Part 1 out of 5
Produced by Dave Morgan, Wilelmina Malliere and the Online Distributed
OF THE COURTS OF EUROPE
THORNTON HALL, F.S.A.,
Author of "Love romancies of the Aristocracy",
"Love intrigues of Royal Courts", etc., etc.
I. A COMEDY QUEEN
II. THE "BONNIE PRINCE'S" BRIDE
III. THE PEASANT AND THE EMPRESS
IV. A CROWN THAT FAILED
V. A QUEEN OF HEARTS
VI. THE REGENT'S DAUGHTER
VII. A PRINCESS OF MYSTERY
VIII. THE KING AND THE "LITTLE DOVE"
IX. THE ROMANCE OF THE BEAUTIFUL SWEDE
X. THE SISTER OF AN EMPEROR
XI. A SIREN OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
XII. THE CORSICAN AND THE CREOLE
XIII. THE ENSLAVER OF A KING
XIV. AN EMPRESS AND HER FAVOURITES
XV. A SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY CINDERELLA
XVI. BIANCA, GRAND DUCHESS OF TUSCANY
XVII. RICHELIEU, THE ROUE
XVIII. THE INDISCRETIONS OF A PRINCESS
XIX. THE INDISCRETIONS OF A PRINCESS--_continued_
XX. THE LOVE-AFFAIRS OF A REGENT
XXI. A DELILAH OF THE COURT OF FRANCE
XXII. THE "SUN-KING" AND THE WIDOW
XXIII. A THRONED BARBARIAN
XXIV. A FRIEND OF MARIE ANTOINETTE
XXV. THE RIVAL SISTERS
XXVI. THE RIVAL SISTERS--_continued_
XXVII. A MISTRESS OF INTRIGUE
XXVIII. AN ILL-FATED MARRIAGE
XXIX. AN ILL-FATED MARRIAGE--_continued_
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
BIANCA CAPELLO BONAVENTURA GRAND DUCHESS OF TUSCANY
CATHERINE THE SECOND OF RUSSIA
COUNT GREGORY ORLOFF
JOSEPHINE DE BEAUHARNAIS, EMPRESS (BY PRUD'HON)
LOLA MONTEZ, COUNTESS OF LANDSFELD
LUDWIG I., KING OF BAVARIA
FRANCESCO I., GRAND DUKE OF TUSCANY
CAROLINE OF BRUNSWICK, WIFE OF GEORGE IV
LOVE AFFAIRS OF THE COURTS OF EUROPE
A COMEDY QUEEN
"It was to a noise like thunder, and close clasped in a soldier's
embrace, that Catherine I. made her first appearance in Russian
History, indeed, contains few chapters more strange, more seemingly
impossible, than this which tells the story of the maid-of-all-work--the
red-armed, illiterate peasant-girl who, without any dower of beauty or
charm, won the idolatry of an Emperor and succeeded him on the greatest
throne of Europe. So obscure was Catherine's origin that no records
reveal either her true name or the year or place of her birth. All that
we know is that she was cradled in some Livonian village, either in
Sweden or Poland, about the year 1685, the reputed daughter of a
serf-mother and a peasant-father; and that her numerous brothers and
sisters were known in later years by the name Skovoroshtchenko or
Skovronski. The very Christian name by which she is known to history
was not hers until it was given to her by her Imperial lover.
It is not until the year 1702, when the future Empress of the Russias
was a girl of seventeen, that she makes her first dramatic appearance on
the stage on which she was to play so remarkable a part. Then we find
her acting as maid-servant to the Lutheran pastor of Marienburg,
scrubbing his floors, nursing his children, and waiting on his resident
pupils, in the midst of all the perils of warfare. The Russian hosts had
for weeks been laying siege to Marienburg; and the Commandant, unable to
defend the town any longer against such overwhelming odds, had announced
his intention to blow up the fortress, and had warned the inhabitants to
leave the town.
Between the alternatives of death within the walls and the enemy
without, Pastor Glueck chose the latter; and sallying forth with his
family and maid-servant, threw himself on the mercy of the Russians who
promptly packed him off to Moscow a prisoner. For Martha (as she seems
to have been known in those days) a different fate was reserved. Her red
lips, saucy eyes, and opulent figure were too seductive a spoil to part
with, General Sheremetief decided, and she was left behind, a by no
means reluctant hostage.
Peter's soldiers, now that victory was assured, were holding high revel
of feasting and song and dancing. They received the new prisoner
literally with open arms, and almost before she had wiped the tears from
her eyes, at parting from her nurslings, she was capering gaily to the
music of hautboy and fiddle, with the arm of a stalwart soldier round
"Suddenly," says Waliszewski, "a fearful explosion overthrew the
dancers, cut the music short, and left the servant-maid, fainting with
terror, in the arms of a dragoon."
Thus did Martha, the "Siren of the Kitchen," dance her way into Russian
history, little dreaming, we may be sure, to what dizzy heights her
nimble feet were to carry her. For a time she found her pleasure in the
attentions of a non-commissioned officer, sharing the life of camp and
barracks and making friends by the good-nature which bubbled in her, and
which was always her chief charm. When her sergeant began to weary of
her, she found a humble place as laundry-maid in the household of
Menshikoff, the Tsar's favourite, whose shirts, we are told, it was her
privilege to wash; and who, it seems, was by no means insensible to the
buxom charms of this maid of the laundry. At any rate we find
Menshikoff, when he was spending the Easter of 1706 at Witebsk, writing
to his sister to send her to him.
But a greater than Menshikoff was soon to appear on the scene--none
other than the Emperor Peter himself. One day the Tsar, calling on his
favourite, was astonished to see the cleanliness of his surroundings and
his person. "How do you contrive," he asked, "to have your house so well
kept, and to wear such fresh and dainty linen?" Menshikoff's answer was
"to open a door, through which the sovereign perceived a handsome girl,
aproned, and sponge in hand, bustling from chair to chair, and going
from window to window, scrubbing the window-panes"--a vision of industry
which made such a powerful appeal to His Majesty that he begged an
introduction on the spot to the lady of the sponge.
The most daring writer of fiction could scarcely devise a more romantic
meeting than this between the autocrat of Russia and the red-armed,
bustling cleaner of the window-panes, and he would certainly never have
ventured to build on it the romance of which it was the prelude. What it
was in the young peasant-woman that attracted the Emperor it is
impossible to say. Of beauty she seems to have had none--save perhaps
such as lies in youth and rude health.
We look at her portraits in vain to discover a trace of any charm that
might appeal to man. Her pictures in the Romanof Gallery at St
Petersburg show a singularly plain woman with a large, round
peasant-face, the most conspicuous feature of which is a hideously
turned-up nose. Large, protruding eyes and an opulent bust complete a
presentment of the typical household drudge--"a servant-girl in a German
inn." But Peter the Great, who was ever abnormal in all his tastes and
appetites, was always more ready to make love to a woman of the people
than to the most beautiful and refined of his Court ladies. His standard
of taste, as of manners, has not inaptly been likened to that of a Dutch
But whatever it was in the low-born laundry-woman that attracted the
Tsar of Russia, we know that this first unconventional meeting led to
many others, and that before long Catherine (for we may now call her by
the name she made so famous) was removed from his favourite's household
and installed in the Imperial harem where, for a time at least, she
seems to have shared her favours indiscriminately between her old master
and her new--"an obscure and complaisant mistress"--until Menshikoff
finally resigned all rights in her to his sovereign.
When Catherine took up her residence in her new home, Waliszewski tells
us, "her eye shortly fell on certain magnificent jewels. Forthwith,
bursting into tears, she addressed her new protector: 'Who put these
ornaments here? If they come from the other one, I will keep nothing but
this little ring; but if they come from you, how could you think I
needed them to make me love you?'"
If Catherine lacked physical graces, this and many another story prove
that she had a rare gift of diplomacy. She had, moreover, an unfailing
cheerfulness and goodness of heart which quickly endeared her to the
moody and capricious Peter. In his frequent fits of nervous irritability
which verged on madness, she alone had the power to soothe him and
restore him to sanity. Her very voice had a magic to arrest him in his
worst rages, and when the fit of madness (for such it undoubtedly was)
was passing away she would "take his head and caress it tenderly,
passing her fingers through his hair. Soon he grew drowsy and slept,
leaning against her breast. For two or three hours she would sit
motionless, waiting for the cure slumber always brought him, until at
last he awoke cheerful and refreshed."
Thus each day the Livonian peasant-woman took deeper root in the heart
of the Emperor, until she became indispensable to him. Wherever he went
she was his constant companion--in camp or on visits to foreign Courts,
where she was received with the honours due to a Queen. And not only
were her presence and her ministrations infinitely pleasant to him; her
prudent counsel saved him from many a blunder and mad excess, and on at
least one occasion rescued his army from destruction.
So strong was the hold she soon won on his affection and gratitude that
he is said to have married her secretly within three years of first
setting eyes on her. Her future and that of the children she had borne
to him became his chief concern; and as early as 1708, when he was
leaving Moscow to join his army, he left behind him a note: "If, by
God's will, anything should happen to me, let the 3000 roubles which
will be found in Menshikoff's house be given to Catherine Vassilevska
and her daughter."
But whatever the truth may be about the alleged secret marriage, we know
that early in 1712, Peter, in his Admiral's uniform, stood at the altar
with the Livonian maid-servant, in the presence of his Court officials,
and with two of her own little daughters as bridesmaids. The wedding, we
are told, was performed in a little chapel belonging to Prince
Menshikoff, and was preceded by an interview with the Dowager-Empress
and his Princess sisters, in which Peter declared his intention to make
Catherine his wife and commanded them to pay her the respect due to her
new rank. Then followed, in brilliant sequence, State dinners,
receptions, and balls, at all of which the laundress-bride sat at her
husband's right hand and received the homage of his subjects as his
Picture now the woman who but a few years earlier had scrubbed Pastor
Glueck's floors and cleaned Menshikoff's window-panes, in all her new
splendours as Empress of Russia. The portraits of her, in her
unaccustomed glories, are far from flattering and by no means
consistent. "She showed no sign of ever having possessed beauty," says
Baron von Poellnitz; "she was tall and strong and very dark, and would
have seemed darker but for the rouge and whitening with which she
plastered her face."
The picture drawn by the Margravine of Baireuth is still less
attractive: "She was short and huddled up, much tanned, and utterly
devoid of dignity or grace. Muffled up in her clothes, she looked like a
German comedy-actress. Her old-fashioned gown, heavily embroidered with
silver, and covered with dirt, had been bought in some old-clothes shop.
The front of her skirt was adorned with jewels, and she had a dozen
orders and as many portraits of saints fastened all along the facings of
her dress, so that when she walked she jingled like a mule."
But in the eyes of one man at least--and he the greatest in all
Russia--she was beautiful. His allegiance never wavered, nor indeed did
that of his army, which idolised her to a man. She might have no boudoir
graces, but at least she was the typical soldier's wife, and cut a brave
figure, as she reviewed the troops or rode at their head in her uniform
and grenadier cap. She shared all the hardships and dangers of
campaigns with a smile on her lips, sleeping on the hard ground, and
standing in the trenches with the bullets whistling about her ears, and
men dropping to right and left of her.
Nor was there ever a trace of vanity in her. She was as proud of her
humble origin as if she had been cradled in a palace. To princes and
ambassadors she would talk freely of the days when she was a household
drudge, and loved to remind her husband of the time when his Empress
used to wash shirts for his favourite. "Though, no doubt, you have other
laundresses about you," she wrote to him once, "the old one never
The letters that passed between this oddly assorted couple, if couched
in terms which could scarcely see print in our more restrained age, are
eloquent of affection and devotion. To Peter his kitchen-Queen was
"friend of my Heart," "dearest Heart," and "dear little Mother." He
complains pathetically, when away with his army, "I am dull without
you--and there is nobody to take care of my shirts." When Catherine once
left him on a round of visits, he grew so impatient at her absence that
he sent a yacht to bring her back, and with it a note: "When I go into
my rooms and find them deserted, I feel as if I must rush away at once.
