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The day had finally arrived. Marie smiled to herself. She didn’t get to see her grandchildren much, and the prospect of doing so in just a few minutes made her giddy. The children lived in Orleans, which was much too far from Paris, where Marie lived, for them to visit often.
She placed the croissants carefully on a tray and placed it on the low table in the sitting room. She looked around to make sure everything was just right. The long velvet blinds were tied back so she could see out the window. Living alone was sometimes lonely for old Marie, so she loved to sit for hours on her window seat and watch the city’s busy bustle. The rhythm of the city was like breathing. Every morning the man across the street, Andre LeBonne, would open up his bakery. At the same time, every other shop along her street would open its doors and windows as the city slowly came to life. Peddlers appeared, and customers for the shops. Children would play in front of their families’ shops or stand at the corner and peer into the window of the toy shop. The city breathed out. At the end of the day, the children went inside, shops closed, and the city slowly settled down, until the last light winked out. Paris breathed in, and everything was silent and still until the morning.
A coach pulled up on the street below. Marie watched as four children stepped out. They entered the tailor’s shop below her apartment, and in a few minutes she could hear voices on the back stairs.
She hurried to the stairwell, and there they were! All four of them, smiling happily. “Grandmere!” cried little Claire, reaching up to hug her grandmother.
“Come in, children,” she said, smiling back. The followed her to the sitting room, where Pierre and Madeline perched on the window seat with Marie, while Alexandre and Claire sat at her feet.
They talked excitedly about their school and friends, and gobbled the croissants. Marie took them for a walk to the park, and then to the toy shop, where they each picked out a new toy. When they returned, all four children were tired.
“Tell us a story, Grandmere,” begged Alexandre.
“Yes, please!” chorused the others.
“All right, but what should the story be about?” asked Marie.
“It has to be exciting, with guns and swords,” said Pierre.
“Oh, not a bloody war story,” complained Madeline. “How about a story about you, Grandmere?”
“Grandmere never had a gun or a sword,” Claire pointed out. “Did you, Grandmere?”
“Well…” said Marie. “There is one story about me that has guns and swords. I don’t think you’ll want to hear it, though.”
“Oh, yes, we do!”
“Hmm… well, I suppose. Let’s see. It happened when I was twelve years old. It was a hot summer day. July 14, to be exact.”
“Oh!”cried Pierre. “July 14 is a holiday. Bastille Day.”
“Yes, well, it wasn’t then. Now, Pierre, be quiet and let me tell the story.”
“I lived near the Rue Saint Antoine in those days. That is a road near the great prison, the Bastille. On the morning of July 14, I was working in my mother’s hat shop, about half a mile from the Bastille.
“I was counting out some money for a customer when I heard some shouts from down the street. Now you must understand, this was during the time of King Louis XVI, and there was a lot of political unrest. In May, the king had called for an Estates-General, a meeting of sorts between the three estates. Before that, there were two consecutive poor winters, making bread scarce and the commoners like myself unhappy. We did not like the king’s way of spending money on anything he wished, while the rest of us starved. Sometimes there were small riots.
So while the shouts were not altogether uncommon, they made me feel unsettled. It sounded as if there were many people advancing our way, more than just a few angry men.
“As they approached, I realized that I had reason to be afraid: the men carried weapons, mostly guns. I rushed inside the shop to find my mother. She told me to stay inside, but I wanted to see what was going on.”
“Where did the men get the weapons from?” asked Alexandre.
“They stole them from a place called the Hotel de Invalides. It’s a hospital and home for war veterans. The guns they got there didn’t have much powder or shot. ”
“Anyway, I slipped out of the shop. I was one of those children who like adventure, and I wanted to see what was going on. I caught up to a boy in the back, a couple of years older than I. I asked him why they were marching and shouting.
“’The king has hired an army of soldiers. They’re marching here, to Paris. We have to defend ourselves!’ he told me passionately. ‘But where are you going?’ I asked. He told me they were marching to the Bastille, and to be a good girl and get out of the way. I got out of his way, but I followed the men until they reached the Bastille.
“Now you see, the Bastille is a large fortress, but at the time of the attack there were only seven prisoners. Also, at that time the king had decided to close the prison, because it was so lightly used and it was expensive to guard. There were really only two reasons for the attack. One was the 30,000 pounds of ammunition stored inside, and the other was that the Bastille was a symbol of the king’s tyrannical power.
“The men started shouting for the surrender of the fort, and for the guns and ammunition to be released to them. They sent in men to negotiate. The rest of the men stood outside, and, thinking that the excitement was over, I went back to the shop.”
“But it wasn’t over, was it?” asked Madeline excitedly.
“Well, no, it wasn’t,” said Marie.
“Oh, you missed the good part?” asked Pierre, disappointed.
“Hush, children. Let me finish.
“Around half past one, the men rushed into the outer courtyard and cut the drawbridge’s chains. I could hear the shouts from my mother’s shop. Naturally, I raced right down there with my friend Jean, but we didn’t dare get too close to the mob.
“At three, reinforcements for the attackers came, bringing two cannons. These men were mostly deserters from the regular army. They helped in the fight, which was well under way by now. All Jean and I could hear from our spot under a tree a good distance away was the gunshots and screams from just outside the fortress.
“By five o’ clock the Governor inside the fortress was so worried that he ordered a cease-fire. They say that he handed out a letter with his terms on it to the attackers, who refused. He opened the inner gate and let the attackers pour in. They freed the prisoners and killed the Governor. His head was stuck on a pike and carried through the streets shortly after the attack.”
Marie paused and looked at her grandchildren. “Not a very pleasant story,” she said.
Pierre’s eyes were wide. “You mean it’s over? But what happened next? Surely it can’t end there!”
“Well, it didn’t, really. The storming of the Bastille was just the beginning of a widespread revolt now called the French Revolution. The king and queen both lost their heads, along with countless other people. After too many years, the war ended, and a shaky peace was restored. There was more political turmoil for a time, and soon France had another king on the throne. This time, though, he allowed for a constitution, and more rights, and no one starved or was oppressed anymore.
“But I’ve forgotten something. In 1790, the year after the attack on the Bastille, the Marquis de Lafayette sent a gift to George Washington, then the president of the United States. The gift was the key to the Bastille. It’s still at Washington’s house, to this day.”
The children were quiet for a moment. Then Claire said, “It’s a sad story, Grandmere, but you were right. It does have guns and swords. Lots of them.”
They all giggled. “Too many, in my opinion,” Madeline complained.
“I agree,” said Marie. “Right, boys?”
“Well, I suppose it is possible to have too many guns and swords,” Alexandre remarked.
“Oh no, look at the time!” cried Pierre. “The coach will be here any minute.”
“We’d better get going,” agreed Madeline. “Thank you, Grandmere, for the toys and croissants and the story.”
“Yes, thank you,” said Alexandre dutifully.
Claire smiled up at her grandmother. “I love you, Grandmere,” she said. “Next time can you tell me a story about a princess, though?”
Marie smiled. “Certainly, Claire,” she replied. “I’ve got many more to tell.”
The children filed off down the stairs to meet their coach, and Marie stood by the window as they drove away. She settled on the window seat and watched the city breathe in as the darkness closed around it like a curtain. She sighed.