Part 4 out of 5
Thus Henriette returned to the turbulent life of the palace--the daily
routine of quarrels and peacemaking with the King, and undisguised
hostility from the Queen, through all of which Henri's heart still
remained hers. "How I long to have you in my arms again," he writes,
when on a hunting excursion, which had led him to the scene of their
early romance. "As my letter brings back the memory of the past, I know
you will feel that nothing in the present is worth anything in
comparison. This, at least, was my feeling as I walked along the roads I
so often traversed in the old days on my journey to your side. When I
sleep I dream of you; when I wake my thoughts are all of you." He sends
her a million kisses, and vows that all he asks of life is that she
shall always love him entirely and him alone.
One would have thought that such a conquest of a King and such triumph
over a Queen would have gratified the ambition of the most exacting of
women. But the Marquise de Verneuil seems to have found small
satisfaction in her victories. When she was not provoking quarrels with
Henri, which roused him to such a pitch of anger that at times he
threatened to strike her, she received his advances with a coldness or a
sullen acquiescence calculated to chill the most ardent lover. In other
moods she would drive him to despair by declaring that she had long
ceased to love him, and that all she wanted from him was a dowry to
carry in marriage to one or other of several suitors who were dying for
But Madame's day of triumph was drawing much nearer to an end than she
imagined. The end, in fact, came with dramatic suddenness when Henri
first set eyes on the radiantly lovely Charlotte de Montmorency. Weary
at heart of the tempers and exactions of Henriette, it needed but such a
lure as this to draw him finally from her side; and from the first
flash of Charlotte's beautiful eyes this most susceptible of Kings was
undone. Madame de Verneuil's reign was ended; the next quarrel was made
the occasion for a complete rupture, and the Court saw her no more.
Already she had lost the bloom of her beauty; she had grown stout and
coarse through her excessive fondness for the pleasures of the table,
and the rest of her days, which were passed in friendless isolation, she
spent in indulging appetites, which added to her mountain of flesh while
robbing her of the last trace of good-looks. When the knife of Ravaillac
brought Henri's life and his new romance to a tragic end, the Marquise
was among those who were suspected of inspiring the assassin's blow; and
although her guilt was never proved, the taint of suspicion clung to her
to her last day.
After fruitless angling for a husband--the Duc de Guise, the Prince de
Joinville, and many another who, with one consent, fled from her
advances, she resigned herself to a life of obscurity and gluttony,
until death came, one day in the year 1633, to release her from a world
of vanity and disillusionment.
THE "SUN-KING" AND THE WIDOW
Search where you will in the record of Kings, you will find nowhere a
figure more splendid and more impressive than that of the fourteenth
Louis, who for more then seventy years ruled over France, and for more
than fifty eclipsed in glory his fellow-sovereigns as the sun pales the
stars. Nearly two centuries have gone since he closed his weary and
disillusioned eyes on the world he had so long dominated; but to-day he
shines in history in the galaxy of monarchs with a lustre almost as
great as when he was hailed throughout the world as the "Sun-King," and
in his pride exclaimed, "_I_ am the State."
Placed, like his successor, on the greatest throne in Europe, a child of
five, fortune exhausted itself in lavishing gifts on him. The world was
at his feet almost before he had learned to walk. He grew to manhood
amid the adulation and flatteries of the greatest men and the fairest of
women. And that he might lack no great gift, he was dowered with every
physical perfection that should go to the making of a King.
There was no more goodly youth in France than Louis when he first
practised the arts of love-making, in which he later became such an
adept, on Mazarin's lovely niece, Marie Mancini. Tall, with a well-knit,
supple figure, with dark, beautiful eyes illuminating a singularly
handsome face, with a bearing of rare grace and distinction, this son of
Anne of Austria was a lover whom few women could resist.
Such conquests came to him with fatal ease, and for thirty years at
least, until satiety killed passion, there was no lack of beautiful
women to minister to his pleasure and to console him for the lack of
charms in the Spanish wife whom Mazarin thrust into his reluctant arms
when he was little more than a boy, and when his heart was in Marie
Among all the fair and frail women who succeeded one another in his
affection three stand out from the rest with a prominence which his
special favour assigned to each in turn. For ten early years it was
Louise de la Baume-Leblanc (better known to fame as the Duchesse de
Lavalliere) who reigned as his uncrowned Queen, and who gave her life to
his pleasure and to the care of the children she bore to him. But such
constancy could not last for ever in a man so constitutionally
inconstant as Louis. When the Marquise de Montespan, in all her radiant
and sensuous loveliness, came on the scene, she drew the King to her
arms as a flame lures the moth. Her voluptuous charms, her abounding
vitality and witty tongue, made the more refined beauty and the
gentleness of the Duchesse flavourless in comparison; and Louise,
realising that her sun had set, retired to spend the rest of her life in
the prayers and piety of a convent, leaving her brilliant rival in
undisputed possession of the field.
For many years Madame de Montespan, the most consummate courtesan who
ever enslaved a King, queened it over Louis in her magnificent
apartments at Versailles and in the Tuileries. He was never weary of
showering rich gifts and favours on her; and, in return, she became the
mother of his children and ministered to his every whim, little dreaming
of the day when she in turn was to be dethroned by an insignificant
widow whom she regarded as the creature of her bounty, and who so often
awaited her pleasure in her ante-room.
* * * * *
When Francoise d'Aubigne was cradled, one November day in the year 1635,
within the walls of a fortress-prison in Poitou, the prospect of a
Queendom seemed as remote as a palace in the moon. She had good blood in
her veins, it is true. Her ancestors had been noblemen of Normandy
before the Conqueror ever thought of crossing the English Channel, and
her grandfather, General Theodore d'Aubigne, had won distinction as a
soldier on many a battlefield. It was to her father, profligate and
spendthrift, who, after squandering his patrimony, had found himself
lodged in jail, that Francoise owed the ignominy of her birthplace, for
her mother had insisted on sharing the captivity of her ne'er-do-well
When at last Constant d'Aubigne found his prison doors opened, he shook
the dust of France off his feet and took his wife and young children
away to Martinique, where at least, he hoped, his record would not be
known. On the voyage, we are told, the child was brought so near to
death's door by an illness that her body was actually on the point of
being flung overboard when her mother detected signs of life, and
rescued her from a watery grave. A little later, in Martinique, she had
an equally narrow escape from death as the result of a snakebite. A
child thus twice miraculously preserved was evidently destined for
better things than an early tomb, more than one declared; and so indeed
When the father ended his mis-spent days in the West Indian island, the
widow took her poverty and her fledgelings back to France, where
Francoise was placed under the charge of a Madame de Villette, to pick
up such education as she could in exchange for such menial work as
looking after Madame's poultry and scrubbing her floors. When her mother
in turn died, the child (she was only fifteen at the time) was taken to
Paris by an aunt, whose miserliness or poverty often sent her hungry to
Such was Francoise's condition when she was taken one day to the house
of Paul Scarron, the crippled poet, whose satires and burlesques kept
Paris in a ripple of merriment, and to whom the child's poverty and
friendless position made as powerful an appeal as her budding beauty and
her modesty. It was a very tender heart that beat in the pain-racked,
paralysed body of the "father of French burlesque"; and within a few
days of first setting eyes on his "little Indian girl," as he called
her, he asked her to marry him. "It is a sorry offer to make you, my
dear child," he said, "but it is either this or a convent." And, to
escape the convent, Francoise consented to become the wife of the
"bundle of pains and deformities" old enough to be her father.
In the marriage-contract Scarron, with characteristic buffoonery,
recognises her as bringing a dower of "four louis, two large and very
expressive eyes, a fine bosom, a pair of lovely hands, and a good
intellect"; while to the attorney, when asked what his contribution was,
he answered, "I give her my name, and that means immortality." For eight
years Francoise was the dutiful wife of her crippled husband, nursing
him tenderly, managing his home and his purse, redeeming his writing
from its coarseness, and generally proving her gratitude by a ceaseless
devotion. Then came the day when Scarron bade her farewell on his
death-bed, begging her with his last breath to remember him sometimes,
and bidding her to be "always virtuous."
Thus Francoise d'Aubigne was thrown once more on a cold world, with
nothing between her and starvation but Scarron's small pension, which
the Queen-mother continued to his widow, and compelled to seek a cheap
refuge within convent walls. She had however good-looks which might
stand her in good stead. She was tall, with an imposing figure and a
natural dignity of carriage. She had a wealth of light-brown hair, eyes
dark and brilliant, full of fire and intelligence, a well-shaped nose,
and an exquisitely modelled mouth.
Beautiful she was beyond doubt, in these days of her prime; but there
were thousands of more beautiful women in France. And for ten years
Madame Scarron was left to languish within the convent walls with never
a lover to offer her release. When the Queen-mother died, and with her
the pitiful pension, her plight was indeed pitiful. Her petitions to the
King fell on deaf ears, until Montespan, moved by her tears and
entreaties, pleaded for her; and Louis at last gave a reluctant consent
to continue the allowance.
It was a happy inspiration that led Scarron's widow to the King's
favourite, for Madame de Montespan's heart, ever better than her life,
went out to the gentle woman whom fate was treating so scurvily. Not
content with procuring the pension, she placed her in charge of her
nursery, an office of great trust and delicacy; and thus Madame Scarron
found herself comfortably installed in the King's palace with a salary
of two thousand crowns a year. Her day of poverty and independence was
at last ended. She had, in fact, though she little knew it, placed her
foot on the ladder, at the summit of which was the dazzling prize of the
Those were happy years which followed. High in the favour of the King's
mistress, loving the little ones given into her charge as if they were
her own children, especially the eldest born, the delicate and
warm-hearted Duc de Maine, who was also his father's darling, Madame had
nothing left to wish for in life. Her days were full of duty, of peace,
and contentment. Even Louis, as he watched the loving care she lavished
on his children, began to thaw and to smile on her, and to find pleasure
in his visits to the nursery, which grew more and more frequent. There
was a charm in this sweet-eyed, gentle-voiced widow, whose tongue was so
skilful in wise and pleasant words. Her patient devotion deserved
recognition. He gave orders that more fitting apartments should be
assigned to Madame--a suite little less sumptuous than that of Montespan
herself; and that money should not be lacking, he made her a gift of two
hundred thousand francs, which the provident widow promptly invested in
the purchase of the castle and estate of Maintenon.
Such marked favours as these not unnaturally set jealous tongues
wagging. Even Montespan began to grow uneasy, and to wonder what was
coming next. When she ventured to refer sarcastically to the use
"Scarron's widow" had made of his present, Louis silenced her by
answering, "In my opinion, _Madame de Maintenon_ has acted very wisely";
thus by a word conferring noble rank on the woman his favourite was
already beginning to fear as a rival.
And indeed there were soon to be sufficient grounds for Montespan's
jealously and alarm. Every day saw Louis more and more under the spell
of his children's governess--the middle-aged woman whose musical voice,
gentle eyes, and wise words of counsel were opening a new and better
world to him. She knew, as well as himself, how sated and weary he was
of the cup of pleasure he had now drained to its last dregs of
disillusionment; and he listened with eager ears to the words which
pointed to him a surer path of happiness. Even reproof from her lips
became more grateful to him than the sweetest flatteries from those of
the most beautiful woman who counted but half of her years.
The growing influence of the widow Scarron over the "Sun-King" had
already become the chief gossip of the Court. From the allurements of
Montespan, of Mademoiselle de Fontanges, and of de Ludre he loved to
escape to the apartments of the soft-voiced woman who cared so much more
for his soul than for his smiles. "His Majesty's interviews with Madame
de Maintenon," Madame de Sevigne writes, "become more and more frequent,
and they last from six in the morning to ten at night, she sitting in
one arm-chair, he in another."
In vain Montespan stormed and wept in her fits of jealous rage; in vain
did the beautiful de Fontanges seek to lure him to her arms, until death
claimed her so tragically before she had well passed her twentieth
birthday. The King had had more than enough of such Delilahs. Pleasure
had palled; peace was what he craved now--salve for his seared
When Madame de Maintenon was appointed principal lady-in-waiting to the
Dauphine and when, a little later, Louis' unhappy Queen drew her last
breath in her arms, Montespan at last realised that her day of power was
over. She wrote letters to the King begging him not to withdraw his
affection from her, but to these appeals Louis was silent; he handed
the letters to Madame de Maintenon to answer as she willed.
