The Celebrated Beauty of the Seventeenth Century
LIFE OF NINON DE L'ENCLOS
Ninon de l'Enclos as a Standard
Considered as a Parallel
Youth of Ninon de l'Enclos
The Morals of the Period
Ninon and Count de Coligny
The "Birds" of the Tournelles
Effect of Her Mother's Death
Her Increasing Popularity
Some of Ninon's Lovers
Ninon's Lovers (Continued)
The Villarceaux Affair
The Marquis de Sevigne
A Family Tragedy
Ninon's Bohemian Environments
A Remarkable Old Age
LETTERS TO THE MARQUIS DE SEVIGNE
INTRODUCTION TO LETTERS I—A Hazardous Undertaking II—Why Love Is Dangerous III—Why Love Grows Cold IV—The Spice of Love V—Love and Temper VI—Certain Maxims Concerning Love VII—Women Expect a Quid Pro Quo from Men VIII—The Necessity for Love and Its Primitive Cause IX—Love Is a Natural Inclination X—The Sensation of Love Forms a Large Part of a Woman's Nature XI—The Distinction Between Love and Friendship XII—A Man in Love Is an Amusing Spectacle XIII—Vanity Is a Fertile Soil for Love XIV—Worth and Merit Are Not Considered in Love XV—The Hidden Motives of Love XVI—How to Be Victorious in Love XVII—Women Understand the Difference Between Real Love and Flirtation XVIII—When a Woman Is Loved She Need Not Be Told of It XIX—Why a Lover's Vows Are Untrustworthy XX—The Half-way House to Love XXI—The Comedy of Contrariness XXII—Vanity and Self-Esteem Obstacles to Love XXIII—Two Irreconcilable Passions in Woman XXIV—An Abuse of Credulity Is Intolerable XXV—Why Virtue Is So Often Overcome XXVI—Love Demands Freedom of Action XXVII—The Heart Needs Constant Employment XXVIII—Mere Beauty Is Often of Trifling Importance XXIX—The Misfortune of Too Sudden an Avowal XXX—When Resistance is Only a Pretence XXXI—The Opinion and Advice of Monsieur de la Sabliere XXXII—The Advantages of a Knowledge of the Heart XXXIII—A Heart Once Wounded No Longer Plays with Love XXXIV—Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder XXXV—The Heart Should Be Played Upon Like the Keys of a Piano XXXVI—Mistaken Impressions Common to All Women XXXVII—The Allurements of Stage Women XXXVIII—Varieties of Resistance Are Essential XXXIX—The True Value of Compliments Among Women XL—Oratory and Fine Phrases Do Not Breed Love XLI—Discretion Is Sometimes the Better Part of Valor XLII—Surface Indications in Women Are Not Always Guides XLIII—Women Demand Respect XLIV—Why Love Grows Weak—Marshal de Saint-Evremond's Opinion XLV—What Favors Men Consider Faults XLVI—Why Inconstancy Is Not Injustice XLVII—Cause of Quarrels Among Rivals XLVIII—Friendship Must Be Firm XLIX—Constancy Is a Virtue Among Narrow Minded L—Some Women Are Very Cunning LI—The Parts Men and Women Play LII—Love Is a Traitor with Sharp Claws LIII—Old Age Not a Preventive Against Attack LIV—A Shrewd But Not an Unusual Scheme LV—A Happy Ending
* * * * *
CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN LORD SAINT-EVREMOND AND NINON DE L'ENCLOS
I—Lovers and Gamblers Have Something in Common II—It Is Sweet to Remember Those We Have Loved III—Wrinkles Are a Mark of Wisdom IV—Near Hopes Are Worth as Much as Those Far Off V—On the Death of De Charleval VI—The Weariness of Monotony VII—After the Death of La Duchesse de Mazarin VIII—Love Banishes Old Age IX—Stomachs Demand More Attention Than Minds X—Why Does Love Diminish After Marriage? XI—Few People Resist Age XII—Age Has Some Consolations XIII—Some Good Taste Still Exists in France XIV—Superiority of the Pleasures of the Stomach XV—Let the Heart Speak Its Own Language XVI—The Memory of Youth XVII—I Should Have Hanged Myself XVIII—Life Is Joyous When It Is Without Sorrow Letter to the Modern Leontium
NINON DE L'ENCLOS
LIFE AND LETTERS
The inner life of the most remarkable woman that ever lived is here presented to American readers for the first time. Ninon, or Mademoiselle de l'Enclos, as she was known, was the most beautiful woman of the seventeenth century. For seventy years she held undisputed sway over the hearts of the most distinguished men of France; queens, princes, noblemen, renowned warriors, statesmen, writers, and scientists bowing before her shrine and doing her homage, even Louis XIV, when she was eighty-five years of age, declaring that she was the marvel of his reign.
How she preserved her extraordinary beauty to so great an age, and attracted to her side the greatest and most brilliant men of the century, is told in her biography, which has been entirely re-written, and new facts and incidents added that do not appear in the French compilations.
Her celebrated "Letters to the Marquis de Sevigne," newly translated, and appearing for the first time in the United States, constitute the most remarkable pathology of the female heart, its motives, objects, and secret aspirations, ever penned. With unsparing hand she unmasks the human heart and unveils the most carefully hidden mysteries of femininity, and every one who reads these letters will see herself depicted as in a mirror.
At an early age she perceived the inequalities between the sexes, and refused to submit to the injustice of an unfair distribution of human qualities. After due deliberation, she suddenly announced to her friends: "I notice that the most frivolous things are charged up to the account of women, and that men have reserved to themselves the right to all the essential qualities; from this moment I will be a man." From that time—she was twenty years of age—until her death, seventy years later, she maintained the character assumed by her, exercised all the rights and privileges claimed by the male sex, and created for herself, as the distinguished Abbe de Chateauneauf says, "a place in the ranks of illustrious men, while preserving all the grace of her own sex."
LIFE OF NINON DE L'ENCLOS
Ninon de l'Enclos as a Standard
To write the biography of so remarkable a woman as Ninon de l'Enclos is to incur the animadversions of those who stand upon the dogma, that whoso violates one of the Ten Commandments is guilty of violating them all, particularly when one of the ten is conventionally selected as the essential precept and the most important to be observed. It is purely a matter of predilection or fancy, perhaps training and environment may have something to do with it, though judgment is wanting, but many will have it so, and hence, they arrive at the opinion that the end of the controversy has been reached.
Fortunately for the common sense of mankind, there are others who repudiate this rigid rule and excuse for human conduct; who refuse to accept as a pattern of morality, the Sabbath breaker, tyrant, oppressor of the poor, the grasping money maker, or charity monger, even though his personal chastity may entitle him to canonization. These insist that although Ninon de l'Enclos may have persistently transgressed one of the precepts of the Decalogue, she is entitled to great consideration because of her faithful observance of the others, not only in their letter but in their spirit, and that her life contains much that is serviceable to humanity, in many more ways than if she had studiously preserved her personal purity to the sacrifice of other qualities, which are of as equal importance as virtues, and as essential to be observed.
Another difficulty in the way of establishing her as a model of any kind, on account of her deliberate violations of the sixth precept of the Decalogue, is the fact that she was not of noble birth, held no official position in the government of France, either during the regency or under the reign of Louis XIII, but was a private person, retiring in her habits, faithful in her liaisons and friendships, delicate and refined in her manners and conversations, and eagerly sought for her wisdom, philosophy, and intellectual ability.
Had she been a Semiramis, a Messalina, an Agrippina, a Catherine II, or even a Lady Hamilton, the glamor of her exalted political position might have covered up a multitude of gross, vulgar practices, cruelties, barbarities, oppressions, crimes, and acts of misgovernment, and have concealed her spiritual deformity beneath the grandeur of her splendid public vices and irregularities. The mantle of royalty and nobility, like dipsomania, excuses a multitude of sins, hypocrisy, and injustice, and inclines the world to overlook, disregard, or even condone, what in them is considered small vices, eccentricities of genius, but which in a private person are magnified into mountains of viciousness, and call forth an army of well meaning but inconsistent people to reform them by brute force.