It is all so empty without thee."
And each letter is accompanied by a present--now a watch, now some
costly lace, and again a lock of his hair, or a simple bunch of dried
flowers, while she returns some such homely gift as a little fruit or a
fur-lined waistcoat. On both sides, too, a vein of jocularity runs
through the letters, as when Catherine addresses him as "Your
Excellency, the very illustrious and eminent Prince-General and Knight
of the crowned Compass and Axe"; and when Peter, after the Peace of
Nystadt, writes: "According to the Treaty I am obliged to return all
Livonian prisoners to the King of Sweden. What is to become of thee, I
don't know." To which she answers, with true wifely (if affected)
humility: "I am your servant; do with me as you will; yet I venture to
think you won't send _me_ back."
Quite idyllic, this post-nuptial love-making between the great Emperor
and his low-born Queen, who has so possessed his heart that no other
woman, however fair, could wrest it from her. And in her exalted
position of Empress she practised the same diplomatic arts by which she
had won Peter's devotion. Politics she left severely alone; she turned a
forbidding back on all attempts to involve her in State intrigues, but
she was ever ready to protect those who appealed to her for help, and to
use her influence with her husband to procure pardon or lighter
punishment for those who had fallen under his displeasure.
Nor did she forget her poor relations in Livonia. One brother, a
postillion, she openly acknowledged, introduced to her husband, and
obtained a liberal pension for him; and to her other brothers and
sisters she sent frequent presents and sums of money. More she could not
well do during her husband's lifetime, but when she in turn came to the
throne, she brought the whole family--postillion, shoemaker,
farm-labourer and serf, their wives and families--to her capital,
installed them in sumptuous apartments in her palaces, decked them in
the finest Court feathers, and gave them large fortunes and titles of
When the Tsar's quarrel with his eldest son came to its tragic
_denouement_ in Alexis' death, her own son became heir presumptive to
the throne of Russia. And thus the chain that bound Peter to his Empress
received its completing link. It only remained now to place the crown
formally on the head of the mother of the new heir, and this supreme
honour was hers in the month of May, 1729.
Wonderful tales are told of the splendours of Catherine's coronation. No
existing crown was good enough for the ex-maid-of-all-work, so one of
special magnificence was made by the Court jewellers--a miracle of
diamonds and pearls, crowned by a monster ruby--at a cost of a million
and a half roubles. The Coronation gown, which cost four thousand
roubles, was made at Paris; and from Paris, too, came the gorgeous coach
with its blaze of gold and heraldry, in which the Tsarina made her
triumphal progress through the streets of the capital from the Winter
Palace. The culminating point of this remarkable ceremony came when,
after Peter had placed the crown on his wife's head, she sank weeping at
his feet and embraced his knees.
Catherine, however, had not worn her crown many months when she found
herself in considerable danger of losing not only her dignities but even
her liberty. For some time, it is said, she had been engaged in a
liaison with William Mons, a handsome, gay young courtier, brother to a
former mistress of the Tsar. The love affair had been common knowledge
at the Court--to all but Peter himself, and it was accident that at last
opened his eyes to his wife's dishonour. One moonlight night, so the
story is told, he chanced to enter an arbour in the palace gardens, and
there discovered her in the arms of her lover.
His vengeance was swift and terrible. Mons was arrested the same night
in his rooms, and dragged fainting into the Tsar's presence, where he
confessed his disloyalty. A few days later he was beheaded, at the very
moment when the Empress was dancing a minuet with her ladies, a smile on
her lips, whatever grief was in her heart. The following day she was
driven by her husband past the scaffold where her lover's dead body was
exposed to public view--so close, in fact, that her dress brushed
against it; but, without turning her head, she kept up a smiling
conversation with the perpetrator of this outrage on her feelings.
Still not content with his revenge, Peter next placed the dead man's
head, enclosed in a bottle of spirits of wine, in a prominent place in
the Empress's apartments; and when she still smilingly ignored its
horrible proximity, his anger, hitherto repressed, blazed forth
fiercely. With a blow of his strong fist he shattered a priceless
Venetian vase, shouting, "Thus will I treat thee and thine"--to which
she calmly responded, "You have broken one of the chief ornaments of
your palace; do you think you have increased its charm?"
For a time Peter refused to be propitiated; he would not speak to his
wife, or share her meals or her room. But she had "tamed the tiger" many
a time before, and she was able to do it again. Within two months she
had won her way back into full favour, and was once more the Tsar's
A month later Peter was dead, carrying his love for his peasant-Empress
to the grave, and Catherine was reigning in his stead, able at last to
conduct her amours openly--spending her nights in shameless orgies with
her lovers, and leaving the rascally Menshikoff to do the ruling, until
death brought her amazing career to an end within sixteen months of
mounting her throne.
THE "BONNIE PRINCE'S" BRIDE
In the pageant of our history there are few more attractive figures than
that of "Bonnie Prince Charlie," the "yellow-haired laddie" whose blue
eyes made a slave of every woman who came under their magic, and whose
genial, unaffected manners turned the veriest coward into a hero, ready
to follow him to the death in that year of ill-fated romance, "the
The very name of the "Bonnie Prince," the hope of the fallen Stuarts,
the idol of Scotland--leading a forlorn hope with laughter on his lips,
now riding proudly at the head of his rabble army, now a fugitive
Ishmael among the hills and caves of the Highlands, but ever the last to
lose heart--has a magic still to quicken the pulses. That later years
proved the idol's feet to be of clay, that he fell from his pedestal to
end his days an object of contempt and derision, only served to those
who knew him in the pride of his youth to mingle pity with the glamour
of romance that still surrounds his name.
In the year 1772, when this story opens, Charles Edward, Count of
Albany, had already travelled far on the downward road that led from
the glory of Prestonpans to his drunkard's grave. A pitiful pensioner of
France, who had known the ignominy of wearing fetters in a French
prison, a social outcast whose Royal pretensions were at best the
subject of an amused tolerance, the "laddie of the yellow hair" had
fallen so low that the brandy bottle, which was his constant companion
night and day, was his only solace.
Picture him at this period, and mark the pathetic change which less than
thirty years had wrought in the Stuart "darling" of "the forty-five,"
when many a proud lady of Scotland would have given her life for a smile
from his bonnie face. A middle-aged man with dropsy in his limbs, and
with the bloated face of the drunkard; "dull, thick, silent-looking
lips, of purplish red scarce redder than the skin; pale blue eyes
tending to a watery greyness, leaden, vague, sad, but with angry
streakings of red; something inexpressibly sad, gloomy, helpless,
vacant, and debased in the whole face."
Such was this "Young Chevalier" when France took it into her head to
make a pawn of him in the political chess-game with England. As a man he
was beneath contempt; as a "King"--well, he was a _Roi pour rire_; but
at least the Royal House he represented might be made a useful weapon
against the arrogant Hanoverian who sat on his father's throne. That
rival stock must not be allowed to die out; his claims might weigh
heavily some day in the scale between France and England. Charles Edward
must marry, and provide a worthier successor to his empty honours.
And thus it was that France came to the exiled Prince with the
seductive offer of a pretty bride and a pension of forty thousand crowns
a year. The besotted Charles jumped at the offer; left his brandy
bottle, and, with the alacrity of a youthful lover, rushed away to woo
and win the bride who had been chosen for him.
And never surely was there such a grotesque wooing. Charles was a
physical wreck of fifty-two; his bride-elect had only seen nineteen
summers. The daughter of Prince Gustav Adolf of Stolberg and the
Countess of Horn, Princess Louise was kin to many of the greatest houses
in Europe, from the Colonnas and Orsinis to the Hohenzollerns and
Bruces. In blood she was thus at least a match for her Stuart
She had spent some years in the seclusion of a monastery, and had
emerged for her undesired trip to the altar a young woman of rare beauty
and charm, with glorious brown eyes, the delicate tint of the wild rose
in her dimpled cheeks, a wealth of golden hair, and a figure every line
and movement of which was instinct with beauty and grace. She was a
fresh, unspoilt child, bubbling with gaiety and the joy of life, and her
dainty little head was full of the romance of sweet nineteen.
Such then was the singularly contrasted couple--"Beauty and the Beast"
they were dubbed by many--who stood together at the altar at Macerata on
Good Friday of the year 1772--the bridegroom, "looking hideous in his
wedding suit of crimson silk," in flaming contrast to the virginal white
of his pretty victim. It needed no such day of ill-omen as a Friday to
inaugurate a union which could not have been otherwise than
disastrous--the union of a beautiful, romantic girl eager to exploit the
world of freedom and of pleasure, and a drink-sodden man old enough to
be her father, for whom life had long lost all its illusions.
It is true that for a time Charles Edward was drawn from his bottle by
the lure of a pretty and winsome wife, who should, if any power on earth
could, have made a man again of him. She laughed, indeed, at his maudlin
tales of past heroism and adventure in love and battle; to her he was a
plaster hero, and she let him know it. She was "mated to a clown," and a
drunken clown to boot--and, well, she would make the best of a bad
bargain. If her husband was the sorriest lover who ever poured
thick-voiced flatteries into a girl-wife's ears, there were others,
plenty of them, who were eager to pay more acceptable homage to her; and
these men--poets, courtiers, great men in art and letters--flocked to
her _salon_ to bask in her beauty and to be charmed by her wit.
After all, she was a Queen, although she wore no crown. She had a Court,
although no Royalties graced it. From the Pope to the King of France, no
monarch in Europe would recognise her husband's kingship. But at such
neglect, the offspring of jealousy, of course, she only smiled. She
could indeed have been moderately happy in her girlish, light-hearted
way, if her husband had not been such an impossible person.
As for Charles Edward, he soon wearied of a bride who did nothing but
laugh at him, and who was so ready to escape from his obnoxious presence
to the company of more congenial admirers. He returned to his brandy
bottle, and alternated between a fuddled brain and moods of wild
jealousy. He would not allow his wife to leave the door without his
escort; if she refused to accompany him, he turned the key in her
bedroom door, to which the only access was through his own room.
He took her occasionally to the theatre or opera, his brandy bottle
always making a third for company. Before the performance was half
through he was snoring stertorously on the couch which he insisted on
having in his box; and, more often than not, was borne to his carriage
for the journey home helplessly drunk. And this within the first year of
his wedded life.
If any woman had excuse for seeking elsewhere the love she could not
find in her husband it was Louise of Albany. There were dames in plenty
in Rome (where they were now living) who, not content with devoted
husbands, had their _cisibeos_ to play the lover to them; but Louise
sought no such questionable escape from her unhappiness. Her books and
the clever men who thronged her _salon_ were all the solace she asked;
and under temptation such as few women of that country and day would
have resisted, she carried the shield of a blameless life.
From Rome the Countess and her husband fared to Florence in 1774; and
here matters went from bad to worse. Charles was now seldom sober day
or night; and his jealousy often found expression in filthy abuse and
cowardly assaults. Hitherto he had been simply disgusting; now he was a
constant menace, even to her life. She lived in hourly fear of his
brutality; but in her darkest hour sunshine came again into her life
with the coming of Vittorio Alfieri, whose name was to be linked with
hers for so many years.
At this time Alfieri was in the very prime of his splendid manhood, one
of the handsomest and most fascinating men in all Europe. Some four
years older than herself, he was a tall, stalwart, soldierly man,
blue-eyed and auburn-haired, an aristocrat to his finger-tips, a daring
horseman, a poet, and a man of rare culture--just the man to set any
woman's heart a-flutter, as he had already done in most of the capitals
of the Continent.
