For a time the outcast Princess, with her infant daughter, led a retired life amid the peace and beauty of Blackheath, where she lived as simply as any bourgeoise, playing the "lady bountiful" to the poor among her neighbours. Her chief pleasure seems to have been to surround herself with cottage babies, converting Montague House into a "positive nursery, littered up with cradles, swaddling-bands, feeding bottles, and other things of the kind."
But even to this rustic retirement watchful eyes and slanderous tongues followed her; and it was not long before stories were passing from mouth to mouth in the Court of strange doings at Blackheath. The Princess, it was said, had become very intimate with Sir John Douglas and his lady, her near neighbours, and more especially with Sydney Smith, a good-looking naval captain, who shared the Douglas home, a man, moreover, with whom she had had suspicious relations at her father's Court many years earlier. It was rumoured that Captain Smith was a frequent and too welcome guest at Montague House, at hours when discreet ladies are not in the habit of receiving their male friends. Nor was the handsome captain the only friend thus unconventionally entertained. There was another good-looking naval officer, a Captain Manby, and also Sir Thomas Lawrence, the famous painter, both of whom were admitted to a suspicious intimacy with the Princess of Wales.
These rumours, sufficiently disquieting in themselves, were followed by stories of the concealed birth of a child, who had come mysteriously to swell the numbers of the Princess's proteges of the creche. Even King George, whose sympathy with his heir's ill-used wife was a matter of common knowledge, could not overlook a charge so grave as this. It must be investigated in the interests of the State, as well as of his family's honour; and, by his orders, a Commission of Peers was appointed to examine into the matter and ascertain the truth.
The inquiry—the "Delicate Investigation" as it was appropriately called—opened in June, 1806, and witness after witness, from the Douglases to Robert Bidgood, a groom, gave evidence which more or less supported the charges of infidelity and concealment. The result of the investigation, however, was a verdict of acquittal, the Commissioners reporting that the Princess, although innocent, had been guilty of very indiscreet conduct—and this verdict the Privy Council confirmed.
For the Princess it was a triumphant vindication, which was hailed with acclamation throughout the country. Even the Royal family showed their satisfaction by formal visits of congratulation to the Princess, from the King himself to the Duke of Cumberland who conducted his sister-in-law on a visit to the Court.
But the days of Blackheath and the amateur nursery were at an end. The Princess returned to London, and found a more suitable home in Kensington Palace for some years, where she held her Court in rivalry of that of her husband at Carlton House. Here she was subjected to every affront and slight by the Prince and his set that the ingenuity of hatred could devise, and to crown her humiliation and isolation, her daughter Charlotte was taken from her and forbidden even to recognise her when their carriages passed in the street or park.
Can we wonder that, under such remorseless persecutions, the Princess became more and more defiant; that she gave herself up to a life of recklessness and extravagance; that, more and more isolated from her own world, she sought her pleasure and her companions in undesirable quarters, finding her chief intimates in a family of Italian musicians; or that finally, heart-broken and despairing, she determined once for all to shake off the dust of a land that had treated her so cruelly?
In August, 1814, with the approval of King and Parliament, the Princess left England to begin a career of amazing adventures and indiscretions, the story of which is one of the most remarkable in history.
THE INDISCRETIONS OF A PRINCESS—continued
When Caroline, Princess of Wales, shook the dust of England off her feet one August day in the year 1814, it was only natural that her steps should first turn towards the Brunswick home which held for her at least a few happy memories, and where she hoped to find in sympathy and old associations some salve for her wounded heart.
But the fever of restlessness was in her blood—the restlessness which was to make her a wanderer over the face of the earth for half a dozen years. The peace and solace she had looked for in Brunswick eluded her; and before many days had passed she was on her way through Switzerland to the sunny skies of Italy, where she could perhaps find in distraction and pleasure the anodyne which a life of retirement denied her. She was full of rebellion against fate, of hatred against her husband and his country which had treated her with such unmerited cruelty. She would defy fate; she would put a whole continent between herself and the nightmare life she had left behind, she hoped for ever. She would pursue and find pleasure at whatever cost.
In September, within five weeks of leaving England, we find her at Geneva, installed in a suite of rooms next to those occupied by Marie Louise, late Empress of France, a fugitive and exile like herself, and animated by the same spirit of reckless revolt against destiny—Marie Louise, we read, "making excursions like a lunatic on foot and on horseback, never even seeming to dream of making people remember that, before she became mixed up with a Corsican adventurer, she was an Archduchess"; the Princess of Wales, equally careless of her dignity and position, finding her pleasure in questionable company.
"From the inn where she was stopping she heard music, and, quite unaccompanied, immediately entered a neighbouring house and disappeared in the medley of dancers." A few days later, at Lausanne, "she learned that a little ball was in progress at a house opposite the 'Golden Lion,' and she asked for an invitation. After dancing with everybody and anybody, she finished up by dancing a Savoyard dance, called a fricassee, with a nobody. Madame de Corsal, who blushed and wept for the rest of the company, declares that it has made her ill, and that she feels that the honour of England has been compromised." Thus early did Caroline begin that career of indiscretion, to call it by no worse name, which made of her six years' exile "a long suicide of her reputation."