It is time to interpose an impasse to the further spread of this misapprehension of the nature and consequences of human acts, and to demonstrate the possibility, in humble walks of life, of virtues worth cultivating, and to erect models out of those who, while they may be derelict in their ethical duties, are still worthy of being imitated in other respects. Our standards and patterns of morality are so high as to be unattainable, not in the details of the practice of virtue, but in the personnel of the model. Royal and noble blood permeated with the odor of sanctity; virtuous statesmanship, or proud political position attained through the rigid observance of the ethical rules of personal purity, are nothing to the rank and file, the polloi, who can never hope to reach those elevations in this world; as well expatiate upon the virtues of Croesus to a man who will never go beyond his day's wages, or expect the homeless to become ecstatic over the magnificence of Nabuchodonosor's Babylonian palace. Such extremes possess no influence over the ordinary mind, they are the mere vanities of the conceited, the mistakes of moralists.
The history of Ninon de l'Enclos stands out from the pages of history as a pre-eminent character, before which all others are stale, whatever their pretensions through position and grandeur, notwithstanding that one great quality so much admired in women—womanly purity—was entirely wanting in her conduct through life.
While no apology can be effectual to relieve her memory from that one stigma, the other virtues connected with it, and which she possessed in superabundance, deserve a close study, inasmuch as the trend of modern society is in the direction of the philosophical principles and precepts, which justified her in pursuing the course of life she preferred to all others. She was an ardent disciple of the Epicurean philosophy, but in her adhesion to its precepts, she added that altruistic unselfishness so much insisted upon at the present day.
Considered as a Parallel
The birth of Ninon de l'Enclos was not heralded by salvoes of artillery, Te Deums, or such other demonstrations of joy as are attendant upon the arrival on earth of princes and offspring of great personages. Nevertheless, for the ninety years she occupied the stage of life, she accomplished more in the way of shaping great national policies, successful military movements and brilliant diplomatic successes, than any man or body of men in the seventeenth century.
In addition to that, her genius left an impress upon music and the fine arts, an impress so profound that the high standard of excellence both have attained in our day is due to her efforts in establishing a solid foundation upon which it was possible to erect a substantial structure. Moreover, in her hands and under her auspices and guidance, languages, belles lettres, and rhetoric received an impetus toward perfection, and raised the French language and its literature, fiction, poetry and drama, to so high a standard, that its productions are the models of the twentieth century.
It was Ninon de l'Enclos whose brilliant mentality and intellectual genius formed the minds, the souls, the genius, of such master minds as Saint-Evremond, La Rouchefoucauld, Moliere, Scarron, La Fontaine, Fontenelle, and a host of others in literature and fine arts; the Great Conde, de Grammont, de Sevigne, and the flower of the chivalry of France, in war, politics, and diplomacy. Even Richelieu was not unaffected by her influence.
Strange power exerted by one frail woman, a woman not of noble birth, with only beauty, sweetness of disposition, amiability, goodness, and brilliant accomplishments as her weapons! It was not a case of the moth and the flame, but the operation of a wise philosophy, the precepts of which were decently, moderately and carefully inculcated; a philosophy upon the very edge of which modern society is hanging, afraid to accept openly, through too much attachment to ancient doctrines which have drawn man away from happiness and comfort, and converted him into a bitter pessimism that often leads to despair.
As has already been suggested, had Ninon de l'Enclos sat upon a throne, or commanded an army, the pages of history would teem with the renown of her exploits, and great victories be awarded to her instead of to those who would have met with defeat without her inspiration.
Pompey, in his vanity, declared that he could raise an army by stamping his foot upon the ground, but the raising of Ninon de l'Enclos' finger could bring all the chivalry of Europe around a single standard, or at the same gentle signal, cause them to put aside their arms and forget everything but peace and amity. She dominated the intellectual geniuses of the long period during which she lived, and reigned over them as their absolute queen, through the sheer force of her personal charms, which she never hesitated to bestow upon those whom she found worthy, and who expressed a desire to possess them, studiously regulated, however, by the precepts and principles of the philosophy of Epicurus, which today is rapidly gaining ground in our social relations through its better understanding and appreciation.
Her life bears a great resemblance to the histories in which we read about the most celebrated women of ancient times, who occupied a middle station between the condition of marriage and prostitution—a class of women whose Greek name is familiarized to our ears in translations of Aristophanes. Ninon de l'Enclos was of the order of the French "hetaerae," and, as by her beauty and her talents, she attained the first rank in the social class, her name has come down to posterity with those of Aspasia and Leontium, while the less distinguished favorites of less celebrated men have shared the common oblivion, which hides from the memory of men, every degree of mediocrity, whether of virtue or vice.
A class of this kind, a status of this singular nature existing amongst accomplished women, who inspired distinguished men with lofty ideals, and developed the genius of men who, otherwise, would have remained in obscurity, can never be uninteresting or uninstructive; indeed, it must afford matter for serious study. They are prefigures, or prototypes of the influence that aims to sway mankind at the present day in government, politics, literature, and the fine arts.
As a distinguished example of such a class, the most prominent in the world, in fact, apart from a throne, Ninon de l'Enclos will peculiarly engage the attention of all who, whether for knowledge or amusement, are observers of human nature under all its varieties and circumstances.
It would be idle to enter upon a historical digression on the state of female manners in ancient Athens, or in Europe during the last three centuries. The reader should discard them from his mind when he peruses the life of Ninon de l'Enclos, and examine her character and environments from every point of view as a type toward which is trending modern social conditions.
At first blush, and to a narrow intellect, an individual woman of the character of Ninon de l'Enclos would seem hopelessly lost to all virtue, abandoned by every sense of shame, and irreclaimable to any feeling of social or private duty. But only at first blush, and to the most circumscribed of narrow minds, who, fortunately, do not control the policy of mankind, although occasional disorders here and there indicate that they are endeavouring to do so.
A large majority of mankind are of the settled opinion that every virtue is bound up in that of chastity. Our manners and customs, our laws, most of our various kinds of religions, our national sentiments and feelings—all our most serious opinions, as well as our dearest and best rooted prejudices, forbid the dissevering, in the minds of women of any class, the ideas of virtue and female honor. That is, our public opinion is along that line. To raise openly a doubt on this head, or to disturb, on a point considered so vital, the settled notions of society, is equally inconsistent with common prudence and the policy of common honesty; and as tending to such an end, we are apt to consider all discussion on the subject as at least officiously incurring danger, without an opportunity of inculcating good.
But, however strongly we insist upon this opinion for such purposes, there are others in which it is not useless to relax that severity for a moment, and to view the question, not through the medium of sentiment, but with an eye of philosophic impartiality. We are gradually nearing the point, where it is conceded that in certain conditions of society, one failing is not wholly incompatible with a general practice of virtue—a remark to be met with in every homily since homilies were written, notwithstanding that rigid rule already alluded to in the previous chapter.
It is surprising that it has never occurred to any moralist of the common order, who deals chiefly with such general reflections, to apply this particular maxim to this particular social status. We follow the wise precepts of honesty found in Cicero, although we know that he was, at the time he was writing them, plundering his fellow men at every opportunity. Our admiration for Bacon's philosophy and wisdom reaches adulation although he was the "meanest of men," and was guilty of the most flagrant crimes such as judicial bribery and political corruption. We read that Aspasia had some great and many amiable qualities; so too had Ninon de l'Enclos; and it is worthy of consideration, how far we judge candidly or wisely in condemning such characters in gross, and treating their virtues as Saint Austin was wont to deal with those of his heathen adversaries, as no better than "splendid vices," so unparalleled in their magnitude as to become virtues by the operation of the law of extremes. There was no law permitting a man to marry his sister, and there was no law forbidding King Cambyses to do as he liked.
Another grave point to be considered is this: The world, as it now stands, its laws, systems of government, manners and customs, and social conditions, have been built up on these same "splendid vices," and whenever they have been tamed into subjection to mediocrity—let us say to clerical, or ecclesiastical domination;—government, society and morals have retrograded. The social condition in France during Ninon de l'Enclos' time, and in England during the reign of Charles II, is startling evidence of this accusation. Moreover, it is fast becoming the condition to-day, a fact indicated by the almost universal demand for a revolution in social ethics, the foundation to which, for some reason, has become awry, threatening to topple down the structure erected upon it. Society can see nothing to originate, an incalculable number of attempts to better human conditions always proving failures, and worsening the human status. It is dawning upon the minds of the true lovers of humanity, that there is nothing else to be done, but to revert to the past to find the key to any possible reform, and to that past we are edging rapidly, though, it must be said unwillingly, in the hope and expectation that the old foundations are possessed of sufficient solidity to support a new or re-modeled structure.