The Court was quick to realise that a new star had risen; ministers and
ambassadors now flocked to the new divinity to consult her and to win
her favour. The governess was hailed as the new Queen of Louis and of
France. The climax came when the King was thrown one day from his horse
while hunting, and broke his arm. It was Madame de Maintenon alone who
was allowed to nurse him, and who was by his side night and day. Before
the arm was well again she was standing, thickly veiled, before an
improvised altar in the King's study, with Louis by her side, while the
words that made them man and wife were pronounced by Archbishop de
The prison-child had now reached the loftiest pinnacle in the land of
her birth. Though she wore no crown, she was Queen of France, wielding a
power which few throned ladies have ever known. Princes and Princesses
rose to greet her entry with bows and curtsies; the mother of the coming
King called her "aunt"; her rooms, splendid as the King's, adjoined his;
she had the place of honour in the King's Council Room; the State's
secrets were in her keeping; she guided and controlled the destinies of
the nation. And all this greatness came to her when she had passed her
fiftieth year, and when all the grace and bloom of youth were but a
The King himself, two years her junior, and still in the prime of his
manhood, was her shadow, paying to the plain, middle-aged woman such
deference and courtesy as he had never shown to the youth and beauty of
her predecessors in his affection. And she--thus translated to dizzy
heights--kept a head as cool and a demeanour as modest as when she was
"Scarron's widow," the convent protegee. For power and splendour she
cared no whit. Her ambition now, as always, was to be loved for herself,
to "play a beautiful part in the world," and to deserve the respect of
all good men.
Her chief pleasure was found away from the pomp and glitter of the
Court, among "her children" of the Saint Cyr Convent, which she had
founded for the education of the daughters of poor noblemen, over whom
she watched with loving and unflagging care. And yet she was not
happy--not nearly as happy as in the days of her obscure widowhood. "I
am dying of sorrow in the midst of luxury," she wrote. And again. "I
cannot bear it. I wish I were dead." Why she was so unhappy, with her
Queendom and her environment of love and esteem, and her life of good
works, it is impossible to say. The fact remains, inscrutable, but still
Twenty-five years of such life of splendid sadness, and Louis, his last
days clouded by loss and suffering, died with her prayers in his ears,
his coverlet moistened by her tears. Two years later--years spent in
prayers and masses and charitable work--the "Queen Dowager" drew the
last breath of her long life at St Cyr, shortly after hearing that her
beloved Due de Maine, her pet nursling of other days, had been arrested
and flung into prison.
A THRONED BARBARIAN
The dawn of the eighteenth century saw the thrones of France and Russia
occupied by two of the most remarkable sovereigns who ever wore a
crown--Louis XIV., the "Sun-King," whose splendours dazzled Europe, and
whose power held it in awe; and Peter I. of Russia, whose destructive
sword swept Europe from Sweden to the Dardenelles, and whose clever
brain laid sure the foundation of his country's greatness. Each of these
Royal rivals dwarfed all other fellow-monarchs as the sun pales the
stars; and yet it would scarcely have been possible to find two men more
widely different in all save their passion for power and their love of
woman, which alone they had in common.
Of the two, Peter is unquestionably to-day the more arresting,
dominating figure. Although nearly two centuries have gone since he made
his exit from the world, we can still picture him in his pride, towering
a head higher than the tallest of his courtiers, swart of face, "as if
he had been born in Africa," with his black, close-curling hair, his
bold, imperious eyes, his powerful, well-knit frame--"the muscles and
stature of a Goliath"--a kingly figure, with majesty in every movement.
We see him, too, wilfully discarding the kingliness with which nature
had so liberally dowered him--now receiving ambassadors "in a short
dressing-gown, below which his bare legs were exposed, a thick nightcap,
lined with linen, on his head, his stockings dropped down over his
slippers"--now walking through the Copenhagen streets grotesque in a
green cap, a brown overcoat with horn buttons, worsted stockings full of
darns, and dirty, cobbled shoes; and again carousing, red of face and
loud of voice, with his meanest subjects in some low tavern.
As the mood seizes him he plays the role of fireman for hours together;
goes carol-singing in his sledge, and reaps his harvest of coppers from
the houses of his subjects; rides a hobby-horse at a village fair, and
shrieks with laughter until he falls off; or plies saw and plane in a
shipbuilding yard, sharing the meals and drinking bouts of his
The French Ambassador, Campredon, wrote of him in 1725:--"It is utterly
impossible at the present moment to approach the Tsar on serious
subjects; he is altogether given up to his amusements, which consist in
going every day to the principal houses in the town with a suite of 200
persons, musicians and so forth, who sing songs on every sort of
subject, and amuse themselves by eating and drinking at the expense of
the persons they visit." "He never passed a single day without being
the worse for drink," Baron Poellnitz tells us; and his drinking
companions were usually chosen from the most degraded of his subjects,
of both sexes, with whom he consorted on the most familiar terms.
When his muddled brain occasionally awoke to the knowledge that he was a
King, he would bully and hector his boon-comrades like any drunken
trooper. On one occasion, when a young Jewess refused to drain a goblet
of neat brandy which he thrust into her hand, he promptly administered
two resounding boxes on her ears, shouting, "Vile Hebrew spawn! I'll
teach thee to obey."
There was in him, too, a vein of savage cruelty which took remarkable
forms. A favourite pastime was to visit the torture-chamber and gloat
over the sufferings of the victims of the knout and the strappado; or to
attend (and frequently to officiate at) public executions. Once, we are
told, at a banquet, he "amused himself by decapitating twenty Streltsy,
emptying as many glasses of brandy between successive strokes, and
challenging the Prussian envoy to repeat the feat."
Mad? There can be little doubt that Peter had madness in his veins. He
was a degenerate and an epileptic, subject to brain storms which
terrified all who witnessed them. "A sort of convulsion seized him,
which often for hours threw him into a most distressing condition. His
body was violently contorted; his face distorted into horrible grimaces;
and he was further subject to paroxysms of rage, during which it was
almost certain death to approach him." Even in his saner moods, as
Waliszewski tells us, he "joined to the roughness of a Russian _barin_
all the coarseness of a Dutch sailor." Such in brief suggestion was
Peter I. of Russia, half-savage, half-sovereign, the strangest jumble of
contradictions who has ever worn the Imperial purple--"a huge mastodon,
whose moral perceptions were all colossal and monstrous."
It was, perhaps, inevitable that a man so primitive, so little removed
from the animal, should find his chief pleasures in low pursuits and
companionships. During his historic visit to London, after a hard day's
work with adze and saw in the shipbuilding yard, the Tsar would adjourn
with his fellow-workmen to a public-house in Great Tower Street, and
"smoke and drink ale and brandy, almost enough to float the vessel he
had been helping to construct."
And in his own kingdom the favourite companions of his debauches were
common soldiers and servants.
"He chose his friends among the common herd; looked after his household
like any shopkeeper; thrashed his wife like a peasant; and sought his
pleasure where the lower populace generally finds it." His female
companions were chosen rather for their coarseness than their charms,
and pleased him most when they were drunk. It was thus fitting that he
should make an Empress of a scullery-maid, who, as we have seen in an
earlier chapter, had no vestige of beauty to commend her to his favour,
and whose chief attractions in his eyes were that she had a coarse
tongue and was a "first-rate toper."
It was thus a strange and unhappy caprice of fate that united Peter,
while still a youth, to his first Empress, the refined and sensitive
Eudoxia, a woman as remote from her husband as the stars. Never was
there a more incongruous bride than this delicately nurtured girl
provided by the Empress Nathalie for her coarse-grained son. From the
hour at which they stood together at the altar the union was doomed to
tragic failure; before the honeymoon waned Peter had terrified his bride
by his brutality and disgusted her by the open attentions he paid to his
favourites of the hour, the daughters of Botticher, the goldsmith, and
Mons, the wine-merchant.
For five years husband and wife saw little of each other; and when, in
1694, Nathalie's death removed the one influence which gave the union at
least the outward form of substance, Peter lost no time in exhibiting
his true colours. He dismissed all Eudoxia's relatives from the Court,
and sent her father into exile. One brother he caused to be whipped in
public; another was put to the torture, which had its horrible climax
when Peter himself saturated his victim's clothes with spirits of wine,
and then set them on fire. For Eudoxia a different fate was reserved.
Not only had he long grown weary of her insipid beauty and of her
refinement and gentleness, which were a constant mute reproach to his
own low tastes and hectoring manners--he had grown to hate the very
sight of her, and determined that she should no longer stand between him
and the unbridled indulgence of his pleasure.
During his visit to England he never once wrote to her, and on his
return to Moscow his first words were a brutal announcement of his
intention to be rid of her. In vain she pleaded and wept. To her tearful
inquiries, "What have I done to offend you? What fault have you to find
with me?" he turned a deaf ear. "I never want to see you again," were
his last inexorable words. A few days later a hackney coach drove up to
the palace doors; the unhappy Tsarina was bundled unceremoniously into
it, and she was carried away to the nunnery of the "Intercession of the
Blessed Virgin," whose doors were closed on her for a score of years.
Pitiful years they were for the young Empress, consigned by her husband
to a life that was worse than death--robbed of her rank, her splendours,
and luxuries, her very name--she was now only Helen, the nun, faring
worse than the meanest of her sister-nuns; for while they at least had
plenty to eat, the Tsarina seems many a time to have known the pangs of
hunger. The letters she wrote to one of her brothers are pathetic
evidence of the straits to which she was reduced. "For pity's sake," she
wrote, "give me food and drink. Give clothes to the beggar. There is
nothing here. I do not need a great deal; still I must eat."
It is not to be wondered at, that, in her misery, she should turn
anywhere for succour and sympathy; and both came to her at last in the
guise of Major Glebof, an officer in the district, whose heart was
touched by the sadness of her fate. He sent her food and wine to restore
her strength, and warm furs to protect her from the iciness of her cell.
In response to her letters of thanks, he visited her again and again,
bringing sunshine into her darkened life with his presence, and soothing
her with words of sympathy and encouragement, until gratitude to the
"good Samaritan" grew into love for the man.
When she learned that the man who had so befriended her was himself
poor, actually in money difficulties, she insisted on giving him every
rouble she could wring, by any abject appeal, out of her friends and
relatives. She became his very slave, grovelling at his feet. "Where thy
heart is, dearest one," she wrote to him, "there is mine also; where thy
tongue is, there is my head; thy will is also mine." She loved him with
a passion which broke down all barriers of modesty and prudence,
reckless of the fact that he had a wife, as she had a husband.
When Major Glebof's visits and letters grew more and more infrequent,
she suffered tortures of anxiety and despair. "My light, my soul, my
joy," she wrote in one distracted letter, "has the cruel hour of
separation come already? O, my light! how can I live apart from thee?
How can I endure existence? Rather would I see my soul parted from my
body. God alone knows how dear thou art to me. Why do I love thee so
much, my adored one, that without thee life is so worthless? Why art
thou angry with me? Why, my _batioushka_, dost thou not come to see me?
Have pity on me, O my lord, and come to see me to-morrow. O, my world,
my dearest and best, answer me; do not let me die of grief."
Thus one distracted, incoherent letter followed another, heart-breaking
in their grief, pitiful in their appeal. "Come to me," she cried;
"without thee I shall die. Why dost thou cause me such anguish? Have I
been guilty without knowing it? Better far to have struck me, to have
punished me in any way, for this fault I have innocently committed." And
again: "Why am I not dead? Oh, that thou hadst buried me with thy own
hands! Forgive me, O my soul! Do not let me die.... Send me but a crust
of bread thou hast bitten with thy teeth, or the waistcoat thou hast
often worn, that I may have something to bring thee near to me."
What answers, if any, the Major vouchsafed to these pathetic letters we
know not. The probability is that they received no answer--that the
"good Samaritan" had either wearied of or grown alarmed at a passion
which he could not return, and which was fraught with danger. It was
accident only that revealed to the world the story of this strange and
When the Tsarevitch, Alexis, was brought to trial in 1718 on a charge of
conspiracy against his father, Peter, suspecting that Eudoxia had had a
hand in the rebellion, ordered a descent on the nunnery and an inquiry.