In October we find the Princess entering Milan, with her retinue of ladies-in-waiting, chamberlains, equerry, page, courier, and coachman, and with William Austin for companion—a boy, now about thirteen, whom she treated as her son, and who was believed by many to be the child of her imprudence at Blackheath, although the Commission of the "Delicate Investigation" had pronounced that he was son of a poor woman at Deptford. At Milan, as indeed wherever she wandered in Italy, the "vagabond Princess" was received as a Queen. Count di Bellegarde, the Austrian Governor, was the first to pay homage to her; at the Scala Theatre, the same evening, her entry was greeted with thunders of applause, and whenever she appeared in the Milan streets it was to an accompaniment of doffed hats and cheers.
One of her first visits was to the studio of Giuseppe Bossi, the famous and handsome artist, whom she requested to paint her portrait. "On Thursday," Bossi records, "I sketched her successfully in the character of a Muse; then on Friday she came to show me her arms, of which she was, not without reason, decidedly vain—she is a gay and whimsical woman, she seems to have a good heart; at times she is ennuyee through lack of occupation." On one occasion when she met in the studio some French ladies, two of whom had been mistresses of the King of Westphalia, the poor artist was driven to distraction by the chatter, the singing, and dancing, in which the Princess especially displayed her agility, until, as he pathetically says, "the house seemed possessed of the devil, and you can imagine with what kind of ease it was possible for me to work."
Before leaving Milan the Princess gave a grand banquet to Bellegarde and a number of the principal men of the city—a feast which was to have very important and serious consequences, for it was at this banquet that General Pino, one of her guests, introduced to Caroline a new courier, a man who, though she little dreamt it at the time, was destined to play a very baleful part in her life.
This new courier was a tall and strikingly handsome man, who had seen service in the Italian army, until a duel, in which he killed a superior officer, compelled him to leave it in disgrace. At the time he entered the Princess's service he was a needy adventurer, whose scheming brain and utter lack of principle were in the market for the highest bidder. "He is," said Baron Ompteda, "a sort of Apollo, of a superb and commanding appearance, more than six feet high; his physical beauty attracts all eyes. This man is called Pergami; he belongs to Milan, and has entered the Princess's service. The Princess," he significantly adds, "is shunned by all the English people of rank; her behaviour has created the most marked scandal."
Such was the man with whose life that of the Princess of Wales was to be so intimately and disastrously linked, and whose relations with her were to be displayed to a shocked world but a few years later. It was indeed an evil fate that brought this "superb Apollo" of the crafty brain and conscienceless ambition into the life of the Princess at the high tide of her revolt against the world and its conventions.
When Caroline and her retinue set out from Milan for Tuscany it was in the wake of Pergami, who had ridden ahead to discharge his duties as avant courier; but before Rome was reached his intimacy and familiarity with his mistress were already the subject of whispered comments and shrugged shoulders. At a ball given in her honour at Rome by the banker Tortonia, the Princess shocked even the least prudish by the abandon of her dancing and the tenuity of her costume, which, we are told, consisted of "a single embroidered garment, fastened beneath the bosom, without the shadow of a corset and without sleeves." And at Naples, where King Joachim Murat gave her a regal reception, with a sequel of fetes and gala-performances in honour of the wife of the Regent of England, she attended a rout, at the Teatro San Carlo, so lightly attired "that many who saw her at her first entrance looked her up and down, and, not recognising her, or pretending not to recognise her, began to mutter disapprobation to such an extent that she was compelled to withdraw.... The English residents soon let her understand, by ceasing to frequent her palace, that even at Naples there were certain laws of dress which could not be trampled underfoot in this hoydenish manner."
While Caroline was thus defying convention and even decency, watchful eyes were following her everywhere. A body of secret police, whose headquarters were at Milan, was noting every indiscretion; and every week brought fresh and damaging reports to England, where they were eagerly welcomed by the Regent and his satellites. And while the Princess was thus playing unconsciously, or recklessly, into the hands of the enemy, Pergami was daily making his footing in her favour more secure. Before Caroline left Naples he had been promoted from courier to equerry, and in this more exalted and privileged role was always at her side. So marked, in fact, was the intimacy even at this early stage, that the Princess's retinue, one after another, and on one flimsy pretext or another, deserted her in disgust, each vacancy, as it occurred, being filled by one of Pergami's relatives—his brother, his daughter, his sister-in-law (the Countess Oidi), and others, until Caroline was soon surrounded by members of the ex-courier's family.
From Naples she wandered to Genoa, and from Genoa to Milan and Venice, received regally everywhere by the Italians and shunned by the English residents. From Venice she drifted to Lake Como, with whose beauties she was so charmed that she decided to make her home there, purchasing the Villa del Garrovo for one hundred and fifty thousand francs, and setting the builders to work to make it a still more splendid home for a future Queen of England. But even to the lonely isolation of the Italian lakes the eyes of her husband's secret agents pursued her, spying on her every movement—"uncertain shadows gliding in the twilight along the paths and between the hedges, and even in the cellars and attics of the villa"—until the shadowy presences filled her with such terror and unrest that she sought to escape them by a long tour in the East.
Thus it was that in November, 1815, the Princess and her Pergami household set forth on their journey to Sicily, Tunis, Athens, the cities of the East and Jerusalem, the strange story of which was to be unfolded to the world five years later. How intimate the Princess and her handsome, stalwart courier had by this time become was illustrated by the Attorney-General in his opening speech at her memorable trial. "One day, after dinner, when the Princess's servants had withdrawn, a waiter at the hotel, Gran Brettagna, saw the Princess put a golden necklace round Pergami's neck. Pergami took it off again and put it jestingly on the neck of the Princess, who in her turn once more removed it and put it again round Pergami's neck."