He was a spoilt child of fortune, this Italian poet and soldier, a man
who had drunk deep of the cup of life, and to whom all conquests came
with such fatal ease that already he had drained life dry of its
Such was the man who one autumn day in the year 1777 came into the
unhappy life of the Countess of Albany, still full of the passions and
yearnings of youth. It was surely fate that thus brought together these
two young people of kindred tastes and kindred disillusions; and we
cannot wonder that, of that first meeting, Alfieri should write, "At
last I had met the one woman whom I had sought so long, the woman who
could inspire my ambition and my work. Recognising this, and prizing so
rare a treasure, I gave myself up wholly to her."
Those were happy days for the Countess that followed this fateful
meeting--days of sweet communion of twin souls, hours of stolen bliss,
when they could dwell apart in a region of high and ennobling thoughts,
while the besotted husband was sleeping off the effects of his drunken
orgies in the next room. To Alfieri, Louise was indeed "the anchor of
his life," giving stability to his vacillating nature, and inspiring all
that was best and noblest in him; while to her the association with this
"splendid creature," who so thoroughly understood and sympathised with
her, was the revelation of a new world.
Thus three happy years passed; and then the crisis came. One night the
Prince, in a mood of drunken madness, inflamed by jealousy, attacked his
wife, and, after severely beating her, flung her down on her bed and
attempted to strangle her. This was the crowning outrage of years of
brutality. She could not, dared not, spend another day with such a
madman. At any cost she must leave him--and for ever.
When morning came, with Alfieri's assistance, the plan of escape was
arranged. In the company of a lady friend--and also of her husband, now
scared and penitent, but fearing to let her out of his sight--she drove
to a neighbouring convent, ostensibly to inspect the nuns' needlework.
On reaching her destination she ran up the convent steps, entered the
building, and the door was slammed and bolted behind her in the very
face of Charles Edward, who had followed as fast as his dropsical legs
would carry him up the steps. The Prince, blazing at such an outrage,
hammered fiercely at the door until at last the Lady Abbess herself
showed her face at the grating, and told him in no ambiguous words that
he would not be allowed to enter! His wife had come to her for
protection; and if he had any grievance he had better appeal to the Duke
Thus ended the tragic union of the "Bonnie Prince" and his Countess.
Emancipation had come at last; and, while Louise was now free to devote
her life to her beloved Alfieri, her brutal husband was left for eight
years to the company of his bottle and the ministrations of his natural
daughter, until a drunkard's grave at Frascati closed over his mis-spent
life. The pity and the tragedy of it!
Louise of Albany and her poet-lover were now free to link their lives at
the altar--but no such thought seems to have entered the head of either.
They were perfectly happy without the bond of the wedding-ring, of which
the Countess had such terrible memories; and together they walked
through life, happy in each other and indifferent to the world's
Now in Florence, now in Rome; living together in Alsace, drifting to
Paris; and, when the Revolution drove them from the French capital,
seeking refuge in London, where we find the uncrowned Queen of England
chatting amicably with the "usurper" George in the Royal box at the
opera--always inseparable, and Louise always clinging to the shreds of
her Royal dignity, with a throne in her ante-room, and "Your Majesty"
on her servants' lips. Thus passed the careless, happy years for
Countess and poet until, in 1803, Alfieri followed the "Bonnie Prince"
behind the veil, and left a desolate Louise to moan amid her tears,
"There is no more happiness for me."
But Louise was not left even now without the solace of a man's love,
which seemed as indispensable to her nature as the air she breathed.
Before Alfieri had been many months in his Florence tomb his place by
the Countess's side had been taken by Francois Xavier Fabre, a
good-looking painter of only moderate gifts, whose handsome face,
plausible tongue, and sunny disposition soon made a captive of her
middle-aged heart. At the time when Fabre came thus into her life Madame
la Comtesse had passed her fiftieth birthday--youth and beauty had taken
wings; and passion (if ever she had any--for her relations with Alfieri
seem to have been quite platonic) had died down to its embers.
But a man's companionship and homage were always necessary to her, and
in Fabre she found her ideal cavalier. Her _salon_ now became more
popular even than in the days of her young wifehood. It drew to it all
the greatest men in Europe, men of world-wide fame in statesmanship,
letters, and art, all anxious to do homage to a woman of such culture
and with such rare gifts of conversation.
That she was now middle-aged, stout and dowdy--"like a cook with pretty
hands," as Stendhal said of her--mattered nothing to her admirers, many
of whom remembered her in the days of her lovely youth. She was, in
their eyes, as much a Queen as if she wore a crown; and, moreover, she
was a woman of magnetic charm and clever brain.
And thus, with her books and her _salon_ and her cavalier, she spent the
rest of her chequered life until the end came one day in 1824; and her
last resting-place was, as she wished it to be, by the side of her
beloved Alfieri. In the Church of Santa Croce, in Florence, midway
between the tombs of Michael Angelo and Machiavelli, the two lovers
sleep together their last sleep, beneath a beautiful monument fashioned
by Canova's hands--Louise, wife of the "Bonnie Prince" (as we still
choose to remember him) and Vittorio Alfieri, to whom, to quote his own
words, "she was beyond all things beloved."
THE PEASANT AND THE EMPRESS
Many an autocrat of Russia has shown a truly sovereign contempt for
convention in the choice of his or her favourites, the "playthings of an
hour"; and at least three of them have carried this contempt to the
Peter, the first, as we have seen, offered a crown to Martha Skovronski,
a Livonian scullery-maid, who succeeded him on the throne; the second
Catherine gave her hand as well as her heart to Patiomkin, the gigantic,
ill-favoured ex-sergeant of cavalry; and Elizabeth, daughter of Peter
and his kitchen-Queen, proved herself worthy of her parentage when she
made Alexis Razoum, a peasant's son, husband of the Empress of Russia.
You will search history in vain for a story so strange and romantic as
this of the great Empress and the lowly shepherd's son, whom her love
raised from a hovel to a palace, and on whom one of the most amorous and
fickle of sovereign ladies lavished honours and riches and an unwavering
devotion, until her eyes, speaking their love to the last, were closed
It was in the humblest hovel of the village of Lemesh that Alexis
Razoum drew his first breath one day in 1709. His father, Gregory
Razoum, was a shepherd, who spent his pitiful earnings in drink--a man
of violent temper who, in his drunken rages, was the terror not only of
his home but of the entire village. His wife and children cowered at his
approach; and on more than one occasion only accident (or Providence)
saved him from the crime of murder. On one such occasion, we are told,
the child Alexis, who from his earliest years had a passion for reading,
was absorbed in a book, when his father, in ungovernable fury, seized a
hatchet and hurled it at the boy's head. Luckily, the missile missed its
mark, and Alexis escaped, to find refuge in the house of a friendly
priest, who not only gave him shelter and protection, but taught him to
write, and, above all, to sing--little dreaming that he was thus paving
the way which was to lead the drunken shepherd's lad to the dizziest
heights in Russia. For the boy had a beautiful voice. When he joined the
choir of his village church, people flocked from far and near to listen
to the sweet notes that soared, pure and liquid as a nightingale's song,
above the rest. "It was," all declared, "the voice of an angel--and the
face of an angel," for Alexis was as beautiful in those days as any
child of picture or of dreams.
One day a splendidly dressed stranger chanced to enter the Lemesh church
during Mass--none other than Colonel Vishnevsky, a great Court official,
who was on his way back to Moscow from a diplomatic mission; and he
listened entranced to a voice sweeter than any he had ever heard. The
service over, he made the acquaintance of the young chorister,
interviewed his guardian, the "good Samaritan" priest, and persuaded him
to allow the boy to accompany him to the capital. Thus the shepherd's
son took weeping farewell of the good priest, of his mother, and of his
brothers and sisters; and a few weeks later the Empress and her ladies
were listening enchanted to his voice in the Imperial choir at
Moscow--but none with more delight than the Princess Elizabeth, daughter
of Peter the Great, to whom Alexis' beauty appealed even more strongly
than his sweet singing.
Elizabeth, true daughter of her father, had already, young as she was,
counted her lovers by the score--lovers chosen indiscriminately, from
Royal princes to grooms and common soldiers. She was already sated with
the licence of the most dissolute Court of Europe, and to her the young
Cossack of the beautiful face and voice, and rustic innocence, opened a
new and seductive vista of pleasure. She lost her heart to him, had him
transferred to her own Court as her favourite singer, and, within a few
years, gave him charge of her purse and her properties.
The shepherd's son was now not only lover-elect, but principal
"minister" to the daughter of an Emperor, who was herself to wear the
Imperial crown. And while Alexis was thus luxuriating amid the splendour
of a Court, he by no means forgot the humble relatives he had left
behind in his native village. His father was dead; his mother was
reduced for a time to such a depth of destitution that she had to beg
her bread from door to door. His sisters had found husbands for
themselves in their own rank; and the favourite of an Imperial Princess
had for brothers-in-law a tailor, a weaver, and a shepherd. When news
came to Alexis of his mother's destitution he had sent her a sum of
money sufficient to install her in comfort as an innkeeper: the first of
many kindnesses which were to work a startling transformation in the
fortunes of the Razoum family.
Events now hurried quickly. The Empress Anna died, and was succeeded on
the throne by the infant Ivan, her grand-nephew, who had been Emperor
but a few months when, in 1741, a _coup d'etat_ gave the crown to
Elizabeth, mistress of the Lemesh peasant. Alexis was now husband in all
but name of the Empress of all the Russias; honours and riches were
showered on him; he was General, Grandmaster of the Hounds, Chief
Gentleman of the Bedchamber, and lord of large estates yielding regal
But all his grandeur was powerless to spoil the man, who still remained
the simple peasant who, so many years earlier, had left his low-born
mother with streaming eyes. His great ambition now was to share his
good-fortune with her. She must exchange her village inn for the
luxuries and splendours of a palace. And thus it was that one day a
splendid carriage, with gay-liveried postillions, dashed up to the door
of the Lemesh inn and carried off the simple peasant woman, her youngest
son, Cyril, and one of her daughters, to the open-mouthed amazement of
the villagers. At the entrance to the capital she was received by a
magnificently attired gentleman, in whom she failed to recognise her son
Alexis, until he showed her a birthmark on his body.
Picture now the peasant-woman sumptuously lodged in the Moscow palace,
decked in all the finery of silks and laces and jewels, receiving the
respectful homage of high Court officials, caressed and petted by an
Empress, while her splendid son looks smilingly on, as proud of his
cottage-mother as if she were a Princess of the Blood Royal. That the
innkeeper was not happy in her gilded cage, that her thoughts often
wandered longingly to her cronies and the simple life of the village, is
not to be wondered at.
It was all very well for such a fine gentleman as her son, Alexis; but
for a poor, simple-minded woman like herself--well, she was too old for
such a transplanting. And we can imagine her relief when, on the removal
of the Court to St Petersburg, she was allowed to bring her visit to an
end and to return to her inn with wonderful stories of all she had seen.
Her son and daughter, however, elected to remain. As for Cyril, a
handsome youth, almost young enough to be his brother's son, he was
quick to win his way into the favour of the Empress. Before he had been
many months at Court he was made a Count and Gentleman of the
Bedchamber. He was given for bride a grand-niece of Elizabeth; and at
twenty-two he was Viceroy of the Ukraine, virtual sovereign of a kingdom
of his own, with his peasant-mother, who declined to share his palace,
comfortably installed in a modest house near his gates.
Cyril, in fact, was to his last day as unspoiled by his unaccustomed
grandeur as his brother Alexis. Each was ready at any moment to turn
from the obsequious homage of nobles to hobnob with a peasant friend or
relative. How utterly devoid of false pride Alexis was is proved by the
following anecdote. One day when, in company with the Empress, he was
paying a visit to Count Loewenwolde, he rushed from Elizabeth's side to
fling his arms round the neck of one of his host's footmen. "Are you
mad, Alexis?" exclaimed the Empress, in her astonishment. "What do you
mean by such senseless behaviour?" "I am not mad at all," answered the
favourite. "He is an old friend of mine."
