Escapes, by John Buchan

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The Flight to Varennes

On the night of Monday, 20th June, in the year 1791, the baked streets of Paris were cooling after a day of cloudless sun. The pavements were emptying and the last hackney coaches were conveying festive citizens homewards. In the Rue de Pechelle, at the corner where it is cut by the Rue St. Honore, and where the Hotel de Normandie stands to-day, a hackney carriage, of the type which was then called a “glass coach,” stood waiting by the kerb. It stood opposite the door of one Ronsin, a saddler, as if expecting a fare; but the windows were shuttered, and the honest Ronsin had gone to bed. On the box sat a driver in the ordinary clothes of a coachman, who while he waited took snuff with other cabbies, and with much good-humoured chaff declined invitations to drink.

The hour of eleven struck; the streets grew emptier and darker; but still the coach waited. Presently from the direction of the Tuileries came a hooded lady -with two hooded children, who, at a nod from the driver, entered the coach. Then came another veiled lady attended by a servant, and then a stout male figure with a wig and a round hat, who, as he passed the sentries at the palace gate, found his shoe-buckle undone and bent to fasten it, thereby hiding his face. The glass coach was now nearly full; but still the driver waited.

The little group of people all bore famous names. On the box, in the driver’s cloak, sat Court Axel Fersen, a young Swedish nobleman who had vowed his life to the service of the Queen of France. The first hooded lady, whose passport proclaimed that she was a Russian gentlewoman, one Baroness de Korff, was the Duchess de Tourzel, the governess of the royal children. The other hooded lady was no other than Madame Elizabeth, the King’s sister, One of the children was the little Princess Royal, afterwards known as the Duchess d’Angouleme; the other, also dressed like a girl, was the Dauphin. The stout gentleman in the round hat was King Louis XVI. The coach in the Rue de 1’Echelle was awaiting the Queen.

For months the royal family had been prisoners in the Tuileries, while the Revolution lurched forward in swift stages. They were prisoners in the strictest sense, for they had been forbidden even the customary Easter visit to St. Cloud. The puzzled, indolent king was no better than a cork tossed upon yeasty waters. Mirabeau was dead. Mirabeau who might have saved the monarchy; now the only hope was to save the royal family, for the shades were growing very dark around it. Marie Antoinette, the Queen, who, as Mirabeau had said, was “ the only man the King had about him,” had resolved to make a dash for freedom. She would leave Paris, even France, and seek her friends beyond the borders. The National Militia and the National Guards were for the Revolution; but the army of Bouille on the eastern frontier, composed largely of German mercenaries, would do its general’s orders, and Bouille was staunch for the crown. Count Fersen had organized the plan, and the young Duke de Choiseul, a nephew of the minister of Louis XV., had come to Paris to settle the details. A coach had been built for the journey, a huge erection of leather and wood, of the type then called a berline, painted yellow, upholstered in white velvet, and drawn by no less than eleven horses. It was even now standing outside the eastern gate, and Fersen was waiting with Ma hacfcaev carriage to conduct the royal fugitives thither. But where was the Queen? Marie Antoinette, dressed as a maid and wearing a broad gipsy hat, had managed to pass the palace doors; but rumours had got abroad, and even as she stood there leaning on a servant’s arm the carriage of Lafayette dashed up to the arch, for he had been summoned by the Commandant, who represented the eyes of the National Assembly. The sight flurried her, ‘and she and her servant took the wrong turning. They hastened towards the river, and then back, but found no waiting coach.

The chimes struck midnight, and at long last Persen from the box in the Rue de 1’Echelle saw the figure which he knew so well, the lady in the gipsy hat who was the Queen. The party was now complete. The door was shut; the driver plied his whip, and the coach started northward through the sleeping city, Up the street where Mirabeau had lived they went, till in the Rue de dichy the coachman stopped to ask a question at a house about the great berline. He was told that it had left half an hour ago. The carriage then turned eastward and passed through the eastern gate. There stood the berline, with two yellow liveried gentlemen of the Guard to act as postilions. The King and Queen, the two children, Madame Elizabeth, and the so-called Baroness de Cerf, free now from the cramped hackney coach, reclined at ease on the broad cushions. The hackney coach was then turned adrift citywards, and was found next morning upset in a ditch. Again Count Fersen took the reins, and as the eastern sky was paling to dawn they reached the end of the first stage, the post and relay station of Bondy.