As early as August in this year Pergami had his appointed place at the Princess's table, and his room communicating with hers, and on the various voyages of the Eastern tour there was abundant evidence to prove "the habit which the Princess had of sleeping under one and the same awning with Pergami."
But it is as impossible in the limits of space to follow Caroline and her handsome cavalier through every stage of these Eastern wanderings, as it is unnecessary to describe in detail the evidence of intimacy so lavishly provided by the witnesses for the prosecution at the trial—evidence much of which was doubtless as false as it was venal. That the Princess, however, was infatuated by her cavalier, and that she was in the highest degree indiscreet in her relations with him, seems abundantly clear, whatever the precise degree of actual guilt may have been.
Pergami had now been promoted from equerry to Grand Chamberlain to Her Royal Highness, and as further evidence of her favour, she bought for him in Sicily an estate which conferred on its owner the title of Baron della Francina. At Malta she procured for him a knighthood of that island's famous order; at Jerusalem she secured his nomination as Knight of the Holy Sepulchre; and, to crown her favours, she herself instituted the Order of St Caroline, with Pergami for Grand Master. Behold now our ex-courier and adventurer in all his new glory as Grand Chamberlain and lover of a future Queen of England, as Baron della Francina, Knight of two Orders and Grand Master of a third, while every post of profit in that vagrant Court was held by some member of his family!
The Eastern tour ended, which had ranged from Algiers and Egypt to Constantinople and Jerusalem, and throughout which she had progressed and been received as a Queen, Caroline settled down for a time in her now restored villa on Lake Como, celebrating her return by lavish charities to her poor neighbours, and by popular fetes and balls, in one of which "she danced as Columbine, wearing her lover's ear-rings, whilst Pergami, dressed as harlequin and wearing her ear-rings, supported her."
But even here she was to find no peace from her husband's spies, whose evidence, confirmed on oath by a score of witnesses, was being accumulated in London against the longed-for day of reckoning. And it was not long before Caroline and her Grand Chamberlain were on their wanderings again—this time to the Tyrol, to Austria, and through Northern Italy, always inseparable and everywhere setting the tongue of scandal wagging by their indiscreet intimacy. Even the tragic death in childbirth of her only daughter, the Princess Charlotte, which put all England in mourning, seemed powerless to check her career of folly. It is true that, on hearing of it, she fell into a faint and afterwards into a kind of protracted lethargy, but within a few weeks she had flung herself again into her life of pleasure-chasing and reckless disregard of convention.
But matters were now hurrying fast to their tragic climax. For some time the life of George III. had been flickering to its close. Any day might bring news that the end had come, and that the Princess was a Queen. And for some time Caroline had been bracing herself to face this crisis in her life and to pit herself against her enemies in a grim struggle for a crown, the title to which her years of folly (for such at the best they had been) had so gravely endangered. Over the remainder of her vagrant life, with its restless flittings, and its indiscretions, marked by spying eyes, we must pass to that February morning in 1820 when, to quote a historian, "the Princess had scarcely reached her hotel (at Florence) when her faithful major-domo, John Jacob Sicard, appeared before her, accompanied by two noblemen, and in a voice full of emotion announced, 'You are Queen.'"
The fateful hour had at last arrived when Caroline must either renounce her new Queendom or present a bold front to her enemies and claim the crown that was hers. After a few indecisive days, spent in Rome, where news reached her that the King had given orders that her name should be excluded from the Prayer Book, her wavering resolution took a definite and determined shape. She would go to London and face the storm which she knew her coming would bring on her head.
At Paris she was met by Lord Hutchinson with a promise of an increase of her yearly allowance to fifty thousand pounds, on condition that she renounced her claim to the title of Queen, and consented never to put foot again in England—an offer to which she gave a prompt and scornful refusal; and on the afternoon of 5th June she reached Dover, greeted by enthusiastic cheers and shouts of "God save Queen Caroline!" by the fluttering of flags, and the jubilant clanging of church-bells. The wanderer had come back to the land of her sorrow, to find herself welcomed with open arms by the subjects of the King whose brutality had driven her to exile and to shame.
The story of the trial which so soon followed her arrival has too enduring a place in our history to call for a detailed description—the trial in which all the weight of the Crown and the testimony of a small army of suborned witnesses—"a troupe of comedians in the pay of malevolence," to quote Brougham—were arrayed against her; and in which she had so doughty a champion in Brougham, and such solace and support in the sympathy of all England. We know the fate of that Bill of Pains and Penalties, which charged her with having permitted a shameful intimacy with one Bartolomeo Pergami, and provided as penalty that she should be deprived of the title and privilege of Queen, and that her marriage to King George IV. should be for ever dissolved and annulled—how it was forced through the House of Lords with a diminishing majority, and finally withdrawn. And we know, too, the outburst of almost delirious delight that swept from end to end of England at the virtual acquittal of the persecuted Caroline. "The generous exultation of the people was," to quote a contemporary, "beyond all description. It was a conflagration of hearts."
We also recall that pathetic scene when Caroline presented herself at the door of Westminster Abbey to demand admission, on the day of her husband's coronation, to be received by the frigid words, "We have no instructions to allow you to pass"; and we can see her as, "humiliated, confounded, and with tears in her eyes," she returned sadly to her carriage, the heart crushed within her. Less than three weeks later, seized by a grave and mysterious illness, she laid down for ever the burden of her sorrows, leaving instructions that her tomb should bear the words:
CAROLINE THE INJURED QUEEN OF ENGLAND.