Nothing was found to connect her with her son's ill-fated venture; but
the inquiry revealed the whole story of her relations with the too
friendly officer. The evidence of the nuns and servants alone--evidence
of frequent and long meetings by day and night, of embraces
exchanged--was sufficiently conclusive, without the incriminating
letters which were discovered in the Major's bureau, labelled "Letters
from the Tsarina," or Eudoxia's confession which was extorted from her.
This was an opportunity of vengeance such as exceeded all the Tsar's
hopes. Glebof was arrested and put on his trial. Evidence was forced
from the nuns by the lashing of the knout, so severe that some of them
died under it. Glebof, subjected to such frightful tortures that in his
agony he confessed much more than the truth, was sentenced to death by
impalement. In order to prolong his suffering to the last possible
moment, he was warmly wrapped in furs, to protect him from the bitter
cold, and for twenty-eight hours he suffered indescribable agony, until
at last death came to his release.
As for Eudoxia, her punishment was a public flogging and consignment to
a nunnery still more isolated and miserable than that in which she had
dragged out twenty years of her broken life. Here she remained for seven
years, until, on the Tsar's death, an even worse fate befell her. She
was then, by Catherine's orders, taken from the convent, and flung into
the most loathsome, rat-infested dungeon of the fortress of
Schlussenberg, where she remained for two years of unspeakable horror.
Then at last, after nearly thirty years of life that was worse than
death, the sun shone again for her. One day her dungeon door flew open,
and to the bowing of obsequious courtiers, the prisoner was conducted to
a sumptuous apartment. "The walls were hung with splendid stuffs; the
table was covered with gold-plate; ten thousand roubles awaited her in
a casket. Courtiers stood in her ante-chamber; carriages and horses
were at her orders."
Catherine, the "scullery-Empress," was dead; Eudoxia's grandson, Peter
II., now wore the crown of Russia; and Eudoxia found herself
transported, as by the touch of a magic wand, from her loathsome
prison-cell to the old-time splendours of palaces--the greatest lady in
all Russia, to whom Princesses, ambassadors, and courtiers were all
proud to pay respectful homage. But the transformation had come too
late; her life was crushed beyond restoration; and after a few months of
her new glory she was glad to find an asylum once more within convent
walls, until Death, the great healer of broken hearts, took her to
where, "beyond these voices, there is peace."
* * * * *
While Eudoxia was eating her heart out in her convent cell, her husband
was finding ample compensation for her absence in Bacchanalian orgies
and the company of his galaxies of favourites, from tradesmen's
daughters to servant-maids of buxom charms, such as the Livonian
peasant-girl, in whom he found his second Empress.
Of the almost countless women who thus fell under his baneful influence
one stands out from the rest by reason of the tragedy which surrounds
her memory. Mary Hamilton was no low-born maid, such as Peter especially
chose to honour with his attentions. She had in her veins the blood of
the ducal Hamiltons of Scotland, and of many a noble family of Russia,
from which her more immediate ancestors had taken their wives; and it
was an ill fate that took her, when little more than a child, to the
most debased Court of Europe to play the part of maid-of-honour, and
thus to cross the path of the most unprincipled lover in Europe.
Peter's infatuation for the pretty young "Scotswoman," however, was but
short-lived. She had none of the vulgar attractions that could win him
to any kind of constancy; and he quickly abandoned her for the more
agreeable company of his _dienshtchiks_, leaving her to find consolation
in the affection of more courtly, if less exalted, lovers--notably the
young Count Orloff, who proved as faithless as his master.
Such was Mary's infatuation for the worthless Count that, under his
influence, she stooped to various kinds of crime, from stealing the
Tsarina's jewels to fill her lover's purse, to infanticide. The climax
came when an important document was missing from the Tsar's cabinet.
Suspicion pointed to Orloff as the thief; he was arrested, and, when
brought into Peter's presence, not only confessed to the thefts and to
his share in making away with the undesirable infants, but betrayed the
partner of his guilt.
There was short shrift for poor Mary Hamilton when she was put on her
trial on these grave charges. She made full confession of her crimes;
but no torture could wring from her the name of the man for love of whom
she had committed them, and of whose treachery to her she was ignorant.
She was sentenced to death; and one March day, in the year 1719, she
was led to the scaffold "in a white silk gown trimmed with black
Then followed one of the grimmest scenes recorded in history. Peter, the
man who had been the first to betray her, and who had refused her pardon
even when her cause was pleaded by his wife, was a keenly interested
spectator of her execution. At the foot of the scaffold he embraced her,
and exhorted her to pray, before stepping aside to give place to the
headsman. When the axe had done its deadly work, he again stepped
forward, picked up the lifeless and still beautiful head which had
rolled into the mud, and calmly proceeded to give a lecture on anatomy
to the assembled crowd, "drawing attention to the number and nature of
the organs severed by the axe." His lecture concluded, he kissed the
pale, dead lips, crossed himself, and walked away with a smile of
satisfaction on his face.
A FRIEND OF MARIE ANTOINETTE
There is scarcely a spectacle in the whole drama of history more
pathetic than that of Marie Antoinette, dancing her light-hearted way
through life to the guillotine, seemingly unconscious of the eyes of
jealousy and hate that watched her every step; or, if she noticed at
all, returning a gay smile for a frown.
Wedded when but a child, full of the joy of youth, with laughter
bubbling on her pretty lips and gaiety dancing in her eyes, to a
dull-witted clown to whom her fresh young beauty made no appeal;
surrounded by Court ladies jealous of her charms; feared for her foreign
sympathies, and hated by a sullen, starving populace for her
extravagance and her pursuit of pleasure, the Austrian Princess with all
her young loveliness and the sweetness of her nature could please no one
in the land of her exile. Her very amiability was an offence; her
unaffected simplicity a subject of scorn; and her love of pleasure a
Had she realised the danger of her position, and adapted herself to its
demands, her story might have been written very differently; but her
tragedy was that she saw or heeded none of the danger-signals that
marked her path until it was too late to retrace a step; and that her
most innocent pleasures were made to pave the way to her doom.
Nothing, for instance, could have been more harmless to the seeming than
Marie Antoinette's friendship for Yolande de Polignac; but this
friendship had, beyond doubt, a greater part in her undoing than any
other incident in her life, from the affair of the "diamond necklace" to
her innocent infatuation for Count Fersen; and it would have been well
for the Queen of France if Madame de Polignac had been content to remain
in her rustic obscurity, and had never crossed her path.
When Yolande Gabrielle de Polastron was led to the altar, one day in the
year 1767, by Comte Jules de Polignac, she never dreamt, we may be sure,
of the dazzling role she was destined to play at the Court of France.
Like her husband, she was a member of the smaller _noblesse_, as proud
as they were poor. Her husband, it is true, boasted a long pedigree,
with its roots in the Dark Ages; but his family had given to France only
one man of note, that Cardinal de Polignac, accomplished scholar,
courtier, and man of affairs, who was able to twist Louis XIV. round his
dexterous thumb; and Comte Jules was the Cardinal's great-nephew, and,
through his mother, had Mazarin blood in his veins.
But the young couple had a purse as short as their descent was long; and
the early years of their wedded life were spent in Comte Jules'
dilapidated chateau, on an income less than the equivalent of a pound a
day--in a rustic retirement which was varied by an occasional jaunt to
Paris to "see the sights," and enjoy a little cheap gaiety.
Comte Jules, however, had a sister, Diane, a clever-tongued, ambitious
young woman, who had found a footing at Court as lady-in-waiting to the
Comtesse d'Artois, and whom her brother and his wife were proud to visit
on their rare journeys to the capital. And it was during one of these
visits that Marie Antoinette, who had struck up an informal friendship
with the sprightly, laughter-loving Diane, first met the woman who was
to play such an important and dangerous part in her life.
It was, perhaps, little wonder that the French Queen, craving for
friendship and sympathy, fell under the charm of Yolande de Polignac--a
girl still, but a few years older than herself, with a singular
sweetness and winsomeness, and "beautiful as a dream." The beauty of the
young Comtesse was, indeed, a revelation even in a Court of fair women.
In the extravagant words of chroniclers of the time, "she had the most
heavenly face that was ever seen. Her glance, her smile, every feature
was angelic." No picture could, it was said, do any justice to this
lovely creature of the glorious brown hair and blue eyes, who seemed so
utterly unconscious of her beauty.
Such was the woman who came into the life of Marie Antoinette, and at
once took possession of her heart. At last the Queen of France, in her
isolation, had found the ideal friend she had sought so long in vain; a
woman young and beautiful like herself, with kindred tastes, eager as
she was to enjoy life, and with all the qualities to make a charming
and sympathetic companion. It was a case of love at first sight, on
Marie Antoinette's part at least; and each subsequent meeting only
served to strengthen the link that bound these two women so strangely
The Comtesse must come oftener to Court, the Queen pleaded, so that they
might have more opportunities of meeting and of learning to know each
other; and when the Comtesse pleaded poverty, Marie Antoinette brushed
the difficulty aside. That could easily be arranged; the Queen had a
vacancy in the ranks of her equerries. M. le Comte would accept the
post, and then Madame would have her apartments at the Court itself.
Thus it was that Comte Jules' wife was transported from her poor country
chateau to the splendours of Versailles, installed as _chere amie_ of
the Queen in place of the Princesse de Lamballe, and with the ball of
fortune at her pretty feet. And never did woman adapt herself more
easily to such a change of environment. It was, indeed, a great part of
the charm of this remarkable woman that, amid success which would have
turned the head of almost any other of her sex, she remained to her last
day as simple and unaffected as when she won the Queen's heart in Diane
de Polignac's apartment.
So absolutely indifferent did she seem to her new splendours, that, when
jealousy sought to undermine the Queen's friendship, she implored Marie
Antoinette to allow her to go back to her old, obscure life; and it was
only when the Queen begged her to stay, with arms around her neck and
with streaming tears, that she consented to remain by her side.
If the Queen ever had any doubt that she had at last found a friend who
loved her for herself, the doubt was now finally dissipated. Such an
unselfish love as this was a treasure to be prized; and from this moment
Queen and waiting-woman were inseparable. When they were not strolling
arm-in-arm in the corridors or gardens of Versailles, Her Majesty was
spending her days in Madame's apartments, where, as she said, "We are no
longer Queen and subject, but just dear friends."
So unhappy was Marie Antoinette apart from her new friend that, when
Madame de Polignac gave birth to a child at Passy, the Court itself was
moved to La Muette, so that the Queen could play the part of nurse by
her friend's bedside.
Such, now, was the Queen's devotion that there was no favour she would
not have gladly showered on the Comtesse; but to all such offers Madame
turned a deaf ear. She wanted nothing but Marie Antoinette's love and
friendship for herself; but if the Queen, in her goodness, chose to
extend her favour to Madame's relatives--well, that was another matter.
Thus it was that Comte Jules soon blossomed into a Duke, and Madame
perforce became a Duchess, with a coveted tabouret at Court. But they
were still poor, in spite of an equerry's pay, and heavily in debt, a
matter which must be seen to. The Queen's purse satisfied every
creditor, to the tune of four hundred thousand livres, and Duc Jules
found himself lord of an estate which added seventy thousand livres
yearly to his exchequer, with another annual eighty thousand livres as
revenue for his office of Director-General of Posts.
Of course, if the Queen _would_ be so foolishly generous, it was not the
Duchesse's fault, and when Marie Antoinette next proposed to give a
dowry of eight hundred thousand livres to the Duchesse's daughter on her
marriage to the Comte de Guiche, and to raise the bridegroom to a
dukedom--well, it was "very sweet of Her Majesty," and it was not for
her to oppose such a lavish autocrat.
Thus the shower of Royal favours grew; and it is perhaps little wonder
that each new evidence of the Queen's prodigality was greeted with
curses by the mob clamouring for bread outside the palace gates; while
even her father's minister, Kaunitz, in far Vienna, brutally dubbed the
Duchesse and her family, "a gang of thieves."
