And yet the king and nobility of France, in love with Rousseau’s theories, were airily discussing the “rights of man”—wolves and foxes coming together to talk over the sacredness of the rights of property, or the occupants of murderers’ row growing eloquent over the sanctity of human life! How incomprehensible that among those quick-witted Frenchmen there seems not one to have realized that the logical sequence of the formula, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” must be, “Down with the Aristocrats!”
And so the surface which Richelieu had converted into adamant grew thinner and thinner each day, until king and court danced upon a mere gilded crust, unconscious of the abysmal fires beneath. Some of those powdered heads fell into the executioner’s basket twenty-five years later. Did they recall this time? Did Madame du Barry think of it? Did she exult at her triumph over de Pompadour, when she was dragged shrieking and struggling to the guillotine?
Five years before the close of this miserable reign an event occurred seemingly of small importance to Europe. A child was born in an obscure Italian household. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte. His birthplace, the island of Corsica, had only two months before been incorporated with France. The fates even then were watching over this child of destiny, who might, by a slight turn of events then imminent, have been born a subject of Spain, or Germany, or of George III. of England.
The impoverished Republic of Genoa was in desperate need of money. The island could be had by the highest bidder, and in 1768 it was purchased by France, just in time to make the great Corsican a French citizen.
Indeed, all the performers in the approaching drama were assembled. Three young princes, grandsons of Louis XV., who were to be successively upon the throne of France, were at Versailles: Louis the Dauphin, now twenty, and his Austrian bride, Marie Antoinette, and his two brothers, afterward successively Louis XVIII. and Charles X. Still another princeling, Louis Philippe, was at the Palais Royal, son of the Duke of Orleans, late regent, also destined to wear the French crown; and last of all that infant at Ajaccio, in whom the play was to reach its splendid climax.
In 1744 Louis XV. was stricken with small-pox, and exchanged the brilliant scenes at Versailles for the royal vault in the Church of St. Denis, where he took his place among his ancestors.
Louis XV. was dead, and two children, with the light-heartedness of youth and inexperience, stepped upon the throne which was to be a scaffold—Louis XVI., only twenty, and Marie Antoinette, his wife, nineteen. He, amiable, kind, full of generous intentions; she, beautiful, simple, child-like, and lovely. Instead of a debauched old king with depraved surroundings, here were a prince and princess out of a fairy tale.