As for Pergami, the idol with the feet of clay, who had clouded her last years in tragedy, he survived for twenty years more to enjoy his honours and his ill-gotten gold; while William Austin, who had masqueraded as a Prince and called Caroline "mother," ended his days, while still a young man, in a madhouse.
THE LOVE-AFFAIRS OF A REGENT
When Louis XIV. laid down, one September day in the year 1715, the crown which he had worn with such splendour for more than seventy years, his sceptre fell into the hands of his nephew Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, who for eight years ruled France as Regent, and as guardian of the child-King, the fifteenth Louis.
Seldom in the world's history has a reign, so splendid as that of the Sun-King, closed in such darkness and tragedy. The disastrous war of the Spanish Succession had drained France of her strength and her gold. She lay crushed under a mountain of debt—ten thousand million francs; she was reduced to the lowest depths of wretchedness, ruin, and disorder, and it was at this crisis in her life as a nation that fate placed a child of four on her throne, and gave the reins of power into the hands of the most dissolute man in Europe.
Not that Philippe of Orleans lacked many of the qualities that go to the making of a ruler and a man. He had proved himself, in Italy and in Spain, one of the bravest of his country's soldiers, and an able, far-seeing leader of armies; and he had, as his Regency proved, no mean gifts of statesmanship. But his kingly qualities were marred by the taint of birth and early environment.
Such good qualities as he had he no doubt drew from his mother, the capable, austere, high-minded Elizabeth of Bavaria, who to her last day was the one good influence in his life. To his father, Louis XIV.'s younger brother, who is said to have been son of Cardinal Mazarin, Anne of Austria's lover, and who was the most debased man of his time in all France, he just as surely owed the bias of sensuality to which he chiefly owes his place in memory.
And not only was he thus handicapped by his birth; he had for tutor that arch-scoundrel Dubois—the "grovelling insect" who rarely opened his mouth without uttering a blasphemy or indecency, and who initiated his charge, while still a boy, into every base form of so-called pleasure.
Such was the man who, amid the ruins of his country, inaugurated in France an era of licentiousness such as she had never known—an incomprehensible mass of contradictions—a kingly presence with the soul of a Caliban, statesman and sinner, high-minded and low-living, spending his days as a sovereign, a role which he played to perfection, and his nights as a sot and a sensualist.
It was doubtless Dubois who was mostly responsible for the baseness in the Regent's character—Dubois who had taught him a contempt for religion and morality, the cynical view of life which makes the pleasure of the moment the only thing worth pursuing, at whatever cost; and who had impressed indelibly on his mind that no woman is virtuous and that men are knaves. And there was never any lack of men to continue Dubois' teaching. He gathered round him the most dissolute gallants in France, in whose company he gave the rein to his most vicious appetites. His "roues" he dubbed them, a title which aptly described them; although they affected to give it a very different interpretation. They were the Regent's roues, they said, no doubt with the tongue in the cheek, because they were so devoted to him that they were ready, in his defence, to be broken on the wheel (la roue)!
Each of these boon-comrades was a past-master in the arts of dissipation, and each was also among the most brilliant men of his day. The Chevalier de Simiane was famous alike for his drinking powers and his gift of graceful verse; De Fargy was a polished wit, and the handsomest man in France, with an unrivalled reputation for gallantry; the Comte de Noce was the Regent's most intimate friend from boyhood—brother-in-law he called him, since they had not only tastes but even mistresses in common. Then there were the Marquis de la Fare, Captain of Guards and bon enfant; the Marquis de Broglio, the biggest debauchee in France, the Marquis de Canillac, the Duc de Brancas, and many another—all famous (or infamous) for some pet vice, and all the best of boon-companions for the pleasure-loving Regent.
Strange tales are told of the orgies of this select band which the Regent gathered around him—orgies which shocked even the France of the eighteenth century, when she was the acknowledged leader in licence. At six o'clock every evening Philippe's kingship ended for the day. He had had enough—more than enough—of State and ceremonial, of interviewing ambassadors, and of the flatteries of Princes and the obsequious homage of courtiers. Pleasure called him away from the boredom of empire; and at the stroke of six we find him retiring to the company of his mistresses and his roues to feast and drink and gamble until dawn broke on the revelry—his laugh the loudest, his wit the most dazzling, his stories the most piquant, keeping the table in a roar with his infectious gaiety. He was Regent no longer; he was simply a bon camarade, as ready to exchange familiarities with a "lady of the ballet" as to lead the laughter at a joke at his own expense.
At nine o'clock, when the fun had waxed furious and wine had set the slowest tongue wagging and every eye a-sparkle, other guests streamed in to join the orgy—the most beautiful ladies of the Court, from the Duchesse de Gesores and Madame de Mouchy to the Regent's own daughter, the Duchesse de Berry, who, young as she was, had little to learn of the arts of dissipation. And in the wake of these high-born women would follow laughing, bright-eyed troupes of dancing and chorus-girls from the theatres with an escort of the cleverest actors of Paris, to join the Regent's merry throng.
