The population of Vienna was paralyzed with terror; a heavy gloom weighed down all minds, and the strength of the stoutest hearts seemed broken. Couriers had arrived today from the camp of the army, and brought the dreadful tidings of an overwhelming defeat of the Austrian forces. Bonaparte, the young general of the French Republic, who, in the course of one year (1796), had won as many battles and as much glory as many a great and illustrious warrior during the whole course of an eventful life--Bonaparte had crossed the Italian Alps with the serried columns of his army, and the most trusted military leaders of Austria were fleeing before him in dismay. The hero of Lodi and Arcole had won new victories, and these victories constantly diminished the distance between his army and the menaced capital of Austria.
Archduke Charles had been defeated by Massena, and driven back to Villach; Bernadotte had reached Laybach; the citadels of Goritz, Triest, and Laybach had surrendered; Klagenfurth, after a most desperate struggle, had been forced to open its gates to the conquerors; Loudon, with his brave troops, had been dispersed in the Tyrol; Botzen had opened its gates to General Joubert, who, after a brief sojourn, left that city in order to join Bonaparte, who, in his victorious career, was advancing resistlessly toward Vienna.
Such were tidings which the couriers had brought, and these tidings were well calculated to produce a panic in the Austrian capital. While the court and the nobility were concealing their grief and their sorrows in the interior of their palaces, the populace rushed into the streets, anxiously inquiring for later intelligence, and still hopeful that God in His mercy might perhaps send down some ray of light that would dispel this gloom of anguish and despair.
But a pall covered Vienna, and everybody looked sad and dejected. Suddenly some new movement of terror seemed to pervade the crowd that had gathered on the Kohlmarkt. [Footnote: Cabbage Market.] As if a storm were raising up the waves of this black sea of human figures, the dense mass commenced to undulate to and fro, and a wail of distress arose, growing louder and louder, until it finally broke out into the terrible cry: "The emperor has deserted us! the emperor and the empress have fled from Vienna!"
While the masses were bewailing this new misfortune with the manifestations of despair, while they assembled in small groups to comment vociferously on this last and most dreadful event of the day, all of a sudden Hungarian hussars galloped up and commanded the people, in the most peremptory manner, to stand aside and to open a passage for the wagons which were about to enter the market from one of the adjoining streets.
The people, intimidated by the flashing swords and harsh words of the soldiers, fell back and gazed with an expression of anxious suspense upon the strange procession which now made its appearance.
This procession consisted of twelve wagons, apparently not destined to receive living men, but the remains of the dead. The broad and heavy wheels were not surmounted by ordinary carriage-boxes, but by immense iron trunks, large enough to enclose a coffin or a corpse; and these trunks were covered with heavy blankets, the four corners of which contained the imperial crown of Austria in beautiful embroidery. Every one of these strange wagons was drawn by six horses, mounted by jockeys in the imperial livery, while the hussars of the emperor's Hungarian bodyguard rode in serried ranks on both sides.
The horses drew these mysterious wagons slowly and heavily through the streets; the wheels rolled with a dull, thundering noise over the uneven pavement; and this noise resounded in the ears and hearts of the pale and terrified spectators like the premonitory signs of some new thunderstorm.
What was concealed in these mysterious wagons? What was taken away from Vienna in so careful a manner and guarded so closely? Everybody was asking these questions, but only in the depth of his own heart, for nobody dared to interrupt the painful and anxious silence by a loud word or an inquisitive phrase. Every one seemed to be fascinated by the forbidding glances of the hussars, and stunned by the dull rumbling of the wheels.
But, when finally the last wagon had disappeared in the next street, when the last horseman of the hussar escort had left the place, the eyes of the anxious spectators turned once more toward the speakers who had previously addressed them, and told them of the misfortunes of Austria, and of the brilliant victories of the youthful French General Bonaparte.
"What do those wagons contain?" shouted the crowd. "We want to know it, and we must know it!"
"If you must know it, why did you not ask the soldiers themselves?" shouted a sneering voice in the crowd.
"Yes, yes," said another voice, "why did you not approach the wagons and knock at the trunks?--may be the devil would have jumped out and shown you his pretty face!"
The people paid no attention to these sneering remarks. The painful uncertainty, the anxious excitement continued unabated, and everybody made surmises concerning the contents of the wagons.
"The trunks contain perhaps the coffins of the imperial ancestors, which have been removed from the Kapuzinergruft, in order to save them from the French," said an honest tailor to his neighbor, and this romantic idea rolled immediately, like an avalanche, through the vast crowd.
Louisa of Prussia and Her Times -by- Louisa Muhlbach