The Parliament at last took up the matter; men went about the streets of Paris shouting “Down with Mazarin!” A revolution was feared, and the Queen, with her young son, fled to Saint Germain. The Royal troops in the meantime, under Conde, were blockading Paris; the rebellion known as the “Fronde” had begun.
Vincent de Paul was in a difficult position. His sympathies were wholly with the suffering people; but, although it had long ceased to meet, he was still a member of the Council of Conscience and owed allegiance to the Royal party.
What would become of the poor in Paris if the town were reduced to famine? This was the thought that was uppermost in his mind. On the other hand, he had always insisted that the Congregation of the Mission should in no way mix itself up with politics. The life of its members was to be a hidden life of prayer and labor for souls. The safest course was obviously to remain neutral and take no part in the matter; but his own safety was the last consideration likely to move him. Was it his duty to remain silent? That was the vital question. Could he do any good by speaking? Long and earnestly did he pray for guidance and, without a thought of the consequences to himself, decided at last to act.
Judging of others in the light of his own straightforward honesty, it seemed to him that if it were once clearly represented to the Queen that it was Mazarin’s presence alone that prevented peace, she could not fail to see that it was her duty to force him to withdraw. Surrounded as she was by courtiers who did not dare to tell her the truth, she might be ignorant of how much she herself was to blame in the matter. He had shamed her into doing what was right in the matter of the Bishop of Poitiers. Might he not succeed in awakening her conscience once more?
It was on his knees in the Church of Saint Lazare that Vincent resolved on the action that was at best only a forlorn hope, but still worth trying. With his usual prompt energy, the old man of seventy-three mounted his horse and, accompanied only by his secretary, du Courneau, set out for Saint Germain. The Seine was in flood and the water breast-deep on the bridge over which they had to ride. Du Corneau [sic] avowed afterwards that he was quaking with fright; but Vincent, though wet to the skin, scarcely seemed to notice that all was not as usual and rode on through the floods in silence. Arrived at Saint Germain, he asked to see the Queen, who, thinking that he had been sent by the people to make their peace with her, admitted him at once to her presence.
With the straightforward simplicity that characterized all his dealings, he proceeded to state his errand. He had come, he said, to ask the Queen, for the sake of her country and her people, to rid herself of Mazarin and to forgive the rebels.
Anne of Austria listened in silence and gave no sign of either sympathy or displeasure. When the speaker had ended, she quietly referred him to Mazarin himself.
Vincent’s hopes must have sunk low indeed at such a suggestion, but he was determined to go through with what he had begun. Confronted with the Cardinal, he earnestly represented to him that it was his duty to sacrifice himself for the good of the country; that his retirement would be an act of noble unselfishness which could not fail to win the blessing of Christ; that it would put an end to the sufferings under which France was groaning and save many innocent people from a fearful and horrible death. Mazarin had a sense of humor, and it was perhaps the only thing about him that responded to this appeal to his better feelings. It no doubt appeared to him sufficiently ludicrous that anyone should expect him to sacrifice himself for the sake of others, and probably those around him would have shared his opinion.
Yet Vincent was justified in his experiment. Long as had been his experience of the sin and misery of men, it had not taught him, any more than it did his Divine Master, to despair of human nature. He had only employed his usual methods with Mazarin: methods that had prevailed with so many souls. He had appealed to the desire for good which he believed lay hidden in the heart of every man, no matter how deeply it might be buried under the refuse of a wasted life. He had appealed and failed – his mission had borne no fruit, yet he could not regret that he had undertaken it, although the consequences were to be serious for himself. For during his absence the fact that he had gone to Saint Germain had leaked out among the people, and in one moment of anger all his claims on their love and gratitude were forgotten.
“M. Vincent has betrayed us to the Queen!” was the cry in the streets of Paris, while the mob, falling on Saint Lazare, pillaged it from top to bottom, carrying off everything on which they could lay hands. Vincent had gained nothing and lost all; it was not even safe for him to return to Paris, so great was the fury of the people; he had also won for himself the ill will of both Mazarin and the Queen.
Yet with his usual humility and patience, he blamed no one but himself. He had done, he declared solemnly to du Courneau, that which he would have wished to have done were he lying on his deathbed; that he had failed was due solely and entirely to his own unworthiness.
And now, since it was better for every reason that he should not return to Paris, he determined to undertake a visitation of the Congregation of the Mission Priests and Sisters of Charity in every center where they were working in France. In spite of his weariness and his seventy-three years, he set forth on his journey, riding the old horse that was kept to carry him now that he could no longer travel on foot.
The suffering and misery that he witnessed, the horrors of famine and of war, only seemed to redouble his zeal to win the souls of men for their Maker. He knew the purifying force of suffering borne for God; he knew also the danger of despair. These poor creatures must be taught at any cost to lift their hearts to God, to bear their anguish patiently, to remember amid what agonies the Son of God had given His life for them. Wherever he went, his burning words and heroic example infused new life and courage into the hearts of his sons and daughters in Christ, who, in the life of abnegation they had undertaken, had often good reason for despondency.
Traveling in these lawless times was both difficult and dangerous, for the country roads were infested with robbers, but Vincent had no fear. He was seldom free from illness, which was sometimes increased by the privations he had to undergo, but he traveled on without resting.
Yet, amid all the new suffering which he had to witness and relieve, he was always mindful of his dear poor in Paris, which was still besieged by the troops of Conde. He had obtained a promise from the Queen during their last interview to let grain be taken into the town to feed the starving inhabitants, but she had not had sufficient energy to see that it was carried out.
The people were beginning to realize what they had lost in M. Vincent and to suspect that they had misjudged him. Hunger at last forced them to make terms with the Royal party, although the hated Mazarin was still supreme, and the Queen and her young son re-entered Paris in triumph.
But even Anne of Austria was not so foolish as to make her entry with the Cardinal at her side, and during the few weeks which still elapsed before he made his appearance in the capital, the Queen, free for a moment from the evil influence that stifled all her better impulses, wrote to Vincent, begging him to return. He was ill at Richelieu when the message reached him, and the Duchess d’Aiguillon, one of the most devoted of his Ladies of Charity, sent a little carriage to fetch him. She had known him long enough, however, to be sure that his love of mortification would prevent him from availing himself of what he would certainly look upon as a luxury. The carriage was accompanied by a letter from the Queen and the Archbishop of Paris ordering him in virtue of obedience to use it in the future for all his journeys. He obeyed, but sorely against the grain, and as long as he was obliged to avail himself of it always referred to the little carriage as his “disgrace.”
“Come and see the son of a poor villager riding in a carriage,” he would say to his friends when he took leave of them; and indeed, “M. Vincent’s little carriage” soon became well known in Paris. It was always at the disposal of anyone who wanted it, and when Vincent used it himself it was generally shared by some of his beloved poor. The fact that it came in handy for taking cripples for a drive or the sick to the hospital was the only thing that reconciled him to its possession.
But the troubles of the Fronde were not yet at an end, and with Mazarin’s return to Paris the discontent broke out afresh. The people were glad enough during the troubled times that followed to have Vincent once more in their midst.