The champagne now flowed in rivers; the servants were sent away; the doors were locked and the fun grew riotous; ceremony had no place there; rank and social distinctions were forgotten. Countesses flirted with comedians; Princes made love to ballet-girls and duchesses alike. The leader of the moment was the man or woman who could sing the most daring song, tell the most piquant story, or play the most audacious practical joke, even on the Regent himself. Sometimes, we are told, the lights would be extinguished, and the orgy continued under the cover of darkness, until the Regent suddenly opened a cupboard, in which lights were concealed—to an outburst of shrieks of laughter at the scenes revealed.
Thus the mad night hours passed until dawn came to bring the revels to a close; or until the Regent would sally forth with a few chosen comrades on a midnight ramble to other haunts of pleasure in the capital—the lower the better. Such was the way in which Philippe of Orleans, Regent of France, spent his nights. A few hours after the carouse had ended he would resume his sceptre, as austere and dignified a ruler as you would find in Europe.
It must not be imagined that Philippe was the only Royal personage who thus set a scandalous example to France. There was, in fact, scarcely a Prince or Princess of the Blood Royal whose love affairs were not conducted flagrantly in the eyes of the world, from the Dowager Duchesse de Bourbon, who lavished her favours on the Scotch financier, John Law, of Lauriston, to the Princesse de Conte, who mingled her piety with a marked partiality for her nephew, Le Kalliere.
As for the Regent's own daughters, from the Duchesse de Berry, to Louise, Queen of Spain, each has left behind her a record almost as scandalous as that of her father. It was, in fact, an era of corruption in high places, when, in the reaction that followed the dismal and decorous last years of Louis XIV.'s reign, Pleasure rose phoenix-like from the ashes of ruin and flaunted herself unashamed in every guise with which vice could deck her.
It must be said for the Regent, corrupt as he was, that he never abused his position and his power in the pursuit of beauty. His mistresses flocked to him from every rank of life, from the stage to the highest Court circles, but remained no longer than inclination dictated. And the fascination is not far to seek, for Philippe d'Orleans was of the men who find easy conquests in the field of love. He was one of the handsomest men in all France; and to his good-looks and his reputation for bravery he added a manner of rare grace and courtliness, a supple tongue, and that strange magnetic power which few women could resist.
No King ever boasted a greater or more varied list of favourites, in which actresses and duchesses vied with each other for his smiles, in a rivalry which seems to have been singularly free from petty jealousy. Among the beauties of the Court we find the Duchesse de Fedari, the Duchesse de Gesores, the Comtesse de Sabran at one extreme; and actresses like Emilie, Desmarre, and La Souris at the other, pretty butterflies of the footlights who appealed to the Regent no more than Madame d'Averne, the gifted pet of France's wits and literary men, the most charming "blue-stocking" of her day. And all, without exception—duchesses, countesses, and actresses—were as ready to give their love to Philippe, the man, as to the Duc d'Orleans, Regent of France.
Even in his relations with these ministers of pleasure, the Regent's better qualities often exhibit themselves agreeably. To the pretty actress, Emilie, whose heart was so completely his, he always acted with a characteristic generosity and forbearance; and her conduct is by no means less pleasing than his. Once, we are told, when he expressed a wish to give her a pair of diamond ear-rings at a cost of fifteen thousand francs, she demurred at accepting so valuable a present. "If you must be so generous," she pleaded, "please don't give me the ear-rings, which are much too grand for such as me. Give me, instead, ten thousand francs, so that I may buy a small house to which I can retire when you no longer love me as you now do."
Emilie had scarcely returned home, however, when a Court official appeared with a package containing, not ten thousand, but twenty-five thousand francs, which her lover insisted on her keeping; and when she returned fifteen thousand francs, he promptly sent them back again, declaring that he would be very angry if she refused again to accept them.
His love, indeed, for Emilie seems to have been as pure and deep as any of which he was capable. It was no fleeting passion, but an affection based on a sincere respect for her character and mental gifts. So highly, indeed, did he think of her judgment that she became his most trusted counsellor. She sat by his side when he received ambassadors; he consulted her on difficult problems of State; and it was her advice that he often followed in preference to the wisdom of all his ministers; for, as he said to Dubois, "Emilie has an excellent brain; she always gives me the best counsel."
When at last he had to part from the modest and accomplished actress it was under circumstances which speak well for his generosity. A former lover, the Marquis de Fimarcon, on his return from fighting in Spain, sought Emilie out, and, blazing with jealousy, insisted that she should leave the Regent and return to his protection. He vowed that, if she refused, he would murder her; and when, in her alarm, she sought refuge in a convent at Charenton, he threatened to burn the nuns alive in their cells unless they restored her to him. Thus it was that, rather than allow Emilie to run any risks from her revengeful and brutal lover, the Regent relinquished his claim to her; and only when Fimarcon's continued brutality at last made intervention necessary, did he order the bully to be arrested and consigned to the prison of Fort l'Eveque.
It is, however, in the story of Mademoiselle Aisse, the Circassian slave, that we find the best illustration of the chivalry which underlay the Regent's passion for women, and which he never forgot in his wildest excesses. This story, one of the most touching in French history, opens in the year 1698, when a band of Turkish soldiers returned to Constantinople from a raid in the Caucasus, bringing with them, among many other captives, a beautiful child of four years, said to be the daughter of a King. So lovely was the little Circassian fairy that when the Comte de Feriol, France's Ambassador to Turkey, set eyes on her, he decided to purchase her; and she became his property in exchange for fifteen hundred livres.