But although no man ever deposed the shepherd from the first place in
Elizabeth's favour, it must not be imagined that he was her only lover.
The daughter of the hot-blooded Peter and the lusty scullery wench had
always as great a passion for men as the second Catherine, who had
almost as many favourites in her boudoir as gowns in her wardrobes. She
had her lovers before she was emancipated from the schoolroom; and not
the least favoured of them, it is said, was her own nephew, Peter the
Second, whom she would no doubt have married if it had been possible.
She turned her back on one great alliance after another, preferring her
freedom to a wedding-ring that brought no love with it; and she found
her pleasure alike among the gentlemen of the Court and among her own
servants. In the long list of her favourites we find a General
succeeded by a Sergeant; Boutourlin, the handsome courtier, giving place
to Lialin, the sailor; and Count Shouvalov retiring in favour of
Voytshinsky, the coachman. Thus one liaison succeeded another from
girlhood to middle-age--indeed long after she had passed the altar. But
through all these varying attachments her heart remained constant to her
shepherd-lover, to whom she was ever the devoted wife, and, when he was
ill, the tenderest of nurses. To please him, she even accompanied him on
a visit to his native village, smiling graciously on his humble friends
of other days, and partaking of the hospitality of the poorest
cottagers; while on all who had befriended him in the days of his
obscurity she lavished her favours.
Of one man who had been thus kind she made a General on the spot; the
friendly priest was given a highly paid post at Court; high rank in the
army was given to many of his humble relatives; and a husband was found
for a favourite niece in Count Ryoumin, the Chancellor's son.
As for Alexis himself, nothing was too good for him. Although he had
probably never handled a gun in his life she made him Field-Marshal and
head of her army; and, at her request, Charles VII. dubbed him Count of
the Holy Roman Empire, a distinction which Gregory Orloff in later years
prized more than all the honours Catherine II. showered on him; while
the estates of which she made him lord were a small kingdom in
themselves. Alexis, the shepherd's son, was now, beyond any question,
the most powerful man in Russia. If he would, he might easily have
taken the sceptre from the yielding hands of the Empress and played the
autocrat, as Patiomkin played it under similar circumstances in later
years. But Alexis cared as little for power as for rank and wealth. He
smiled at his honours. "Fancy," he said, with his hearty laugh, "a
peasant's son, a Count; and a man who ought to be tending sheep, a
When courtly genealogists spread before him an elaborate family-tree,
proving that he sprang from the princely stock of Bogdan, with many a
Grand Duke of Lithuania among his lineal ancestors, he laughed loud and
long at them for their pains. "Don't be so ridiculous," he said. "You
know as well as I that my parents were simple peasants, honest enough,
but people of the soil and nothing else. If I am Count and Field-Marshal
and Viceroy, I owe it all to the good heart of your Empress and mine,
whose humble servant I am. Take it away, and let me hear no more of such
Such to the last was the unspoiled, child-like nature of the man who so
soon was to be not merely the first favourite but husband of an Empress.
Probably Alexis would have lived and died Elizabeth's unlicensed lover
had it not been for the cunning of the cleverest of her Chancellors,
Bestyouzhev, who saw in his mistress's infatuation for her peasant the
means of making his own position more secure. Elizabeth was still a
young and attractive woman, who might pick and choose among some of the
most eligible suitors in Europe for a sharer of her throne; for there
were many who would gladly have played consort to the good-looking
autocrat of Russia.
Such a husband, especially if he were a strong man, might seriously
imperil the Chancellor's position; might even dispense with him
altogether. On the other hand, he was high in the favour of the
shepherd's son, who had such a contempt for power, and who thus would be
a puppet in his hands. Why not make him husband in name as well as in
fact? It was, after all, an easy task the Chancellor thus set himself.
Elizabeth was by no means unwilling to wear a wedding-ring for the man
who had loved her so loyally and so long; and any difficulties she might
raise were quickly disposed of by her father-confessor, who was
Bestyouzhev's tool. Thus it came to pass that one day Elizabeth and
Alexis stood side by side before the village altar of Perovo; and the
words were spoken which made the shepherd's son husband of the Empress.
The secrecy with which the ceremony was performed was but a fiction. All
the world knew that Alexis Gregorovitch was Emperor by right of wedlock,
and flocked to pay homage to him in his new and exalted character.
He now had sumptuous apartments next to those of his wife; he sat at her
right hand on all State occasions; he was her shadow everywhere; and
during his frequent attacks of gout the Empress ministered to him night
and day in his own rooms with the tender devotion of a mother to a
child. Two children were born to them, a son and a daughter, the latter
of whom, after a life of strange romance and vicissitude, ended her
days in a loathsome dungeon of the fortress of Saints Peter and Paul,
the victim of Catherine II.'s vengeance--miserably drowned, so one story
goes, by an inundation of her cell.
On Elizabeth's death, in the year 1762, her husband was glad to retire
from the Court in which he had for so long played so splendid a part.
"None but myself," he said, "can know with what pleasure I leave a
sphere to which I was not born, and to which only my love for my dear
mistress made me resigned. I should have been happier far with her in
some small cottage far removed from the gilded slavery of Court life."
He was happy enough now leading the peaceful life of a country gentleman
on one of his many estates.
Catherine II. had mounted the throne of Russia--the Empress who,
according to Masson, had but two passions, which she carried to the
grave--"her love of man, which degenerated into libertinage; and her
love of glory, which degenerated into vanity." A woman with the brain of
a man and the heart of a courtesan, Catherine's fickle affection had
flitted from one lover to another, until now it had settled on Gregory
Orloff, the handsomest man in her dominions, whom she was more than half
disposed to make her husband.
This was a scheme which commended itself strongly to her Chancellor,
Vorontsov. There was a most useful precedent to lend support to it--the
alliance of the Empress Elizabeth with a man of immeasurably lower rank
than Catherine's favourite; but it was important that this precedent
should be established beyond dispute. Thus it was that one day, when
Count Alexis was poring over his Bible by his country fireside,
Chancellor Vorontsov made his appearance with ingratiating words and
promises. Her Majesty, he informed the Count, was willing to confer
Imperial rank on him in return for one small favour--the possession of
the documents which proved his marriage to her predecessor, Elizabeth.
On hearing the request, the ex-shepherd rose, and, with words of quiet
scorn, refused both the request and the proffered honour. "Am not I," he
said, "a Count, a Field-Marshal, a man of wealth? all of which I owe to
the kindness of my dear, dead mistress. Are not such honours enough for
the peasant's son whom she raised from the mire to sit by her side, that
I should purchase another bauble by an act of treachery to her memory?
"But wait one moment," he continued; and, leaving the room, he returned
carrying a small bundle of papers, which he proceeded to examine one by
one. Then, collecting them, he placed the bundle in the heart of the
fire, to the horror of the onlooking Chancellor; and, as the flames were
reducing the precious documents to ashes, he said, "Go now and tell
those who sent you, that I never was more than the slave of my august
benefactress, the Empress Elizabeth, who could never so far have
forgotten her position as to marry a subject."
Thus with a lie on his lips--the last crowning evidence of loyalty to
his beloved Queen and wife--Alexis Razoum makes his exit from the stage
on which he played so strangely romantic a part. A few years later his
days ended in peace at his St Petersburg palace, with the name he loved
best, "Elizabeth," on his lips.
A CROWN THAT FAILED
Henri of Navarre, hero of romance and probably the greatest King who
ever sat on the throne of France, had a heart as weak in love as it was
stout in war. To his last day he was a veritable coward before the
battery of bright eyes; and before Ravaillac's dagger brought his career
to a tragic end one May day in the year 1610 he had counted his
mistresses to as many as the years he had lived.
But of them all, fifty-seven of them--for the most part lightly coming
and lightly going--only one ever really reached his heart, and was
within measurable distance of a seat on his throne--the woman to whom he
wrote in the hey-day of his passion, "Never has man loved as I love you.
If any sacrifice of mine could purchase your happiness, how gladly I
would make it, even to the last drop of my life's blood."
Gabrielle d'Estrees who thus enslaved the heart of the hero, which
carried him to a throne through a hundred fights and inconceivable
hardships, was cradled one day in the year 1573 in Touraine. From her
mother, Francoise Babou, she inherited both beauty and frailness; for
the Babou women were famous alike for their loveliness and for a virtue
as facile even as that of Marie Gaudin, the pretty plaything of Francois
I., who left Francois' arms to find a husband in Philip Babou and thus
to transmit her charms and frailty to Gabrielle.
Her father, Antoine, son of Jean d'Estrees, a valiant soldier under five
kings, was a man of pleasure, who drank and sang his way through life,
preferring Cupid to Mars and the _joie de vivre_ to the call of duty. It
is perhaps little wonder that Antoine's wife, after bearing seven
children to her husband, left him to find at least more loyalty in the
Marquess of Tourel-Alegre, a lover twenty years younger than herself.
Thus it was that, deserted by her mother, and with a father too addicted
to pleasure to spare a thought for his children, Gabrielle grew to
beautiful girlhood under the care of an aunt--now living in the family
chateau in Picardy, now in the great Paris mansion, the Hotel d'Estrees;
and with so little guidance from precept or example that, in later
years, she and her six sisters and brothers were known as the "Seven
In Gabrielle at least there was little that was vicious. She was an
irresponsible little creature, bubbling over with mischief and gaiety,
eager to snatch every flower of pleasure that caught her eyes; a dainty
little fairy with big blue "wonder" eyes, golden hair, the sweetest
rosebud of a mouth, ready to smile or to pout as the mood of the moment
suggested, with soft round baby cheeks as delicately flushed as any
Such was Gabrielle d'Estrees on the verge of young womanhood when Roger
de Saint-Larry, Duc de Bellegarde, the King's grand equerry, and one of
the handsomest young men in France, first set eyes on her in the chateau
of Coeuvres; and, as was inevitable, lost his heart to her at first
sight. When he rode away two days later, such excellent use had he made
of his opportunities, he left a very happy, if desolate maiden behind;
for Gabrielle had little power to resist fascinations which had made a
conquest of many of the fairest ladies at Court.
When Bellegarde returned to Mantes, where Henri was still struggling for
the crown which was so soon to be his, he foolishly gave the King of
Navarre such a rapturous account of the young beauty of Picardy and his
conquest that Henri, already weary of the faded charms of Diane
d'Audouins, his mistress, promptly left his soldiering and rode away to
see the lady for himself, and to find that Bellegarde's raptures were
more than justified.
Gabrielle, however, flattered though she was by such an honour as a
visit from the King of Navarre, was by no means disposed to smile on the
wooing of "an ugly man, old enough to be my father." And indeed, Henri,
with all the glamour of the hero to aid him, was but a sorry rival for
the handsome and courtly Bellegarde. Now nearing his fortieth year, with
grizzled beard, and skin battered and lined by long years of hard
campaigning, the future King of France had little to appeal to the
romantic eyes of a maid who counted less than half his years; and the
King in turn rode away from the Coeuvres Castle as hopelessly in love
as Bellegarde, but with much less encouragement to return.
But the hero of Ivry and a hundred other battles was no man to submit to
defeat in any lists; and within a few weeks Gabrielle was summoned to
Mantes, where he told her in decisive words that he loved her, and that
no one, Bellegarde or any other, should share her with him. "Indeed!"
she exclaimed, with a defiant toss of the head, "I will be no man's
slave; I shall give my heart to whom I please, and certainly not to any
man who demands it as a right." And within an hour she was riding home
fast as her horse could gallop.