Diane de Polignac, the Duchesse's sister-in-law, had long been made a
Countess and placed in charge of a Royal household; and the grateful
shower fell on all who had any connection with the favourite. Her
father-in-law, Cardinal de Polignac's nephew, was rescued from his
rustic poverty to play the exalted role of ambassador; an uncle was
raised _per saltum_ from _cure_ to bishop. The Duchesse's widowed aunt
was made happy by a pension of six thousand livres a year; and her
son-in-law, de Guiche, in addition to his dukedom, was rewarded further
for his fortunate nuptials by valuable sinecure offices at Court.
So the tide of benefactions flowed until it was calculated that the
Polignac family were drawing half a million livres every year as the
fruits of the Queen's partiality for her favourite. Little wonder that,
at a time when France was groaning under dire poverty, the volume of
curses should swell against the "Austrian panther," who could thus
squander gold while her subjects were starving; or that the Court should
be inflamed by jealousy at such favours shown to a family so obscure as
To the warnings of her own family Marie Antoinette was deaf. What cared
she for such exhibitions of spite and jealousy? She was Queen; and if
she wished to be generous to her favourite's family, none should say her
nay. And thus, with a smile half-careless, half-defiant, she went to
meet the doom which, though she little dreamt it, awaited her.
The Duchesse was now promoted to the office of governess of the Queen's
children, a position which was the prerogative of Royalty itself, or, at
least, of the very highest nobility. With her usual modesty, she had
fought long against the promotion; but the Queen's will was law, and she
had to submit to the inevitable as gracefully as she could. And now we
see her installed in the most splendid apartments at Versailles, holding
a _salon_ almost as regal as that of Marie Antoinette herself.
She was surrounded by sycophants and place-seekers, eager to capture the
Queen's favour through her. And such was her influence that a word from
her was powerful enough to make or mar a minister. She held, in fact,
the reins of power and was now more potent than the weak-kneed King
It was at this stage in her brilliant career that the Duchesse came
under the spell of the Comte de Vaudreuil--handsome, courtly, an
intriguer to his finger-tips, a man of many accomplishments, of a supple
tongue, and with great wealth to lend a glamour to his gifts. A man of
rare fascination, and as dangerous as he was fascinating.
The woman who had carried a level head through so much unaccustomed
splendour and power became the veriest slave of this handsome,
honey-tongued Comte, who ruled her, as she in turn ruled the Queen. At
his bidding she made and unmade ministers; she obtained for him pensions
and high offices, and robbed the treasury of nearly two million livres
to fill his pockets. When Marie Antoinette at last ventured to thwart
the Comte in his ambition to become the Dauphin's Governor, he
retaliated by poisoning the Duchesse's mind against her, and bringing
about the first estrangement between the friends.
Torn between her infatuation for Vaudreuil and her love of the Queen,
the Duchesse was in an awkward dilemma. It became necessary to choose
between the two rivals; and that Vaudreuil's spell proved the stronger,
her increasing coldness to Marie Antoinette soon proved. It was the
"rift within the lute" which was to make the music of their friendship
mute. The Queen gradually withdrew herself from the Duchesse's _salon_,
where she was sure to meet the insolent Vaudreuil; and thus the gulf
gradually widened until the severance was complete.
* * * * *
Evil days were now coming for Marie Antoinette. The affair of the
diamond necklace had made powerful enemies; the Polignac family, taking
the side of Vaudreuil and their protectress, were arrayed against her;
France was rising on the tide of hate to sweep the Austrian and her
husband from the throne. The horrors of the Revolution were being
loosed, and all who could were flying for safety to other lands.
At this terrible crisis the Queen's thoughts were less for herself than
for her friend of happier days. She sought the Duchesse and begged her
to fly while there was still time. Then it was that, touched by such
unselfish love, the Duchesse's pride broke down, and all her old love
for her sovereign lady returned in full flood. Bursting into tears, she
flung herself at Marie Antoinette's feet, and begged forgiveness from
the woman whose friendship she had spurned, and whose life she had,
however innocently, done so much to ruin.
A few hours later the Duchesse, disguised as a chambermaid and sitting
by the coachman's side, was making her escape from France in company
with her husband and other members of her family, while the Queen who
had loved her so well was left to take the last tragic steps that had
the guillotine for goal.
Just before the carriage started on its long and perilous journey, a
note was thrust into the "chambermaid's" hand--"Adieu, most tender of
friends. How terrible is this word! But it is necessary. Adieu! I have
only strength left to embrace you. Your heart-broken Marie."
Then ensued for the Duchesse a time of perilous journeying to safety.
At Sens her carriage was surrounded by a fierce mob, clamouring for the
blood of the "aristos." "Are the Polignacs still with the Queen?"
demanded one man, thrusting his head into the carriage. "The Polignacs?"
answered the Abbe de Baliviere, with marvellous presence of mind. "Oh!
they have left Versailles long ago. Those vile persons have been got rid
of." And with a howl of baffled rage the mob allowed the carriage to
continue its journey, taking with it the most hated of all the
Polignacs, the chambermaid, whose heart, we may be sure, was in her
Thus the Duchesse made her way through Switzerland, to Turin, and to
Rome, and to Venice, where news came to her of the fall ot the monarchy
and Louis' execution. By the time she reached Vienna on her restless
wanderings, her health, shattered by hardships and by her anxiety for
her friend, broke down completely. She was a dying woman; and when, a
few months later, she learned that Marie Antoinette was also dead--"a
natural death," they mercifully told her--"Thank God!" she exclaimed;
"now, at last, she is free from those bloodthirsty monsters! Now I can
die in peace."
Seven weeks later the Duchesse drew her last breath, with the name she
still loved best in all the world on her lips. In death she and her
beloved Queen were not divided.
THE RIVAL SISTERS
It was an unkind fate that linked the lives of the fifteenth Louis of
France and Marie Leczinska, Princess of Lorraine, and daughter of
Stanislas, the dethroned King of Poland; for there was probably no
Princess in Europe less equipped by nature to hold the fickle allegiance
of the young French King, and no Royal husband less likely to bring
happiness into the life of such a consort.
When Princess Marie was called to the throne of France, she found
herself transported from one of the most penurious and obscure to the
most splendid of the Courts of Europe--"frightened and overwhelmed," as
de Goncourt tells us, "by the grandeur of the King, bringing to her
husband nothing but obedience, to marriage only duty; trembling and
faltering in her queenly role like some escaped nun lost in Versailles."
Although by no means devoid of good-looks, as Nattier's portrait of her
at this time proves, her attractions were shy ones, as her virtues were
modest, almost ashamed.
She shrank alike from the embraces of her husband and the gaieties of
his Court, finding her chief pleasure in music and painting, in long
talks with the most serious-minded of her ladies, in Masses and
prayers--spending gloomy hours in her oratory with its death's head,
which she always carried with her on her journeys. Such was the nun-like
wife whom Louis XV. led to the altar shortly after he had entered his
sixteenth year, and had already had his initiation into that career of
vice which he pursued with few intervals to the end of his life.
Already, at fifteen, the King, who has been mockingly dubbed "_le bien
aime_" was breaking away from the austere hands of his boyhood's mentor,
Cardinal Fleury, and was beginning to snatch a few "fearful joys" in the
company of his mignons, such as the Duc de La Tremouille, and the Duc de
Gesvres, and a few gay women of whom the sprightly and beautiful
Princesse de Charolois was the ringleader. But he was still nothing more
than "a big and gloomy child," whose ill-balanced nature gravitated
between fits of profound gloom and the wild abandonment of debauch; one
hour, torn and shaken by religious terrors, fears of hell and of death;
the next, the very soul of hysterical gaiety, with words of blasphemy on
his lips, the gayest member of a band of Bacchanals in some midnight
To such a youth, feverishly seeking distraction from his own black
moods, the demure, devout Princess, ignorant of the caresses and
coquetry of her sex, moving like a spectre among the brilliant,
light-hearted ladies of his Court, was the most unsuitable, the most
impossible of brides. He quickly wearied of her company, and fled from
her sighs and her homilies to seek forgetfulness of her and of himself
in the society of such sirens of the Court as Mademoiselle de
Beaujolais, Madame de Lauraguais, and Mademoiselle de Charolois, whose
coquetries and high spirits never failed to charm away his gloomy
But although one lady after another, from that most bewitching of
madcaps, Mademoiselle de Charolois, to the dark-eyed, buxom Comtesse de
Toulouse, practised on him all their allurements, strove to awake his
senses "by a thousand coquetries, a thousand assaults, the King's
timidity eluded these advances, which amused and alarmed, but did not
tempt his heart; that young monarch's heart was still so full of the
aged Fleury's terrifying tales of the women of the Regency."
Such coyness, however, was not long to stand in the way of the King's
appetite for pleasure which every day strengthened. One day it began to
be whispered that at last Louis had been vanquished--that, at a supper
at La Muette, he had proposed the health of an "Unknown Fair," which had
been drunk with acclamation by his boon-companions; and the Court was
full of excited speculation as to who his mysterious charmer could be.
That some new and powerful influence had come into the young sovereign's
life was abundantly clear, from the new light that shone in his eyes,
the laughter that was now always on his lips. He had said "good-bye" to
melancholy; he astonished all by his new vivacity, and became the leader
in one dissipation after another, "whose noisy merriment he led and
prolonged far into the night."
It was not long before the identity of the worker of this miracle was
revealed to the world. She had been recognised more than once when
making her stealthy way to the King's apartments; she was his chosen
companion on his journey to Compiegne; and it was soon public knowledge
that Madame de Mailly was the woman who had captured the King's elusive
heart. And indeed there was little occasion for surprise; for Madame de
Mailly, although she would never see her thirtieth birthday again, was
one of the most seductive women in all France.
Black-eyed, crimson-lipped, oval-faced, Madame de Mailly was one of
those women who "with cheeks on fire, and blood astir, eyes large and
lustrous as the eyes of Juno, with bold carriage and in free toilettes,
step forward out of the past with the proud and insolent graces of the
divinities of some Bacchanalia." With the provocative and sensual charm
which is so powerful in its appeal, she had a rare skill in displaying
her beauty to its fullest advantage. Her cult of the toilette, the Duc
de Luynes tells us, went with her even by night. She never went to bed
without decking herself with all her diamonds; and her most seductive
hour was in the morning, when, in her bed, with her glorious dishevelled
hair veiling her pillow, a-glitter with her jewels, she gave audience to
Such was the ravishing, ardent, passionate woman who was the first of
many to carry Louis' heart by storm, and to be established in his palace
as his mistress--to inaugurate for him a new life of pleasure, and to
estrange him still more from his unhappy Queen, shut up with her
prayers and her tears in her own room, with her tapestry, her books of
history, and her music for sole relaxation. "The most innocent
pleasures," Queen Marie wrote sadly at this time, "are not for me."
Under Madame de Mailly's rule the Court of Versailles awoke to a new
life. "The little apartments grow animated, gay to the point of licence.
Noise, merriment, an even gayer and livelier clash of glasses, madder
nights." Fete succeeded fete in brilliant sequence. Each night saw its
Royal debauch, with the King and his mistress for arch-spirits of the
revels. There were nightly banquets, with the rarest wines and the most
costly viands, supplemented by salads prepared by the dainty hands of
Mademoiselle de Charolois, and ragouts cooked by Louis himself in silver
saucepans. And these were followed by orgies which left the celebrants,
in the last excesses of intoxication, to be gathered up at break of day
and carried helpless to bed.
Such wild excesses could not fail sooner or later to bring satiety to a
lover so unstable as Louis; and it was not long before he grew a little
weary of his mistress, who, too assured of her conquest, began to
exhibit sudden whims and caprices, and fits of obstinacy. Her jealous
eyes followed him everywhere, her reproaches, if he so much as smiled on
a rival beauty, provoked daily quarrels. He was drawn, much against his
will, into her family disputes, and into the disgraceful affairs of her
father, the dissolute Marquis de Nesle.