The life of Ninon de l'Enclos, upon this very point, furnishes food for profitable reflection, inasmuch as it gives an insight into the great results to be obtained by the following of the precepts of an ancient philosophy which seems to have survived the clash of ages of intellectual and moral warfare, and to have demonstrated its capacity to supply defects in segregated dogmatic systems wholly incapable of any syncretic tendencies.
Youth of Ninon de l'Enclos
Anne de l'Enclos, or "Ninon," as she has always been familiarly called by the world at large, was born at Paris in 1615. What her parents were, or what her family, is a matter of little consequence. To all persons who have attained celebrity over the route pursued by her, original rank and station are not of the least moment. By force of his genius in hewing for himself a niche in history, Napoleon was truly his own ancestor, as it is said he loved to remark pleasantly. So with Ninon de l'Enclos, the novelty of the career she laid out for herself to follow, and did follow until the end with unwavering constancy, justifies us in regarding her as the head of a new line, or dynasty.
In the case of mighty conquerors, whose path was strewn with violence, even lust, no one thinks of an ignoble origin as in any manner derogatory to the eminence; on the contrary, it is considered rather as matter to be proud of; the idea that out of ignominy, surrounded by conditions devoid of all decency, justice, and piety, an individual can elevate himself up to the highest pinnacle of human power and glory, has always, and will always be regarded as an example to be followed, and the badge of success stretched to cover the means of its attainment. This is the universal custom where success has been attained, the failures being relegated to a well merited oblivion as unworthy of consideration either as lessons of warning or for any purpose. Our youth are very properly taught only the lessons of success.
It is in evidence that Ninon's father was a gentleman of Touraine and connected, through his wife, with the family of Abra de Raconis, a race of no mean repute in the Orleanois, and that he was an accomplished gentleman occupying a high position in society. Voltaire, however, declares that Ninon had no claim to a parentage of such distinction; that the rank of her mother was too obscure to deserve any notice, and that her father's profession was of no higher dignity than that of a teacher of the lute. This account is not less likely, from the remarkable proficiency acquired by Ninon, at an early age, in the use of that instrument.
It is equally certain, however, that Ninon's parents were not obscure, and that her father was a man of many accomplishments, one of which was his skill as a performer on the lute. A fact which may have induced Voltaire to mistake one of his talents for his regular profession.
Ninon's parents were as opposite in sentiments and disposition as the Poles of the earth. Madame de l'Enclos was a prudent, pious Christian mother, who endeavored to inspire her daughter with the same pious sentiments which pervaded her own heart. The fact is that the mother attempted to prepare her daughter for a conventual life, a profession at that period of the highest honor, and one that led to preferment, not only in religious circles, but in the world of society. At that time, conventual and monastic dignitaries occupied a prominent place in the formation of public and private manners and customs, and if not regarded impeccable, their opinions were always considered valuable in state matters of the greatest moment, even the security of thrones, the welfare and peace of nations sometimes depending upon their wisdom, judgment, and decisions.
With this laudable object in view, Madame de l'Enclos carefully trained her daughter in the holy exercises of her religion, to which she hoped to consecrate her entire life. But the fond mother met with an impasse, an insurmountable obstacle, in the budding Ninon herself, who, even in the temples of the Most High, when her parent imagined her to be absorbed in the contemplation of saintly things, and imbibing inspiration from her "Hours," the "Lives of the Saints," or "An Introduction to a Holy Life," a book very much in vogue at that period, the child would be devouring such profane books as Montaigne, Scarron's romances and Epicurus, as more in accordance with her trend of mind.
Even at the early age of twelve years, she had mastered those authors, and had laid out a course of life, not in accord with her good mother's ideas, for it excluded the idea of religion as commonly understood, and crushed out the sentiment of maternity, that crowning glory to which nearly all young female children aspire, although in them, at a tender age, it is instinctive and not based upon knowledge of its meaning.
This beginning of Ninon's departure from the beaten path should not be a matter of surprise, for all the young open their hearts to ideas that spring from the sentiments and passions, and anticipate in imagination the parts they are to play in the tragedy or comedy of life.
It is this period of life which the moralist and educator justly contend should be carefully guarded. It is really a concession to environment, and a tacit argument against radical heredity as the foundation upon which rest the character and disposition of the adult, and which is the mainspring of his future moral conduct. It is impossible to philosophize ourselves out of this sensible position.
In the case of Ninon, there was her mother, a woman of undoubted virtue and exemplary piety, following the usual path in the training of her only child and making a sad failure of it, or at least not making any impression on the object of her solicitude. This was, however, not due to the mother's intentions: her training was too weak to overcome that coming from another quarter. It has been said that Ninon's father and mother were as opposite as the Poles in character and disposition, and Ninon was suspended like a pendulum to swing between two extremes, one of which had to prevail, for there was no midway stopping place. It may be that the disciple of heredity, the opponent of environment will perceive in the result a strong argument in favor of his view of humanity. Be that as it may, Ninon swung away from the extreme of piety represented by her mother, and was caught at the other extreme by the less intellectually monotonous ideas of her father. There was no mental conflict in the young mind, nothing difficult; on the contrary, she accepted his ideas as pleasanter and less conducive to pain and discomfort. Too young to reason, she perceived a flowery pathway, followed it, and avoided the thorny one offered her by her mother.
Monsieur de l'Enclos was an Epicurean of the most advanced type. According to him, the whole philosophy of life, the entire scheme of human ethics as evolved from Epicurus, could be reduced to the four following canons:
First—That pleasure which produces no pain is to be embraced.
Second—That pain which produces no pleasure is to be avoided.
Third—That pleasure is to be avoided which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain.
Fourth—That pain is to be endured which averts a greater pain, or secures a greater pleasure.
The last canon is the one that has always appealed to the religious sentiments, and it is the one which has enabled an army of martyrs to submit patiently to the most excruciating torments, to reach the happiness of Paradise, the pleasure contemplated as a reward for enduring the frightful pain. The reader can readily infer, however, from his daily experiences with the human family, that this construction is seldom put upon this canon, the world at large, viewing it from the Epicurean interpretation, which meant earthly pleasures, or the purely sensual enjoyments. It is certain that Ninon's father did not construe any of these canons according to the religious idea, but followed the commonly accepted version, and impressed them upon his young daughter's mind in all their various lights and shades.
Imbibing such philosophy from her earliest infancy, the father taking good care to press them deep into her plastic mind, it is not astonishing that Ninon should discard the more distasteful fruits to be painfully harvested by following her mother's tuition, and accept the easily gathered luscious golden fruit offered her by her father. Like all children and many adults, the glitter and the tinsel of the present enjoyment were too powerful and seductive to be resisted, or to be postponed for a problematic pleasure.
The very atmosphere which surrounded the young girl, and which she soon learned to breathe in deep, pleasurable draughts, was surcharged with the intoxicating oxygen of freedom of action, liberality, and unrestrained enjoyment. While still very young she was introduced into a select society of the choicest spirits of the age and speedily became their idol, a position she continued to occupy without diminution for over sixty years. No one of all these men of the world had ever seen so many personal graces united to so much intellectuality and good taste. Ninon's form was as symmetrical, elegant and yielding as a willow; her complexion of a dazzling white, with large sparkling eyes as black as midnight, and in which reigned modesty and love, and reason and voluptuousness. Her teeth were like pearls, her mouth mobile and her smile most captivating, resistless and adorable. She was the personification of majesty without pride or haughtiness, and possessed an open, tender and touching countenance upon which shone friendship and affection. Her voice was soft and silvery, her arms and hands superb models for a sculptor, and all her movements and gestures manifested an exquisite, natural grace which made her conspicuous in the most crowded drawing-room. As she was in her youth, so she continued to be until her death at the age of ninety years, an incredible fact but so well attested by the gravest and most reliable writers, who testify to the truth of it, that there is no room for doubt. Ninon attributed it not to any miracle, but to her philosophy, and declared that any one might exhibit the same peculiarities by following the same precepts. We have it on the most undoubted testimony of contemporaneous writers, who were intimate with him, that one of her dearest friends and followers, Saint-Evremond, at the age of eighty-nine years, inspired one of the famous beauties of the English Court with an ardent attachment.
The beauties of her person were so far developed at the age of twelve years, that she was the object of the most immoderate admiration on the part of men of the greatest renown, and her beauty is embalmed in their works either as a model for the world, or she is enshrined in song, poetry, and romance as the heroine.