Fresh horses were waiting and fresh postilions, and one of the gentlemen-in-waiting took Fersen’s place on the box. Fersen walked round to the side where the Queen sat and took a brief farewell. Marie Antoinette’s hand touched his and slipped upon his finger a broad ring of very pale gold. The young Swede turned and rode towards Bourget and the highway to Brussels so passing out of the history of France.

Daylight broadened and the great berline rumbled along the highroad, being presently joined by a cabriolet carrying two of the Queen’s maids and a collection of baggage. The royal family, no longer drowsy in the fresh morning air, fell into good spirits. A matter of an hour and a half had been wasted at the start, But now the coach travelled briskly at a speed of something like seven miles an hour. They believed the escape to have already succeeded, and talked happily of their plans. Soon the suburbs and the market gardens were left behind, and long before they reached the posting station of Meaux they were in a land of deep meadows and cornfields.

Their plan was to go by way of Chalons, Ste. Menehould, and Clermont to Varennes, where Bouille would await them. But meantime cavalry patrols from Bouille’s army were to come west into Champagne and be ready at each stage to form up behind and make a screen between them and their enemies. The weak points of the scheme are clear. Had the, royal family divided itself and gone by different routes to the frontier in humbler equipages there would have been little risk of capture. But a coach so vast as the new yellow berline was bound to excite inquiry as soon as it left the main highways and entered the side roads of Champagne and the Argonne. Moreover, the cavalry patrols of Bouille, most of them Germans, would certainly rouse comment and suspicion, for the folk of the little towns as far as the Meuse were vehement for the Revolution. These clumsy contrivances were sops to the King, who had as little ingenuity and imagination as he had resolution. Had Marie Antoinette and Fersen had a free hand they would have planned differently.

At Meaux the travellers were in the rich Marne valley, and presently they turned off the main road which runs by Epernay, and struck across the table-land, made famous by the late war, where flow the streams of the Grand and Petit Morin. They had a picnic breakfast in the coach, drinking from a single loving cup, and using their loaves as platters on which to cut the meat. All were very happy and at ease. The children walked up the long hill from the Marne valley. At the post-houses the King got out to stretch his legs and talk to the bystanders. It was a risky business, for the face of the man in the round hat was on every Treasury note. Louis was indeed recognized. At a place called Viels Maisons a postilion recognized him but said nothing; it was not his business, he argued in true peasant fashion.

It grew scorchingly hot, and the wide grassy fields slumbered under a haze of heat. About two they reached a place called Chaintrix, where, in the post-house, was one Vallet, who had been in Paris. He saw and recognized the king and told the news to his father-in-law, the postmaster. Both were enthusiastic royalists, but it is probable that the news spread to some who were not, and news flies fast through a countryside. This Vallet was indeed a misfortune, for he insisted himself on riding with the leaders, and twice let the horses down, so that another hour at least was wasted.

About four o’clock in the afternoon the berline, accompanied by the cabriolet, reached Chalons. Here secrecy was obviously impossible, for it was a big town filled with people who had seen both King and Queen. But these townsfolk did not seek trouble for themselves; it was not their business to stop their Majesties if they had a fancy for a jaunt to the east. It would seem that one man at least tried to force their hand, and, finding he could do nothing with the municipal authorities, galloped on ahead, passing the coach as it halted at the foot of a hill, and carrying the news to more dangerous regions. But at any rate the berline was now free of Chalons, which had been considered the main danger, and a straight lonely road led for twenty-five miles through the Champagne Pouilleuse to Ste. Menehould at the foot of the Argonne. In seven or eight miles they would be at the tiny bridge of Somme-Vesle, where the infant trickle of the river Vesle ran in a culvert below the road. There stood a long farm house close up to the kerb, and nothing else could be seen in the desolate grey-green countryside. On the Chalons side there was a slight rise and beyond that a hill, so that dwellers at the post-house had no long prospect of the road to the west. Had the configuration of the land been otherwise, history might have been written differently.

Now at Somme–Vesle the first of Bouille’s cavalry guards were to meet and form up behind the King. The posse was under the Duke de Choiseul, and consisted chiefly of German mercenaries. It professed to be an escort for a convoy of treasure, but the excuse was lame. What treasure could be coming that way, and if it was a cavalry patrol from Bouille’s army, why was it flung out towards the base and not towards the enemy?