Meanwhile Madame de Mailly's supremacy was being threatened in a most
unexpected quarter. Among the pupils of the convent school at Port Royal
was a young girl, in whose ambitious brain the project was forming of
supplanting the King's favourite, and of ruling France and Louis at the
same time. The idle dream of a schoolgirl, of course! But to Felicite de
Nesle it was no vain dream, but the ambition of a lifetime, which
dominated her more and more as the months passed in her convent
seclusion. If her sister, Madame de Mailly, had so easily made a
conquest of the King, why should she, with less beauty, it is true, but
with a much cleverer brain, despair? And thus it was that every letter
Madame received from her "little sister" pleaded for an invitation to
Court, until at last Mademoiselle de Nesle found herself the guest of
Louis' mistress in his palace.
Thus the first important step was taken. The rest would be easy; for
Mademoiselle never doubted for a moment her ability to carry out her
programme to its splendid climax. It was certainly a bold, almost
impudent design; for the girl of the convent had few attractions to
appeal to a monarch so surrounded by beauty as the King of France. What
the courtiers saw, says the Duc de Richelieu, was "a long neck clumsily
set on the shoulders, a masculine figure and carriage, features not
unlike those of Madame de Mailly, but thinner and harder, which
exhibited none of her flashes of kindness, her tenderness of passion."
Even her manners seemed calculated to repel, rather than attract the man
she meant to conquer; for she treated him, from the first, with a
familiarity amounting almost to rudeness, and a wilfulness to which he
was by no means accustomed. There was, at any rate, something novel and
piquant in an attitude so different from that of all other Court ladies.
Resentment was soon replaced by interest, and interest by attraction;
until Louis, before he was aware of it, began to find the society of the
impish, mocking, defiant maid from the convent more to his taste than
that of the most fascinating women of his Court.
The more he saw of her, the more effectually he came under her spell.
Each day found her in some new and tantalising mood; and as she drew him
more and more into her toils, she kept him there by her ingenuity in
devising novel pleasures and entertainments for him, until, within a
month of setting eyes on her, he was telling Madame de Mailly, he "loved
her sister more than herself." One of the first evidences of his favour
was to provide her with a husband in the Comte de Vintimille, and a
dower of two hundred thousand livres. He promised her a post as
lady-in-waiting to Madame la Dauphine and gave her a sumptuous suite of
rooms at Versailles. He even conferred on her husband the honour of
handing him his shirt on the wedding-night, an evidence of high favour
such as no other bridegroom had enjoyed.
It was thus little surprise to anyone to find the Comtesse-bride not
only her sister's most formidable rival, but actually usurping her place
and privileges. Nor was it long before this place, on which she had set
her heart first within the walls of the Port Royal Convent, was
unassailably hers; and Madame de Mailly, in tears and sadness, saw an
unbridgeable gulf widen between her and the man she undoubtedly had
grown to love.
That Felicite de Nesle had not over-estimated her powers of conquest was
soon apparent. Louis became her abject slave, humouring her caprices and
submitting to her will. And this will, let it be said to her credit, she
exercised largely for his good. She weaned him from his vicious ways;
she stimulated whatever good remained in him; she tried, and in a
measure succeeded in making a man of him. Under her influence he began
to realise that he was a King, and to play his exalted part more
worthily. He asserted himself in a variety of directions, from looking
personally after the ordering of his household to taking the reins of
State into his own hands.
Nor did she curtail his pleasures. She merely gave them a saner
direction. Orgies and midnight revelry became things of the past, but
their place was taken by delightful days spent at the Chateau of Choisy,
that regal little pleasure-house between the waters of the Seine and the
Forest of Senart, with all its marvels of costly and artistic
furnishing. Here one entertainment succeeded another, from the hunting
which opened, to the card-games which closed the day. A time of innocent
delights which came sweet to the jaded palate of the King.
Thus the halcyon months passed, until, one August day in 1741, the
Comtesse was seized with a slight fever; Louis, consumed by anxiety,
spending the anxious hours by her bedside or pacing the corridor
outside. Two days later he was stooping to kiss an infant presented to
him on a cushion of cramoisi velvet. His happiness was crowned at last,
and life spread before him a prospect of many such years. But tragedy
was already brooding over this scene of pleasure, although none, least
of all the King, seemed to see the shadow of her wings.
One early day in December, Madame de Vintimille was seized with a severe
illness, as sudden as it was mysterious. Physicians were hastily
summoned from Paris, only, to Louis' despair, to declare that they could
do nothing to save the life of the Comtesse. "Tortured by excruciating
pain," says de Goncourt, "struggling against a death which was full of
terror, and which seemed to point to the violence of poison, the dying
woman sent for a confessor. She died almost instantly in his arms before
the Sacraments could be administered. And as the confessor, charged with
the dead woman's last penitent message to her sister, entered Madame de
Mailly's _salon_, he dropped dead."
Here, indeed, was tragedy in its most sudden and terrible form! The King
was stunned, incredulous. He refused to believe that the woman he had so
lately clasped in his arms, so warm, so full of life, was dead. And when
at last the truth broke on him with crushing force, he was as a man
distraught. "He shut himself up in his room, and listened half-dead to a
Mass from his bed." He would not allow any but the priest to come near
him; he repulsed all efforts at consolation.
And whilst Louis was thus alone with his demented grief, "thrust away in
a stable of the palace, lay the body of the dead woman, which had been
kept for a cast to be taken; that distorted countenance, that mouth
which had breathed out its soul in a convulsion, so that the efforts of
two men were required to close it for moulding, the already decomposing
remains of Madame de Vintimille served as a plaything and a
laughing-stock to the children and lackeys."
When the storm of his grief at last began to abate, the King retired to
his remote country-seat of Saint Leger, carrying his broken heart with
him--and also Madame de Mailly, as sharer of his sorrow; for it was to
the woman whom he had so lightly discarded that he first turned for
solace. At Saint Leger he passed his days in reading and re-reading the
two thousand letters the dead Comtesse had written to him, sprinkling
their perfumed pages with his tears. And when he was not thus burying
himself in the past, he was a prey to the terrors that had obsessed his
childhood--the fear of death and of hell.
At supper--the only meal which he shared with others, he refused to
touch meat, "in order that he might not commit sin on every side"; if a
light word was spoken he would rebuke the speaker by talk of death and
judgment; and if his eyes met those of Madame de Mailly, he burst into
tears and was led sobbing from the room.
The communion of grief gradually awoke in him his old affection for
Madame de Mailly; and for a time it seemed not unlikely that she might
regain her lost supremacy. But the discarded mistress had many enemies
at Court, who were by no means willing to see her re-established in
favour--the chief of them, the Duc de Richelieu, the handsomest man and
the "hero" of more scandalous amours than any other in France--a man,
moreover, of crafty brain, who had already acquired an ascendancy over
the King's mind.
With Madame de Tencin, a woman as scheming and with as evil a reputation
as himself, for chief ally, the Due determined to find another mistress
who should finally oust Madame de Mailly from Louis' favour; and her he
found in a woman, devoted to himself and his interests, and of such
surpassing loveliness that, when the King first saw her at Petit Bourg,
he exclaimed, "Heavens! how beautiful she is!"
Such was the involuntary tribute Louis paid at first sight to the charms
of Madame de la Tournelle, who was now fated to take the place of her
dead sister, Madame de Vintimille, just as the Comtesse had supplanted
another sister, Madame de Mailly.
THE RIVAL SISTERS--_continued_
Louis XV.'s involuntary exclamation when he first set eyes on the
loveliness of Madame de la Tournelle, "Heavens! how beautiful she is!"
becomes intelligible when we look on Nattier's picture of this fairest
of the de Nesle sisters in his "Allegory of the Daybreak," and read the
contemporary descriptions of her charms.
"She ravished the eye," we are told, "with her skin of dazzling
whiteness, her elegant carriage, her free gestures, the enchanting
glance of her big blue eyes--a gaze of which the cunning was veiled by
sentiment--by the smile of a child, moist lips, a bosom surging,
heaving, ever agitated by the flux and reflux of life, by a physiognomy
at once passionate and mutinous." And to these seductions were added a
sunny temperament, an infectious gaiety of spirit, and a playful wit
which made her infinitely attractive to men much less susceptible that
the amorous Louis.
It is little wonder then that in the reaction which followed his stormy
grief for his dead love, the Comtesse de Vintimille, he should turn from
the lachrymose companionship of Madame de Mailly to bask in the
sunshine of this third of the beautiful sisters, Madame de la Tournelle,
and that the wish to possess her should fire his blood. But Madame de la
Tournelle was not to prove such an easy conquest as her two sisters, who
had come almost unasked to his arms.
At the time when she came thus dramatically into his life she was living
with Madame de Mazarin, a strong-minded woman who had no cause to love
Louis, who had thwarted and opposed him more than once, and who was
determined at any cost to keep her protegee and pet out of his clutches.
And his desires had also two other stout opponents in Cardinal Fleury,
his old mentor, and Maurepas, the most subtle and clever of his
ministers, each of whom for different reasons was strongly averse to
this new and dangerous liaison, which would make him the tool of
Richelieu's favourite and Richelieu's party.
Thus, for months, Louis found himself baffled in all his efforts to win
the prize on which he had set his heart until, in September, 1742, one
formidable obstacle was removed from his path by the death of Madame de
Mazarin. To Madame de la Tournelle the loss of her protectress was
little short of a calamity, for it left her not only homeless, but
practically penniless; and, in her extremity, she naturally turned
hopeful eyes to the King, of whose passion she was well aware. At least,
she hoped, he might give her some position at his Court which would
rescue her from poverty. When she begged Maurepas, Madame de Mazarin's
kinsman and heir, to appeal to the King on her behalf, his answer was
to order her and her sister, Madame de Flavacourt, to leave the Hotel
Mazarin, thus making her plight still more desperate.
But, fortunately, in this hour of her greatest need she found an
unexpected friend in Louis' ill-used Queen, who, ignorant of her
husband's infatuation for the beautiful Madame de la Tournelle, sent for
her, spoke gracious words of sympathy to her, and announced her
intention of installing her in Madame de Mazarin's place as a lady of
the palace. Thus did fortune smile on Madame just when her future seemed
darkest. But her troubles were by no means at an end. Fleury and
Maurepas were more determined than ever that the King should not come
into the power of a woman so alluring and so dangerous; and they
exhausted every expedient to put obstacles in her path and to discover
and support rival claimants to the post.
For once, however, Louis was adamant. He had not waited so long and
feverishly for his prize to be baulked when it seemed almost in his
grasp. Madame de la Tournelle should have her place at his Court, and it
would not be his fault if she did not soon fill one more exalted and
intimate. Thus it was that when Fleury submitted to him the list of
applicants, with la Tournelle's name at the bottom, he promptly re-wrote
it at the head of the list, and handed it back to the Cardinal with the
words, "The Queen is decided, and wishes to give her the place."
We can picture Madame de Mailly's distress and suspense while these
negotiations were proceeding. She had, as we have seen in the previous
chapter, been supplanted by one sister in the King's affection; and just
as she was recovering some of her old position in his favour, she was
threatened with a second dethronement by another sister. In her alarm
she flew to Madame de la Tournelle, to set her fears at rest one way or
the other. "Can it be possible that you are going to take my place?" she
asked, the tears streaming down her cheeks. "Quite impossible, my
sister," answered Madame, with a smile; and Madame de Mailly, thus
reassured, returned to Versailles the happiest woman in France--to
learn, a few days later, that it was not only possible, it was an
accomplished fact. For the second time, and now, as she knew well,
finally, she was ousted from the affection of the King she loved so
sincerely; and again it was a sister who had done her this grievous
wrong. She was determined, however, that she would not quit the field
without a last fight, and she knew she had doughty champions in Fleury
and Maurepas, who still refused to acknowledge defeat.
Although Madame de la Tournelle was now installed in the palace, the day
of Louis' conquest had not arrived. The gratification of his passion was
still thwarted in several directions. Not only was Madame de Mailly's
presence a difficulty and a reproach to him; his new favourite was by no
means willing to respond to his advances. Her heart was still engaged to
the Due d'Agenois, and was not hers to dispose of. Richelieu, however,
was quick to dispose of this difficulty. He sent the handsome Duc to
Languedoc, exposed him to the attractions of a pretty woman, and before
many weeks had passed, was able to show Madame de la Tournelle
passionate letters addressed to her rival by her lover, as evidence of
the worthlessness of his vows; thus arming her pride against him and
disposing her at last to lend a more favourable ear to the King.
