent both to do good and to prevent evil.
There was in Louis XVI. something honest which did not accept complete liability (solidarité ) for the preceding reign; but, heir of a régime of which he bore the weight, he was ill at ease between a past which roused repugnance and a future, not threatening as yet, but full of doubts and mystery. Simple, economical, liking to read and study, seeking to forget his throne in the exercise of hunting or of manual labour, detesting women without virtue and men without conscience, he seems a stranger in his own Court, where morals were light and consciences easy. A young king, given to moderation and faithful to duty, regarding himself as the father of all Frenchmen, but especially drawn to those who were weakest, could not be appreciated by courtiers, men for the most part frivolous and in debt, corrupters or corrupted, who regarded innovations as a danger and reforms as a crime.
The Comte de Provence, whose intellect and education [Page 14] were on a par, concealed beneath a prudent dignity his regret at not being put by fate in the first rank. Versed in the culture of letters, aided by a wonderful memory, he felt himself, in a literary aspect, to be far superior to the king his brother. This sentiment was born in him from childhood. One day the Duc de Berry, playing with his brothers, used the expression il pleuva. "What a barbarism!" cried the Comte de Provence, "a prince ought to know his own tongue." "And you ought to hold yours," retorted the elder.
Monsieur took pleasure in the society of men of letters; he endeavored to explain to himself the source and inspiration of the new ideas that rose on the horizon, he prepared himself for events that he might not be surprised by them; he temporized with parties and united with none; he lived with his brothers without dissensions and without confidence; he toyed with opinion coldly; and when the day came that unfortunate arrangements made the king's departure a failure at Varennes, he cleverly kept out of danger and reserved himself for the future.
The Comte d'Artois was a type of the Frenchman of the olden time; careless in temperament, gay in mind, and with all the chivalrous graces. Well made, choice in his toilet, adroit at all exercises of the body, he never appreciated grandeur except for the advantages it gave him, nor fortune except for the pleasures it procures. The manner in which he regarded women followed him even into the sanctuary. "Monseigneur," said the Bishop of Limoges on one occasion, "I have a favor to ask of your Royal Highness,–it is that you will not come to mass." Born in a frivolous and voluptuous Court, he took the habits of it; but his heart was generous, and that quality survived exile, a throne, and disaster.
It is easy to see how around three such princes men of [Page 15] different morals and ideas grouped themselves; honest men were near Louis XVI., politicians near the Comte de Provence, the frivolous and volatile near the Comte d'Artois. Thus the friends of the king were few, those of Monsieur numerous, those of the Comte d'Artois innumerable. The last had the pretension to think themselves directly under the patronage of the queen, who, lively and brilliant, wanted the pleasures of her age and took delight in the Comte d'Artois, who amused her and whose tastes were somewhat like her own. The jealous and malignant spirit of a swarm of courtiers endeavored to make a crime of the queen's liking for the gay young brother-in-law, but they have not succeeded, to the eyes of history, in poisoning amusements witnessed by the whole Court, not to speak of the Comtesse d'Artois, whose affection for the queen remained unchanged.
Such was the interior of the palace of Versailles during the years which preceded the Revolution. The princes and princesses of the blood seldom appeared there; their tastes and habits were different. "Of the three branches of the House of Bourbon," said the old Maréchal de Richelieu, one day, "each has a ruling and pronounced taste: the eldest loves hunting; the Orléans love pictures; the Condés love war." "And Louis XVI.," some one asked, "what does he love?" "Oh, he is different, he loves the people."
Except on occasions of formal etiquette, the absence from Court of the princes of the blood was noticeable. Exception must be made, however, of the Princess de Lamballe, whose functions, as superintendent of the queen's household and her affection for the queen herself, kept her always at Court. The princes of the blood, whom the quarrels with parliament had thrown into the Opposition, considered it advisable to add to the privileges of their birth the advantages of popularity obtained by the so-called independence of their opin- [Page 16] ions. The time was coming when the great House of Bourbon was to weaken and condemn itself to impotence by the falling apart of its sheaves.