In fact Ninon had as tutors the most distinguished men of the age, who vied with one another in embellishing her young mind with all the graces, learning and accomplishments possible for the human mind to contain. Her native brightness and active mind absorbed everything with an almost supernatural rapidity and tact, and it was not long before she became their peer, and her qualities of mind reached out so far beyond theirs in its insatiable longing, that she, in her turn, became their tutor, adviser and consoler, as well as their tender friend.
The Morals of the Period
Examples of the precocious talents displayed by Mademoiselle de l'Enclos are not uncommon in the twentieth century, but the application she made of them was remarkable and uncommon. Accomplished in music, learned and proficient in the languages, a philosopher of no small degree, and of a personal beauty sometimes called "beaute de diable," she appeared upon the social stage at a time when a new idol was an imperative necessity for the salvation of moral sanity, and the preservation of some remnants of personal decency in the sexual relations.
Cardinal Richelieu had just succeeded in consolidating the usurpations of the royal prerogatives on the rights of the nobility and the people, which had been silently advancing during the preceding reigns, and was followed by the long period of unexampled misgovernment, which oppressed and impoverished as well as degraded every rank and every order of men in the French kingdom, ceasing only with the Revolution.
The great Cardinal minister had built worse than he had intended, it is to be hoped; for his clerico-political system had practically destroyed French manhood, and left society without a guiding star to cement the rope of sand he had spun. Unable to subject the master minds among the nobility to its domination, ecclesiasticism had succeeded in destroying them by augmenting royal prerogatives which it could control with less difficulty. Public maxims of government, connected as they were with private morals, had debauched the nation, and plunged it into a depth of degradation out of which Richelieu and his whole entourage of clerical reformers could not extricate a single individual. It was a riot of theological morality.
The whole body of the French nobility and the middle class of citizens were reduced to a servile attendance on the court, as the only means of advancement and reward. Every species of industry and merit in these classes was sedulously discouraged; and the motive of honorable competition for honorable things, being withdrawn, no pursuit or occupation was left them but the frivolous duties, or the degrading pleasures of the palace.
Next to the king, the women naturally became the first objects of their effeminate devotion; and it is difficult to say which were soonest corrupted by courtiers consummate in the arts of adulation, and unwearied in their exercise. The sovereign rapidly degenerated into an accomplished despot, and the women into intriguers and coquettes. Richelieu had indeed succeeded in subjecting the State to the rule of the Church, but Ninon was destined to play an important part in modifying the evils which afflicted society, and at least elevate its tone. From the methods she employed to effect this change, it may be suspected that the remedy was equivalent to the Hanemannic maxim: "Similia similbus curantur," a strange application of a curative agent in a case of moral decrepitude, however valuable and effective it may be in physical ailments.
The world of the twentieth century, bound up as it is in material progress, refuses to limit its objects and aims to the problematic enjoyment of the pleasures of Paradise in the great hereafter, or of suffering with stoicism the pains and misfortunes of this earth as a means of avoiding the problematic pains of Hell. Future rewards and punishments are no longer incentives to virtue or right living. The only drag upon human acts of every kind is now that great political maxim, the non-observance of which has often deluged the earth with blood; "Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas," which is to say: So use thine own as not to injure thy neighbor. It is a conventional principle, one of contract in reality, but it has become a great doctrine of equity and justice, and it is inculcated by our educational systems to the exclusion of the purely religious idea, and the elimination of religious dogma, which tends to oppressive restraints, is carefully fostered.
There is another reason why men's minds are impelled away from the purely sentimental moral doctrines insisted upon by sectarianism, which is ecclesiasticism run riot, and the higher the education the deeper we delve into the secret motives of that class of mankind, the deceptive outward appearances of which dominate the pages of history, which is, that the greatest and most glorious systems of government, the wisest and most powerful of rulers, the greatest and most liberal statesmen, heroes, and conspicuous conquerors, originated in violations of the Decalogue, and those nations and kingdoms which have been founded upon strictly ecclesiastical ideas, have all sunk beneath the shifting sands of time, or have become so degenerate as to be bywords and objects of derision.
From the same viewpoint, a strange phenomenon is observable in the world of literature, arts, and sciences. The brightest, greatest geniuses, whose works are pointed to with admiration; studied as models and standards, made the basis of youthful education, imitated, and even wept over by the sentimental, were, in their private lives, persons of the most depraved morals. Why this should be the case, it is impossible even to conjecture, the fact only remaining that it is so. Perhaps there are so many different standards of morality, that humanity, weary of the eternal bickering consequent upon the conflicts entered into for their enforcement, have made for themselves a new interpretation which they find less difficult to observe, and find more peace and pleasure in following.
To take a further step in the same direction, it is curious that in the lives of the Saints, those who spent their whole earthly existence in abstinence, works of the severest penance, and mortifications of the flesh, the tendency of demoniac influence was never in the direction of Sabbath breaking, profanity, idolatry, robbery, murder and covetousness, but always exerted itself to the fullest extent of its power in attacks upon chastity. All other visions were absent in the hair-shirted, and self-scourgings brought out nothing but sexual idealities, sensual temptations. The reason for this peculiarity is not far to seek. What is dominant in the minds always finds egress when a favorable opportunity is presented, and the very thought of unchastity as something to be avoided, leads to its contemplation, or its creation in the form of temptation. The virtue of chastity was the one law, and its observances and violations were studied from every point of view, and its numberless permissible and forbidden limitations expatiated upon to such a degree, that he who escaped them altogether could well attribute the result to the interposition of some supernatural power, the protection of some celestial guardian. One is reminded of the expression of St. Paul: "I had not known lust had the law not said: thou shalt not covet." Lord Beaconsfield's opinion was, that excessive piety led to sexual disorders.
According to Ninon's philosophy, whatever tended to propagate immoderation in the sexual relations was rigidly eliminated, and chastity placed upon the same plane and in the same grade as other moral precepts, to be wisely controlled, regulated, and managed. She put all her morality upon the same plane, and thereby succeeded in equalizing corporeal pleasure, so that the entire scale of human acts produced a harmonious equality of temperament, whence goodness and virtue necessarily followed, the pathway being unobstructed.
It is too much to be expected, or even to be hoped for, that there will ever be any unanimity among moral reformers, or any uniformity in their standards of moral excellence. The educated world of the present day, reading between the lines of ancient history, and some that is not so very ancient, see ambition for place and power as the moving cause, the inspiration behind the great majority of revolutions, and they have come to apply the same construction to the great majority of moral agitations and movements for the reform of morals and the betterment of humanity, with pecuniary reward or profit, however, added as the sine qua non of maintaining them.
Cure the agitation by removing the occasion for it, and Othello's occupation would be gone; hence, the agitation continues. As an eminent theologian declared with a conviction that went home to a multitude, at the Congress of Religions, when the Columbian Exposition was in operation:
"If all the religions in the world are to be merged into one, who, or what will support the clergy that will be deprived of their salaries by the change in management?"
The Golden Calf and Aaron were there, but where was the angry Moses?
Ninon and Count de Coligny
It was impossible for a maiden trained in the philosophy of Epicurus, and surrounded by a brilliant society who assiduously followed its precepts to avoid being caught in the meshes of the same net spread for other women. Beloved and even idolized on all sides, as an object that could be worshiped without incurring the displeasure of Richelieu, who preferred his courtiers to amuse themselves with women and gallantries rather than meddle with state affairs, and being disposed both through inclination and training to accept the situation, Ninon felt the sentiments of the tender passion, but philosophically waited for a worthy object.
That object appeared in the person of the young Gaspard, Count de Coligny, afterwards Duc de Chatillon, who paid her assiduous court. The result was that Ninon conceived a violent passion for the Count, which she could not resist, in fact did not care to resist, and she therefore yielded to the young man of distinguished family, charming manners, and a physically perfect specimen of manhood.
It is alleged by Voltaire and repeated by Cardinal de Retz, that the early bloom of Ninon's charms was enjoyed by Richelieu, but if this be true, it is more than likely that Ninon submitted through policy and not from any affection for the great Cardinal. It is certain, however, that the great statesman's attention had been called to her growing influence among the French nobility, and that he desired to control her actions if not to possess her charms. She was a tool that he imagined he could utilize to keep his rebellious nobles in his leash. Abbe Raconis, Ninon's uncle, and the Abbe Boisrobert, her friend, who stood close to the Cardinal, had suggested to His Eminence that the charms of the new beauty could be used to advantage in state affairs, and he accordingly sent for her at first through curiosity, but when he had seen her he hoped to control her for his personal benefit.