As for Madame de Mailly, her shrift was short. In spite of her tears,
her pleadings, her caresses, Louis made no concealment of his intention
to be rid of her. "No sorrow, no humiliation was lacking in the
death-struggle of love. The King spared her nothing. He did not even
spare her those harsh words which snap the bonds of the most vulgar
liaisons." And the climax came when he told the heart-broken woman, as
she cringed pitifully at his feet, "You must go away this very day." "My
sacrifices are finished," she sobbed, a little later to the "Judas,"
Richelieu, when, with friendly words, he urged her to humour the King
and go away at least for a time; "it will be my death, but I will be in
And while Madame de Mailly was carrying her crushed heart through the
darkness to her exile, the King and Richelieu, disguised in large
perukes and black coats, were stealing across the great courtyards to
the rooms of Madame de la Tournelle, where the King's long waiting was
to have its reward. And, the following day, the usurper was callously
writing to a friend, "Doubtless Meuse will have informed you of the
trouble I had in ousting Madame de Mailly; at last I obtained a mandate
to the effect that she was not to return until she was sent for."
"No portrait," says de Goncourt, referring to this letter, "is to be
compared with such a confession. It is the woman herself with the
cynicism of her hardness, her shameless and cold-blooded ingratitude....
It is as though she drives her sister out by the two shoulders with
those words which have the coarse energy of the lower orders."
Louis, at last happy in the achievement of his desire, was not long in
discovering that in the third of the Nesle sisters he had his hands more
full than with either of her predecessors. Madame de Mailly and the
Comtesse de Vintimille had been content to play the role of mistress,
and to receive the King's none too lavish largesse with gratitude.
Madame de la Tournelle was not so complaisant, so easily satisfied. She
intended--and she lost no time in making the King aware of her
intention--to have her position recognised by the world at large, to
reign as Montespan had reigned, to have the Treasury placed at her
disposal, and her children, if she had any, made legitimate. Her last
stipulation was that she should be made a Duchess before the end of the
year. And to all these proposals Louis gave a meek assent.
To show further her independence, she soon began to drive her lover to
distraction by her caprices and her temper: "She tantalised, at once
rebuffed and excited the King by the most adroit comedies and those
coquetries which are the strength of her sex, assuring him that she
would be delighted if he would transfer his affection to other ladies."
And while the favourite was thus revelling in the insolence of her
conquest, her supplanted sister was eating out her heart in Paris. "Her
despair was terrible; the trouble of her heart refused consolation,
begged for solitude, found vent every moment in cries for Louis. Those
who were around her trembled for her reason, for her life.... Again and
again she made up her mind to start for the Court, to make a final
appeal to the King, but each time, when the carriage was ready, she
burst into tears and fell back upon her bed."
As for Louis, chilled by the coldness of his mistress, distracted by her
whims and rages, his heart often yearned for the woman he had so cruelly
discarded; and separation did more than all her tears and caresses could
have done, to awake again the love he fancied was dead.
When Madame de la Tournelle paid her first visit as _Maitresse en titre_
to Choisy, nothing would satisfy her but an escort of the noblest ladies
in France, including a Princess of the Blood. Her progress was that of a
Queen; and in return for this honour, wrung out of the King's weakness,
she repaid him with weeks of coldness and ill-humour. She refused to
play at _cavagnol_ with him; she barricaded herself in her room,
refusing to open to all her lover's knocking; and vented her vapours on
him with, or without, provocation, until, as she considered, she had
reduced him to a becoming submission. Then she used her power and her
coquetries to wheedle out of him one concession after another,
including a promise by the King to return unopened any letters Madame de
Mailly might send to him. Nor was she content until her sister was
finally disposed of by the grant of a small pension and a modest lodging
in the Luxembourg.
Before the year closed Madame de la Tournelle was installed in the most
luxurious apartments at Versailles, and Louis, now completely caught in
her toils, was the slave of her and his senses, flinging himself into
all the licence of passion, and reviving the nightly debauches from
which the dead Comtesse had weaned him. And while her lover was thus
steeped in sensuality, his mistress was, with infinite tact, pursuing
her ambition. Affecting an indifference to affairs of State, she was
gradually, and with seeming reluctance, worming herself into the
position of chief Counsellor, and while professing to despise money she
was draining the exchequer to feed her extravagance.
Never was King so hopelessly in the toils of a woman as Louis, the
well-beloved, in those of Madame de la Tournelle. He accepted as meekly
as a child all her coldness and caprices, her jealousies and her rages;
and was ideally happy when, in a gracious mood, she would allow him to
assist at her toilette as the reward for some regal present of diamonds,
horses, or gowns.
It was after one such privileged hour that Louis, with childish
pleasure, handed to his favourite the patent, creating her Duchesse de
Chateauroux, enclosed in a casket of gold; and with it a rapturous
letter in which he promised her a pension of eighty-thousand livres,
the better to maintain her new dignity!
Having thus achieved her greatest ambition, the Duchesse (as we must now
call her) aspired to play a leading part in the affairs of Europe.
France and Prussia were leagued in war against the forces of England,
Austria, and Holland. This was a seductive game in which to take a hand,
and thus we find her stimulating the sluggard kingliness in her lover,
urging him to leave his debauches and to lead his armies to victory,
assuring him of the gratitude and admiration of his subjects. Nothing
less, she told him, would save his country from disaster.
To this appeal and temptation Louis was not slow to respond; and in May,
1744, we find him, to the delight of his soldiers and all France, at the
seat of war, reviewing his troops, speaking words of high courage to
them, visiting hospitals and canteens, and actually sending back a
haughty message to the Dutch: "I will give you your answer in Flanders."
No wonder the army was roused to enthusiasm, or that it exclaimed with
one voice, "At last we have found a King!"
So strong was Louis in his new martial resolve that he actually refused
Madame de Chateauroux permission to accompany him. France was delighted
that at last her King had emancipated himself from petticoat influence,
but the delight was short-lived, for before he had been many days in
camp the Duchesse made her stately appearance, and saws and hammers
were at work making a covered way between the house assigned to her and
that occupied by the King. A fortnight later Ypres had fallen, and she
was writing to Richelieu, "This is mighty pleasant news and gives me
huge pleasure. I am overwhelmed with joy, to take Ypres in nine days.
You can think of nothing more glorious, more flattering to the King; and
his great-grandfather, great as he was, never did the like!"
But grief was coming quickly on the heels of joy. The King was seized
with a sudden and serious illness, after a banquet shared with his ally,
the King of Prussia; and in a few days a malignant fever had brought him
face to face with death. Madame de Chateauroux watched his sufferings
with the eyes of despair. "Leaning over the pillow of the dying man,
aghast and trembling, she fights for him with sickness and death, terror
and remorse." With locked door she keeps her jealous watch by his
bedside, allowing none to enter but Richelieu, the doctors, and nurses,
whilst outside are gathered the Princes of the Blood and the great
officers of the Court, clamouring for admittance.
It was a grim environment for the death-bed of a King, this struggle for
supremacy, in which a frail woman defied the powers of France for the
monopoly of his last hours. And chief of all the terrors that assailed
her was the dread of that climax to it all, when her lover would have to
make his last confession, the price of his absolution being, as she well
knew, a final severance from herself.
Over this protracted and unseemly duel, in which blows were exchanged,
entrance was forced, and Princes and ministers crowded indecently around
the King's bed; over the Duchesse's tearful pleadings with the confessor
to spare her the disgrace of dismissal, we must hasten to the crowning
moment when Louis, feeling that he was dying, hastily summoned a
confessor, who, a few moments later, flung open the door of the closet
in which the Duchesse was waiting and weeping, and pronounced the fatal
words, "The King commands you to leave his presence immediately."
Then followed that secret flight to Paris, "amidst a torrent of
maledictions," the Duchesse hiding herself from view as best she could,
and at each town and village where horses were changed, slinking back
and taking refuge in some by-road until she could resume her journey.
Then it was that in her grief and despair she wrote to Richelieu, "Oh,
my God! what a thing it all is! I give you my word, it is all over with
me! One would need to be a poor fool to start it all over again."
But Louis was by no means a dead man. From the day on which he received
absolution from his manifold sins he made such haste to recover that,
within a month, he was well again and eager to fly to the arms of the
woman he had so abruptly abandoned with all other earthly vanities. It
was one thing, however, to dismiss the Duchesse, and quite another to
call her back. For a time she refused point-blank to look again on the
King who had spurned her from fear of hell; and when at last she
consented to receive the penitent at Versailles she let him know, in no
vague terms, that "it would cost France too many heads if she were to
return to his Court."
Vengeance on her enemies was the only price she would accept for
forgiveness, and this price Louis promised to pay in liberal measure.
One after the other, those who had brought about her humiliation were
sent to disgrace or exile--from the Duc de Chatillon to La Rochefoucauld
and Perusseau. Maurepas, the most virulent of them all, the King
declined to exile, but he consented to a compromise. He should be made
to offer Madame an abject apology, to grovel at her feet, a punishment
with which she was content. And when the great minister presented
himself by her bedside, in fear and trembling, to express his profound
penitence and to beg her to return to Court, all she answered was, "Give
me the King's letters and go!"
The following Saturday she fixed on as the day of her triumphant
return--"but it was death that was to raise her from the bed on which
she had received the King's submission at the hands of his Prime
Minister." Within twenty-four hours she was seized with violent
convulsions and delirium. In her intervals of consciousness she shrieked
aloud that she had been poisoned, and called down curses on her
murderer--Maurepas. For eleven days she passed from one delirious attack
to another, and as many times she was bled. But all the skill of the
Court physicians was powerless to save her, and at five o'clock in the
morning of the 8th December the Duchesse drew her last tortured breath
in the arms of Madame de Mailly, the sister she had so cruelly wronged.
Two days later, de Goncourt tells us, she was buried at Saint Sulpice,
an hour before the customary time for interments, her coffin guarded by
soldiers, to protect it from the fury of the mob.
As for Madame de Mailly, she spent the last years of her troubled life
in the odour of a tardy sanctity--washing the feet of the poor,
ministering to the sick, bringing consolation to those in prison; and
she was laid to rest amongst the poorest in the Cimetiere des Innocents,
wearing the hair-shirt which had been part of her penance during life,
and with a simple cross of wood for all monument.
A MISTRESS OF INTRIGUE
"On 11th September," Madame de Motteville says, "we saw arrive from
Italy three nieces of Cardinal Mazarin and a nephew. Two Mancini sisters
and the nephew were the children of the youngest sister of his Eminence;
and of the sisters Laure, the elder, was a pleasing brunette with a
handsome face, about twelve or thirteen years of age; the second
(Olympe), also a brunette, had a long face and pointed chin. Her eyes
were small, but lively; and it might be expected that, when fifteen
years of age, she would have some charm. According to the rules of
beauty, it was impossible to grant her any, save that of having dimples
in her cheeks."
Such, at the age of nine or ten, was Olympe Mancini, who, in spite of
her childish lack of beauty, was destined to enslave the handsomest King
in Europe; and, after a life of discreditable intrigues, in which she
incurred the stigma of witchcraft and murder, to end her career in
obscurity, shunned by all who had known her in her day of splendour.
It was a singular freak of fortune which translated the Mancini girls
from their modest home in Italy to the magnificence of the French
Court, as the adopted children of their uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, the
virtual ruler of France, and the avowed lover (if not, as some say, the
husband) of Anne of Austria, the Queen-mother. "See those little girls,"
said the wife of Marechal de Villeroi to Gaston d'Orleans, pointing to
the Mancini children, the centre of an admiring crowd of courtiers.
"They are not rich now; but some day they will have fine chateaux, large
incomes, splendid jewels, beautiful silver, and perhaps great
And how true this prophecy proved, we know; for, of the Cardinal's five
Mancini nieces (for three others came, later, as their uncle's
protegees), Laure found a husband in the Duc de Mercoeur, grandson of
Henri IV.; two others lived to wear the coronet of Duchess; Olympe, as
we shall see, became Comtesse de Soissons; and Marie, after narrowly
missing the Queendom of France, became the wife of the Constable
Colonna, one of the greatest nobles of Italy.
