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CHAPTER VI
End of the ancien régime—Foretaste of the Revolution—Threatened—Resolves to emigrate—Another alarm—Preparations—“You are wrong to go”—A terrible journey—Safe across the frontier.
Capital letter T

THE year 1788 was the last of the old régime. Mme. Le Brun was now thirty-two and at the height of her fame and prosperity. She had more commissions than she could execute, more engagements than she could keep, more invitations than she could accept, but her mind was full of gloomy presentiments. She passed the summer as usual between Paris and the country houses where she stayed.

As she drove with a friend down to Romainville to stay with the Comte de Ségur, she noticed that the peasants they met in the roads did not take off their hats to them, but looked at them insolently, and sometimes shook their sticks threateningly at them.

While she was at Romainville there was a most awful storm, the sky which had become deep yellow with black clouds of alarming appearance, seemed to open and pour forth flash after flash of lightning, accompanied by deafening thunder and enormous hailstones, which ravaged the country for forty leagues round Paris. Pale and trembling, Mme. de [80] Ségur and Mme. Le Brun sat looking at each other in terror, fancying that they saw in the awful tempest raging around them, the beginning of the fearful times whose approach they now foresaw.

When the storm had subsided the peasants were crying and lamenting over the destruction of their crops, and all the large proprietors in the neighbourhood came most generously to their assistance. One rich man distributed forty thousand francs among them. The next year he was one of the first to be massacred.

As time went on and affairs became more and more menacing, Mme. Le Brun began to consider the advisability of leaving the country, and placing herself and her child out of the reach of the dangers and calamities evidently not far distant.

Early in 1789 she was dining at La Malmaison, which then belonged to the Comte de Moley, a rabid Radical; he and the Abbé de Sieyès and several others were present, and so fierce and violent was their talk that even the Abbé de Sieyès said after dinner—

“Indeed, I think we shall go too far;” while the Comtesse du Moley and Mme. Le Brun were horror-stricken at the terrible prospects unfolded to them.

After this, Mme. Le Brun went for a few days to Marly to stay with Mme. Auguier, sister of Mme. Campan, and attached like her to the Queen’s household.

One day as they were looking out of a window into the courtyard which opened on to the road, they saw a man stagger in and fall down.

Mme. Auguier sent her husband’s valet de chambre [81] to help him up, and take him into the kitchen. Presently the valet returned, saying, “Madame is indeed too kind; that man is a wretch. Here are some papers which have fallen out of his pocket.” He gave them several sheets of papers, one of which began, “Down with the Royal Family! down with the nobles! down with the priests!” and all of which were filled with a tissue of blasphemies, litanies of the Revolution, threats and predictions horrible enough to make their hair stand on end.

Mme. Auguier sent for the maréchaussé, four of whom appeared, and took the fellow in charge; but the valet de chambre who followed them unperceived, saw them, as soon as they thought themselves out of sight, singing and dancing, arm in arm with their prisoner.

Terror-stricken, they agreed that these papers must be shown to the Queen, and when, a day or two afterwards, Mme. Auguier was in waiting, she took them to Marie Antoinette, who read and returned them saying—

“These things are impossible. I shall never believe they meditate such atrocities.”

Mme. Auguier’s affection for the Queen cost her her life. In the fury of the Revolution, knowing her to be without money, she lent Marie Antoinette twenty-five louis. This became known, and a mob rushed to her house to take her to prison and execution. In a frenzy of terror Mme. Auguier threw herself out of the window, and was killed on the spot. [37]

[82]

The last time Mme. Le Brun saw the Queen was at the last ball given at Versailles, which took place in the theatre, and at which she looked on from one of the boxes. She observed with indignation the rudeness of some of the young Radical nobles; they refused to dance when requested to do so by the Queen, whose agitation and uneasiness were only too apparent. The demeanour of the populace was becoming every day more ferocious and alarming; the drives and streets were scarcely safe for any but the lower classes. At a concert given by Mme. Le Brun, most of the guests came in with looks of consternation. They had been driving earlier in the day to Longchamps, and as they passed the barrière de l’étoile, a furious mob had surrounded and insulted everybody who passed in carriages. Villainous looking faces pressed close to them, horrible figures climbed on to the steps of the carriages, crying out, with infamous threats and brutal language, that next year they should be in the carriages and the owners behind them.