Although occupied in vast projects which his great genius and activity always conducted to a happy issue, the great man had not renounced the affections of his human nature, nor his intellectual gratifications. He aimed at everything, and did not consider anything beneath his dignity. Every day saw him engaged in cultivating a taste for literature and art, and some moments of every day were set apart for social gallantries. When it came to the art of pleasing and attracting women, we have the word of Cardinal de Retz for it, that he was not always successful. Perhaps it is only inferior minds who possess the art and the genius of seduction.
The intriguing Abbe, in order to bring Ninon under the influence of his master, and to charm her with the great honor done her by a man upon whom were fixed the eyes of all Europe, prepared a series of gorgeous fetes, banquets and entertainments at the palace at Rueil. But Ninon was not in the least overwhelmed, and refused to hear the sighs of the great man. Hoping to inspire jealousy, he affected to love Marion de Lormes, a proceeding which gave Ninon great pleasure as it relieved her from the importunities of the Cardinal. The end of it was, that Richelieu gave up the chase and left Ninon in peace to follow her own devices in her own way.
Whatever may have been the relations between Ninon and Cardinal Richelieu, it is certain that the Count de Coligny was her first sentimental attachment, and the two lovers, in the first intoxication of their love, swore eternal constancy, a process common to all new lovers and believed possible to maintain. It was not long, however, before Ninon perceived that the first immoderate transports of love gradually lost their activity, and by applying the precepts of her philosophy to explain the phenomenon, came to regard love by its effects, as a blind mechanical movement, which it was the policy of men to ennoble according to the conventional rules of decency and honor, to the exclusion of its original meaning.
After coldly reasoning the matter out to its only legitimate conclusion, she tore off the mask covering a metaphysical love, which could not reach or satisfy the light of intelligence or the sentiments and emotions of the heart, and which appeared to her to possess as little reality as the enchanted castles, marvels of magic, and monsters depicted in poetry and romance. To her, love finally became a mere thirst, and a desire for pleasure to be gratified by indulgence like all other pleasure. The germ of philosophy already growing in her soul, found nothing in this discovery that was essentially unnatural; on the contrary, it was essentially natural. It was clear to her logical mind, that a passion like love produced among men different effects according to different dispositions, humors, temperament, education, interest, vanity, principles, or circumstances, without being, at the same time, founded upon anything more substantial than a disguised, though ardent desire of possession, the essential of its existence, after which it vanished as fire disappears through lack of fuel. Dryden, the celebrated English poetic and literary genius, reaches the same opinion in his Letters to Clarissa.
Having reached this point in her reasoning, she advanced a step further, and considered the unequal division of qualities distributed between the two sexes. She perceived the injustice of it and refused to abide by it. "I perceive," she declared, "that women are charged with everything that is frivolous, and that men reserve to themselves the right to essential qualities. From this moment I shall be a man."
All this growing out of the ardour of a first love, which is always followed by the lassitude of satiety, so far from causing Ninon any tears of regret, nerved her up to a philosophy different from that of other women, and makes it impossible to judge her by the same standard. She can not be considered a woman subject to a thousand fantasies and whims, a thousand trifling concealed proprieties of position and custom. Her morals became the same as those of the wisest and noblest men of the period in which she lived, and raised her to their rank instead of maintaining her in the category of the intriguing coquettes of her age.
It is not improbable that her experience of the suffering attendant upon the decay of such attachments, a suffering alluded to by those who contemplate only the intercourse of the sexes through the medium of poetry and sentiment, had considerable influence in determining her future conduct. At an early age, following upon her liaison with Count Coligny, she adopted the determination she adhered to during the rest of her life, of retaining so much only of the female character as was forced upon her by nature and the insuperable laws of society. Acting on this principle, her society was chiefly composed of persons of her adopted sex, of whom the most celebrated of their time made her house a constant place of meeting.
A curious incident in her relations with Count de Coligny was her success in persuading him to adjure the errors of the Huguenots and return to the Roman Catholic Church. She had no religious predilections, feeling herself spiritually secure in her philosophic principles, but sought only his welfare and advancement. His obstinacy was depriving him of the advantages due his birth and personal merit. Considering that Ninon was scarcely sixteen years of age, respiring nothing but love and pleasure, to effect by tenderness and the persuasive strength of her reasoning powers, such a change in a man so obstinate as the Count de Coligny, in an obstinate and excessively bigoted age, was something unique in the history of lovers of that period. Women then cared very little for religious principles, and rarely exerted themselves in advancing the cause of the dominant religion, much less thought of the spiritual needs of their favorites. The reverse is the rule in these modern times, when women are the most ardent and persistent proselytizers of the various sects, a custom which recalls the remark of a distinguished lawyer who failed to recover any assets from a notorious bankrupt he was pursuing for the defrauded creditors: "This man has everything in his wife's name—even his religion."
Ninon's disinterested counsel prevailed, and the Count afterward abjured his errors, becoming the Duc de Chatillon, Marquis d'Andelot, and died a lieutenant general, bravely fighting for his country, at Charenton.
The "Birds" of the Tournelles
Having decided upon her career, Ninon converted her property into prudent and safe securities, and purchased a city house in the Rue des Tournelles au Marais, a locality at that time the center of fashionable society, and another for a summer residence at Picpusse, in the environs of Paris. A select society of wits and gallant chevaliers soon gathered around her, and it required influence as well as merit to gain an entrance into its ranks. Among this elite were Count de Grammont, Saint-Evremond, Chapelle, Moliere, Fontenelle, and a host of other no less distinguished characters, most of them celebrated in literature, arts, sciences, and war. Ninon christened the society "Oiseaux des Tournelles," an appellation much coveted by the beaux and wits of Paris, and which distinguished the chosen company from the less favored gentlemen of the great metropolis.
Among those who longed for entrance into this charming society of choice spirits was the Count de Charleval, a polite and accomplished chevalier, indeed, but of no particular standing as a literary character. Nothing would do, however, but a song of triumph as a test of his competency and he accomplished it after much labor and consumption of midnight oil. Scarron has preserved the first stanza in his literary works, the others being lost to the literary world, perhaps with small regret. The sentiments expressed in the first stanza rescued from oblivion will be sufficient to indicate the character of the others:
"Je ne suis plus oiseau des champs, Mais de ces oiseaux des Tournelles Qui parlent d'amour en tout temps, Et qui plaignent les tourterelles De ne se baiser qu'au printemps."
Which liberally translated into English will run substantially as follows:
No more am I a wild bird on the wing, But one of the birds of the Towers, who The love in their hearts always sing, And pity the poor Turtle Doves that coo And never kiss only in spring.
Scarron alludes to the delicacy of the Count's taste and the refinement of his wit, by saying of him: "The muses brought him up on blanc mange and chicken broth."
How Ninon kept together this remarkable coterie can best be understood by an incident unparalleled in female annals. The Count de Fiesque, one of the most accomplished nobles of the French court, had it appears, grown tired of an attachment of long standing between Ninon and himself, before the passion of the former had subsided. A letter, containing an account of his change of sentiments, with reasons therefor, was presented his mistress, while employed at her toilette in adjusting her hair, which was remarkable for its beauty and luxuriance, and which she regarded as the apple of her eye. Afflicted by the unwelcome intelligence, she cut off half of her lovely tresses on the impulse of the moment, and sent them as her answer to the Count's letter. Struck by this unequivocal proof of the sincerity of her devotion to him, the Count returned to his allegiance to a mistress so devoted, and thenceforward retained it until she herself wearied of it and desired a change.
As an illustration of her sterling honesty in money matters and her delicate manner of ending a liaison, the following anecdote will serve to demonstrate the hold she was able to maintain upon her admirers.
M. de Gourville, an intimate friend of Ninon's, adhered in the wars of the Fronde to the party of the Prince of Conde, one of the "Birds of the Tournelles." Compelled to quit Paris, to avoid being hanged in person, as he was in effigy, he divided the care of a large sum of ready money between Ninon de l'Enclos and the Grand Penitencier of Notre Dame. The money was deposited in two caskets. On his return from exile, he applied to the priest for the return of his money, but to his astonishment, all knowledge of the deposit was denied, and that if any such deposit had been made, it was destined for charitable purposes under the rules of the Penitencier, and had most probably been distributed among the poor of Paris. De Gourville protested in vain, and when he threatened to resort to forcible means, the power of the church was invoked to compel him to abandon his attempt. So cruelly disappointed in a man whom all Paris deemed incorruptibly honest, de Gourville suspected nothing else from Mademoiselle de l'Enclos. It was absurd to hope for probity in a woman of reprehensible habits when that virtue was absent in a man who lived a life of such austerity as the Grand Penitencier, hence he determined to abstain from visiting her altogether, lest he might hate the woman he had so fondly loved.