According to the time-table drawn up by Fersen and Choiseul, the King would arrive at Somme–Vesle at one o’clock. Choiseul, with his half-troop of German hussars, arrived in time and waited anxiously through the grilling afternoon. Long afterwards he told the story to Alexandre Dumas, the novelist. At first, apart from his fifty mercenaries, there was no one there except the jostlers in the post-house and a few peasants in the fields. Presently suspicion grew. The peasants began to leave their work and crowd round the hussars till the soldiers were greatly outnumbered. There was some trouble afoot with the tenants of a neighbouring landowner, and it was believed that Choiseul’s men were there to exercise force. Word came that the neighbouring villages were rising, for the Revolution had made almost every village a little military post.

The long dusty road remained baked and empty, and the barren downs seemed to swim in the afternoon glare. The road was silent, but not so the neighbourhood of the post-house. Peasants crowded round with questions. Why did not the foreigners unsaddle? Why did they not ride down the road to meet their. treasure? Presently the rumour spread, Heaven knows how! that the Bang was expected to pass, and the crowd became greater. Choiseul sat on his horse through the sultry hours till he looked at his watch and found that it was five o’clock.

Clearly the King had not started at all. That seemed the only sane conclusion. He gave the order to wheel about and return. He had fresh horses put into his own travelling carriage and gave a note for the officers in command at Ste. Menehould and Clermont, mentioning that he doubted whether the treasure would come that day. Then he took his hussars back along the road they had come, and at the hamlet of Orbeval turned to the left into the Argonne forest in case his appearance in Ste. Menehould should arouse suspicion. By a little after half-past five the last hussar had gone, the peasants had moved off to supper, and the white road was again deserted.

A quarter of an hour later the berline arrived. The King, who was following the road with a map and a guide-book, asked the name of the place and was told Somme–Vesle. Remembering that there Choiseul was to have met them, doubt for the first time seems to have fallen upon the little party. That quarter of an hour, as it turned out, was to be the difference.

It was now early evening, and with fresh horses the berline rolled through the pastures and lanes to where, with the setting sun upon them, rose the woody ridges of the Argonne. Just below the lift of the hills lay Ste. Menehould. At the hour of sunset its streets had the pleasant stir which evening brings to a country town. Men and women were gossiping and drinking outside their doors. There was a handful of French dragoons under Captain Dandoins in the place, sent by Bouille, and at the door of the post-house stood one Jean Baptiste Drouet who had once been a dragoon in the Conde regiment. He was a dark, loutish fellow, saturnine of face, still young, very strong, active and resolute. He was a fervent patriot, too, and that afternoon he had heard strange rumours coming from the west. As he saw the cabriolet enter with its mountain of bonnet boxes, and then the huge berline with its yellow-liveried guards, he realized that something out of the common was happening. The green blinds were up to let in the evening air, and the faces of both King and Queen were plain to the onlookers. The berline did not halt, but rumbled over the bridge of Aisne, and up into the high woods. But Drouet had seen enough to make the thing clear to him. The King and Queen were in flight; they were going towards Metz!

The ex-dragoon was a man of strong resolution and quick action. The drums were beat; Dandoins and his troop were arrested and disarmed, and with an other old dragoon of Cond6, one Guillaume, an inn-keeper, Drouet set off hell-for-leather on the trail.

The great coach with its eleven horses and 11 yellow-liveried guards on the rumble, climbed slowly up to the summit of the Argonne ridge. There were about 400 feet to climb, and it was some four miles to the crest. After that came the little village of Islettes in a hollow, and then a stretch of four miles to the town of Clermont in the valley of the river Aire. There the royal road must turn at right angles down the Aire to Varennes, which lay nine miles off, a flat straight road in the valley bottom. Drouet and Guillaume had the last two horses left in Ste. Menehould, and the berline had an hour’s start of them. They believed that the King was going to Metz, and that what was before them was a stern chase on the highroad.

The berline reached Clermont about twenty minutes to ten. At Clermont there were royal troops, and Drouet had no notion how to deal with them; but he hoped somehow to raise the people in the town on his sMe. The occupants of the berline had now lost all their high hopes of the morning. They realized that they were late and that somehow their plans were miscarrying, and they were in a fever to get past Varennes into the protection of Bouille’s army. It took a quarter of an hour to change horses at Clermont, and then about ten o’clock the Metz road was relinquished and the great vehicle lumbered off at its best pace down the Aire valley.

About the same moment Drouet and Guillaume came within a mile of Clermont. The night had grown very dark and cloudy, though there was somewhere a moon. They heard voices and discovered it was the postilions from Ste. Menehould turning homewards. These postilions had a story to tell. The berline was not on the Metz road. They had heard the orders given to turn northward to Varennes.