Nor is there anything in such high alliances to cause surprise; for
their future was in the hands of the most powerful, ambitious, and
wealthy man in France. From their first appearance as his guests they
were received with open arms by Louis' Court. They were speedily
transferred to the Palais Royal, to be brought up with the boy-King,
Louis XIV., and his brother, the Prince of Anjou; while the Queen
herself not only paid them the most flattering attentions and treated
them as her own children, but herself undertook part of their education.
It was under such enviable conditions that the young daughters of a
poor Roman baron grew up to girlhood--the pets of the Queen and the
Court, the playfellows of the King, and the acknowledged heiresses of
their uncle's millions; and of them all, not one had a keener eye to the
future than Olympe of the long face, pointed chin, and dimples. It was
she who entered with the greatest zest into the romps and games of her
playmate, Louis XIV., who surrounded him with the most delicate
flatteries and attentions, and practised all her childish arts and
coquetries to win his favour. And she succeeded to such an extent that
it was always the company of Olympe, and not of her more beautiful
sisters, Hortense, Laure, or Marie, that Louis most sought.
Not that Olympe was always to remain the plain, unattractive child
Madame de Motteville describes in 1647. Each year, as it passed, added
some touch of beauty, developed some latent charm, until at eighteen she
was very fair to look upon. "Her eyes now" says Madame de Motteville,
"were full of fire, her complexion had become beautiful, her face less
thin, her cheeks took dimples which gave her a fresh charm, and she had
fine arms and beautiful hands. She certainly seemed charming in the eyes
of the King, and sufficiently pretty to indifferent spectators."
That she had wooers in plenty, even before she was so far advanced in
the teens, was inevitable; but her personal preferences counted for
little in face of the Cardinal's determination to find for her, as for
all his nieces, a splendid alliance which should shed lustre on himself.
And thus it was that, without any consultation of her heart, Olympe's
hand was formally given to Prince Eugene de Savoie, Comte de Soissons, a
man in whose veins flowed the Royal strains of Savoy and France.
It was a brilliant match indeed for the daughter of a petty Italian
baron; and Mazarin saw that it was celebrated with becoming
magnificence. On the 20th February, 1657, we see a brilliant company
repairing to the Queen's apartments, "the Comte de Soissons escorting
his betrothed, dressed in a gown of silver cloth, with a bouquet of
pearls on her head, valued at more than 50,000 livres, and so many
jewels that their splendour, joined to the natural eclat of her beauty,
caused her to be admired by everyone. Immediately afterwards, the
nuptials were celebrated in the Queen's chapel. Then the illustrious
pair, after dining with the Princesse de Carignan-Savoie, ascended to
the apartments of his Eminence, the Cardinal, where they were
entertained to a magnificent supper, at which the King and Monsieur did
the company the honour of joining them."
Then followed two days of regal receptions; a visit to Notre Dame to
hear Mass, with the Queen herself as escort; and a stately journey to
the Hotel de Soissons, where the Comtesse's mother-in-law "testified to
her, by her joy and the rich presents which she made her, how great was
the satisfaction with which she regarded this marriage."
Thus raised to the rank of a Princess of the Blood, Olympe was by no
means the proud and happy woman she ought to have been. She had, in
fact, aspired much higher; she had had dreams of sharing the throne of
France with her handsome young playmate, the King; and to Louis, wife
though she now was, she had lost none of the attraction she possessed
when he called her his "little sweetheart" in their childish games
together. "He continued to visit her with the greatest regularity," to
quote Mr Noel Williams; "indeed, scarcely a day went by on which His
Majesty's coach did not stop at the gate of the Hotel de Soissons; and
Olympe, basking in the rays of the Royal favour, rapidly took her place
as the brilliant, intriguing great lady Nature intended her to be."
It is little wonder, perhaps, that Olympe's foolish head was turned by
such flattering attentions from her sovereign, or that she began to give
herself airs and to treat members of the Royal family with a haughty
patronage. Even La Grande Mademoiselle did not escape her insolence;
for, as she herself records, "when I paid her a thousand compliments and
told her that her marriage had given me the greatest joy and that I
hoped we should always be good friends, she answered me not a word."
But Olympe's supremacy was not to remain much longer unchallenged. The
King's vagrant fancy was already turning to her younger sister, Marie,
whose childish plainness had now ripened to a beauty more dazzling than
her own--the witchery of large and brilliant black eyes, a complexion of
pure olive, luxuriant, jet-black hair, a figure of singular suppleness
and grace, and a sprightliness of wit and a _gaiete de coeur_ which the
Comtesse could not hope to rival. It soon began to be rumoured in Court
that Louis spent hours daily in the company of Mazarin's beautiful
niece; a rumour which Hortense Mancini supports in her "Memoirs." "The
presence of the King, who seldom stirred from our lodging, often
interrupted us," she says; "my sister, Marie, alone was undisturbed; and
you can easily understand that his assiduity had charms for her, who was
the cause of it, because it had none for others."
And as Louis' visits to the Mancini lodging became more and more
frequent, each adding a fresh link to the chain that was binding him to
her young sister, Madame de Soissons saw less and less of him, until an
amused tolerance gave place to a genuine alarm. It was nothing less than
an outrage that she, who had so long held first place in the King's
favour, should be ousted by a "mere child," the last person in the world
whom she could have thought of as a rival. But the Comtesse was no woman
to be easily dethroned. Although at every Court ball, fete, or ballet,
Louis was now inseparable from her sister, she affected to ignore these
open slights and lost no opportunity in public of vaunting her intimacy
with His Majesty, even to the extent on one occasion, as Mademoiselle
records, of taking Louis' seat at a ball supper and compelling him to
share it with her.
But such shameless arrogance only served to estrange the King still
further, and to make him seek still more the company of the young
sister, who had already captured his heart as the Comtesse had never
captured it. When Louis made his memorable journey to Lyons to meet the
Princess Margaret of Savoy, it was to Marie that he paid the most
courtly and tender attentions. "During the journey," says Mademoiselle,
"he did not address a word to the Comtesse de Soissons"; and, indeed, on
more than one occasion he showed a marked aversion to her.
At St Jean d'Angely, Louis not only himself escorted Marie to her
lodging; he stayed with her until two o'clock in the morning. "Nothing,"
her sister Hortense records, "could equal the passion which the King
showed, and the tenderness with which he asked of Marie her pardon for
all she had suffered for his sake." It was, indeed, no secret at Court
that he had offered her marriage, and had taken a solemn vow that
neither Margaret of Savoy nor the Infanta of Spain should be his wife.
But, as we have seen in a previous chapter, both the Queen and Mazarin
were determined that the Infanta should be Queen of France; and that his
foolish romance with the Mancini girl should be nipped in the bud.
There was also another powerful influence at work to thwart his passion
for Marie. The indifference of the Comtesse de Soissons had given place
to a fury of resentment; and she needed no instigation of her uncle to
determine at any cost to recover the place she had lost in Louis'
favour. She brought all her armoury of coquetry and flatteries to bear
on him, and so far succeeded that, we read, "the King has resumed his
relations with the Comtesse; he has recommenced to talk and laugh with
her; and three days since he entertained M. and Madame de Soissons with
a ball and a play, and afterwards they partook of _medianoche_ (a
midnight banquet) together, passing more than three hours in
conversation with them."
Meanwhile Marie, realising the hopelessness of her passion in face of
the opposition of her uncle and the Queen, and of Louis' approaching
marriage to the Spanish Princess, had given him unequivocally to
understand that their relations must cease, and the rupture was complete
when the Comtesse told the King of her sister's dallying with Prince
Charles of Lorraine, of their assignations in the Tuileries, of their
mutual infatuation, and of the rumours of an arranged marriage. "_Cela
est bien_" was all Louis remarked, but the dark flush of anger that
flooded his face was a sweet reward to the Comtesse for her treachery.
A few days later her revenge was complete when, in the King's presence,
she rallied her sister on her low spirits. "You find the time pass
slowly when you are away from Paris," she said; "nor am I surprised,
since you have left your lover there"; to which Marie answered with a
haughty toss of the head, "That is possible, Madame."
One formidable rival thus removed from her path, Madame de Soissons was
not long left to enjoy her triumph; for another was quick to take the
place abandoned by the broken-hearted Marie--the beautiful and gentle La
Valliere, who was the next to acquire an ascendancy over the King's
susceptible heart. Once more the Comtesse, to her undisguised chagrin,
found herself relegated to the background, to look impotently on while
Louis made love to her successor, and to meditate new schemes of
vengeance. It was in vain that Louis, by way of amende, found for her a
lover in the Marquis de Vardes, the most handsome and dissolute of his
courtiers, for whom she soon developed a veritable passion. Her vanity
might be appeased, but her bitterness--the _spretoe injuria
formoe_--remained; and she lost no time in plotting further mischief.
With the help of M. de Vardes and the Comte de Guiche, she sent an
anonymous letter to the Queen, containing a full and intimate account of
her husband's amour with La Valliere--the letter enclosed in an envelope
addressed in the handwriting of the Queen of Spain. Fortunately for
Maria Theresa's peace of mind the letter fell into the hands of Louis
himself, who was naturally furious at such treachery and determined to
make those responsible for it suffer--when he should discover them. As,
however, the investigation of the matter was entrusted to de Vardes, it
is needless to say that the culprits escaped detection.
Madame de Soissons' next attempt to bring about a rupture between the
King and La Valliere, by bringing forward a rival in the person of the
seductive Mlle de la Motte-Houdancourt, proved equally futile, when
Louis discovered by accident that she was but a tool in Madame's
designing hands; and for a time the Comtesse was sent in disgrace from
the Court to nurse her jealousy and to devise more effectual plans of
What form these took seems clear from an investigation held at the
close of 1678 into a supposed plot to poison the King and the Dauphin--a
plot of which La Voisin, one of the greatest criminals in history, was
suspected of being the ringleader. During this inquiry La Voisin
confessed that the Comtesse de Soissons had come to her house one day
"and demanded the means of getting rid of Mile de la Valliere"; and,
further, that the Comtesse had avowed her intention to destroy not only
Louis' mistress, but the King himself.
Such a confession was well calculated to rouse a storm of indignation in
France, where Madame de Soissons had made many powerful enemies. The
Chambre unanimously demanded her arrest; but before it could be
effected, Madame, stoutly declaring her innocence, had shaken the dust
of Paris off her feet, and was on her way to Brussels.
During her flight to safety, we are told, "the principal inns in the
towns and villages through which she passed refused to receive her"; and
more than once she was compelled to sleep on straw and suffer the
insults of the populace, which reviled her as sorceress and poisoner.
"We are assured," Madame de Sevigne writes, "that the gates of Namur,
Antwerp, and other towns have been closed against the Countess, the
people crying out, 'We want no poisoner here'!" Even at Brussels,
whenever she ventured into the streets she was assailed by a storm of
insults; and on one occasion, when she entered a church, "a number of
people rushed out, collected all the black cats they could find, tied
their tails together, and brought them howling and spitting into the
porch, crying out that they were devils who were following the
In the face of such chilling hospitality Madame de Soissons was not
tempted to make a long stay in Brussels; and after a few months of
restless wandering in Flanders and Germany, she drifted to Spain where
she succeeded in ingratiating herself with the Queen. She found little
welcome however from the King, who, as the French Ambassador to Madrid
wrote, "was warned against her. He accused her of sorcery, and I learn
that, some days ago, he conceived the idea that, had it not been for a
spell she had cast over him, he would have had children.... The life of
the Comtesse de Soissons consists in receiving at her house all persons
who desire to come there, from four o'clock in the evening up to two or
three hours after midnight. There is, sire, everything that can convey
an air of familiarity and contempt for the house of a woman of quality."
That Carlos' suspicions were not without reason was proved when one day
his Queen, after, it is said, drinking a glass of milk handed to her by
the Comtesse, was taken suddenly ill and expired after three days of
terrible suffering. That she died of poison, like her mother, the
ill-fated sister of our second Charles, seems probable; but that the
poison was administered by the Comtesse, whose friend and protectress
she was and who had every reason to wish her well, is less to be
believed, in spite of Saint-Simon's unequivocal accusation. Certainly
the crime was not proved against her; for we find her still in Spain in
the following spring, when Carlos, his patience exhausted, ordered her
to leave the country.
