A Tour Upon Wheels in 1886 (chapter IX)

posted by Stephen Channing on September 6, 2014 .

Chapter IX

Valmy passed, we rode onward to Ste. Menehould. We crossed Orbeval, where Choiseul ought to have awaited the king, even though he had been forced to leave Pont-Sommevesle, and left Dampierre on the left, which recalled to us the unfortunate squire who came to pay his respects to Louis XVI. on his return from Varennes, and was massacred for his pains. “What is that disturbance?” asked the queen. “They are only killing a madman,” was the answer. Shortly after this we touched the pave of Ste. Menehould. St Menehould is famous for pigs’ feet, which are sent in baskets all over the world. We refreshed our famished bodies with an excellent dinner, of which they formed a notable portion. Ste. Menehould is not a village, as Carlyle calls it; it is an important town now, and was still more important a hundred years ago. The palatial town-hall dates from 1730. Close by is the fatal post-house, built in 1788, at which the royal family changed horses during their flight, and were recognised by the postmaster Drouet, who stopped them at Varennes. He was not bustling about in a night-gown, as Carlyle represents him, but had onjy just returned from working in the fields; nor was he an “old dragoon,” as he was only twenty-eight years old. Notwithstanding Carlyle’s graphic narrative, the true history of the flight to Varennes has yet to be written.’ From Ste. Menehould the road rises rapidly and enters the forest of the Argonne. The scenery is beautiful, but was scarcely discernible in the gathering twilight. We descend merrily to Les Islettes, one of the passages of the Argonne, which Dumourize called the Thermopyloae of France. The Duke of Brunswick, Goethe tells us, expected serious resistance here, but found none. We light our lamps and hurry through the gloomy woods to Clermont.We found the little town en fete. There was no place in the inn, and we had to content ourselves with small but clean rooms in a cafe. A platform was erected in the market-place, a brass band struck up lively tunes, and the whole population was prepared to dance from nine o’clock till two in the morning, as they had done the night before. This is the manner in which they celebrate the feast of St Fiacre, whoever he may be. We looked forward to a sleepless night, but the rain came down and scattered the merry crowd, and we were allowed to slumber in peace. It is but a short distance from Clermont to Varennes, a place of which every one has heard, but which few have visited; yet no one can properly understand the catastrophe of the king’s arrest, and of one of the most important events in the history of France and of Europe, unless he has been tn) this desolate spot, which lies on the way to nowhere. The town (for it is a town, and not a village) is of peculiar construction. It is built on an incline sloping down to the river Aire. Across the A ire there is a bridge, and on the other side of ‘the bridge is the chief hotel—the Grand Monarque —and the principal church. The upper town has two large open spaces—the Pace Verte or Place du Chateau—where the old original castle stood, and the marketplace. In the market-place in 1791 stood a church, now pulled down, connected by an archway with a clock-tower which still exists. Next below the clocktower was the inn of the Bras d’Or, and a little way down the street on the other side was the house of M. Sauce. The royal family arrived at Varennes about midnight with horses from Clermont; the relay which was to carry them on the next stage was in the stables of the Grand Monarque on the other side of the bridge.1 The carriage stopped in the Place Verte, and the queen got out to ask where the relays were to be found. She even called at a large house, still standing, and took some refreshment, but the owner could not help her. The postboys were unwilling to go any farther, as they had been specially told by the wife of the postmaster at Clermont to come back directly, as the horses were required next day for harvest-work. It is said that she never forgave herself, and regarded herself to her dying day as the cause of the king’s death. Had young Bouille, who was in charge of the escort, waited at the entrance to the town, or had the gardes du corps sauntered down to the bridge all would have been well. But thirty-five minutes were lost. Drouet and his friend Guil laume arrived on horseback from Ste. Menehould, and told the postilions to stop—vous menez le Roi! He found a few faithful patriots as the Bras d’Or, and with their assistance he stopped the carriage at the fatal archway. There was but a step from the street of Varennes to the guillotine. We went over the house formerly occupied by Sauce. A nextdoor neighbour told us that it had been completely altered, that the street had been widened, the houses on that side had been moved back, and nothing of the original structure remained. It appeared to us that the narrow corkscrew staircase which Choiseul and i Damas were prepared to defend stair by stair was unchanged. The Abbe Gabriel, the best authority on the subject, states that the rooms are still the same. The back bedroom in which the royal family passed the night could not well have been longer than ten feet by eight. It is pitiable to think how chance after chance was lost. The bridge was barricaded, but there were two easy fords, one above and the other below. A moment of decision would have saved the monarchy, but the weakness which destroyed it was continued to the end.

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