Ninon, however, had other designs, and learning that he had returned, sent him a pressing invitation to call upon her.
"Ah! Gourville," she exclaimed as soon as he appeared, "a great misfortune has happened me in consequence of your absence."
That settled the matter in de Gourville's mind, his money was gone and he was a pauper. Plunged in mournful reflections, de Gourville dared not raise his eyes to those of his mistress. But she, mistaking his agitation, went on hastily:
"I am sorry if you still love me, for I have lost my love for you, and though I have found another with whom I am happy, I have not forgotten you. Here," she continued, turning to her escritoire, "here are the twenty thousand crowns you intrusted to me when you departed. Take them, my friend, but do not ask anything from a heart which is no longer disposed in your favor. There is nothing left but the most sincere friendship."
Astonished at the contrast between her conduct and that of her reverend co-depositary, and recognizing that he had no right to complain of the change in her heart because of his long absence, de Gourville related the story of the indignity heaped upon him by a man of so exalted a character and reputation.
"You do not surprise me," said Ninon, with a winning smile, "but you should not have suspected me on that account. The prodigious difference in our reputations and conditions should have taught you that." Then adding with a twinkle in her eye: "Ne suis-je pas la gardeuse de la cassette?"
Ninon was afterward called "La belle gardeuse de cassette," and Voltaire, whose vigilance no anecdote of this nature could escape, has made it, with some variations, the subject of a comedy, well known to every admirer of the French drama, under the name of "La Depositaire."
Ninon had her preferences, and when one of her admirers was not to her taste, neither prayers nor entreaties could move her. Hers was not a case of vendible charms, it was le bon appetit merely, an Epicurean virtue. The Grand Prior of Vendome had reason to comprehend this trait in her character.
The worthy Grand Prior was an impetuous wooer, and he saw with great sorrow that Ninon preferred the Counts de Miossens and de Palluan to his clerical attractions. He complained bitterly to Ninon, but instead of being softened by his reproaches, she listened to the voice of some new rival when the Grand Prior thought his turn came next. This put him in a great rage and he resolved to be revenged, and this is the way he fancied he could obtain it. One day shortly after he had left Ninon's house, she noticed on her dressing table a letter, which she opened to find the following effusion:
"Indigne de mes feux, indigne de mes larmes, Je renonce sans peine a tes faibles appas; Mon amour te pretait des charmes, Ingrate, que tu n'avais pas."
Or, as might be said substantially in English:
Unworthy my flame, unworthy a tear, I rejoice to renounce thy feeble allure; My love lent thee charms that endear, Which, ingrate, thou couldst not procure.
Instead of being offended, Ninon took this mark of unreasonable spite good naturedly, and replied by another quatrain based upon the same rhyme as that of the disappointed suitor:
"Insensible a tes feux, insensible a tes larmes, Je te vois renoncer a mes faibles appas; Mais si l'amour prete des charmes, Pourquoi n'en empruntais-tu pas."
Which is as much as to say in English:
Caring naught for thy flame, caring naught for thy tear, I see thee renounce my feeble allure; But if love lends charms that endear, By borrowing thou mightst some procure.
Effect of Her Mother's Death
It is not to be wondered at that a girl under such tutelage should abandon herself wholly, both mind and body, to a philosophy so contrary in its principles and practices to that which her mother had always endeavored to instill into her young mind. The father was absent fighting for Heaven alone knew which faction into which France was broken up, there were so many of them, and the mother and daughter lived apart, the disparity in their sentiments making it impossible for them to do otherwise. For this reason, Ninon was practically her own mistress, and not interfered with because the husband and wife could not agree upon any definite course of life for her to follow. Ninon's heart, however, had not lost any of its natural instincts, and she loved her mother sincerely, a trait in her which all Paris learned with astonishment when her mother was taken down with what proved to be a fatal illness.
Madame de l'Enclos, separated from both her husband and daughter, and devoting her life to pious exercises, acquired against them the violent prejudices natural in one who makes such a sacrifice upon the altar of sentiment. The worldly life of her daughter gave birth in her mind to an opinion which she deemed the natural consequence of it. The love of pleasure, in her estimation, had destroyed every vestige of virtue in her daughter's soul and her neglect of her religious duties had converted her into an unnatural being.
But she was agreeably diverted from her ill opinion when her malady approached a dangerous stage. Ninon flew to heir mother's side as soon as she heard of it, and without becoming an enemy of her philosophy of pleasure, she felt it incumbent upon her to suspend its practice. Friendship, liaisons, social duties, pleasure, everything ceased to amuse her or give her any satisfaction. The nursing of her sick mother engaged her entire attention, and her fervor in this dutiful occupation astonished Madame de l'Enclos and softened her heart to the extent of acknowledging her error and correcting her estimate of her daughter's character. She loved her daughter devotedly and was happy in the knowledge that she was as devotedly loved. But this was not the kind of happiness that could prolong her days.
Notwithstanding all her philosophy, Ninon could not bear the spectacle presented by her dying parent. Her soul was rent with a grief which she did not conceal, unashamed that philosophy was impotent to restrain an exhibition of such a natural weakness. Moreover, her dying mother talked to her long and earnestly, and with her last breath gave her loving counsel that sank deep into her heart, already softened by an uncontrollable sorrow and weakened by long vigils.
Scarcely had Madame de l'Enclos closed her eyes upon the things of earth, than Ninon conceived the project of withdrawing from the world and entering a convent. The absence of her father left her absolute mistress of her conduct, and the few friends who reached her, despite her express refusal to see any one, could not persuade her to alter her determination. Ninon, heart broken, distracted and desolate, threw herself bodily into an obscure convent in the suburbs of Paris, accepting it, in the throes of her sorrow, as her only refuge and home on earth.
Saint-Evremond, in a letter to the Duke d'Olonne, speaks of the sentiment which is incentive to piety:
"There are some whom misfortunes have rendered devout through a certain kind of pity for themselves, a secret piety, strong enough to dispose men to lead more religious lives."
Scarron, one of Ninon's closest friends, in his Epistle to Sarrazin, thus alludes to this conventual escapade:
"Puis j'aurais su * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Ce que l'on dit du bel et saint exemple Que la Ninon donne a tous les mondains, En se logeant avecque les nonais, Combien de pleurs la pauvre jouvencelle A repandus quand sa mere, sans elle, Cierges brulants et portant ecussons, Pretres chantant leurs funebres chanson, Voulut aller de linge enveloppee Servir aux vers d'une franche lippee."
Which, translated into reasonable English, is as much as saying:
But I might have known * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * What they say of the example, so holy, so pure, That Ninon gives to worldlings all, By dwelling within a nunnery's wall. How many tears the poor lorn maid Shed, when her mother, alone, unafraid, Mid flaming tapers with coats of arms, Priests chanting their sad funereal alarms, Went down to the tomb in her winding sheet To serve for the worms a mouthful sweet.
But the most poignant sorrow of the human heart is assuaged by time. Saint-Evremond and Marion de Lormes, Richelieu's "belle amie," expected to profit by the calm which they knew would not be long in stealing over the heart of their friend. Marion, however, despaired of succeeding through her own personal influence, and enlisted the sympathies of Saint-Evremond, who knew Ninon's heart too well to imagine for a moment that the mournful, monotonous life she had embraced would satisfy her very long. It was something to be admitted to her presence and talk over matters, a privilege they were accorded after some demur. The first step toward ransoming their friend was followed by others until they finally made great strides through her resolution. They brought her back in triumph to the world she had quitted through a species of "frivolity," so they called it, of which she was never again guilty as long as she lived.
This episode in Ninon's life is in direct contrast with one which occurred when the Queen Regent, Anne of Austria, listening to the complaints of her jealous maids of honor, attempted to dispose of Ninon's future by immuring her in a convent. Ninon's celebrity attained such a summit, and her drawing rooms became so popular among the elite of the French nobility and desirable youth, that sad inroads were made in the entourage of the Court, nothing but the culls of humanity being left for the ladies who patronized the royal functions. In addition to this, she excited the envy and jealousy of a certain class of women, whom Ninon called "Jansensists of love," because they practiced in public the puritanic virtues which they did not even have tact enough to render agreeable. It is conceivable that Ninon's brilliant attractions, not to say seductive charms, and her unparalleled power to attract to her society the brightest and best men of the nation, engendered the most violent jealousy and hatred of those whose feebler charms were ignored and relegated to the background. The most bitter complaints and accusations were made against her to the Queen Regent, who was beset on all sides by loud outcries against the conduct of a woman whom they were powerless to imitate, until, to quiet their clamors, she deemed it her duty to act.