Madame Élisabeth was now, at the age of fifteen, to find herself mistress of her actions, surrounded by the splendours of fortune, invited to share all pleasures, and observed by every eye. What is liberty at that age if not release from study, amusement, toilet, jewels, and fêtes? Such was not the program of the king's young sister. Her conscience took upon itself the duty of exercising the same control and watchfulness over her conduct that her governesses had just laid down. "My education is not finished," she said; "I shall continue it under the same rules; I shall keep my masters, and the same hours will be given to religion, the study of languages, belles-lettres, instructive conversations, and to my walks and rides on horseback." And she kept to all that she thus planned.
Her appearance at this time has been described and painted, although she herself had a great repugnance to sitting for her picture. Her figure was not tall, neither had her bearing that majesty which was so much admired in the queen; her nose had the shape which is characteristic of the Bourbon face; but her forehead with its pure lines giving to her countenance its marked character of nobleness and candour, her dark blue eyes with their penetrating sweetness, her mouth with its smile that showed her pretty teeth, and the expression of intelligence and goodness that pervaded her whole person formed a charming and sympathetic presence.
It was at this time that she began to reflect on public affairs, and her first strong interest was in America. In spite of many difficulties, Louis XVI. had succeeded in making certain useful reforms in the interior of the kingdom. He abolished the corvée, substituting for it taxes in money; [Page 17] he created in Paris the Mont-de-Piété (pawn or loan shops) and the Caisse d'Escompte; he also calmed the public fear of bankruptcy by securing the payment of the Funds (rentes) on the Hôtel-de-Ville. The first political event of his reign was the war of independence in America. By an act recently put forth, the English Parliament declared it "had the right to force the colonies to obey all its laws and in all cases." It was this act, the execution of which destroyed the very shadow of freedom, which produced the American Revolution.
The representatives of the future United States assembled and by a solemn act declared the inhabitants of the colonies free and independent and released from all relations with England. This Congress called religion to the support of the dawning liberty, and placed America beneath the immediate protection of Providence. That august dedication was made with great ceremony: a crown, consecrated to God, was placed upon the Bible; and that crown was then divided into thirteen parts for the deputies of the thirteen provinces, and medals were struck to commemorate this event. All the women of the country, at their head the wife of Washington, made themselves remarkable for their patriotic zeal; acts of an ancient chivalry and heroism signalized this memorable war, the reading of which wrung tears of admiration and enthusiasm from Madame Élisabeth.
We cannot enter into the details of the great events that follow. Our troops were fortunate in this war as auxiliaries; America threw off the British yoke and secured her independence, but our navy and that of Spain, our ally, suffered cruelly. This war, although it was, like all war, contrary to the feelings of humanity in Madame Élisabeth, nevertheless flattered her national pride, and made the sacrifices which ended in her brother's glory and that of the nation less painful to bear. But what she especially noted with warm satis- [Page 18] faction throughout the struggle was the generous spirit that ruled it and sometimes lessened its evils. Thus she read with pleasure in a report, addressed November 26, 1781, to the minister of the navy, by the Marquis de Bouillé, then governor of Martinique, that the French troops under his orders had, on seizing the island of Saint-Eustache, shown a spirit of justice and loyalty equal to their patience and courage.
"I found in the government house," writes M. de Bouillé, "the sum of a million sterling which was in sequestration, awaiting a decision of the court of London. It belonged to the Dutch; and I made it over to them after obtaining authentic proofs of their ownership."
And again, in another report to the minister of the navy, Captain de la Pérouse, commanding a squadron of the king, writing on board the "Sceptre" in the Hudson straits, September 6, 1782, says:–
"I took care, when burning the fort at York, to leave a rather considerable storehouse at a distance from the fire, in which I deposited provisions, powder, shot, guns, and a certain quantity of European merchandise, such as was suitable to exchange with savages, in order that the English, who I know have taken refuge in the woods, may find, on their return to their old quarters, enough for their subsistence until the English authorities have been informed of their situation. I feel certain that the king will approve my conduct in this respect, and that in thus providing for those unfortunates I have only forestalled the benevolent intentions of His Majesty." Such facts as these were collected and told by Madame Élisabeth with delight.