That she might have every advantage of training to fit her for his seraglio in later years, the child was sent to Paris, to the home of the Ambassador's brother, President de Feriol, where she grew to beautiful girlhood as a member of the family, as fair a flower as ever was transplanted to French soil. Thus she passed the next thirteen years of her young life, charming all by her sweetness of disposition, as she won the homage of all by her remarkable beauty and grace.
Such was Ayesha, or Aisse, the Circassian maid, when at last her "owner" returned to Paris to fall under the spell of her radiant beauty and to claim her as his chattel, bought with good gold and trained at his cost to adorn his harem. In vain did Aisse weep and plead to be spared a fate from which every fibre of her being shrank in horror. Her "master" was inexorable. "When I bought you," he said, "it was my intention to make you my daughter or my mistress. I now intend that you shall become both the one and the other." Friendless and helpless, she was obliged to yield; and for six years she had to submit to the endearments of her protector, a man more than old enough to be her father, until his death brought her release.
At twenty-four, more lovely than ever, combining the beauty of the Circassian with the graces of France, Aisse had now every right to look forward at least to such happiness as was possible to a stranger in a strange land. But no sooner was one danger to her peace removed than another sprang up to take its place. The rumour of her beauty and her sweetness had come to the ears of the Regent, and strong forces were at work to bring her to his arms. Madame de Tencin was the leader in this base conspiracy, with the power of the Romish Church at her back; for with the fair Circassian high in the Regent's favour and a pliant tool in their hands, the Jesuits' influence at Court would be greatly strengthened. Dubois was won over to the unholy alliance; and the Due's maitresse en titre was bribed, not only to withdraw all opposition to her proposed rival, but to arrange a meeting between the Regent and the victim.
Success seemed to be assured. Mademoiselle Aisse was to exchange slavery to her late owner for an equally odious place in the harem of the ruler of France. Her tears and entreaties were all in vain; when she begged on her knees to be allowed to retire to a convent Madame de Feriol turned her back on her. Her only hope of rescue now lay in the Regent himself; and to him she pleaded her cause with such pathetic eloquence that he not only allowed her to depart in peace, but with words of sympathy and promises of his protection in the pure and noble sense of the word.
Thus by the chivalry of the most dissolute man of his age the Circassian slave-girl was rescued from a life which to her would have been worse than death—to spend her remaining years, happy in the love of an honest man, the Chevalier d'Aydie, until death claimed her while she still possessed the beauty which had been at once her glory and her inevitable shame.
* * * * *
The close of the Regent's mis-spent life came with tragic suddenness. Worn out with excesses, while still young in years, his doctors had warned him that death might come to him any day; but with the light-heartedness that was his to the last, he laughed at their gloomy forebodings and refused to take the least precautions to safeguard his health. Two days before the end came he declined point-blank to be bled in order to avert a threatened attack of apoplexy. "Let it come if it will," he said, with a laugh. "I do not fear death; and if it comes quickly, so much the better!"
On the evening of 2nd December, 1720, he was chatting gaily to the young Duchesse de Falari, when he suddenly turned to her and asked: "Do you think there is any hell—or Paradise?" "Of course I do," answered the Duchesse. "Then are you not afraid to lead the life you do?" "Well," replied Madame, "I think God will have pity on me."
Scarcely had the words left her lips when the Regent's head fell heavily on her shoulder, and he began to slip to the floor. A glance showed her that he was unconscious; and, rushing out of the room, the terrified Duchesse raced through the dark, deserted corridors of the palace shrieking for help. When at last help arrived, it came too late. The Regent had gone to find for himself an answer to the question his lips had framed a few minutes earlier—"is there any hell—or Paradise?"
A DELILAH OF THE COURT OF FRANCE
It was a cruel fate that snatched Gabrielle d'Estrees from the arms of Henri IV., King of France and Navarre, at the moment when her long devotion to her hero-lover was on the eve of being crowned by the bridal veil; and for many a week there was no more stricken man in Europe than the disconsolate King as he wailed in his black-draped chamber, "The root of my love is dead, and will never blossom again."
No doubt Henri's grief was as sincere as it was deep, for he had loved his golden-haired Gabrielle of the blue eyes and dimpled baby-cheeks as he had never loved woman before. It was the passion of a lifetime, the passion of a strong man in his prime, that fate had thus nipped in the fullness of its bloom; and its loss plunged him into an abyss of sorrow and despair such as few men have known.
But with the hero of Ivry no emotion of grief or pleasure ever endured long. He was a man of erratic, widely contrasted moods—now on the peaks of happiness, now in the gulf of dejection; one mood succeeding another as inevitably and widely as the pendulum swings. Thus when he had spent three seemingly endless months of gloom and solitude, reaction seized him, and he flung aside his grief with his black raiment. He was still in the prime of his strength, with many years before him. He would drink the cup of life, even to its dregs. He had long been weary of the matrimonial chains that fettered him to Marguerite of Valois. He would strike them off, and in another wife and other loves find a new lease of pleasure.
Thus it was with no heavy heart that he turned his back on Fontainebleau and his darkened room, and fared to Paris to find a new vista of pleasure opening to him at his palace doors, and his ears full of the praises of a new divinity who had come, during his absence, to grace his Court—a girl of such beauty, sprightliness, and wit as his capital had not seen for many a year.