Henri was thunderstruck at such defiance. He must follow her at once and
bring her to reason; but, in order to do so, he must risk his life by
passing through the enemy's lines. Such an adventure, however, was after
his own heart; and disguising himself as a peasant, with a bundle of
faggots on his shoulder, he made his way safely to Coeuvres, where he
presented himself, a pitiable spectacle of rags and poverty, to be
greeted by his lady with shouts of derisive laughter. "Oh dear!" she
gasped between her paroxysms of mirth, "what a fright you look! For
goodness' sake go and change your clothes." But though the King obeyed
humbly, Gabrielle shut herself in her room and declined point-blank to
see him again.
Such devotion, however, expressed in such fashion, did not fail in its
appeal to the romantic girl; and when, a little later, Gabrielle visited
the Royalist army then besieging Chartres, it was a much more pliant
Gabrielle who listened to the King's wooing and whose eyes brightened at
his stories of bravery and danger. Henri might be old and ugly, but he
had at least a charm of manner, a frank, simple manliness, which made
him the idol of his soldiers and in fact of every woman who once came
under its spell. And to this charm even Gabrielle, the rebel, had at
last to submit, until Bellegarde was forgotten, and her hero was all the
world to her.
The days that followed this slow awaking were crowded with happiness for
the two lovers; when Gabrielle was not by her King's side, he was
writing letters to her full of passionate tenderness. "My beautiful
Love," "My All," "My Trueheart"--such were the sweet terms he lavished
on her. "I kiss you a million times. You say that you love me a thousand
times more than I love you. You have lied, and you shall maintain your
falsehood with the arms which you have chosen. I shall not see you for
ten days, it is enough to kill me." And again, "They call me King of
France and Navarre--that of your subject is much more delightful--you
have much more cause for fearing that I love you too much than too
little. That fault pleases you, and also me, since you love it. See how
I yield to your every wish."
Such were the letters--among the most beautiful ever penned by
lover--which the King addressed to his "Menon" in those golden days,
when all the world was sunshine for him, black as the sky was still with
the clouds of war. And she returned love for love; tenderness for
passion. When he was lying ill at St Denis, she wrote, "I die of fear.
Tell me, I implore you, how fares the bravest of the brave. Give me
news, my cavalier; for you know how fatal to me is your least ill. I
cannot sleep without sending you a thousand good nights; for I am the
Princess Constancy, sensible to all that concerns you, and careless of
all else in the world, good or bad."
Through the period of stress and struggle that still separated Henri
from the crown which for nearly twenty years was his goal, Gabrielle was
ever by his side, to soothe and comfort him, to chase away the clouds of
gloom which so often settled on him, to inspire him with new courage and
hope, and, with her diplomacy checking his impulses, to smooth over
every obstacle that the cunning of his enemies placed in his path.
And when, at last, one evening in 1594, Henri made his triumphal entry
into Paris, on a grey horse, wearing a gold-embroidered grey habit, his
face proud and smiling, saluting with his plume-crowned hat the cheering
crowds, Gabrielle had the place of honour in front of him, "in a
gorgeous litter, so bedecked with pearls and gems that she paled the
light of the escorting torches."
This was, indeed, a proud hour for the lovers which saw Henri acclaimed
at "long last" King of France, and his loyal lady-love Queen in all but
name. The years of struggle and hardship were over--years in which Henri
of Navarre had braved and escaped a hundred deaths; and in which he had
been reduced to such pitiable straits that he had often not known where
his next meal was to come from or where to find a shirt to put on his
Gabrielle was now Marquise de Monceaux, a title to which her Royal lover
later added that of Duchesse de Beaufort. Her son, Cesar, was known as
"Monsieur," the title that would have been his if he had been heir to
the French throne. All that now remained to fill the cup of her ambition
and her happiness was that she should become the legal wife of the King
she loved so well; and of this the prospect seemed more than fair.
Charming stories are told of the idyllic family life of the new King;
how his greatest pleasure was to "play at soldiers" with his children,
to join in their nursery romps, or to take them, like some bourgeois
father, to the Saint Germain fair, and return loaded with toys and boxes
of sweetmeats, to spend delightful homely evenings with the woman he
But it was not all sunshine for the lovers. Paris was in the throes of
famine and plague and flood. Poverty and discontent stalked through her
streets, and there were scowling and envious eyes to greet the King and
his lady when they rode laughing by; or when, as on one occasion we read
of, they returned from a hunting excursion, riding side by side, "she
sitting astride dressed all in green" and holding the King's hand.
Nor within the palace walls was it all a bed of roses for Gabrielle; for
she had her enemies there; and chief among them the powerful Duc de
Sully, her most formidable rival in the King's affection. Sully was not
only Henri's favourite minister; he was the Jonathan to his David, the
man who had shared a hundred dangers by his side, and by his devotion
and affection had found a firm lodging in his heart.
Between the minister and the mistress, each consumed with jealousy of
the other, Henri had many a bad hour; and the climax came when de Sully
refused to pass the extravagant charges for the baptism of the
Marquise's second son, Alexander. Gabrielle was indignant and appealed
angrily and tearfully to the King, who supported his minister. "I have
loved you," he said at last, roused to wrath, "because I thought you
gentle and sweet and yielding; now that I have raised you to high
position, I find you exacting and domineering. Know this, I could better
spare a dozen mistresses like you than one minister so devoted to me as
At these harsh words, Gabrielle burst into tears. "If I had a dagger,"
she exclaimed, "I would plunge it into my heart, and then you would find
your image there." And when Henri rushed from the room, she ran after
him, flung herself at his feet, and with heart-breaking sobs, begged for
forgiveness and a kind word. Such troubles as these, however, were but
as the clouds that come and go in a summer sky. Gabrielle's sun was now
nearing its zenith; Henri had long intended to make her his wife at the
altar; proceedings for divorce from his wife, Marguerite de Valois, were
running smoothly; and now the crowning day in the two lives thus
romantically linked was at hand.
In the month of April, 1599, Gabrielle and Henri were spending the last
ante-nuptial days together at Fontainebleau; the wedding was fixed for
the first Sunday after Easter, and Gabrielle was ideally happy among her
wedding finery and the costly presents that had been showered on her
from all parts of France--from the ring Henri had worn at his Coronation
and which he was to place on her finger at the altar, to a statue of the
King in gold from Lyons, and a "giant piece of amber in a silver casket
Her wedding-dress was a gorgeous robe of Spanish velvet, rich in
embroideries of gold and silver; the suite of rooms which was to be hers
as Queen was already ready, with its splendours of crimson and gold
furnishing. The greatest ladies in France were now proud to act as her
tire-women; and princes and ambassadors flocked to Fontainebleau to pay
The last days of Holy Week it had been arranged that she should spend in
devotion at Paris, and Henri was her escort the greater part of the way.
When they parted on the banks of the Seine they wept in each other's
arms, while Gabrielle, full of nameless forebodings, clung to her lover
and begged him to take her back to Fontainebleau. But with a final
embrace he tore himself away; and with streaming eyes Gabrielle
continued her journey, full of fears as to its issue; for had not a seer
of Piedmont told her that the marriage would never take place; and other
diviners, whom she had consulted, warned her that she would die young,
and never call Henri husband?
Two days later Gabrielle heard Mass at the Church of St Germain
l'Auxerrois; and on returning to the Deanery, her aunt's home, became
seriously ill. She grew rapidly worse; her sufferings were terrible to
witness; and on Good Friday she was delivered of a dead child. To quote
an eye-witness, "She lingered until six o'clock in very great pain, the
like of which doctors and surgeons had never seen before. In her agony
she tore her face, and injured herself in other parts of her body."
Before dawn broke on the following day she drew her last breath.
When news of her illness reached the King, he flew to her swift as his
horse could carry him, only to meet couriers on his way who told him
that Madame was already dead; and to find, when at last he reached St
Germain l'Auxerrois, the door of the room in which she lay barred
against him. He could not take her living once more into his arms; he
was not allowed to see her dead.
Henri was as a man who is mad with grief; he was inconsolable.. None
dared even to approach him with words of pity and comfort. For eight
days he shut himself in a black-draped room, himself clothed in black;
and he wrote to his sister, "The root of my love is dead; there will be
no Spring for me any more." Three months later he was making love to
Gabrielle's successor, Henriette d'Entragues!
Thus perished in tragedy Gabrielle d'Estrees, the creature of sunshine,
who won the bravest heart in Europe, and carried her conquest to the
very foot of a throne.
A QUEEN OF HEARTS
If ever woman was born for love and for empire over the hearts of men it
was surely Jeanne Becu, who first opened her eyes one August day in the
year 1743, at dreary Vaucouleurs, in Joan of Arc's country, and who was
fated to dance her light-hearted way through the palace of a King to the
Scarcely ever has woman, born to such beauty and witchery, been cradled
less auspiciously. Her reputed father was a scullion, her mother a
sempstress. For grandfather she had Fabien Becu, who left his
frying-pans in a Paris kitchen to lead Jeanne Husson, a fellow-servant,
to the altar. Such was the ignoble strain that flowed in the veins of
the Vaucouleurs beauty, who five-and-twenty years later was playfully
pulling the nose of the fifteenth Louis, and queening it in his palaces
with a splendour which Marie Antoinette herself never surpassed.
From her sordid home Jeanne was transported at the age of six to a
convent, where she spent nine years in rebellion against rules and
punishments, until "the golden head emerged at last from black woollen
veil and coarse unstarched bands, the exquisite form from shapeless,
hideous robe, the perfect little feet from abominable yellow shoes," to
play first the role of lady's maid to a wealthy widow, and, when she
wearied (as she quickly did) of coiffing hair, to learn the arts of
"Picture," says de Goncourt, "the glittering shop, where all day long
charming idlers and handsome great gentlemen lounged and ogled; the
pretty milliner tripping through the streets, her head covered by a big,
black _caleche_, whence her golden curls escaped, her round, dainty
waist defined by a muslin-frilled pinafore, her feet in little
high-heeled, buckled shoes, and in her hand a tiny fan, which she uses
as she goes--and then imagine the conversations, proposals, replies!"
Such was Jeanne Becu in the first bloom of her dainty beauty, the
prettiest grisette who ever set hearts fluttering in Paris streets; with
laughter dancing in her eyes, a charming pertness at her red lips, grace
in every movement, and the springtide of youth racing through her veins.
When Voltaire first saw her portrait, he exclaimed, "The original was
fashioned for the gods." And we cannot wonder, as we look on the
ravishing beauty of the face that wrung this eloquent tribute from the
cold-blooded cynic--the tender, melting violet of the eyes, with their
sweeping brown lashes, under the exquisite arch of brown eyebrows, the
dainty little Greek nose, the bent bow of the delicious tiny mouth, the
perfect oval of the face, the complexion "fair and fresh as an
infant's," and a glorious halo of golden hair, a dream of fascinating
curls and tendrils.
It was to this bewitching picture, "with the perfume and light as of a
goddess of love," that Jean du Barry, self-styled Comte, adventurer and
roue, succumbed at a glance. But du Barry's tenure of her heart, if
indeed he ever touched it at all, was brief; for the moment Louis XV.
set eyes on the ravishing girl he determined to make the prize his own,
a superior claim to which the Comte perforce yielded gracefully.
Thus, in 1768, we find Jeanne Becu--or "Mademoiselle Vaubarnier," as she
now called herself--transported by a bound to the Palace of Versailles
and to the first place in the favour of the King, having first gone
through the farce of a wedding ceremony with du Barry's brother,
Guillaume, a husband whom she first saw on the marriage morning, and on
whom she looked her last at the church door.
Then followed for the maid of the kitchen a few years of such Queendom
and splendour as have seldom fallen to the lot of any lady cradled in a
palace--the idolatrous worship of a King, the intoxication of the power
that only beauty thus enshrined can wield, the glitter of priceless
jewels, rarest laces, and richest satins and silks, the flash of gold on
dinner and toilet-table, an army of servants in sumptuous liveries, the
fawning of great Court ladies, the courtly flatteries of princes--every
folly and extravagance that money could purchase or vanity desire.
