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 ribbons."
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 crime.
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 brought together.
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 the Polignacs.
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 himself.
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 mouth!
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 orgy.
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 humours.
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 her friends.
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 Paris to-night."
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 dignities."
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 vengeance.
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 Comtesse."
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 ambitions.
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 only position."
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 tell you."
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 bride-to-be.
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 Nice.
"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, Vienna held high holiday for the nuptials of the handsome Prince and his beautiful bride; and it was through avenues densely packed with cheering onlookers that Natalie made her triumphal progress to the altar, in her flower-garlanded dress of white satin, a tiara of diamonds flashing from the blackness of her hair, no brighter than the brilliance of her eyes, her face irradiated with happiness.
That no Royalty graced their wedding was a matter of no moment to Milan and Natalie, whose happiness was thus crowned; and when at the subsequent banquet Milan said, "I wish from my very heart that every one of my subjects, as well as everybody I know, could be always as happy as I am this moment," none who heard him could doubt the sincerity of his words, or see any but a golden future for so ideal a union of hearts.
By Servia her young Princess was received with open arms of welcome. "Her reception," we are told, "was beyond description. The festivities lasted three days, and during that time the love of the people for their Prince, and their admiration of the beauty and charm of his bride, were beyond words to describe." Never did Royal wedded life open more full of bright promise, and never did consort make more immediate conquest of the affections of her husband's subjects. "No one could have believed that this marriage, which was contracted from love and love alone, would have ended in so tragic a manner, or that hate could so quickly have taken the place of love."
But the serpent was quick to show his head in Natalie's new paradise. Before she had been many weeks a wife, stories came to her ears of her husband's many infidelities. Now the story was of one lady of her Court, now of another, until the horrified Princess knew not whom to trust or to respect. Strange tales, too, came to her (mostly anonymously) of Milan's amours in Paris, in Vienna, and half a dozen of his other haunts of pleasure, until her love, poisoned at its very springing, turned to suspicion and distrust of the man to whom she had given her heart.
Other disillusions were quick to follow. She discovered that her husband was a hopeless gambler and spendthrift, spending long hours daily at the card-tables, watching with pale face and trembling lips his pile of gold dwindle (as it usually did) to its last coin; and often losing at a single sitting a month's revenue from the Civil List. Her own dowry of five million roubles, she knew, was safe from his clutches. Her father had taken care to make that secure, but Milan's private fortune, large as it had been, had already been squandered in this and other forms of dissipation; and even the expenses of his wedding, she learned, had been met by a loan raised at ruinous interest.
Such discoveries as these were well calculated to shatter the dreams of the most infatuated of brides, and less was sufficient to rouse Natalie's proud spirit to rebellion. When affectionate pleadings proved useless, reproaches took their place. Heated words were exchanged, and the records tell of many violent scenes before Natalie had been six months Princess of Servia. "You love to rule," the warning voice had told Milan—"to command. So does Natalie"; and already the clashing of strong wills and imperious tempers, which must end in the yielding of one or the other, had begun to be heard.
If more fuel had been needed to feed the flames of dissension, it was quickly supplied by two unfortunate incidents. The first was Milan's open dallying with Fraeulein S——, one of Natalie's maids-of-honour, a girl almost as beautiful as herself, but with the beaute de diable. The second was the appearance in Belgrade of Dimitri Wasseljevitchca, who was suspected of plotting to assassinate the Tsar. Russia demanded that the fugitive should be given up to justice, and enlisted Natalie's co-operation with this object. Milan, however, was resolute not to surrender the plotter, and turned a deaf ear to all the Princess's pleadings and cajoleries. "The most exciting scene followed. Natalie, abandoning entreaties, threatened and even commanded her husband to obey her"; and when threats and commands equally failed, she gave way to a paroxysm of rage in which she heaped the most unbridled scorn and contempt on her husband.
Thus jealousy, a thwarted will, and Milan's low pleasures combined to widen the breach between the Royal couple, so recently plighted to each other in the sacred name of love, and to prepare the way for the troubled and tragic years to come.
AN ILL-FATED MARRIAGE—continued
If anything could have restored happiness to Milan of Servia and his Princess, Natalie, it should surely have been the birth of the baby-Prince, Alexander, whom both equally adored and equally spoiled. But, instead of linking his parents in a new bond of affection "Sacha" was from his cradle the innocent cause of widening the breach that severed them.
For a time, fortunately, Milan had little opportunity of continuing the feud of recrimination with his high-spirited and hot-tempered spouse. More serious matters claimed him. Servia was plunged into war with Turkey, and his days were spent in camp and on the battlefield, until the intervention of Russia put an end to the long and hopeless struggle, and Milan found himself one February day in 1882, thanks to the Berlin Conference, hailed the first King of his country, under the title of Milan I.