Henriette d'Entragues—for this was the divinity's name—was equipped by fate as few women were ever equipped, for the conquest of a King. Her mother, Marie Touchet, had been "light-o'-love" to Charles IX.; her father was the Seigneur d'Entragues, member of one of the most blue-blooded families of France, a soldier and statesman of fame; and their daughter had inherited, with her mother's beauty and grace, the clever brain and diplomatic skill of her father. A strange mixture of the bewitching and bewildering, this daughter of a King's mistress seems to have been. Tall and dark, voluptuous of figure, with ripe red lips, and bold and dazzling black eyes, she was, in her full-blooded, sensuous charms, the very "antipodes" to the childish, fairy-like Gabrielle who had so long been enshrined in the King's heart. And to this physical appeal—irresistible to a man of such strong passion as Henri, she added gifts of mind which "baby Gabrielle" could never claim.
She had a wit as brilliant as the tongue which was its vehicle; her well-stored brain was more than a match for the most learned men at Court, and she would leave an archbishop discomfited in a theological argument, to cross swords with Sully himself on some abstruse problem of statesmanship. When Sully had been brought to his knees, she would rush away, with mischief in her eyes, to take the lead in some merry escapade or practical joke, her silvery laughter echoing in some remote palace corridor. A bewildering, alluring bundle of inconsistencies—beauty, savant, wit, and madcap—such was Henriette d'Entragues when Henri, fresh from his woes, came under the spell of her magnetism.
Here, indeed, was an escape from his grief such as the King had never dared to hope for. Before he had been many hours in his palace, Henri was caught hopelessly in the toils of the new siren, and was intoxicated by her smiles and witcheries. Never was conquest so speedy, so dramatic. Before a week had flown he was at Henrietta's feet, as lovesick a swain as ever sighed for a lady, pouring love into her ears and writing her passionate letters between the frequent meetings, in which he would send her a "good night, my dearest heart," with "a million kisses."
In the days of his lusty youth the idol and hero of France had never known passion such as this which consumed him within sight of his fiftieth birthday, and which was inspired by a woman of much less than half his years; for at the time Henri was forty-six, and Henriette was barely twenty.
He quickly found, however, that his wooing was not to be all "plain sailing." When Henriette's parents heard of it, they affected to be horrified at the danger in which their beloved daughter was placed. They summoned her home from the perils of Court and a King's passion; and when Henri sent an envoy to bring them to reason they sent him back with a rebuff. Their daughter was to be no man's—not even a King's—plaything. If Henri's passion was sincere, he must prove it by a definite promise of marriage; and only on this condition would their opposition be removed.
Even to such a stipulation Henri, such was his infatuation, made no demur. With his own hand he wrote an agreement pledging himself to make Demoiselle Henriette his lawful wife in case, within a certain period, she became the mother of a son; and undertaking to dissolve his marriage with his wife, Marguerite of France, for this purpose. And this agreement, signed with his own hand, he sent to the Seigneur d'Entragues and his wife, accompanied by a douceur of a hundred thousand crowns.
But before it was dispatched a more formidable obstacle than even the lady's natural guardians remained to be faced—none other than the Duc de Sully, the man who had shared all the perils of a hundred fights with Henri and was at once his chief counsellor and his fidus Achates. When at last he summoned up courage to place the document in Sully's hands, he awaited the verdict as nervously as any schoolboy in the presence of a dreaded master. Sully read through the paper, was silent for a few moments, and then spoke. "Sire," he said, "am I to give you my candid opinion on this document, without fear of anger or giving offence?" "Certainly," answered the King. "Well then, this is what I think of it," was Sully's reply, as he tore the document in two pieces and flung them on the floor. "Sully, you are mad!" exclaimed Henri, flaring into anger at such an outrage. "You are right, Sire, I am a weak fool, and would gladly know myself still more a fool—if I might be the only one in France!"
It was in vain, however, that Sully pointed out the follies and dangers of such a step as was proposed. Henri's mind was made up, and leaving his friend, in high dudgeon, he went to his study and re-wrote his promise of marriage. The way was at last clear to the gratification of his passion. Henriette was more than willing, her parents' scruples and greed were appeased, and as for Sully—well, he must be left to get over his tantrums. Even to please such an old and trusted friend he could not sacrifice such an opportunity for pleasure and a new lease of life as now presented itself!
Halcyon months followed for Henri—months in which even Gabrielle was forgotten in the intoxication of a new passion, compared with which the memory of her gentle charms was but as water to rich, red wine. That Henriette proved wilful, capricious, and extravagant—that her vanity drained his exchequer of hundreds of thousands of crowns for costly jewellery and dresses, was a mere bagatelle, compared with his delight in her manifold allurements.
But Sully had by no means said his last word. The decree for annulling Henri's marriage with Marguerite de Valois was pronounced; and it was of the highest importance that she should have a worthy successor as Queen of France—a successor whom he found in Marie de Medicis.
The marriage-contract was actually sealed before the King had any suspicion that his hand was being disposed of, and it was only when Sully one day entered his study with the startling words, "Sire, we have been marrying you," that the awakening came. For a few moments Henri sat as a man stunned, his head buried in his hands; then, with a deep sigh, he spoke: "If God orders it so, so let it be. There seems to be no escape; since you say that it is necessary for my kingdom and my subjects, why, marry I must."