In the year 1781 the king bought the property of the Princess de Guéménée, at Montreuil, which the wreck of her husband's fortunes did not allow her to retain. He asked [Page 19] the queen, to whom he had confided his project, to invite Élisabeth to go to Montreuil when they next drove out together, and take her (with a purpose) into the house of her former governess, of which he knew his sister was very fond. Delighted with the surprise she was to give to the young girl, Marie-Antoinette gave the invitation: "If you like," she said, "we will stop on our way at Montreuil, where you were so fond of going when a child." Élisabeth replied that it would be a great pleasure. On arriving, they found everything arranged to receive them, and as soon as they had entered the salon the queen said: "Sister, you are in your own house. This is to be your Trianon. The king, who gives himself the pleasure of giving it to you, gives me the pleasure of telling you."
The brotherly inspiration of Louis XVI. was not at fault. This gift became to Madame Élisabeth a source of infinite enjoyment; for from this moment she was able to associate her dearest friends familiarly with her daily existence, and escape from the pomps of Court whenever her duty did not require her presence there. Madame Élisabeth was born for private intimacy; lively, confiding, and expansive in her familiar circle of a few friends, she was timid, reserved, and even embarrassed, not only in the queen's salons, but in her own, surrounded by all her ladies. It was therefore to her a source of the keenest enjoyment, or rather of happiness, to have this private home of her own with its rural delights.
The park and mansion, of which she now took possession, was near the barrier at the entrance to Versailles on the road to Paris. The park itself was of twelve acres, charmingly diversified with greensward and trees, and with shrubbery paths among the copses in all directions. A large section of the property Madame Élisabeth presently devoted to a cow- [Page 20] pasture, dairy, vegetable and fruit gardens, and a poultry-yard. In the middle of a lawn, shaded with trees and shrubs and brightened with beds of flowers, stood the house, the peristyle of which was supported by four marble columns. The first act of the young proprietor was to give a small house on the estate to Mme. de Mackau, whose permanent home it became.
The king decided that until Madame Élisabeth had reached her twenty-fifth year (she was now eighteen) she should not sleep at Montreuil; but as soon as she was put in possession of her dear domain she passed the entire day there, and was only at Versailles in the evening and at night, or for occasions of ceremony. She heard mass in the morning in the Chapel of the Château, and immediately after it went with certain of her friends in a carriage, or on horseback, an exercise of which she was very fond, or sometimes on foot to Montreuil. The life she led there was uniform, like that of a family in some country château a hundred leagues from Paris. Hours for study, work, and rambles, either alone or with friends, occupied her time; the dinner-hour brought them all together around the same table.
Little by little her occupations increased. She laid out her farm, her dairy, her kitchen-gardens and poultry-yard, and became herself the farmer of the place; she loved all rural interests. She had an overseer, to whom she gave full authority under herself; and this man and those under him fulfilled her orders with such care and assiduity that no disputes and no complaints ever troubled that happy solitude.
But Madame Élisabeth was not satisfied with her own enjoyment of the place. Soon she became the friend and providence of the neighbouring village and its environs. She knew all the inhabitants personally; their interests became hers; young girls were dowered and married, the old
Madame Élisabeth at Montreuil Richard
[Page 21] and the worthy were cared for, the sick were nursed and doctored. The milk of her dairy went to the children, the vegetables and fruits to the sick; often she could be seen attending to the distribution herself. All this was not done without personal sacrifice. Her means were comparatively small; she had only the pension which she received as sister of the king, but she eked it out by economy,–economy on herself, be it said. "Yes, that is very pretty," she replied, when urged to buy a jewel which she fancied, "but with that money I could set up two little homes." Various other anecdotes of this kind have come down to us, but Madame Élisabeth herself frowned on any notice being taken of such deeds. On one occasion, when the Bishop of Alais made her a fulsome speech of admiration, she said, blushing, that he judged her far too favourably. "Madame," he replied, "I am not even on the level of my subject." "You are right," she said, with a certain little sarcasm that was all her own; "you are very much above it."
One pleasure which she derived from her new way of living was that of seeing her brothers with greater freedom. Monsieur would often drive out to Montreuil and spend hours with her. "My brother, the Comte de Provence," she said one day, "is the most enlightened of advisers. His judgment on men and things is seldom mistaken, and his vast memory supplies him with an inexhaustible source of interesting anecdotes." The society of the Comte d'Artois gave her interests of another kind. More sensible than he, she often permitted herself to lecture him. Gay and heedless, he laughed at her advice, but as he advanced in life he began to love her with a tenderness mingled with veneration, a feeling which increased as misfortunes closed down upon them. After he had left France, those about him could guess when he received a letter from her; emotion showed [Page 22] on his features and his hands trembled as he opened it. Reciprocal affection between a brother and sister was never keener, truer, or more expansive.