The continual terror in which she now lived began to affect the health of Lisette. She knew perfectly well that she herself was looked upon with sinister eyes by the ruffians, whose bloodthirsty hands would soon hold supreme power in France. Her house in the rue Gros-Chenet, in which she had only lived for three months, was already marked; sulphur was thrown down the grating into the cellars; if she looked out of the windows she saw menacing figures of sans-culottes, shaking their fists at the house.

If she had not got away in time there can be no [83] doubt as to what would have been her fate; fortunately her fears made her act with prudence. M. Brongniart, the architect, and his wife, friends of hers, seeing her so pale and altered, persuaded her to go and stay with them for a few days at the Invalides, where they had rooms; she gladly accepted and was taken there by a doctor attached to the Palais Royal, whose servants wore the Orléans livery, the only one that was now respected, and in whose carriage she consequently arrived safely. Her kind friends nursed and tried to comfort her; made her take Bordeaux and soup as she could eat nothing, and tried to reassure her, being amongst those who did not believe in the perils to come. It was no use. When they went out they heard the threats and violent talk of the mob, and the discussions they held with each other; by no means calculated to give comfort to those who were listening.

Mme. Le Brun returned home, but dared not stay there, so she accepted the invitation of her brother’s father-in-law, M. de Rivière, in whose house she thought she would be safe, as he was a foreign minister. She stayed there a fortnight, treated as if she were a daughter of the house, but she had resolved to get out of France before it was too late.

It would in fact have been folly to stay any longer; already the mob had set fire to the barrière at the end of the rue Chaussée-d’Antin, where M. de Rivière lived, and had begun to tear up the pavement and make barricades in the streets. Many people disapproved of emigrating, some from patriotic [84] reasons, others as a matter of interest. To many it was of course a choice between the certainty of losing their property and the chance of losing their lives; and rather than become beggars they took the risk and stayed, very often to the destruction of themselves and those dearest to them. To Lisette there was no such alternative. Wherever she went she could always provide herself with money without the least difficulty; she had always longed to see Rome, now was the time.

She had numbers of orders, and of portraits half finished, but she was too nervous and agitated to paint, and she had a hundred louis which some one had just paid for a picture—to herself fortunately, not to M. Le Brun, who generally took everything, sometimes never even telling her it had been paid, at other times saying he must have the whole sum for an investment, or to pay a bill owing.

This hundred louis would take her to Rome with her child and nurse, and she began in haste to pack up and prepare for the journey.

It was the evening before the day fixed for their departure, the passport was ready, her travelling carriage loaded with luggage, and she was resting herself in her drawing-room, when a dreadful noise was heard in the house, as of a crowd bursting in; trampling of feet on the stairs, rough voices; and as she remained petrified with fear the door of the room was flung open and a throng of ruffianly-looking gardes nationaux with guns in their hands, many of them drunk, forced their way in, and several of them approaching her, declared in coarse, insolent terms, that she should not go.

[85]

In reply to her observation that she had a perfect right to go where she chose, they kept repeating—

“Vous ne partisez pas, citoyenne, vous ne partisez pas.”

At last they went away, but in a few moments two of them whose appearance was different from the rest returned and said—

“Madame, we are your neighbours; we have come back to advise you to go, and to start as soon as possible. You cannot live here, you are so changed that we are sorry. But do not travel in your carriage; go by the diligence, it is safer.”

Lisette thanked the friendly gardes with all her heart, and followed their advice. She sent to take three places in the diligence, but there were none to be had for a fortnight, as so many people who were emigrating travelled by it for greater safety.

Those of her friends who were Radicals blamed Lisette for going, and tried to dissuade her. Mme. Filleul, formerly Mlle. Boquet, said to her—

“You are quite wrong to go. I shall stay, for I believe in the happiness the Revolution will bring us.”

She remained at La Muette until the Terror began. Mme. Chalgrin, of whom she was an intimate friend, came there to celebrate very quietly the marriage of her daughter. The day after it, both Mme. Chalgrin and Mme. Filleul were arrested by the revolutionists and guillotined a few days later, because they were said to have “burnt the candles of the nation.”

Lisette paid no attention to the dissuasions of her friends; in spite of all they said she knew quite well that she was in danger. No one could be safe, however innocent, if any suspicion or grudge against [86] them was in the minds of the ruffians who were thirsting for blood.

“Although, thank Heaven, I have never done harm to anybody,” she said. “I agree with the man who said: ‘They accuse me of having stolen the towers of Notre Dame; they are still in their place, but I am going, for it is clear that they have a grudge against me.’”