It was a strange predicament in which Henri now found himself. Still more infatuated than ever with Henriette, he was to be tied for life to a Princess whom he had never even seen. To add to the embarrassment of his position, the condition of his marriage promise to Henriette was already on the way to fulfilment; and he was thus pledged to wed her as strongly as any State compact could bind him to stand at the altar with Marie de Medicis. One thing was clear, he must at any cost recover that fatal document; and, while he was giving orders for the suitable reception of his new Queen, and arranging for her triumphal progress to Paris, he was writing to Henriette and her parents demanding the return of his promise of marriage agreement—to her, a pleading letter in which he prays her "to return the promise you have by you and not to compel me to have recourse to other means in order to obtain it"; to her father, a more imperious demand to which he expects instant obedience.
As some consolation to his mistress, whose alternate tears, rage, and reproaches drove him to distraction, he creates her Marquise de Verneuil and promises that, if he should be unable to marry her, he will at least give her a husband of Royal rank, the Due de Nevers, who was eager to make her his wife.
But pleadings and threats alike fail to secure the return of the fatal document, and Henri is reduced to despair, until Henriette gives birth to a dead child and his promise thus becomes of as little value as the paper it was written on. The condition has failed, and he is a free man to marry his Tuscan Princess, while Henriette, thus foiled in her great ambition, is in danger not only of losing her coveted crown, but her place in the King's favour. The days of her wilful autocracy are ended; and, though her heart is full of anger and disappointment, she writes to him a pitiful letter imploring him still to love her and not to cast her "from the Heaven to which he has raised her, down to the earth where he found her." "Do not let your wedding festivities be the funeral of my hopes," she writes. "Do not banish me from your Royal presence and your heart. I speak in sighs to you, my King, my lover, my all—I, who have been loved by the earth's greatest monarch, and am willing to be his mistress and his servant."
To such humility was the proud, arrogant beauty now reduced. She was an abject suppliant where she had reigned a Queen. Nor did her pleadings fall on deaf ears. Her Royal lover's hand was given, against his will, to his new Queen, but his heart, he vowed, was all Henriette's—so much so that he soon installed her in sumptuous rooms in his palace adjoining those of the Queen herself.
Was ever man placed in a more delicate position than this King of France, between the rival claims of his wife and mistress, who were occupying adjacent apartments, and who, moreover, were both about to become mothers? It speaks well for Henri's tactfulness that for a time at least this menage a trois appears to have been quite amiably conducted. When Queen Marie gave birth to a son it was to Henriette that the infant's father first confided the good news, seasoning it with "a million kisses" for herself. And when Henriette, in turn, became a mother for the second time, the double Royal event was celebrated by fetes and rejoicings in which each lady took an equally proud and conspicuous part.
It was inevitable, however, that a woman so favoured by the King, and of so imperious a nature, should have enemies at Court; and it was not long before she became the object of a conspiracy of which the Duchesse de Villars and the Queen were the arch-leaders. One day a bundle of letters was sent anonymously to Henri, letters full of tenderness and passion, addressed by his beloved Marquise, Henriette, to the Prince de Joinville. The King was furious at such evidence of his mistress's disloyalty, and vowed he would never see her again. But all his storming and reproaches left the Marquise unmoved. She declared, with scorn in her voice, that the letters were forgeries; that she had never written to Joinville in her life, nor spoken a word to him that His Majesty might not have heard. She even pointed out the forger, the Duc de Guise's secretary, and was at last able to convince the King of her innocence.
The Duchesse de Villars and Joinville were banished from the Court in disgrace; the Queen had a severe lecture from her husband; and Henriette was not only restored to full favour, but was consoled by a welcome present of six thousand pounds.
But the days of peace in the King's household were now gone for ever. Queen Marie, thus humiliated by her rival, became her bitter enemy and also a thorn in the side of her unfaithful husband. Every day brought its fierce quarrels which only stopped on the verge of violence. More than once in fact Henri had to beat a retreat before his Queen's clenched fist, while she lost no opportunity of insulting and humiliating the Marquise.
It is impossible altogether to withhold sympathy from a man thus distracted between two jealous women—a shrewish wife, who in her most amiable mood repelled his advances with coldness and cutting words, and a mistress who vented on him all the resentment which the Queen's insults and snubs roused in her. Even all Sully's diplomacy was powerless to pour oil on such vexed waters as these.
The Queen, however, had not long to wait for her revenge, which came with the disclosure of a conspiracy, at the head of which were Henriette's father and her half-brother, the Comte d'Auvergne, and in which, it was proved, she herself had played no insignificant part. Punishment came, swift and terrible. Her father and brother were sentenced to death, herself to perpetual confinement in a monastery.
But even at this crisis in her life, Henriette's stout heart did not fail her for a moment. "The King may take my life, if he pleases," she said. "Everybody will say that he killed his wife; for I was Queen before the Tuscan woman came on the scene at all." None knew better than she that she could afford thus to put on a bold front. Henri was still her slave, to whom her little finger was more than his crown; and she knew that in his hands both her liberty and her life were safe. And thus it proved; for before she had spent many weeks in the Monastery of Beaumont-les-Tours, its doors were flung open for her, and the first news she heard was that her father was a free man, while her brother's death-sentence had been commuted to a few years in the Bastille.
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 her hand.
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 Mancini's keeping.
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 husband.
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 it proved.
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 bed.
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 King's hand.
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 conscience.
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 Harlay.
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 distant memory.
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 fact.
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 fellow-workmen.
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 tragic infatuation.
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.