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Marie Antoinette

      Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria, was not highly educated; and she was incapable of directing the studies of her children, although by precept and example she laid the foundation of characters, all of which became more or less remarkable. Marie Antoinette, her youngest child, was perhaps the most neglected. She once innocently caused the dismissal of her governess, through a confession that all the letters and drawings shown to her mother, in proof of her improvement, had been previously traced with a pencil. At fifteen her knowledge of Italian, studied under Metastasio, was the only branch of her education which had been fairly attended to, if we except considerable conversance with the "Lives of the Saints" and other legendary lore, the favorite fictions of monastic compilers. Nature had, nevertheless, done much for the young archduchess; she possessed great facility for learning, and was not slow in taking advantage of opportunities for improvement when they were afforded. In person she was most attractive. "Beaming with freshness," says Madame Campan, "she appeared to all eyes more than beautiful. Her walk partook at once of the noble character of the princesses of her house and of the graces of the French; her eyes were mild, her smile lovely. It was impossible to refrain from admiring her aerial deportment; her smile was sufficient to win the heart; and in this enchanting being, in whom the splendor of French gayety shone forth, an indescribable but august serenity--perhaps, also, the somewhat proud position of her head and shoulders--betrayed the daughter of the Caesars." Such, according to her affectionate chronicler, appeared Marie Antoinette, when her nuptials were celebrated at Versailles with the Dauphin of France.

      Superstitious minds discovered fatal omens from the earliest years of the hapless dauphiness. She had begun ill by first drawing breath upon the very day of the earthquake of Lisbon; this made a great impression on the mother, and later upon the child also. Another incident was not less discouraging: the empress had "protected a person named Gassner," who fancied himself inspired, and affected to predict events. "Tell me," she said to him one day, "whether my Antoinette will be happy?" At first Gassner turned pale and remained silent, but, urged by the empress, and dreading to distress her by his own fancies, he said, equivocally, "Madame, there are crosses for all shoulders." Goethe notices that a pavilion erected to receive Marie Antoinette and her suite in the neighborhood of Strasburg was lined with tapestry depicting the story of Jason, "the most fatal union" on record; and a few days later, when the young queen arrived from Versailles to witness the rejoicings of the people upon her marriage, she was compelled to fly, terrified, from a scene remarkable not for festivity and happiness, but for the variety and horror of its accidents. These circumstances threw a gloom over the prospective triumphs of the impressionable bride; but her nature and age were alike favorable to vivacity, and she shook off the morbid influence.

      Something of her mother's wise advice to her as to the course she should follow in her new position has been preserved in the following letter:

      "My Dear Daughter:

      "... Do not take any recommendations; listen to no one, if you would be at peace. Have no curiosity,--this is a fault which I fear greatly for you; avoid all familiarity with your inferiors. Ask of Monsieur and Madame de Noailles, and even exact of them, under all circumstances, advice as to what, as a foreigner and being desirous of pleasing the nation, you should do, and that they should tell you frankly if there be anything in your bearing, discourse, or any point which you should correct. Reply amiably to every one, and with grace and dignity; you can if you will. You must learn to refuse.... After Strasburg you must accept nothing without taking counsel of Monsieur and Madame de Noailles; and you should refer to them every one who would speak to you of his personal affairs, saying frankly that being a stranger yourself, you cannot undertake to recommend any one to the king. If you wish you may add, in order to make your reply more emphatic, 'The empress, my mother, has expressly forbidden me to undertake any recommendations.' Do not be ashamed to ask advice of any one, and do nothing on your own responsibility.... In the king you will find a tender father who will also be your friend if you deserve it. Put entire confidence in him; you will run no risk. Love him, obey him, seek to divine his thoughts; you cannot do enough on this moment when I am losing you.... Concerning the dauphin I shall say nothing; you know my delicacy on this point. A wife should be submissive in everything to her husband, and should have no thought but to please him and do his will.... The only true happiness in this world lies in a happy marriage; I know whereof I speak. Everything depends on the wife if she be yielding, sweet, and amusing.... I counsel you, my dear daughter, to reread this letter on the twenty-first of every month. I beg you to be true to me on this point. My only fear for you is negligence in your prayers and studies; and lukewarmness succeeds negligence. Fight against it, for it is more dangerous than a more reprehensible, even wicked state; one can conquer that more easily. Love your family; be affectionate to them--to your aunts as well as to your brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. Suffer no evil-speaking; you must either silence the persons, or escape it by withdrawing from them. If you value your peace of mind, you must from the start avoid this pitfall, which I greatly fear for you knowing your curiosity....