Madame Élisabeth's relation to Louis XVI. was of still another character. They both seemed aware that she was, and would be, necessary to him. She liked to visit her aunt Louise, the Carmelite nun at Saint-Denis. The king became uneasy at the frequency of these visits. "I am very willing," he said to her one day, "that you should go and see your aunt, but only on condition that you will not imitate her. Élisabeth, I need you." Her heart had told her that already, and the time was swiftly approaching when she obeyed the inward call and gave up her life to him.
Thus flowed the days of the happy young princess until the terrible winter of 1788-89, when the sufferings of the poor exhausted her means and made her run in debt to advance to the starved and frozen people what she called "their revenue." Her letters show that already she foresaw, and rightly, the public troubles that were soon to appear. She knew the character of the king; she believed that his impolitic action on the 8th of May, 1788, could end only in the recall of the parliament, of M. Necker, and the convocation of the States-General. In a letter of hers dated June 9, 1788, she says: "The king returns upon his steps, as did our grandfather. He is always afraid of being mistaken; his first impulse passed, he is tormented by a fear of doing injustice. . . . It seems to me," she continues, "that it is in government as it is in education: one should not say I will, unless one is sure of being right; then, once said, nothing should be given up of what has been ordained." Madame Élisabeth would fain have had the king take that principle as his rule of conduct, and she foresaw the evils that his kindness and his weakness would produce. "I [Page 23] see a thousand things," she says, "which he does not even suspect, because his soul is so good that intrigue is foreign to it." The note of foreboding, not, perhaps, fully comprehended by her own mind, is in much that she says and writes at this period. Instinctively she turns to the support of her life–to the spirit of faith–and we find her inmost thoughts in a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, written at this time and given to Mme. de Raigecourt, the manuscript of which, in her own handwriting, is preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale:–
"Adorable heart of Jesus, sanctuary of the love that led God to make himself man, to sacrifice his life for our salvation, and to make of his body the food of our souls: in gratitude for that infinite charity I give you my heart, and with it all that I possess in this world, all that I am, all that I shall do, all that I shall suffer. But, my God, may this heart, I implore you, be no longer unworthy of you; make it like unto yourself; surround it with your thorns and close its entrance to all ill-regulated affections; set there your cross, make it feel its worth, make it willing to love it. Kindle it with your divine flame. May it burn for your glory; may it be all yours, when you have done what you will with it. You are its consolation in its troubles, the remedy of its ills, its strength and refuge in temptation, its hope during life, its haven in death. I ask you, O heart so loving, the same favour for my companions. So be it."
"O divine heart of Jesus! I love you, I adore you, I invoke you, with my companions, for all the days of my life, but especially for the hour of my death.
O vere adorator et unice amator Dei, miserere nobis. Amen." [Page 24]
It was on the 5th of October, 1789, the day when the Parisian mob of men and women marched to Versailles and compelled the king to take the fatal step of going to Paris, that Madame Élisabeth was suddenly, without warning, hurried from her dear Montreuil, never to enter it again. From the terrace of her garden she saw the first coming of the populace, and, mounting her horse, she rode to the palace. The king was out hunting, but messengers had gone for him, and when he returned she urged him to stand firm against this vanguard of anarchy, saying that a vigorous and immediate repression would avert great future evils, and advising with true instinct that if the royal family left Versailles at all, it should be for a town at a distance from Paris, where loyal men could rally to the king and enable him to break through the tyranny that the factions were beginning to exercise.
For a moment he seemed to listen to her and to the counsels of M. de Saint-Priest, minister of the interior, whose opinions agreed entirely with hers. But his firmness gave way before the views of M. Necker, and he consented to negotiate, as power to power, with the rioters. Prompted by its leaders, the mob demanded that the king should instantly fix his residence in Paris, and M. de la Fayette sent message after message urging him to comply. Madame Élisabeth expressed her contrary opinion: "It is not to Paris, Sire, that you should go. You have still devoted battalions and faithful guards to protect you. I implore you, my brother, not to go to Paris."