Anne of Austria accordingly sent Ninon, by special messenger, a peremptory order to withdraw to a convent, giving her the power of selection. At first Anne intended to send her to the convent of Repentant Girls (Filles Repenties), but the celebrated Bauton, one of the Oiseaux des Tournelles, who loved a good joke as well as he did Ninon, told her that such a course would excite ridicule because Ninon was neither a girl nor a repentant (ni fille, ni repentie), for which reason, the order was changed leaving Ninon to her own choice of a prison.
Ninon knew the source of the order, and foresaw that her numerous distinguished admirers would not have any difficulty in protecting her, and persuading the Queen Regent to rescind her order, and therefore gave herself no concern, receiving the order as a pleasantry.
"I am deeply sensible of the goodness of the court in providing for my welfare and in permitting me to select my place of retreat, and without hesitation, I decide in favor of the Grands Cordeliers."
Now it so happened that the Grands Cordeliers was a monastery exclusively for men, and from which women were rigidly excluded. Moreover, the morals of the holy brotherhood was not of the best, as the writers of their history during that period unanimously testify. M. de Guitaut, the captain of the Queen's guard, who had been intrusted with the message, happened to be one of the "Birds," and he assured the Regent that it was nothing but a little pleasantry on the part of Ninon, who merited a thousand marks of approval and commendation for her sterling and brilliant qualities of mind and heart rather than punishment or even censure.
The only comment made by the Queen Regent was: "Fie, the nasty thing!" accompanied by a fit of laughter. Others of the "Birds" came to the rescue, among them the Duc d'Enghien, who was known not to value his esteem for women lightly. The matter was finally dropped, Anne of Austria finding means to close the mouths of the envious.
Her Increasing Popularity
Ninon's return to the gayeties of her drawing rooms was hailed with loud acclamations from all quarters. The envy and jealousy of her female enemies, the attempt to immure her in a convent, and her selection of the Grands Cordeliers as her place of retreat, brought her new friends and admirers through the notoriety given her, and all Paris resounded with the fame of her spirit, her wit, and her philosophy.
Ladies of high rank sought admission into her charming circle, many of them, it is to be imagined, because they possessed exaggerated ideas of her influence at court. Had she not braved the Queen Regent with impunity? Her drawing rooms soon became the center of attraction and were nightly crowded with the better part of the brilliant society of Paris. Ninon was the acknowledged guide and leader, and all submitted to her sway without the slightest envy or jealousy, and it may also be said, without the slightest compunctions or remorse of conscience.
The affair with the Queen Regent had one good effect, it separated the desirable from the undesirable in the social scale, compelling the latter to set up an establishment of their own as a counter attraction, and as their only hope of having any society at all. They established a "little court" at the Hotel Rambouillet, where foppishness was a badge of distinction, and where a few narrow minded, starched moralists, poisoned metaphysics and turned the sentiments of the heart into a burlesque by their affectation and their unrefined, even vulgar attempts at gallantry. They culled choice expressions and epigrams from the literature of the day, employing their memories to conceal their paucity of original wit, and practised upon their imaginations to obtain a salacious philosophy, which consisted of sodden ideas, flat in their expression, stale and unattractive in their adaptation.
Ninon's coterie was the very opposite, consisting as it did of the very flower of the nobility and the choicest spirits of the age, who banished dry and sterile erudition, and sparkled with the liveliest wit and polite accomplishments. There were some who eluded the vigilance of Ninon's shrewd scrutiny, and made their way into her inner circle, but they were soon forced to abandon their pretensions by their inability to maintain any standing among a class of men who were so far beyond them in rank and attainments.
Not long after her return to the pleasures of society, after the convent episode, Ninon was called upon to mourn the demise of her father. M. de l'Enclos was one of the fortunate men of the times who escaped the dangers attendant upon being on the wrong side in politics. For some inscrutable reason, he took sides with Cardinal de Retz, and on that account was practically banished from Paris and compelled to be satisfied with the rough annoyances of camp life instead of being able to put in practice the pleasant precepts of his philosophy. He was finally permitted to return to Paris with his head safe upon his shoulders, and flattered himself with the idea that he could now make up for lost time, promising himself to enjoy to the full the advantages offered by his daughter's establishment. He embraced his daughter with the liveliest pleasure imaginable, taking upon himself all the credit for her great reputation as due to his efforts and to his philosophical training. He was flattered at the success of his lessons and entered upon a life of joyous pleasure with as much zest as though in the bloom of his youth. It proved too much for a constitution weakened by the fatigues of years of arduous military campaigns and he succumbed, the flesh overpowered by the spirit, and took to his bed, where he soon reached a condition that left his friends no hope of his recuperation.
Aware that the end was approaching, he sent for his daughter, who hastened to his side and shed torrents of tears. But he bade her remember the lessons she had learned from his philosophy, and wishing to give her one more lesson, said in an almost expiring voice:
"Approach nearer, Ninon; you see nothing left me but a sad memory of the pleasures that are leaving me. Their possession was not of long duration, and that is the only complaint I have to make against nature. But, alas! my regrets are vain. You who must survive me, utilize precious time, and have no scruples about the quantity of your pleasures, but only of their quality."
Saying which, he immediately expired. The philosophical security exhibited by her father in his very last moments, inspired Ninon with the same calmness of spirit, and she bore his loss with equanimity, disdaining to exhibit any immoderate grief lest she dishonor his memory and render herself an unworthy daughter and pupil.
The fortune left her by her father was not so considerable as Ninon had expected. It had been very much diminished by extravagance and speculation, but as she had in mind de la Rochefoucauld's maxim: "There are some good marriages, but no delicious ones," and did not contemplate ever wearing the chains of matrimony, she deposited her fortune in the sinking funds, reserving an income of about eight thousand livres per annum as sufficient to maintain her beyond the reach of want. From this time on she abandoned herself to a life of pleasure, well regulated, it must be confessed, and in strict accordance with her Epicurean ideas. Her light heartedness increased with her love and devotion to pleasure, which is not astonishing, as there are privileged souls who do not lose their tender emotions by such a pursuit, though those souls are rare. Ninon's unrestrained freedom, and the privilege she claimed to enjoy all the rights which men assumed, did not give her the slightest uneasiness. It was her lovers who became anxious unless they regulated their love according to the rules she established for them to follow, rules which it can not be denied, were held in as much esteem then as nowadays. The following anecdote will serve as an illustration:
The Marquis de la Chatre had been one of her lovers for an unconscionably long period, but never seemed to cool in his fidelity. Duty, however, called him away from Ninon's arms, but he was distressed with the thought that his absence would be to his disadvantage. He was afraid to leave her lest some rival should appear upon the scene and dispossess him in her affections. Ninon vainly endeavored to remove his suspicions.
"No, cruel one," he said, "you will forget and betray me. I know your heart, it alarms me, crushes me. It is still faithful to my love, I know, and I believe you are not deceiving me at this moment. But that is because I am with you and can personally talk of my love. Who will recall it to you when I am gone? The love you inspire in others, Ninon, is very different from the love you feel. You will always be in my heart, and absence will be to me a new fire to consume me; but to you, absence is the end of affection. Every object I shall imagine I see around you will be odious to me, but to you they will be interesting."
Ninon could not deny that there was truth in the Marquis' logic, but she was too tender to assassinate his heart which she knew to be so loving. Being a woman she understood perfectly the art of dissimulation, which is a necessary accomplishment, a thousand circumstances requiring its exercise for the sake of her security, peace, and comfort. Moreover, she did not at the moment dream of deceiving him; there was no present occasion, nobody else she had in mind. Ninon thought rapidly, but could not find any reason for betraying him, and therefore assured him of her fidelity and constancy.
Nevertheless, the amorous Marquis, who might have relied upon the solemn promise of his mistress, had it not been for the intense fears which were ever present in his mind, and becoming more violent as the hour for his departure drew nearer, required something more substantial than words. But what could he exact? Ah! an idea, a novel expedient occurred to his mind, one which he imagined would restrain the most obstinate inconstancy.