      "Your mother,

Marie Antoinette.

      The grand annoyance Marie Antoinette experienced upon her entrance into the French Court, was the necessity of observing a system of etiquette to which she had been unaccustomed, and soon pronounced, with girlish vehemence, insupportable. Barriere copies a ridiculous anecdote in illustration of this from the manuscript fragments of Madame Campan: "Madame de Noailles" (this was the first lady of honor to the dauphiness) "abounded in virtues; I cannot pretend to deny it. Her piety, charity, and irreproachable morals rendered her worthy of praise, but etiquette was to her a sort of atmosphere; at the slightest derangement of the consecrated order, one would have thought she would have been stifled, and that life would forsake her frame. One day I unintentionally threw this poor lady into a terrible agony. The queen was receiving I know not whom--some persons just presented, I believe; the lady of honor, the queen's tire-woman, and the ladies of the bed-chamber were behind the queen. I was near the throne with the two women on duty. All was right; at least, I thought so. Suddenly I perceived the eyes of Madame de Noailles fixed on mine. She made a sign with her head, and then raised her eyebrows to the top of her forehead, lowered them, raised them again, then began to make little signs with her hand. From all this pantomime, I could easily perceive that something was not as it should be; as I looked about on all sides to find out what it was, the agitation of the countess kept increasing. The queen, who perceived all this, looked at me with a smile. I found means to approach her Majesty, who said to me in a whisper: 'Let down your lappets, or the countess will expire.' All this bustle arose from two unlucky pins, which fastened up my lappets, while the etiquette of costume said 'Lappets hanging down.'"

      To the Countess de Noailles Marie Antoinette speedily gave the name of Madame l'Etiquette; this pleasantry the object of it could pardon, not so the French nation. The avowed dislike to ceremony manifested by the lively little dauphiness, her desire to substitute the simple manners of her native Vienna for the stately formality of Versailles, displeased more than her genuine condescension and affability attracted. Early also in her married life, to beguile the heavy tedium of their evenings, she instituted a variety of childish games which became talked of and condemned; she liked theatrical representations, and persuaded her two young brothers-in-law, with the princesses, to join her in performing plays, and though they were kept secret for a time, she suffered for her innocent contrivances in public opinion. It must be remembered that Marie Antoinette had no sincere friends upon her arrival in France, except the Duc de Choiseul and his party, and his disgrace prevented her deriving much benefit from the man who had first negotiated her marriage. The house of Austria was looked upon with dislike and doubt; nor were these, even in the case of the young dauphin's aunt, Madame Adelaide, made a matter of concealment. Thus, at her entrance upon public life, Antoinette was met with cynicism and prejudice, and unfortunately her own conduct rather increased than quieted the insidious voice--the "bruit sourd"--of both.

      Louis XV. had manifested from the first great pleasure in the society of his grandson's bride. After dining in his apartment at the Tuileries, upon her arrival at Paris, she was obliged to acknowledge the shouts of the multitude, which filled the garden below, by presenting herself on the balcony. The Governor of Paris had told her politely at the time, that "these were so many lovers." Little did she think that at the very moment a strong party around her was planning her divorce, under the supposition that the dauphin's coldness to his bride proceeded from dislike. Louis was a timid, though rough, youth at the time, and for a considerable period treated the attractions which the courtiers so highly extolled, with churlish indifference. The French king, indeed, did his best to promote a better understanding, and when the reserve of the dauphin once thawed, the latter became tenderly attached to her, and greatly improved by her influence and society.

      An interesting trait of this youthful pair is told, as occurring at the moment when they might have been excused for entertaining other and more selfish thoughts. They were expecting the intelligence of the death of Louis XV. It had been agreed, as the disorder was one frightfully contagious, that the court should depart immediately upon learning it could be of no further assistance, and that a lighted taper, placed in the window of the dying monarch's chamber, should form a signal for the cavalcade to prepare for the journey. The taper was extinguished; a tumult of voices and advancing feet were heard in the outer apartment. "It was the crowd of courtiers deserting the dead sovereign's ante-chamber, to come and bow to the new power of Louis XVI." With a spontaneous impulse the dauphin and his bride threw themselves upon their knees, and shedding a torrent of tears, exclaimed, "O God! guide us, protect us; we are too young to govern." Thus the Countess de Noailles found them as she entered, the first to salute Marie Antoinette as Queen of France.