The king, pulled this way and that by conflicting opinions, hesitated too long; the moment of resistance went by; the troops, indignant at a thoughtless neglect of them, lost ardour, and the king, without initiative, without will, deferred to the clamour of the multitude and gave his promise to [Page 25] depart. As the miserable procession passed Montreuil, Madame Élisabeth bent forward in the carriage to look at the trees of her dear domain. "Are you bowing to Montreuil, sister?" asked the king. "Sire, I am bidding it farewell," she answered gently.
From this time she shared the captivity–for such it was–of her brother and his family. At first a semblance of social life was kept up at the Tuileries. The Princesse de Lamballe tried to gather a society about her, and the queen for a while appeared at her assemblies; but confidence and safety were gone; this last effort of gayety, begun by the princess to brighten the queen's life, ceased, and the royal family took up a system of living which they followed ever after, even in the Temple. During the mornings the queen and Madame Élisabeth superintended the lessons of Madame Royale and the dauphin, and worked at large pieces of tapestry. Their minds were too preoccupied by the events of the day, the perils of the present and the threats of the future, to allow them to read books, as they did later in the awful silence and monotony of the Tower; needlework became their sole distraction. Mlle. Dubuquois, who kept a shop for wools and tapestries, long preserved and exhibited a carpet made by the two princesses for the large room of the queen's apartment on the ground floor of the Tuileries.
During this time Madame Élisabeth continued whenever the opportunity came to her to urge the king to assert himself and firmly maintain his power and the monarchy. When M. de Favras was executed (February 19, 1790) and the king did not, or could not, interfere to save him, she exclaimed in the bitterness of her heart: "They have killed Favras because he tried to save the king, and the days of October 5th and 6th remain unpunished! Oh, if the king would only be king, how all would change!" She saw with [Page 26] dread the coming crisis which, breaking the lines of government, would render the king's will impotent and repression impossible. This conviction appears in many details of her life. Noticing that one of her ladies looked attentively into the garden of the Tuileries (May, 1791), she asked what attracted her attention. "Madame, I am looking at our good master, who is walking there." "Our master!" she exclaimed. "Ah! to our sorrow, he is that no longer."
The queen shared the anxiety that the king's weakness inspired in Madame Élisabeth, but she had a hope which Madame Élisabeth did not share. She was convinced that the safety of the royal family and the French monarchy would be undertaken by Austria, and that some efficacious succour would come from that direction, without her making any appeal for it. This was attributing to her brother and the cabinet of Vienna a generosity they were far from having, and admitting a hope which her enemies were not slow in turning into a crime.
It should here be remarked that Madame Élisabeth judged the politics of the European cabinets with severity. She was very far from approving the official advice and crafty insinuations which made their way to Queen Marie-Antoinette. Having a profound aversion for all that did not seem to her upright, just, and straightforward, she was convinced that the secret proceedings of the Comte de Mercy–"that fox," as she called him–would prove fatal; but being without power to combat that influence, she could only pity Marie-Antoinette for enduring it, and for lending an ear to counsels which, without serving the family welfare, compromised, in her opinion, the stability of her brother's throne. To be just, we must here remark that Madame Élisabeth had been brought up, like all the princesses of the House of France, to distrust Austria. The same feelings could not be expected [Page 27] of the daughter of Maria Theresa. Equitable history will recognize that Marie-Antoinette never dreamed of sacrificing France to her native country; but she did hope and believe that the alliance with the House of Austria, of which her marriage had been a pledge, would serve the interests of the two nations, and be a support to the French monarchy now shaken to its foundations.
The day came at last when Louis XVI., goaded by his virtual captivity and exposed to the virulent actions of the clubs as well as to the monstrous insults of the street populace, attempted to recover power. He resolved to leave Paris and raise his standard elsewhere in France, thus following, on the 20th of June, 1791, the advice his sister had given him October 5, 1789.