Six years of such intoxicating life and then--the end. Louis is lying on
his death-bed and, with fear in his eyes and a tardy penitence on his
lips, is saying to her, "Madame, it is time that we should part." And,
indeed, the hour of parting had arrived; for a few days later he drew
his last wicked breath, and Madame du Barry was under orders to retire
to a convent. But her grief for the dead King was as brief as her love
for him had been small; for within a few months, we find her installed
in her beautiful country home, Lucienne, ready for fresh conquests, and
eager to drain the cup of pleasure to the last drop. Nor was there any
lack of ministers to the vanity of the woman who had now reached the
zenith of her incomparable charms.
Among the many lovers who flocked to the country shrine of the widowed
"Queen," was Louis, Duc de Cosse, son of the Marechal de Brissac, who,
although Madame du Barry's senior by nine years, was still in the prime
of his manhood--handsome as an Apollo and a model of the courtly graces
which distinguished the old _noblesse_ in the day of its greatest pride,
which was then so near its tragic downfall.
De Casse had long been a mute worshipper of Louis' beautiful "Queen,"
and now that she was a free woman he was at last able to pay open homage
to her, a homage which she accepted with indifference, for at the time
her heart had strayed to Henry Seymour, although in vain. The woman
whose beauty had conquered all other men was powerless to raise a flame
in the breast of the cold-blooded Englishman; and, realising this, she
at last bade him farewell in a letter, pathetic in its tender dignity.
"It is idle," she wrote, "to speak of my affection for you--you know it.
But what you do not know is my pain. You have not deigned to reassure
me about that which most matters to my heart. And so I must believe that
my ease of mind, my happiness, are of little importance to you. I am
sorry that I should have to allude to them; it is for the last time."
It was in this hour of disillusion and humiliation that she turned for
solace to de Cosse, whose touching constancy at last found its reward.
It was not long before friendship ripened into a love as ardent as his
own; and for the first time this fickle beauty, whose heart had been a
pawn in the game of ambition, knew what a beautiful and ennobling thing
true love is.
Those were halcyon days which followed for de Cosse and the lady his
loyalty had won; days of sweet meetings and tender partings--of a union
of souls which even death was powerless to dissolve. When they could not
meet--and de Cosse's duties often kept him from her side--letters were
always on the wing between Lucienne and Paris, letters some of which
have survived to bring their fragrance to our day.
Thus the lover writes, "A thousand thanks, a thousand thanks, dear
heart! To-day I shall be with you. Yes, I find my happiness is in being
loved by you. I kiss you a thousand times! Good-bye. I love you for
ever." In another letter we read, "Yes, dear heart, I desire so ardently
to be with you--not in spirit, my thoughts are ever with you, but
bodily--that nothing can calm my impatience. Good-bye, my darling. I
kiss you many and many times with all my heart." The curious may read at
the French Record Office many of these letters written in a bold,
flowing hand by de Cosse in the hey-day of his love. The paper is
time-stained, the ink is faded; but each sentence still palpitates with
the passion that inspired it a century and a quarter ago.
And with this great love came new honours for de Cosse. His father's
death made him Duc de Brissac, head of one of the greatest houses in
France, owner of vast estates. He was appointed Governor of Paris and
Colonel of the King's own body-guard. He had, in fact, risen to a
perilous eminence; for the clouds of the great Revolution were already
massing in the sky, and the _sans-culotte_ crowds were straining to be
at the throats of the cursed "aristos," and to hurl Louis from his
throne. Brissac (as we must now call him) was thus an object of special
hatred, as of splendour, standing out so prominently as representative
of the hated _noblesse_.
Other nobles, fearful of the breaking of the storm, were flying in
droves to seek safety in England and elsewhere. But when the Governor of
Paris was urged to fly, he answered proudly, "Certainly not. I shall act
according to my duty to my ancestors and myself." And, heedless of his
life, he clung to his duty and his honour, presenting a smiling face to
the scowls of hatred and envy, and spending blissful hours at Lucienne
with the woman he loved.
Nor was she any less conscious of her danger, or less indifferent to it.
She also had become a target of hatred and scarcely veiled threats.
Watchful eyes marked every coming and going of Brissac's messengers
with their missives of love; it was discovered that Brissac's
aide-de-camp, whose life they sought, was in hiding in her house; that
she was supplying the noble emigrants with money. The climax was reached
when she boldly advertised a reward of two thousand louis for a clue to
the jewellery of which burglars had robbed her--jewels of which she
published a long and dazzling list, thus bringing to memory the days
when the late King had squandered his ill-gotten gold on her.
The Duc, at last alarmed for her--never for himself--begged her either
to escape, or, as he wrote, to "come quickly, my darling, and take every
precaution for your valuables, if you have any left. Yes, come, and your
beauty, your kindness and magnanimity. I am ashamed of it, but I feel
weaker than you. How should I feel otherwise for the one I love best?"
But already the hour for flight had passed. The passions of the mob were
breaking down the barriers that were now too weak to hold them in check;
the Paris streets had their first baptism of blood, prelude to the
deluge to follow; hideous, fierce-eyed crowds were clamouring at the
gates of Versailles; and de Brissac was soon on his way, a prisoner, to
The blow had fallen at last, suddenly, and with crushing force. When
"Louis Hercule Timoleon de Cosse-Brissac, soldier from his birth," was
charged before the National High Court with admitting Royalists into the
Guards, he answered: "I have admitted into the King's Guards no one but
citizens who fulfilled all the conditions contained in the decree of
formation": and no other answer or plea would he deign to his accusers.
From his Orleans prison, where he now awaited the inevitable end, he
wrote daily to his beloved lady; and every day brought him a tender and
cheering letter from her. On 11th August, 1792, he writes: "I received
this morning the best letter I have had for a long time past; none have
rejoiced my heart so much. Thank you for it. I kiss you a thousand
times. You indeed will have my last thought. Ah, my darling, why am I
not with you in a wilderness rather than in Orleans?"
A few days later news reached Madame du Barry that her lover, with other
prisoners, was to be brought from Orleans to Paris. He would thus
actually pass her own door; she would at least see him once again, under
however tragic conditions. With what leaden steps the intervening hours
crawled by! Each sound set her heart beating furiously as if it would
choke her. Each moment was an agony of anticipation. At last she hears
the sound of coming feet. She flies to the window, piercing the dark
night with straining eyes. The sound grows nearer, a tumult of trampling
feet and hoarse cries. A mob of dark figures surges through her gates,
pours riotously up the steps and through the open door. In the hall
there is a pandemonium of cries and oaths; the door of her room is burst
open, and something is flung at her feet. She glances down; and, with a
gasp of unspeakable horror, looks down on the severed head of her lover,
red with his blood.
The _sans-culottes_ had indeed taken a terrible revenge. They had
fallen in overwhelming numbers on the prisoners and their escort; the
soldiers had fled; and de Brissac found himself the centre of a mob, the
helpless target of a hundred murderous blows. With a knife for sole
weapon he fought valiantly, like the brave soldier he was, until a
cowardly blow from behind felled him to the ground. "Fire at me with
your pistols," he shouted, "your work will the sooner be over." A few
moments later he drew his last gallant breath, almost within sight of
the house that sheltered his beloved.
* * * * *
United in life, the lovers were not long to be divided. "Since that
awful day," Madame du Barry wrote to a friend, "you can easily imagine
what my grief has been. They have consummated the frightful crime, the
cause of my misery and my eternal regrets--my grief is complete--a life
which ought to have been so grand and glorious! Good God, what an end!"
Thus cruelly deprived of all that made life worth living, she cared
little how soon the end came. "I ask nothing now of life," she wrote,
"but that it should quickly give me back to him." And her prayer was
soon to be granted. A few months after that night of horrors she herself
was awaiting the guillotine in her cell at the conciergerie.
In vain did an Irish priest who visited her offer to secure her escape
if she would give him money to bribe her jailers. "No," she answered
with a smile, "I have no wish to escape. I am glad to die; but I will
give you money willingly on condition that you save the Duchesse de
Mortemart." And while Madame de Mortemart, daughter of the man she
loved, was making her way to safety under the priest's escort, Jeanne du
Barry was being led to the scaffold, breathing the name of the man she
had loved so well; and, however feeble the flesh, glad to follow where
he had led the way.
THE REGENT'S DAUGHTER
Many unwomanly women have played their parts in the drama of Royal
Courts, but scarcely one, not even those Messalinas, Catherine II. of
Russia and Christina of Sweden, conducted herself with such a shameless
disregard of conventionality as Marie Louise Elizabeth d'Orleans, known
to fame as the Duchesse de Berry, who probably crowded within the brief
space of her years more wickedness than any woman who was ever cradled
in a palace.
It is said that this libertine Duchesse was mad; and certainly he would
be a bold champion who would try to prove her sanity. But, apart from
any question of a disordered brain, there was a taint in her blood
sufficient to account for almost any lapse from conventional standards
of pure living. Her father was that Duc d'Orleans who shocked the none
too strait-laced Europe of two centuries ago by his orgies; her
grandfather was that other Orleans Duke, brother of Louis XIV., whose
passion for his minions broke the heart of his English wife, the Stuart
Princess Henriettta; and she had for mother one of the daughters of
Madame de Montespan, light-o'-love to _le Roi Soleil_.
The offspring of such parents could scarcely have been normal; and how
far from normal Marie Louise was, this story of her singular life will
show. When her father, the Duc de Chartres, took to wife Mademoiselle de
Blois, Montespan's daughter, there were many who significantly shrugged
their shoulders and curled their lips at such a union; and one at least,
the Duc's mother, Elizabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine, was
undisguisedly furious. She refused point-blank to be present at the
nuptials, and when her son, fresh from the altar, approached her to ask
her blessing, she retorted by giving the bridegroom a resounding slap on
Such was the ill-omened opening to a wedded life which brought nothing
but unhappiness with it and which gave to the world some of the most
degenerate women (in addition to a son who was almost an idiot) who have
ever been cradled.
The first of these degenerates was Marie Elizabeth, who was born one
August day in the year 1695, and who from her earliest infancy was her
father's pet and favourite. His idolatry of his first-born child,
indeed, is one of the most inscrutable things in a life full of the
abnormal, and in later years afforded much material for the tongue of
scandal. He was inseparable from her; her lightest wish was law to him;
he nursed her through her childish illnesses with more than the devotion
of a mother; and, as she grew to girlhood, he worshipped at the shrine
of her young beauty with the adoration of a lover and put her charms on
canvas in the guise of a pagan goddess.
The Duc's affection for his daughter, indeed, was so extravagant that
it was made the subject of scores of scurrilous lampoons to which even
Voltaire contributed, and was a delicious morsel of ill-natured gossip
in all the _salons_ and cabarets of Paris. At fifteen the princess was
already a woman--tall, handsome, well-formed, with brilliant eyes and
the full lips eloquent of a sensuous nature. Already she had had her
initiation into the vices that proved her undoing; for in a Court noted
for its free-living, she was known for her love of the table and the
Such was the Duc's eldest daughter when she was ripe for the altar and
became the object of an intrigue in which her scheming father, the Royal
Duchesses, the Duc de Saint-Simon, the King himself, and the Jesuits all
took a part, and the prize of which was the hand of the young Duc de
Berry, a younger son of the Dauphin, the grandson of King Louis.
Over the plotting and counterplotting, the rivalries and jealousies
which followed, we must pass. It must suffice to record that the King's
consent was at last won by the Orleans faction; Madame de Maintenon was
persuaded to smile on the alliance; and, one July day, the nuptials of
the Duc de Berry and the Orleans Princess were celebrated in the
presence of the Royal family and the Court. A regal supper followed;
and, the last toast drunk, the young couple were escorted to their room
with all the stately, if scarcely decent, ceremonial which in those days
inaugurated the life of the newly-wedded.