Drouet was a man of action, and in a moment his mind was made up. He must somehow get ahead of the royal carriage which was on the road in the valley below. The only chance was to cut off the corner by taking to the woody ridge of the Argonne which stretched some 300 feet above the open plain. Now along that eastern scarp of the Argonne runs a green ride which had once been a Roman road. He and his companion galloped through the brushwood till they struck the ride.

It was, as Carlyle has called it, “ a night of spurs.’ Three parties were straining every nerve to reach Varennes: the anxious King and Queen in the great berlins, jolting along the highway; the Duke de Choiseul, who had taken a short cut from Somme–Vesle, avoiding Ste. Menehould, plunging with his hussars among the pathless woods; and Drouet and Guillaume making better speed along the green ride, while from the valley on their right the night wind brought them the far-off sound of the Kong’s wheels. There seemed still a good chance of escape, for at Varennes was Bouille’s son with more hussars, waiting in that part of the village which lay east of the Aire bridge.

Seven miles after he left the highway Drouet came to an ancient stone set up in the forest which bears the name of the Dead Girl a place only too famous in the Argonne fighting in the Great War. There he took the green ride to the right, and coming out of the woods saw the lights of Varennes a little before him. The town seemed strangely quiet. He and Guillaume had done eleven miles of rough going within an hour; now it was only eleven, and as they stopped to rest their panting beasts they listened for the sound of wheels. But there was no sound. Had the berline with its fateful load beaten them and crossed the bridge into the protection of Bouille’s men?

Drouet rushed into the taverns to ask if any late revellers had seen a great coach go through. The revellers shook their heads. No coach that night had passed through Varennes. Suddenly came a cry, and he looked behind him up the long hill of the Clermom road. There, on the top, were the headlights of the coach. It halted, for it was expecting Bouille’s escort. The Clermont postilions were giving trouble; they declared that they were not bound to go down the hill, for the horses were needed early next morning to carry in the hay. At last the coach started, and the creak of its brakes could be heard on the hill. Drouet ran into the inn called “ The Golden Arm,” crying on every man who was for France to come out and stop the berline, since inside it was the King.

There was only one thing for him to do, to hold the bridge over the Aire. Now, at the bridgehead stood a great furniture van without horses, waiting to start for somewhere in the morning. Drouet and his handful of assistants pulled it across the bridge and blocked the approach. Meantime one Sausse, a tallow chandler and the procurator of the town, had appeared on the scene, and seen to the rousing of every household on the west side of the river.

Half-way down the hill to the bridge the road goes through an archway under an old church. At that archway the only two men of the company who had arms took up position, and when the berline arrived challenged it and brought it to a stand. Passports were demanded, and as the Baroness de Cerf fumbled for them the Queen looked out of the window. She begged the gentlemen, whoever they might be, to get the business over quickly, as “she was desirous of reaching the end of her journey as soon as might be’ It was an ill-omened phrase which was long remembered.

Meantime the two armed men had increased their numbers, and some of Bouille’s German hussars joined the crowd, more or less drunk. The cabriolet had also been stopped and the maids in it hustled into the inn. But it seemed that the passports were in order, and the Varennes officials were prepared to let the coach continue on its way. It was the crisis of the French monarchy. Escape seemed once more certain, when Drouet intervened. He knew that Bouille’s son was waiting beyond the river, and that Bouille himself would arrive soon after dawn with ample forces. What

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lie sought to gain was time; on no account must the King cross the Aire till morning.

The embarrassed officials yielded to his threats and fury. “ If there is any doubt’ said the procurator, “ it will do no harm to wait for daylight. It is a dark night and the beasts are tired.” He would endorse the passports in the morning. He assisted the King and the Queen to alight, and escorted them to his own house. Hope was not yet wholly gone, for there were still Choiseul and his hussars blundering through the Argonne woods. Meantime the fierce Drouet had had the tocsin sounded and every soul in Varennes was in the streets, waiting on some happening, they knew not what.

Just about dawn Choiseul arrived with his German troopers. He saw what was astir, and had he had Frenchmen in his command all might have been saved. He urged them to rescue the King, and ordered them to charge to clear the streets, which they did, and formed up outside M. Sausse’s house, in which Marie Antoinette and her two children were lying huddled on truckle beds. Outside was the perpetual noise of drums and men; every one who could find any kind of weapon trooped up to it and thronged the square. Meantime, young Bouille across the river had heard the tocsin, and, being uncertain what to do, had returned to his father.