The story of the escape from Paris and the stoppage at Varennes is too fully told elsewhere to repeat it here. Madame Élisabeth makes only brief allusion to it in her letters of that date. After their return to Paris M. de la Fayette, appointed by the National Assembly governor of the Tuileries and keeper of the king and royal family, offered to allow Madame Élisabeth to leave the kingdom. This she refused to accept, and that decision sealed her fate. Nevertheless, she shuddered as she contemplated with clear eyes the position of the king and queen, deprived of all military support, reduced to beg their friends to go away from them, isolated henceforth on a throne without power, captives in a palace which was really a prison, and forbidden the last right of misfortune, that of complaint. She saw that in vain the king had sacrificed his prerogatives, given up his rights, abandoned his honours; the factions by this time disputed even his right to think, and measured out to him and his family the very air they breathed. Madame Élisabeth made herself no illusions as to the projects of the anarchists; on [Page 28] the 20th of June, 1792, the anniversary of the capture at Varennes, they justified her fears.
She relates the events of that day in a letter, omitting, however, certain acts of her own which redound to her glory. As the king left his family to face the mob, she followed him, and darting through the door, which was instantly locked behind her, she placed herself beside him as he stood on a table which the pressure of the mob had forced him to mount with the bonnet rouge upon his head. The populace took her for the queen and threatened her. "Do not undeceive them," she said. There she remained for several hours, exposed to the vilest insults. Once when a bayonet almost touched her breast, she turned it aside with her hand, saying: "Take care, monsieur, you might wound me, and I am sure you would be sorry for that."
A woman of the people, speaking the next day of the failure of the attack, said: "We could do nothing; they had their Sainte Geneviève with them," giving her the name the fish-wives applied to her as the carriage entered Paris on the fatal 5th of October, the last day of the French monarchy.
It was on the day following this 20th of June, that Louis XVI. wrote to his confessor: "Come and see me this evening, I have done with men; I can now concern myself only with heaven."
In spite of the vast emigration of nobles and gentlemen who abandoned their country and their king from the time of the first revolutionary alarms in 1789,–which has been, perhaps, too much condoned by history in view of their great misfortunes,–a few faithful men remained in Paris after June 20th, resolved to save the king and his family if it were still possible. They knew that the attack of June 20th was an organized blow, missed for the moment, but certain to be repeated. As early as the morning of the [Page 29] 7th of August they had precise information as to what was to happen on the 10th, and they formed a definite plan for the rescue of the royal family. Malouet, in his "Memoirs of the Constituent Assembly," of which he was a member, gives a clear account of this.
Even the Constitutional party, alarmed at the rapidity with which the Revolution was rushing towards anarchy, was ready to rally to the king, and would have supported any action that removed him from Paris and placed him with the army; it was even proposed among them to bring a division under General de la Fayette to Compiègne to favour the escape of the royal family. This plan, conceived as early as May, 1792, failed, owing to the king's incurable distrust of the constitutionals and his remembrance that to them he owed the failure at Varennes. Malouet says:–
"M. de la Fayette, who now judged the state of things more soundly than he did at the beginning of the Revolution, was sincere in his desire to devote himself to the king and the Constitution, after having contributed to put them in great peril. He was sure of his army and that of his colleague Luckner, if the king decided to put himself at their head. He came to Paris in May to make the proposal, and as he knew the king had confidence in me he asked me to meet him."
Louis XVI. rejected this proposal, and Malouet adds: "Whatever were the desires, the hopes of the royal family, nothing justifies the imprudence of the king in isolating himself without defence in the midst of his enemies, and in not being willing, or not knowing how, to rally to himself a national party. . . . Can it be believed that the king, whose judgment was accurate, that the queen, who did not lack enlightenment or courage, that Madame Élisabeth, who had much of both, should have willingly reduced themselves [Page 30] in the midst of the greatest dangers to complete inaction? . . . I do not doubt that the security and hopes of the queen and Madame Élisabeth fastened themselves on help from the foreign Powers, which the king never invited except with much circumspection and always in hopes of averting a national war. These tentatives were as inconsequent as all else that he did. There was nothing precise, nothing complete in his plan; the secret powers given to the Baron de Breteuil were only contingent; more vague than unlimited, they appealed neither to the foreign armies, nor to the great body of émigrés assembled on the frontier; they simply tended to the mediation of the allies of France."