Seldom has there been a more singular union than this of the Duc
d'Orleans' prodigal daughter with the almost imbecile grandson of the
French King. The Duc de Berry, it is true, was good to look upon. Tall,
fair-haired, with a good complexion and splendid health, he was
physically, at twenty-four, no unworthy descendant of the great Louis.
He had, too, many amiable qualities calculated to win affection; but he
was mentally little better than a clown. His education had been
shamefully neglected; he had been suppressed and kept in the background
until, in spite of his manhood, he had all the shyness, awkwardness and
dullness of a backward child.
As he himself confessed to Madame de Saint-Simon, "They have done all
they could to stifle my intelligence. They did not want me to have any
brains. I was the youngest, and yet ventured to argue with my brother.
Afraid of the results of my courage, they crushed me; they taught me
nothing except to hunt and gamble; they succeeded in making a fool of
me, one incapable of anything and who will yet be the laughing-stock of
Such was the weak-kneed husband to whom was now allied the most
precocious, headstrong young woman in all France; who, although still
short of her sixteenth birthday, was a past-mistress of the arts of
pleasure, and was now determined to have her full fling at any cost. She
had been thoroughly spoiled by her too indulgent father, who was even
then the most powerful man in France after the King; and she was in no
mood to brook restraint from anyone, even from Louis himself.
The pleasures of the table seem now to have absorbed the greater part
of her life. Read what her grandmother, the Princess Palatine, says of
her: "Madame de Berry does not eat much at dinner. How, indeed, can she?
She never leaves her room before noon, and spends her mornings in eating
all kinds of delicacies. At two o'clock she sits down to an elaborate
dinner, and does not rise from the table until three. At four she is
eating again--fruit, salad, cheese, etc. She takes no exercise whatever.
At ten she has a heavy supper, and retires to bed between one and two in
the morning. She likes very strong brandy." And in this last sentence we
have the true secret of her undoing. The Royal Princess was, even tat
this early age, a confirmed dipsomaniac, with her brandy bottle always
by her side; and was seldom sober, from rising to retiring.
To such a woman, a slave to the senses, a husband like the Duc de Berry,
unredeemed by a vestige of manliness, could make no appeal. She wanted
"men" to pay her homage; and, like Catherine of Russia, she had them in
abundance--lovers who were only too ready to pay court to a beautiful
Princess, who might one day be Queen of France. For the Dauphin was now
dead; his eldest son, the Duc de Bourgogne, had followed him to the
grave a few months later. Prince Philip had renounced his right to the
French crown when he accepted that of Spain; and, between her husband
and the throne there was now but one frail life, that of the
three-year-old Duc d'Anjou, a child so delicate that he might easily not
survive his great-grandfather, Louis, whose hand was already relaxing
its grasp of the sceptre he had held so long.
On the intrigues with which this Queen _in posse_ beguiled her days, it
is perhaps well not to look too closely. They are unsavoury, as so much
of her life was. Her lovers succeeded one another with quite bewildering
rapidity, and with little regard either to rank or good-looks. One
special favourite of our Sultana was La Haye, a Court equerry, whom she
made Chamberlain, and who is pictured by Saint-Simon as "tall, bony,
with an awkward carriage and an ugly face; conceited, stupid,
dull-witted, and only looking at all passable when on horseback."
So infatuated was the Duchesse with her ill-favoured equerry that
nothing less would please her than an elopement to Holland--a proposal
which so scared La Haye that, in his alarm, he went forthwith to the
lady's father and let the cat out of the bag. "Why on earth does my
daughter want to run away to Holland?" the Due exclaimed with a laugh.
"I should have thought she was having quite a good enough time here!"
And so would anyone else have thought.
And while his Duchesse was thus dallying with her multitude of lovers
and stupefying herself with her brandy bottle, her husband was driven to
his wits' end by her exhibitions of temper, as by her infidelities. In
vain he stormed and threatened to have her shut up in a convent. All her
retort was to laugh in his face and order him out of her apartment.
Violent scenes were everyday incidents. "The last one," says
Saint-Simon, "was at Rambouillet; and, by a regrettable mishap, the
Duchesse received a kick."
The Duc's laggard courage was spurred to fight more than one duel for
his wife's tarnished fame. Of one of these sorry combats, Maurepas
writes, "Her conduct with her father became so notorious that His Grace
the Duc de Berry, disgusted at the scandal, forced the Duc d'Orleans to
fight a duel on the terrace at Marly. They were, however, soon
separated, and the whole affair was hushed up."
But release from such an intolerable life was soon coming to the
ill-used Duc. One day, when hunting, he was thrown from his horse, and
ruptured a blood-vessel. Fearful of alarming the King, now near the end
of his long life, he foolishly made light of his accident, and only
consented to see a doctor when it was too late. When the doctors were at
last summoned he was a dying man, his body drained of blood, which was
later found in bowls concealed in various parts of his bedroom. With his
last breath, he said to his confessor, "Ah, reverend father, I alone am
the real cause of my death."
Thus, one May day in 1714, the Duchesse found herself a widow, within
four years of her wedding-day; and the last frail barrier was removed
from the path of self-indulgence and low passions to which her life was
dedicated. When, with the aged King's death in the following year, her
father became Regent of France, her position as daughter of the virtual
sovereign was now more splendid than ever; and before she had worn her
widow's weeds a month, she had plunged again, still deeper, into
dissipation, with Madame de Mouchy, one of her waiting-women, as chief
minister to her pleasures.
It was at this time, before her husband had been many weeks in his
grave, that the Comte de Riom, the last and most ill-favoured of her
many lovers, came on the scene. Nothing but a perverted taste could
surely have seen any attraction in such a lover as this grand-nephew of
the Duc de Lauzun, of whom the austere and disapproving Palatine Duchess
draws the following picture: "He has neither figure nor good-looks. He
is more like an ogre than a man, with his face of greenish yellow. He
has the nose, eyes, and mouth of a Chinaman; he looks, in fact, more
like a baboon than the Gascon he really is. Conceited and stupid, his
large head seems to sit on his broad shoulders, owing to the shortness
of his neck. He is shortsighted and altogether is preternaturally ugly;
and he appears so ill that he might be suffering from some loathsome
To this unflattering description, Saint-Simon adds the fact that his
"large, pasty face was so covered by pimples that it looked like one
large abscess.'" Such, then, was the repulsive lover who found favour in
the eyes of the Regent's daughter, and for whom she was ready to discard
all her legion of more attractive wooers.
With the coming of de Riom, the Duchesse entered on the last and worst
stage of her mis-spent life. Strange tales are told of the orgies of
which the Luxembourg, the splendid palace her father had given her, was
now the scene--orgies in which Madame de Mouchy and a Jesuit, one Father
Ringlet, took a part, and over which the evil de Riom ruled as "Lord of
merry disports." The Duchesse, now sunk to the lowest depths of
degradation, was the veriest puppet in his strong hands, flattered by
his coarse attentions and submitting to rudeness and ridicule such as
any grisette, with a grain of pride, would have resented.
When these scandalous "carryings-on" at the Luxembourg Palace reached
the Regent's ears and he ventured to read his daughter a severe lecture
on her conduct, she retaliated by snapping her fingers at him and
telling him in so many words to mind his own business. And to the tongue
of scandal that found voice everywhere, she turned a contemptuous ear.
She even locked and barred her palace gates to keep prying eyes at a
But, although she thus defied man, she was powerless to stay the steps
of fate. Her health, robust as it had been, was shattered by her
excesses; and when a serious illness assailed her, she was horrified to
find death so uncomfortably near. In her alarm she called for a priest
to shrive her; and the Abbe Languet came at the summons to bring her the
consolations of the Church. He refused point-blank, however, to give the
sinner absolution until the palace was purged of the presence of de Riom
and Madame de Mouchy, the arch-partners in her vices.
To this suggestion the Duchesse, perilous as her condition was, returned
an uncompromising "No!" If the Abbe would not absolve her--well, there
were other priests, less exacting, who would; and one such priest of
elastic conscience, a Franciscan friar, was summoned to her bedside.
Then ensued an unseemly struggle around the dying woman's bed, in which
the Regent, Cardinal Noailles, Madame de Mouchy, and the rival clerics
all played their parts.
While the obliging friar remained in the room awaiting an opportunity to
administer the last Sacrament, the Abbe and his curates kept watch at
the bedroom door to see that he did no such thing; and thus the siege
lasted for four days and nights until, the patient's crisis over, the
services of the Church were summarily dispensed with.
With the return of health, the Duchesse's piety quickly evaporated. It
is true that she had had a fright; and, by way of modified penitence,
she vowed to dress herself and her household in white for six months and
also to make a husband of her lover. Within a few weeks, de Riom led the
Regent's daughter to the altar, thus throwing the cloak of the Church
over the licence of the past.
Now that our Princess was once more a "respectable" woman, she returned
gladly to her old life of indulgence; until the Duchess Palatine
exclaimed in alarm, "I am afraid her excesses in drinking and eating
will kill her." And never was prediction more sure of early fulfilment.
When she was not keeping company with her brandy bottle, she was gorging
herself with delicacies of all kinds, from patties and fricassees to
peaches and nectarines, washed down with copious draughts of iced beer.
As a last desperate effort to reform her, at the eleventh hour, the
Regent packed de Riom off to his regiment. A few days later, the
Duchesse invited her father to a sumptuous banquet on the terrace at
Meudon, at which, regardless of her delicate health, she ate and drank
more voraciously than ever. The same evening she was taken ill; and
when, on the following Sunday, her mother-in-law, the Duchess, visited
her, she found the patient in a deplorable condition--wasted to a
"shadow" and burning with fever. "She was suffering such horrible pains
in her toes and under the feet," says the Duchess, "that tears came to
her eyes. She looked so very bad that three doctors were called in
consultation. They resolved to bleed her; but it was difficult to bring
her to it, for her pains were so great that the least touch of the
sheets made her shriek."
A few days later, in the early hours of 17th July, 1719, the Duchesse de
Berry passed away in her sleep. The life which she had wasted with such
shameless prodigality closed in peace; and at the moment when she was
being laid to rest in the Church of St Denis, Madame de Mouchy, blazing
in the dead woman's jewels, was laughing merrily over her
champagne-glass at a dinner-party to which she had invited all the
sharers in the orgies which had made the Palace of the Luxembourg
The moral of this pitifully squandered life needs no pointing out. And
on reviewing it one can only in charity echo the words spoken by Madame
de Meilleraye of another sinner, the Chevalier de Savoie, "For my part,
I believe the good God must think twice before sending one born of such
parents to the nether regions."
A PRINCESS OF MYSTERY
In the spring of the year 1772 the fashionable world of Paris was full
of speculation and gossip about a stranger, as mysterious as she was
beautiful, who had appeared from no one knew where, in its midst, and
who called herself the Princess Aly Emettee de Vlodimir. That she was a
woman of rank and distinction admitted of no question. Her queenly
carriage and the graciousness and dignity of her deportment were in
keeping with the Royal character she assumed; but more remarkable than
these evidences of high station was her beauty, which in its brilliance
eclipsed that of the fairest women of Versailles and the Tuileries.
Tall, with a figure of exquisite modelling and grace, her daintily
poised head crowned with a coronal of golden-brown hair, with a face of
perfect oval, dimpled cheeks as delicately tinted as a rose, her chief
glory lay in her eyes, large and lustrous, which had the singular
quality of changing colour--"now blue, now black, which gave to their
dreamy expression a peculiar, mysterious air."