After a short stay in Portugal and Germany, Madame de Soissons was back
in Brussels, where she spent the brief remainder of her days--"all the
French of distinction who visited the City" (to quote Saint-Simon)
"being strictly forbidden to visit her." Here, on the 9th October, 1690,
her beauty but a memory, bankrupt in reputation, friendless and poor,
the curtain fell on the life so full of mis-used gifts and baffled
AN ILL-FATED MARRIAGE
Few Kings have come to their thrones under such brilliant auspices as
Milan I. of Servia; few have abandoned their crowns to the greater
relief of their subjects, or have been followed to their exile by so
much hatred. But a fortnight before Milan's accession, his cousin and
predecessor, Prince Michael, had been foully done to death by hired
assassins as he was walking in the park of Topfschider, with three
ladies of his Court; and the murdered man had been placed in a carriage,
sitting upright as in life, and had been driven back to his palace
through the respectful greetings of his subjects, who little knew that
they were saluting a corpse.
There was good reason for this mockery of death, for Prince Alexander
Karageorgevitch had long set ambitious eyes on the crown of Servia, and
resolved to wrest it by fair means or foul from the boy-heir to the
throne; and it was of the highest importance that Michael's death, which
he had so brutally planned, should be concealed from him until the
succession had been secured to his young rival, Milan. And thus it was
that, before Karageorgevitch could bring his plotting to the head of
achievement, Milan was hailed with acclamation as Servia's new Prince,
and, on the 23rd June, 1868, made his triumphal entry into Belgrade to
the jubilant ringing of bells and the thunderous cheers of the people.
Twelve days later, Belgrade was _en fete_ for his crowning, her streets
ablaze with bunting and floral decorations, as the handsome boy made his
way through the tumults of cheers and avenues of fluttering
handkerchiefs to the Metropolitan Church. The men, we are told, "took
off their cloaks and placed them under his feet, that he might walk on
them; they clustered round him, kissing his garments, and blessing him
as their very own; they worshipped his handsome face and loved his
boyish smile." And when his young voice rang clearly out in the words,
"I promise you that I shall, to my dying day, preserve faithfully the
honour and integrity of Servia, and shall be ready to shed the last drop
of my blood to defend its rights," there was scarcely one of the
enthusiastic thousands that heard him who would not have been willing to
lay down his life for the idolised Prince.
It was by strange paths that the fourteen-year-old Milan had thus come
to his Principality. The son of Jefrenn Obrenovitch, uncle of the
reigning Michael, he was cradled one August day in 1854, his mother
being Marie Catargo, of the powerful race of Roumanian "Hospodars," a
woman of strong passions and dissolute life. When her temper and
infidelities had driven her husband to the drinking that put a premature
end to his days, Marie transferred her affection, without the sanction
of a wedding-ring, to Prince Kusa, a man of as evil repute as herself.
In such a home and with such guardians her only child, Milan, the future
ruler of Servia, spent the early years of his life--ill-fed, neglected,
and supremely wretched.
Thus it was that, when Prince Michael summoned the boy to Belgrade, in
order to make the acquaintance of his successor, he was horrified to see
an uncouth lad, as devoid of manners and of education as any in the
slums of his capital. The heir to the throne could neither read nor
write; the only language he spoke was a debased Roumanian, picked up
from the servants who had been his only associates, while of the land
over which he was to rule one day he knew absolutely nothing. The only
hope for him was his extreme youth--he was at the time only twelve years
old--and Michael lost no time in having him trained for the high station
he was destined to fill.
The progress the boy made was amazing. Within two years he was
unrecognisable as the half-savage who had so shocked the Court of
Belgrade. He could speak the Servian tongue with fluency and grace; he
had acquired elegance of manners and speech, and a winning courtesy of
manner which to his last day was his most marked characteristic; he had
mastered many accomplishments, and he excelled in most manly exercises,
from riding to swimming. And to all this remarkable promise the
finishing touches were put by a visit to Paris under the tutorship of a
courtly and learned professor.
Thus when, within two years of his emancipation, he came to his crown,
the uncouth lad from Roumania had blossomed into a Prince as goodly to
look on as any Europe could show--a handsome boy of courtly graces and
accomplishments, able to converse in several languages, and singularly
equipped in all ways to win the homage of the simple people over whom he
had been so early called to rule. As Mrs Gerard says, "They idolised
their boy-Prince. Every day they stood in long, closely packed lines
watching to see him come out of the castle to ride or drive; as he
passed along, smiling affectionately on his people, blessings were
showered on him. There was, however, another side to this picture of
devotion. There were those who hated the boy because he had thwarted
their plans." And this hatred, as persistent as it was malignant, was to
follow him throughout his reign, and through his years of unhappy exile,
to his grave.
But these days were happily still remote. After four years of minority
and Regency, when he was able to take the reins of government into his
own hands, his empire over the hearts of his subjects was more firmly
based than ever. His youth, his modesty, and his compelling charm of
manner made friends for him wherever his wanderings took him, from Paris
to Constantinople. He was the "Prince Charming" of Europe, as popular
abroad as he was idolised at home; and when the time arrived to find a
consort for him he might, one would have thought, have been able to pick
and choose among the fairest Princesses of the Continent.
But handsome and gallant and popular as he was, the overtures of his
ministers were coldly received by one Royal house after another. Milan
might be a reigning Prince and a charming one to boot, but it was not
forgotten that the first of his line had been a common herdsman, and the
blood of Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns could not be allowed to mingle with
so base a strain. Even a mere Hungarian Count, whose fair daughter had
caught Milan's fancy, frowned on the suit of the swineherd's successor.
But fate had already chosen a bride for the young Prince, who was more
than equal in birth to any Count's daughter; who would bring beauty and
riches as her portion; and who, after many unhappy years, was to crown
her dower with tragedy.
It was at Nice, where Prince Milan was spending the winter months of
1875, that he first set eyes on the woman whose life was to be so
tragically linked with his own. Among the visitors there was the family
of a Russian colonel, Nathaniel Ketschko, a man of high lineage and
great wealth. He claimed, in fact, descent from the Royal race of
Comnenus, which had given many a King to the thrones of Europe, and
whose sons for long centuries had won fame as generals, statesmen, and
ambassadors. And to this exalted strain was allied enormous wealth, of
which the Colonel's share was represented by a regal revenue of four
hundred thousand roubles a year.
But proud as he was of his birth and his riches, Colonel Nathaniel was
still prouder of his two lovely daughters, each of whom had inherited in
liberal measure the beauty of their mother, a daughter of the princely
house of Stourza; and of the two the more beautiful, by common consent,
was Natalie, whose charms won this spontaneous tribute from Tsar
Nicholas, when first he saw her, "I would I were a beggar that I might
every day ask your alms, and have the happiness of kissing your hand."
She had, says one who knew her in her radiant youth, "an irresistible
charm that permeated her whole being with such a harmony of grace,
sweetness, and overpowering attraction that one felt drawn to her with
magnetic force; and to adore her seemed the most natural and indeed the
Such was the high tribute paid to Servia's future Queen at the first
dawning of that beauty which was to make her also Queen of all the fair
women of Europe, and which at its zenith was thus described by one who
saw her at Wiesbaden ten years or so later: "She walked along the
promenade with a light, graceful movement; her feet hardly seemed to
touch the ground, her figure was elegant, her finely cut face was lit up
by those wonderful eyes, once seen never forgotten--brilliant, tender,
loving; her luxuriant hair of raven black was loosely coiled round the
well-set head, or fell in curls on the beautifully arched neck. For each
one she had a pleasant smile, a gracious bow, or a few words, spoken in
a musical voice." No wonder the Germans, who looked at this apparition
of grace and beauty, "simply fell down and adored her."
Such was the vision of beauty of which Prince Milan caught his first
glimpse on the promenade at Nice in the winter of 1875, and which
haunted him, day and night, until chance brought their paths together
again, and he won her consent to share his throne. That such a high
destiny awaited her, Natalie had already been told by a gipsy whom she
met one day in the woods of her father's estate near Moscow--a meeting
of which the following story is told.
At sight of the beautiful young girl the gipsy stooped in homage and
kissed the hem of her dress. "Why do you do that?" asked Natalie, half
in alarm and half in pleasure. "Because," the woman answered, "I salute
you as the chosen bride of a great Prince. Over your head I see a crown
floating in the air. It descends lower and lower until it rests on your
head. A dazzling brilliance adorns the crown; it is a Royal diadem."
"What else?" asked Natalie eagerly, her face flushed with excitement and
delight. "Oh! do tell me more, please!" "What more shall I say,"
continued the gipsy, "except that you will be a Queen, and the mother of
a King; but then--"
"But then, what?" exclaimed the eager and impatient girl; "do go on,
please. What then?" and she held out a gold coin temptingly. "I see a
large house; you will be there, but--take care; you will be turned out
by force.... And now give me the coin and let me go. More I must not
Such were the dazzling and mysterious words spoken by the gipsy woman in
the Russian forest, a year or more before Natalie first saw the Prince
who was destined to make them true. But it was not at Nice that
opportunity came to Milan. It was an accidental meeting in Paris, some
months later, that made his path clear. During a visit to the French
capital he met a young Servian officer, a distant kinsman, one Alexander
Konstantinovitch, who confided to him, over their wine and cigarettes,
the story of his infatuation for the daughter of a Russian colonel, who
at the time was staying with her aunt, the Princess Murussi. He raved of
her beauty and her charm, and concluded by asking the Prince to
accompany him that he might make the acquaintance of the Lieutenant's
Arrived at their destination, the Prince and his companion were
graciously received by the Princess Murussi, but Milan had no eyes for
the dignified lady who gave him such a flattering reception; they were
drawn as by a magnet to the girl by her side--"a child with a woman's
grace and an angel's soul smiling in her eyes"; the incarnation of his
dreams, the very girl whose beauty, though he had caught but one passing
glimpse of it, had so intoxicated his brain a few months earlier at
"Allow me," said the Lieutenant, "to introduce to Your Highness Natalie
Ketschko, my affianced wife." Milan's face flushed with surprise and
anger at the words. What was this trick that had been played on him? Had
Konstantinovitch then brought him here only to humiliate him? But before
he could recover from his indignation and astonishment, the Princess
said chillingly, "Pardon me, Monsieur Konstantinovitch, you are not
speaking the truth. My niece, Colonel Ketschko's daughter, is not your
affianced wife. You are too premature."
Thus rebuffed, the Lieutenant was not encouraged to prolong his stay;
and Milan was left, reassured, to bask in the smiles of the Princess and
her lovely niece, and to pursue his wooing under the most favourable
auspices. This first visit was quickly followed by others; and before a
week had passed the Prince had won the prize on which his heart was set,
and with it a dower of five million roubles. Now followed halcyon days
for the young lovers--long hours of sweet communion, of anticipation of
the happy years that stretched in such a golden vista before them. It
was a love-idyll such as delighted the romantic heart of Paris; and
congratulations and presents poured on the young couple; "the very
beggars in the streets," we are told, "blessing them as they drove by."
"Happy is the wooing that is not long a-doing," and Milan's wooing was
as brief as it was blissful. He was all impatience to possess fully the
prize he had won; preparations for the nuptials were hastened, but,
before the crowning day dawned, once more the voice of warning spoke.
A few days before the wedding, as Milan was leaving the Murussi Palace,
he was accosted by a woman, who craved permission to speak to him, a
favour which was smilingly accorded. "I know you," said the woman, thus
permitted to speak, "although you do not know me. You are the Prince of
Servia; I am a servant in the household of the Princess Murussi. Your
Highness, listen! I love Natalie. I have known and loved her since she
was a child; and I beg of you not to marry her. Such a union is doomed
to unhappiness. You love to rule, to command. So does Natalie; and it is
_she_ who will be the ruler. You are utterly unsuited for each other,
and nothing but great unhappiness can possibly come from your union."
To this warning Milan turned a smiling face and a deaf ear, as Natalie
had done to the voice of the gipsy. A fig for such gloomy prophecy! They
were ideally happy in the present, and the future should be equally
bright, however ravens might croak. Thus, one October day in 1875,