When the morning light broadened the whole neighbourhood was gathered outside the procurator’s house. M. Sausse, a devotee of official decorum, felt compelled to endorse the passports and let the royal family continue their journey. But Drouet had other views, and these views were shared by the crowd in tlie streets. Choiseul, had his mercenaries been of any value, had still the game in his hands. For the second time he ordered them to charge. But the German hussars, comprehending nothing except that there was a large number of formidable citizens opposed to them, sat still on their horses. The King in his green coat appeared at the window of his lodging and was greeted with cheers and with something else which meant the ruin of his hopes, for the mob of ten thousand with one voice shouted, “ Back to Paris! ”

About six o’clock there arrived at Varennes two men from the Council in Paris, Bayon and Romeuf. They had ridden madly all day and night, and had brought a demand from the Council for their Majesties’ immediate return. The Queen was furious, and flung the message on the ground. But the King had made up his mind. He had had enough of this undignified secrecy and uncomfortable jolting. He would go back to Paris to the people with whom he was so popular.

Indeed, he had no other choice. The advance guards of Bouille’s horse were even then appearing on the heights behind the Aire, but there were 10,000 men in Varennes, and nothing but artillery could have cleared the place. Bouille, even had he been in time, could have done nothing. When, about seven o’clock, the royalist general himself looked down on the bridge, he saw a cloud of dust on the Clermont road which told him that the berline had begun its return journey, accompanied by thousands of marching citizens. The adventure was over. What had seemed so certain had shipwrecked on a multitude of blunders, and the strange perversities of fortune. The King and Queen were returning to a prison from -which there was to be no outlet but death.

What of the young Swede, Count Axel Fersen, whom we last saw at Bondy receiving from Marie Antoinette the broad gold ring? The lovers of queens have for the most part been tragically fated, and his lot was no exception to the rule. It is hard for us to-day to judge of the charm of Marie Antoinette; from her portraits her figure and features seem too heavy, though her hair and colouring were beautiful; but she seems to have had a share of that inexplicable compelling power which certain women have possessed: Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Mary of Scots, Elizabeth of Bohemia which makes men willing to ride on their behalf over the edge of the world. Fersen, who had worshipped her at first sight when a boy in his teens, was to spend the nineteen remaining years of his life a slave of tragic and tender memories. After her death he became a “ fey “ man, silent, abstracted, grave beyond other men, and utterly contemptuous of danger, one like Sir Palamede

“ Who, riding ever through a lonely world, Whene’er on adverse shield or helm he came Against the danger desperately hurled, Crying her name.”

He rose to be a famous soldier and marshal of the Swedish armies, and at the age of fifty-five was confronted with a riot in Stockholm. Inside the church of Riddenholm were the nobles of Sweden, barricaded and safe; outside on the steps he stood alone, having been dragged from his carriage, his sword in his right hand and on his left the ring of the Queen of France, which the people of the North believed to be a thing of witchcraft.

For a little he held the steps, for no man dared come within the sweep of his terrible sword or the glow of his more terrible ring. At last some one thought of stones. They were flung from a distance, and presently he was maimed and crushed till he died. Then, and not till then, the mob came near his body, shielding their eyes from the gleam of the ring. One man, a fisherman, Zaffel by name, took his axe and hacked the finger off while the crowd cheered. Averting his head he plucked at the thing, and, running to the river bank, flung it far into the stream.

The rest of the story of the ring is as wild a legend as ever came out of the North. It is said that Zaffel, going fishing next morning after the fury of the riots was over, came into a lonely reach of water and found his boat standing still. He looked up at the masthead, and there, clasping it, saw a hand lacking one finger. The mutilated hand forced the boat forward against tide and wind, and when he tried the tiller he found that the tiller had no effect upon the course. All day he sat in the boat shivering with terror, till in the cold twilight he saw in front of him a white rock in the stream and upon a ledge of it Fersen’s ring. He took it and glanced up at the masthead. The hand had now recovered its lost finger and had disappeared, and his boat was free once more to obey his direction.

In the early dawn of the next day he was back at Stockholm, babbling nonsense and singing wild songs, beyond doubt a madman. At that moment in the Riddenholm church the nobles, who had left Fersen to die, were gathered round his coffin in the act of burial. Suddenly something glimmered in the dark folds of the pall, and they saw with terror that it was the Queen’s ring. When the coffin was lowered into the grave the gravediggers dared not fling earth upon the jewel. They feared that the dead man’s spirit would haunt them, so they gave the ring to Fersen’s family, with whom it remains to this day.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32