Then followed a disastrous war with Bulgaria into which the headstrong King rushed in spite of Natalie's warning—"Draw back, Milan, and have no share in what will prove a bloody drama. You have no chance of conquering, for Alexander is made of the stuff of the Hohenzollerns." And indeed the struggle was doomed to failure from the first; for Milan was no man to lead an army to victory. Read his method of conducting a campaign, as described by one of his aides-de-camp—
"Our troops continue to retreat—I never imagined a campaign could be so jolly. We do nothing but dance and sing and fiddle. Yesterday the King had some guests and the champagne literally flowed. We had the Belgrade singers, who used to delight us in the theatre-cafe. They sang and danced delightfully. The last two days we have had plenty of fun, and yesterday a lot of jolly girls came to enliven us." Such was Milan's method of conducting a great war, on which the very existence of his kingdom hung. Wine and women and song were more to his taste than forced marches, strategy, and hard-fought battles. But once again foreign intervention came to his rescue; and his armies were saved from annihilation.
When his sword was finally sheathed, if not with honour, he returned to Belgrade to resume his gambling, his dallyings with fair women—and his daily quarrels with his Queen, whose bitterness absence had done nothing to assuage. So far from Natalie's spirit being crushed, it was higher and prouder than ever. She would die before she would yield; but she was in no mood to die, this autocratic, fiery-tempered, strong-willed daughter of Russia. She gave literally a "striking" proof of the spirit that was in her at the Easter reception of 1886, when the wife of a Greek diplomat—a beautiful woman, to whom her husband had been more than kind—presented herself smilingly to receive the "salute courteous" from Her Majesty. With a look of scorn Natalie coolly surveyed her rival from head to foot; and then, in the presence of the Court, gave her a resounding slap on the cheek.
But the Grecian lady was only one of many fair women who basked successively (or together) in Milan's favour. A much more formidable rival was Artemesia Christich, a woman as designing as she was lovely, who was quick to envelop the weak King in the toils of her witchery. Not content with his smiles and favours she aspired to take Natalie's place as Queen of Servia; and, it is said, had extorted from him a promise that he would make her his Queen as soon as his existing marriage tie could be dissolved. And to this infamous compact Artemesia's husband, a man as crafty and unscrupulous as herself, consented, in return for his promotion to certain high and profitable offices in the State.
In vain did the Emperor and the Crown Prince of Austria, with many another high-placed friend, plead with Milan not to commit such a folly. He was driven to distraction between such powerful appeals and the allurement of the siren who had him so effectually under her spell, until in his despair he entertained serious thoughts of suicide as escape from his dilemma. Meanwhile, we are told, "a perfect hell" raged in the castle; each day brought its scandalous scene between his outraged Queen and himself. His unpopularity with his subjects became so acute that he was hissed whenever he made his appearance in the streets of his capital; and Artemesia was obliged to have police protection to shield her from the vengeance of the mob.
As for Natalie, this crowning injury decided her to bear her purgatory no longer. She would force her husband to abdicate and secure her own appointment as Regent for her son; or, failing that, she would leave her husband and seek an asylum out of Servia. And with the object of still further embittering his subjects against the King she made the full story of her injuries public, and enlisted the sympathy, not only of Milan's most powerful ministers, but of the entire country.
"The castle is in utter confusion," wrote an officer of the Belgrade garrison, in October, 1886. "The King looks ill, and as if he never slept. Poor fellow! he flies for refuge to us in the guard-house, and plays cards with the officers. Card-playing is his worst enemy. He loves it passionately, and plays excitedly and for high points—and he always loses."
Matters were now hastening to a crisis. Hopelessly in debt, scorned by his subjects, and hated by his wife, Milan's plight was pitiful. The scenes between the King and the Queen were becoming more violent and disgraceful every day. "There was no peace anywhere, nor did anyone belonging to the Court enjoy a moment of tranquillity." So intolerable had life become that, early in 1887, Milan decided to dissolve his marriage; and it was only at the pleading of the Austrian Emperor that he consented to abandon this design, on condition that his wife left Servia; and thus it was that one day in April Queen Natalie left Belgrade, accompanied by her son "Sacha," ostensibly that he might continue his education in Germany.
But, although husband and wife were thus at last separated, Milan's resolve to divorce her remained firm. "I have to inform you," he wrote shortly after her departure, "that I have this day sent in my application to our Holy National Church for permission to dissolve our marriage." And that nothing might be lacking to Natalie's suffering and humiliation, he sent General Protitsch to Wiesbaden with a peremptory demand that his son, "Sacha," should return to Servia.