Meantime the crisis was approaching. The 5th of October and the 20th of June foretold it; on the 10th of August it came. There is comfort in feeling that a few generous hearts remained in Paris watching for a chance to save the royal family even at the last moment. Malouet was one of them, and he thus tells of their final effort, their forlorn hope:–
"M. de Lally [Tollendal]," he says, "came frequently to our meetings at the house of M. de Montmorin with MM. de Malesherbes, Clermont-Tonnerre, Bertrand, la Tour-du-Pin, Sainte-Croix, and Gouverneur Morris, envoy of the United States, for whom the king had a liking, and who gave His Majesty (but as uselessly as the rest of us) the most vigorous advice. It was on the 7th of August that we dined together for the last time. Our conference had for its object to attempt a fresh effort to carry off, by means of the Swiss Guard, the royal family and take them to Pontoise. Being fully warned in detail of all the preparations for the 10th of August, we had been assembled in consultation ever since the morning at M. de Montmorin's. He had written to the king informing him of everything, and saying that [Page 31] now there could be no holding back; that we should be the next morning before daylight, to the number of seventy, at the royal stables, where the order must be given to have saddle-horses ready for us; that the National Guard of the Tuileries, commanded by Acloque, would aid our expedition; that four companies of the Swiss Guard would start at the same hour from Courbevoie and come to meet the king; that we ourselves should escort him to the Champs-Élysées and put him in a carriage with his family. The bearer of the letter came back without reply. M. de Montmorin went at once to the king. Madame Élisabeth informed him that the insurrection would not take place; that Santerre and Pétion had pledged themselves to that; that they had received seven hundred and fifty thousand francs to prevent it and to bring the Marseillais over to the king's side. The king was none the less anxious and agitated, though fully decided not to leave Paris. . . . He said he preferred to expose himself to all dangers than begin civil war."
This is not the place to relate the public events of those days, so well known, with their causes and actors, to history; suffice it to say that the plan which miscarried June 20th was carried out on the 10th of August, when the king was persuaded, against the will of his wife and sister, to seek refuge in the National Assembly, while the Swiss Guard, believing he was still in the palace, fought to defend him and were butchered to a man. "Nail me to that wall," said Marie-Antoinette, "if I consent to go."
But before this day Madame Élisabeth had abandoned hope; she no longer sought to arm the king with courage; the lines of her face, and the look from her eyes now said, "Resignation," and such was her history from that moment. Her last letter bore date August 8, 1792,–two days before the fatal 10th; in it she spoke of the "death of the execu- [Page 32] tive power," adding, "I can enter into no details." The last glimpse we have of her as a comparatively free woman on her way through the Tuileries to the National Assembly, is given by M. de La Rochefoucauld, in his unpublished Memoirs:–
"They issued," he says, "by the centre door [of the Tuileries]. M. de Bachmann, major of the Swiss Guard, came first through two ranks of his soldiers. M. de Poix followed him at a little distance, walking immediately before the king. The queen followed the king, leading the dauphin by the hand. Madame Élisabeth gave her arm to Madame the king's daughter; the Princesse de Lamballe and Mme. de Tourzel followed. I was in the garden, near enough to offer my arm to Madame de Lamballe, who was the most dejected and frightened of the party; she took it. The king walked erect; his countenance was composed, but sorrow was painted on his face. The queen was in tears; from time to time she wiped them and strove to take a confident air, which she kept for a while; nevertheless, having had her for a moment on my arm, I felt her tremble. The dauphin did not seem much frightened. Madame Élisabeth was calm, resigned to all; it was religion that inspired her. She said to me, looking at the ferocious populace: 'All those people are misguided; I wish their conversion, but not their punishment.' The little Madame wept softly. Madame de Lamballe said to me, 'We shall never return to the Château.'"
The Tower of the Temple, that historical purgatory of the royalty of France, is now to be the last scene and witness of the virtues of Madame Élisabeth; and it is also to witness a transformation in the character of its chief captive. Louis XVI., no longer feeble and irresolute, blundering and inert, becomes a patient, tranquil man, brave unto death, with charity to all, a true Christian, the innocent expiator of the crimes and faults of other reigns.
1 The lover of Mlle. de Lespinasse.–TR.
1 She was the daughter of Madame Infanta Duchess of Parma, oldest twin daughter of Louis XV., consequently the first cousin of Madame Élisabeth.–TR.
This chapter has been put on-line as part of the
BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteers
Lisa Perkins and Carmen Baxter.