CHAPTER IX. THE TWILIGHT OF THE BOURBON KINGS
It was on a May morning in the year 1770 that the child-bride of the Dauphin of France arrived at Versailles - the graceful, winsome, golden-haired Marie Antoinette, daughter of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria. The future Queen of France was then not fifteen years of age, and her affianced husband was but a few months older.
A letter in her own hand, dated at Versailles on the 24th of May, 1770, describes the incidents of her ceremonious journey from Austria, and her reception by Louis XV and his heir. Other letters to her family give us glimpses of the wedding in the chapel of Versailles, of the fetes, the balls at the palace, the function of distributing bread and wine to the people, the hunts in nearby forests, the dances, musicales and informal assemblages of the royal family in the intimate apartments of the chateau.
"Our life here is perpetual movement," wrote the Dauphine to her sister; and to her mother she sent this quaint epistle a few weeks after her arrival in France: "You wish to know how I spend my time habitually. I will say, therefore, that I rise at ten o'clock or nine, or half-past nine, and after dressing I say my prayers; then I breakfast, after which I go to my aunts' (Madame Adelaide, Victoire and Sophie), where I usually meet the King. At eleven I go to have my hair dressed. At noon the Chambre is called, and any one of sufficient rank may come in. I put on my rouge and wash my hands before everybody; then the gentlemen go out; the ladies stay, and I dress before them. At twelve is mass; when the King is at Versailles I go to mass with him and my husband and my aunts. After mass we dine together before everybody, but it is over by half-past one, as we both eat quickly. (Marie Antoinette always found the custom of eating in public most distasteful.) I then go to Monsieur the Dauphin; if he is busy I return to my own apartments, where I read, I write, or I work, for I am embroidering a vest for the King, which does not get on quickly, but I trust that, with God's help, it will be finished in a few years! At three I go to my aunts', where the King usually comes at that time. At four the Abbe (her literary mentor) comes to me; at five the master for the harpsichord, or the singing-master, till six. At half-past six I generally go to my aunts' when I do not go out. You must know that my husband almost always comes with me to my aunts'. At seven, card-playing till nine. When the weather is fine I go out; then the card-playing takes place in my aunts' apartments instead of mine. At nine, supper; when the King is absent my aunts come to take supper with us; if the King is there, we go to them after supper, and we wait for the King, who comes usually at a quarter before eleven; but I lie on a large sofa and sleep till his arrival; when he is not expected we go to bed at eleven. Such is my day.
"I entreat you, my very dear mother, to, forgive me if my letter is too long. I ask pardon also for the blotted letter, but I have had to write two days running at my toilet, having no other time at my disposal."
In the winter the Court made merry with sleighing, skating and dancing parties, and formal affairs in honor of foreign princes. "There is too much etiquette here to live the family life," lamented the child to her mother. "Altogether, the Court at Versailles is a little dull, the formalities are so fatiguing. But I am happy, for Monsieur the Dauphin is very polite to me and always attentive." In another letter she recounted the triumph attending the first presentation of the opera Iphigenie, by Gluck. "The Dauphin applauded everything and Gluck showed himself very well pleased. . . . He has written me some pieces that I sing to the harpsichord."
Several times a week, the awkward, bashful boy who was to become Louis XVI of France pleased his light-hearted wife by taking dancing lessons with her. Hours were spent with him in the park at Versailles, skipping about, laughing, playing pranks like the little girl she was. Sometimes there were charades, and plays by amateurs and professionals behind the "closed doors" of their own rooms.
In 1774, four years after the marriage of Marie Antoinette to the Dauphin, Louis XV was taken ill of smallpox during a sojourn at the Little Trianon, and was removed to Versailles. Within a fortnight he was dead, and a scandalous reign was ended. "The rush of the courtiers, with a noise like thunder, as they hastened to pay homage to the new sovereign," says a narrator of the Queen's story, "was the first announcement of the great event to the young heir and his wife." The new King had not yet reached his twentieth year. "God help and protect us!" they both cried on their knees. "We are too young to reign!"
As Queen of France, Marie Antoinette occupied a series of superbly appointed rooms in the left wing of the palace. Beyond a dark passageway were her husband's apartments. Her bed-chamber was the scene of the formal toilet, a ceremony always irksome to the youthful sovereign. In this sumptuous room, where queens had borne kings-to-be, and had closed their eyes forever upon a melancholy existence, she gave birth to four children. The royal bed was raised on steps and surrounded by a gilt balustrade; nearby was a gorgeously fitted dressing-table. There were also armchairs, we are told, with down cushions, "tables for writing, and two chests of drawers of elaborate workmanship. The curtains and hangings were of rich but plain blue silk. The stools for those that had the privilege of being seated in the royal presence, with a sofa for the Queen's use, were placed against the walls, according to the formal custom of the time. The canopy of the bed was adorned with Cupids playing with garlands and holding gilt lilies, the royal flower."