Who was she, this woman of beauty and mystery? It was rumoured that she
was a Circassian Princess, "the heroine of strange romances." She was
living luxuriously in a fine house in the most fashionable quarter of
Paris, in company with two German "Barons"--one, the Baron von Embs, who
claimed to be her cousin; the other, Baron von Schenk, who appeared to
play the role of guardian. To her _salon_ in the Ile St Louis were
flocking many of the greatest men in France, infatuated by her beauty,
and paying homage to her charms. To a man, they adored the mysterious
lady--from Prince Ojinski and other illustrious refugees from Poland to
the Comte de Rochefort-Velcourt, the Duke of Limburg's representative at
the French Court, and the wealthy old _beau_ M. de Marine, who, it was
said, placed his long purse at her disposal.
But while the men were thus her slaves, the women tossed their heads
contemptuously at their dangerous rival. She was an adventuress, they
declared with one voice; and great was their satisfaction when, one day,
news came that the Baron von Embs had been arrested for debt and that,
on investigation, he proved to be no Baron at all, but the
good-for-nothing son of a Ghent tradesman.
The "bubble" had soon burst, and the attentions of the police became so
embarrassing that the Princess was glad to escape from the scene of her
brief triumphs with her cavaliers (Von Embs' liberty having been
purchased by that "credulous old fool," de Marine) to Frankfort, leaving
a wake of debts behind.
Arrived at Frankfort, the fair Circassian resumed her luxurious mode of
life, carrying a part of her retinue of admirers with her, and making it
known that she was daily expecting a large remittance from her good
friend, the Shah of Persia. And it was not long before, thanks to the
offices of de Rochefort-Velcourt, she had at her feet no less a
personage than Philip, Duke of Limburg, and Prince of the Empire, one of
those petty German potentates who assumed more than the airs and
arrogance of kings. Though his duchy was no larger than an English
county, Philip had his ambassadors at the Courts of Vienna and
Versailles; and though he had neither courtiers, army, nor exchequer, he
lavished his titles of nobility and surrounded himself with as much
state and ceremonial as any Tsar or Emperor.
But exalted and serene as was His Highness, he was caught as helplessly
in the toils of the Princess Aly as any lovesick boy; and within a week
of making his first bow had her installed in his Castle of Oberstein,
after satisfying the most clamorous of her creditors with borrowed
money. That there might be no question of obligation, the Princess
repaid him with the most lavish promises to redeem his heavily mortgaged
estate with the millions she was daily expecting from Persia, and to use
her great influence with Tsar and Sultan to support his claim to the
Schleswig and Holstein duchies. And that he might be in no doubt as to
her ability to discharge these promises, she showed him letters,
addressed to her in the friendliest of terms by these august personages.
Each day in the presence of this most alluring of princesses forged new
fetters for the susceptible Duke, until one day she announced to him,
with tears streaming down her pretty cheeks, that she had received a
letter recalling her to Persia--to be married. The crucial hour had
arrived. The Duke, reduced to despair, begs her to accept his own
exalted hand in marriage, vowing that, if she refuses, he will "shut
himself up in a cloister"; and is only restored to a measure of sanity
when she promises to consider his offer.
When Hornstein, the Duke's ambassador to Vienna, appears on the scene,
full of suspicion and doubts, she makes an equally easy conquest of him.
She announces to his gratified ears her wish to become a Catholic;
flatters him by begging him to act as her instructor in the creed that
is so dear to him; and she reveals to him "for the first time" the true
secret of her identity. She is really, she says, the Princess of Azov,
heiress to vast estates, which may come to her any day; and the first
use she intends to make of her millions is to fill the empty coffers of
the Limburg duchy.
Hornstein is not only converted; he becomes as ardent an admirer as his
master, the Duke. The Princess takes her place as the coming Duchess of
Limburg, much to the disgust of his subjects, who show their feelings by
hissing when she appears in public. Her hour of triumph has
arrived--when, like a bolt from the blue, an anonymous letter comes to
Hornstein revealing the story of her past doings in several capitals of
Europe, and branding her as an "impostor."
For a time the Duke treats these anonymous slanders with scorn. He
refuses to believe a word against his divinity, the beautiful, high-born
woman who is to crown his life's happiness and, incidentally, to save
him from bankruptcy. But gradually the poison begins to work,
supplemented as it is by the suspicions and discontent of his subjects.
At last he summons up courage to ask an explanation--to beg her to
assure him that the charges against her are as false as he believes
She listens to him with quiet dignity until he has finished, and then
replies, with tears in her eyes, that she is not unprepared for
disloyalty from a man who is so obviously the slave of false friends and
of public opinion, but that she had hoped that he would at least have
some pity and consideration for a woman who was about to become the
mother of his child. This unexpected announcement, with its appeal to
his manhood, proves more eloquent than a world of proofs and
protestations. The Duke's suspicions vanish in face of the news that the
woman he loves is to become the mother of his child, and in a moment he
is at her knees imploring her pardon, and uttering abject apologies. He
is now more deeply than ever in her toils, ready to defy the world in
defence of the Princess he adores and can no longer doubt.
It is at this stage that a man who was to play such an important part in
the Princess's life first crosses her path--one Domanski, a handsome
young Pole, whose passionate and ill-fated patriotism had driven him
from his native land to find an asylum, like many another Polish
refugee, in the Limburg duchy. He had heard much of the romantic story
of the Princess Aly, and was drawn by sympathy, as by the rumour of her
remarkable beauty, to seek an interview with her, during her visit to
Mannheim. Such a meeting could have but one issue for the romantic Pole.
He lost both head and heart at sight of the lovely and gracious
Princess, and from that moment became the most devoted of all her
When she returned to Oberstein he was swift to follow her and to install
himself under her castle walls, where he could catch an occasional
glimpse of her, or, by good-fortune, have a few blissful moments in her
company. Indeed, it was not long before stories began to be circulated
among the good folk of Oberstein of strange meetings between the
mysterious young stranger who had come to live in their midst and an
equally mysterious lady. "The postman," it was rumoured, "often sees him
on the road leading to the castle, talking in a shadow with someone
enveloped in a long, black, hooded cloak, whom he once thought he
recognised as the Princess."
No wonder tongues wagged in Oberstein. What could be the meaning of
these secret assignations between the Princess, who was the destined
bride of their Duke, and the obscure young refugee? It was a delicious
bit of scandal to add to the many which had already gathered round the
But there was a greater surprise in store for the Obersteiners, as for
the world outside their walls. Soon it began to be rumoured that the
Duke's bride-to-be was no obscure Circassian Princess; this was merely
a convenient cloak to conceal her true identity, which was none less
than that of daughter of an Empress! She was, in fact, the child of
Elizabeth, Tsarina of Russia, and her peasant husband, Razoum; and in
proof of her exalted birth she actually had in her possession the will
in which the late Empress bequeathed to her the throne of Russia.
How these rumours originated none seemed to know. Was it Domanski who
set them circulating? We know, at least, that they soon became public
property, and that, strangely enough, they won credence everywhere. The
very people who had branded her "adventuress" and hissed her in the
streets, now raised cheers to the future Empress of Russia; while the
Duke, delighted at such a wonderful transformation in the woman he
loved, was more eager than ever to hasten the day when he could call her
his own. As for the Princess, she accepted her new dignities with the
complaisance to be expected from the daughter of a Tsarina. There was
now no need to refer the sceptics to Circassia for proof of her station
and her potential wealth. As heiress to one of the greatest thrones of
Europe, she could at last reveal herself in her true character, without
any need for dissimulation.
The curtain was now ready to rise on the crowning act of her life-drama,
an act more brilliant than any she had dared to imagine. Russia was
seething with discontent and rebellion; the throne of Catherine II. was
trembling; one revolt had followed another, until Pugatchef had led his
rabble of a hundred thousand serfs to the very gates of Moscow--only,
when success seemed assured, to meet disaster and death. If the
ex-bandit could come so near to victory, an uprising headed by
Elizabeth's own daughter and heiress could scarcely fail to hurl
Catherine from her throne.
It would have been difficult to find a more powerful ally in this daring
project than Prince Charles Radziwill, chief of Polish patriots, who was
then, as luck would have it, living in exile at Mannheim, and who hated
Russia as only a Pole ever hated her. To Radziwill, then, Domanski went
to offer the help of his Princess for the liberation of Poland and the
capture of Catherine's throne.
Here indeed was a valuable pawn to play in Radziwill's game of vengeance
and ambition. But the Prince was by no means disposed to snatch the bait
hurriedly. Experience had taught him caution. He must count the cost
carefully before taking the step, and while writing to the Princess, "I
consider it a miracle of Providence that it has provided so great a
heroine for my unhappy country," he took his departure to Venice,
suggesting that the Princess should meet him there, where matters could
be more safely and successfully discussed. Thus it was that the Princess
said her last good-bye to her ducal lover, full of promises for the
future when she should have won her throne, and as "Countess of
Pinneberg" set forth with a retinue of followers to Venice, where she
was regally received at the French embassy.
Here she tasted the first sweets of her coming Queendom--holding her
Courts, to which distinguished Poles and Frenchmen flocked to pay homage
to the Empress-to-be, and having daily conferences with Radziwill, who
treated her as already a Queen. That her purse was empty and the bankers
declined to honour her drafts was a matter to smile at, since the way
now seemed clear to a crown, with all it meant of wealth and power. When
the Venetian Government grew uneasy at the plotting within its borders,
she went to Ragusa, where she blossomed into the "Princess of all the
Russias," assumed the sceptre that was soon to be hers, issued
proclamations as a sovereign, and crowned these regal acts by sending a
ukase to Alexis Orloff, the Russian Commander-in-Chief, "signed
Elizabeth II., and instructing him to communicate its contents to the
army and fleet under his command."
Once more, however, fortune played the Princess a scurvy trick, just
when her favour seemed most assured. One night a man was seen scaling
the garden-wall of the palace she was occupying. The guard fired at him,
and the following morning Domanski was found, lying wounded and
unconscious in the garden. The tongues of scandal were set wagging
again, old suspicions were revived, and once again the word
"adventuress"--and worse--passed from mouth to mouth. The men who had
fawned on her now avoided her; worse still, Radziwill, his latent
suspicions thoroughly awakened, and confirmed by a hundred stories and
rumours that came to his ears, declined to have anything more to do
with her, and returned in disgust to Germany.
But even this crushing rebuff was powerless to damp the spirits and
ambition of the "adventuress," who shook the dust of Ragusa off her
dainty feet, and went off to Rome, where she soon cast her spell over
Sir William Hamilton, our Ambassador there, who gave her the warmest
hospitality. "For several days," we learn, "she reigns like a Queen in
the _salon_ of the Ambassador, out of whose penchant for beautiful women
she has no difficulty in wiling a passport that enables her to enter the
most exclusive circles of Roman society."
In Rome she lays aside her regal trappings, and wins the respect of all
by her unostentatious living and her prodigal charities. She becomes a
favourite at the Vatican; Cardinals do homage to her goodness, with
perhaps a pardonable eye to her beauty. But behind the brave and pious
front she thus shows to the world her heart is growing more heavy day by
day. Poverty is at her door in the guise of importunate creditors, her
servants are clamouring for overdue wages, and consumption, which for
long has threatened her, now shows its presence in hectic cheeks and a
hacking cough. Fortune seems at last to have abandoned her; and it
requires all her courage to sustain her in this hour of darkness.
In her extremity she appeals to Sir William Hamilton for a loan, much as
a Queen might confer a favour on a subject, and Hamilton, pleased to be
of service to so fair and pious a lady, sends her letter to his Leghorn
banker, Mr John Dick, with instructions to arrange the matter.
* * * * *
While the Princess Aly was practising piety and cultivating Cardinals in
Rome, with an empty purse and a pain-racked body to make a mockery of
her claim to a crown, away in distant Russia Catherine II. was nursing a
terrible revenge on the woman who had dared to usurp her position and
threaten her throne. The succession of revolutions, at which she had at