“What is the use of taking care of one’s health?” she would say when her friends were anxious about her. “What is the good of living?”

It was not until the 5th of October that the places in the diligence could be had, and on the evening of the 4th Lisette went to say goodbye to her mother, whom she had not seen for three weeks, and who at first did not recognise her, so much had she changed in that short time and so ill did she look.

They were to start at midnight, and it was quite time they did so.

That very day the King, Queen, and royal family were brought from Versailles to Paris by the frantic, howling mob. Louis Vigée, after witnessing their arrival at the H?tel de Ville, came at ten o’clock to see his sister off, and give her the account of what had happened.

“Never,” he said, “was the Queen more truly a Queen than to-day, when she made her entry with so calm and noble an air in the midst of those furies.”

It was then she made her well-known answer to Bailly, “J’ai tout vu, tout su, et tout oublié.”

Half beside herself with anxiety and fear for the fate of the royal family and of all respectable people, Lisette, her child, and the nurse or nursery [87] governess went to the diligence at midnight, escorted by M. Le Brun, Louis Vigée, and M. Robert, the landscape painter, an intimate friend of theirs, who never left the diligence, but kept close to its doors as it lumbered along through the narrow dark streets to the barrière du Tr?ne. For the terrible faubourg Saint Antoine had to be passed through, and Lisette was dreadfully afraid of it.

However, it happened on that night to be unusually quiet, for the inhabitants had been to Versailles after the King and Queen, and were so tired that they were asleep.

At the barrier came the parting with those she was leaving in the midst of perils. When they would meet again, if they ever did at all, it was impossible to guess.

The journey was insupportable. In the diligence with them was a dirty, evil-looking man, who openly confessed that he was a robber, boasting of the watches, &c., that he had stolen, and speaking of many persons he wished to murder à la lanterne, amongst whom were a number of the acquaintances of Mme. Le Brun. The little girl, now five or six years old, was frightened out of her wits, and her mother took courage to ask the man not to talk about murders before the child.

He stopped, and afterwards began to play with her; but another Jacobin from Grenoble, also a passenger, gave vent to all kinds of infamous and murderous threats and opinions, haranguing the people who collected round the diligence whenever they stopped for dinner or supper; whilst every now and then men rode up to the diligence, [88] announcing that the King and Queen had been assassinated, and that Paris was in flames. Lisette, terrified herself for the fate of those dear to her, tried to comfort her still more frightened child, who was crying and trembling, believing that her father was killed and their house burnt. At last they arrived safely at Lyon, and found their way to the house of a M. Artaut, whom Lisette did not know well. But she had entertained him and his wife in Paris on one or two occasions, she knew that their opinions were like her own, and thought they were worthy people, as indeed they proved to be.

They did not know her at first, for besides her altered looks she was dressed as an ouvrière, having just exhibited in the Salon her portrait which she had painted with her child in her arms, and fearing she might be recognised.

They spent three days in the Artaut family, thankful for the rest, the quietness and the kindness they received. M. Artaut engaged a man he knew to take them on their journey, telling him that they were relations of his, and recommending them to his care. They set off accordingly, and, this journey was indeed a contrast to the last. Their driver took the greatest care of them, and they arrived in safety at the bridge of Beauvoisin, the frontier of France.

Never, would Mme. Le Brun say in after years, could she forget or describe the feelings with which she drove across that bridge to find herself at the other side—safe, free, and out of France.

Henceforth the journey was a pleasure, and with [89] feelings of admiration and awe she gazed upon the magnificent scenery as she ascended the mighty Mont Cenis; stupendous mountains rising above her, their snowy peaks buried in clouds, their steep sides hung with pine forests, the roar of falling torrents perpetually in her ears.

“Madame should take a mule,” said a postillion coming up to her, as she walked slowly up the precipitous mountain path. “It is much too tiring for a lady like Madame to go up on foot.”

“I am an ouvrière,” she replied, “and am accustomed to walk.”

The man laughed.

“Ah!” he said, “Madame is no ouvrière; it is very well known who she is.”

“Well, who am I, then?”

“You are Mme. Le Brun, who paints with such perfection, and we are all very glad to know that you are far away from those wicked people.”

“I could never guess,” said Lisette, “how the man knew me. But this proved the number of spies the Jacobins had everywhere. However, I was not afraid of them now; I was out of their execrable power. If I had no longer my own country, I was going to live where art flourished and urbanity reigned—I was going to Rome, Naples, Berlin, Vienna, and St. Petersburg.”



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