      For some time the young queen's liking for children was ungratified by the possession of any of her own, and this gave rise to an amusing attempt to adopt one belonging to others. One day, when she was driving near Luciennes, a little peasant boy fell under the horses' feet, and might have been killed. The queen took him to Versailles, appointed him a nurse, and installed him in the royal apartments, constantly seating him in her lap at breakfast and dinner. This child afterward grew up a most sanguinary revolutionist! It was nine years before Marie Antoinette had the blessing of any offspring; four children were after that interval, born to her, two of whom died in their infancy, and two survived to share their parent's subsequent imprisonment. The sad history of her son's fate, a promising and attractive boy, is well known.

      We have seen the Austrian princess was no favorite with her husband's nation. After a time accusations as unjust as serious assailed her, and in the horrors of the succeeding revolution the popular feeling evinced itself in a hundred frightful ways. Louis XVI., a mild prince, averse to violence or bloodshed, was unfit to stem the tide of opposition; had he possessed the energy of his queen, the Reign of Terror had perhaps never existed. Throughout her misfortunes, in every scene of flight, of opprobrium, and desolation, her magnanimity and courage won, even from the ruffians around, occasional expressions of sympathy. A harrowing and melancholy history is hers, and one which has been often vividly narrated; its details, also, are sufficiently recent to be still fresh within the recollection of many. For these reasons, and further because it seems to us a repellent, if not a mischievous, act to amplify such records before advancing age shall have invested them to the mind with deeper significance, we gladly pass over the picture suggested by this dark historical page, and, resuming the narrative where Madame de Campan drops it, content ourselves with a description of the last scene in the terrible drama.

      When this devoted woman left her royal mistress in the miserable cell at the Convent of the Feuillans, she never again saw her. Imprisonment, and the intense grief she experienced, more for others than for herself, completely transformed the once beautiful queen; her hair was prematurely silvered, like that of Mary Stuart, her figure bowed, her voice low and tremulous. Then came the separation from the king. Once more only did her eyes again behold him, and after the parting between the dethroned monarch and his adoring family, he might indeed have been able to say, "The bitterness of death was passed." However weak at intervals, the unhappy Louis met his death heroically. The sufferings of his wife at the time when the guns boomed out the fearful catastrophe, may be supposed to have been as great as the human frame has power to endure. Shortly after, she was separated from her children and conveyed to the prison of the Conciergerie, a damp and loathsome place, whence she was summoned one morning in October to receive a sentence for which it is probable she ardently longed. Let us look at her through the bars of her prison upon her return thither after it was pronounced.

      It is four o'clock in the morning. The widowed Queen of France stands calm and resigned in her cell, listening with a melancholy smile to the tumult of the mob outside. A faint illumination announces the approach of day; it is the last she has to live! Seating herself at a table she writes, with hurried hand, a last letter of ardent tenderness to the sister of her husband, the pious Madame Elizabeth, and to her children; and now she passionately presses the insensible paper to her lips, as the sole remaining link between those dear ones and herself. She stops, sighs, and throws herself upon her miserable pallet. What! in such an hour as this can the queen sleep? Even so!

      And now look up, daughter of the Caesars! Thou art waked from dreams of hope and light, from the imaged embrace of thy beloved Louis, thy tender infants, by a kind voice, choked by tears. Arise! emancipated one, thy prison doors are open. Freedom, freedom is at hand!

      Immediately in front of the palace of the Tuileries--scene of the short months of her wedded happiness--there rises a dark, ominous mass. Around is a sea of human faces; above, the cold frown of a winter's sky. With a firm step the victim ascends the stairs of the scaffold, her white garments wave in the chill breeze, a black ribbon by which her cap is confined beats to and fro against her pale cheeks. You may see that she is unmindful of her executioners--she glances, nay, almost smiles, at the sharp edge of the guillotine, and then turning her eyes toward the Temple, utters, in a few agitated words, her last earthly farewell to Louis and her children. There is a hush--a stillness of the grave--for the very headsman trembles as the horrible blade falls--anon, a moment's delay. And now, look! No, rather veil your eyes from the dreadful sight; close your ears to that fiendish shout--Vive la Republique! It is over! the sacrifice is accomplished! the weary spirit is at rest!

      Let us dwell upon this last mournful pageant only sufficiently far as to imitate the virtues, and emulate the firmness and resignation with which she met her doom. Nothing is permitted without a meaning, all is for either warning or example; and while breathing a prayer that Heaven may avert a recurrence of such outrages, let us remember that moral indecision, the undue love of pleasure, and an aimless, profitless mode of life, as surely, and not less fatally, may raise the surging tide of events no human skill can quell, as the most selfish abandonment to uncontrolled desires.

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