"Listen, Ninon, you are without contradiction a remarkable woman. If you once do a thing you will stand to it. What will tend to quiet my mind and remove my fears, ought to be your duty to accept, because my happiness is involved and that is more to you than love; it is your own philosophy, Ninon. Now, I wish you to put in writing that you will remain faithful to me, and maintain the most inviolable fidelity. I will dictate it in the strongest form and in the most sacred terms known to human promises. I will not leave you until I have obtained such a pledge of your constancy, which is necessary to relieve my anxiety, and essential to my repose."
Ninon vainly argued that this would be something too strange and novel, foolish, in fact, the Marquis was obstinate and finally overcame her remonstrances. She wrote and signed a written pledge such as no woman had ever executed, and fortified with this pledge, the Marquis hastened to respond to the call of duty.
Two days had scarcely elapsed before Ninon was besieged by one of the most dangerous men of her acquaintance. Skilled in the art of love, he had often pressed his suit, but Ninon had other engagements and would not listen to him. But now, his rival being out of the field, he resumed his entreaties and increased his ardor. He was a man to inspire love, but Ninon resisted, though his pleading touched her heart. Her eyes at last betrayed her love and she was vanquished before she realized the outcome of the struggle.
What was the astonishment of the conqueror, who was enjoying the fruits of his victory, to hear Ninon exclaim in a breathless voice, repeating it three times: "Ah! Ah! le bon billet qu'a la Chatre!" (Oh, the fine bond that la Chatre has.)
Pressed for an explanation of the enigma, Ninon told him the whole story, which was too good to keep secret, and soon the "billet de la Chatre" became, in the mouth of everybody, a saying applied to things upon which it is not wise to rely. Voltaire, to preserve so charming an incident, has embalmed it in his comedy of la Prude, act I, scene III. Ninon merely followed the rule established by Madame de Sevigne: "Les femmes ont permission d'etre faibles, et elles se servent sans scrupule de ce privilege."
Mademoiselle de l'Enclos never forgot a friend in a lover, indeed, the trait that stands out clear and strong in her character, is her whole hearted friendship for the men she loved, and she bestowed it upon them as long as they lived, for she outlived nearly all of them, and cherished their memories afterward. As has been said, Ninon de l'Enclos was Epicurean in the strictest sense, and did not rest her entire happiness on love alone, but included a friendship which went to the extent of making sacrifices. The men with whom she came in contact from time to time during her long life, were nothing to her from a pecuniary point of view, for she possessed an income sufficiently large to satisfy her wants and to maintain the social establishment she never neglected.
There was never, either directly or indirectly, any money consideration asked or expected in payment of her favors, and the man who would have dared offer her money as a consideration for anything, would have met with scorn and contempt and been expelled from her house and society without ever being permitted to regain either. The natural wants of her heart and mind, and what she was pleased to call the natural gratifications of physical wants, were her mentors, and to them she listened, never dreaming of holding them at a pecuniary value.
One of her dearest friends was Scarron, once the husband of Madame de Maintenon, the pious leader of a debased court and the saintly mistress of the king of France. In his younger days, Scarron contributed largely to the pleasures of the Oiseaux des Tournelles, the ecclesiastical collar he then wore not being sufficient to prevent his enjoying worldly pleasures.
In the course of time Scarron fell ill, and was reduced to a dreadful condition, no one coming to his succor but Ninon. Like a tender, compassionate friend, she sympathized deeply with him, when he was carried to the suburb Saint Germain to try the effects of the baths as an alleviation of his pains. Scarron did not complain, on the contrary, he was cheerful and always gay even when suffering tortures. There was little left of him, however, but an indomitable spirit burning in a crushed tenement of mortal clay. Not being able to come to her, Ninon went to him, and passed entire days at his side. Not only that, she brought her friends with her and established a small court around his bed, thus cheering him in his pain and doing him a world of good, which finally enabled his spirit to triumph over his mortal shell.
Instances might be multiplied, enough to fill a volume, of her devotion to her friends, whom she never abandoned and whom she was always ready with purse and counsel to aid in their difficulties. A curious instance is that of Nicolas Vauquelin, sieur de Desyvetaux, whom she missed from her circle for several days. Aware that he had been having some family troubles, and that his fortune was menaced, she became alarmed, thinking that perhaps some misfortune had come upon him, for which reason she resolved to seek him and help him out of his difficulties. But Ninon was mistaken in supposing that so wise and gay an Epicurean could be crushed by any sorrow or trouble. Desyvetaux was enjoying himself in so singular a fashion that it is worth telling.
This illustrious Epicurean, finding one night a young girl in a fainting condition at his door, brought her into his house to succor her, moved by an impulse of humanity. But as soon as she had recovered her senses, the philosopher's heart was touched by her beauty. To please her benefactor the girl played several selections on a harp and accompanied the instrument with a charming and seductive voice.
Desyvetaux, who was a passionate admirer of music, was captivated by this accomplishment, and suddenly conceived the desire to spend the rest of his days in the company of this charming singer. It was not difficult for a girl who had been making it her business to frequent the wineshops of the suburbs with a brother, earning a precarious living by singing and playing on the harp, to accept such a proposition, and consent to bestow happiness upon an excessively amorous man, who offered to share with her a luxurious and tranquil life in one of the finest residences in the suburb Saint Germain.
Although most of his life had been passed at court as the governor of M. de Vendome, and tutor of Louis XIII, he had always desired to lead a life of peace and quiet in retirement. The pleasures of a sylvan life which he had so often described in his lectures, ended by leading his mind in that direction. The young girl he found on his doorstep had offered him his first opportunity to have a Phyllis to his Corydon and he eagerly embraced it. Both yielded to the fancy, she dressed in the garb of a shepherdess, he playing the role of Corydon at the age of seventy years.
Sometimes stretched out on a carpet of verdure, he listened to the enchanting music she drew from her instrument, or drank in the sweet voice of his shepherdess singing melodious pastorals. A flock of birds, charmed with this harmony, left their cages to caress with their wings, Dupuis' harp, or intoxicated with joy, fluttered down into her bosom. This little gallantry in which they had been trained was a delicious spectacle to the shepherd philosopher and intoxicated his senses. He fancied he was guiding with his mistress innumerable bands of intermingled sheep; their conversation was in tender eclogues composed by them both extemporaneously, the attractive surroundings inspiring them with poetry.
Ninon was amazed when she found her "bon homme," as she called him, in the startlingly original disguise of a shepherd, a crook in his hand, a wallet hanging by his side, and a great flapping straw hat, trimmed with rose colored silk on his head. Her first impression was that he had taken leave of his senses, and she was on the point of shedding tears over the wreck of a once brilliant mind, when Desyvetaux, suspending his antics long enough to look about him, perceived her and rushed to her side with the liveliest expressions of joy. He removed her suspicions of his sanity by explaining his metamorphosis in a philosophical fashion:
"You know, my dear Ninon, there are certain tastes and pleasures which find their justification in a certain philosophy when they bear all the marks of moral innocence. Nothing can be said against them but their singularity. There are no amusements less dangerous than those which do not resemble those generally indulged in by the multitude."
Ninon was pleased with the amiable companion of her old friend. Her figure, her mental attainments, and her talents enchanted her, and Desyvetaux, who appeared in a ridiculous light when she first saw him in his masquerade, now seemed to her to be on the road to happiness. She made no attempt to persuade him to return to his former mode of life, which she could not avoid at this moment, however, as considering more agreeable than the new one he had adopted. But what could she offer in the way of superior seductive pleasures to a pair who had tasted pure and natural enjoyments? The vain amusements and allurements of the world have no sympathy with anything but dissipation, in which, the mind, yielding to the fleeting seductions of art, leaves the heart empty as soon as the illusion disappears.
The strange conduct of Desyvetaux gave birth to numerous reflections of this nature in Ninon's mind, but she did not cease to be his friend, on the contrary, she entered into the spirit of his simple life and visited him from time to time to enjoy the spectacle of such a tender masquerade which Desyvetaux continued up to the time of his death. It gave Mademoiselle Dupuis nearly as much celebrity as her lover attained, for when the end came, she obeyed his desire to play a favorite dance on her harp, to enable his soul to take flight in the midst of its delicious harmony. It should be mentioned, that Desyvetaux wore in his hat as long as he lived, a yellow ribbon, "out of love for the gentle Ninon who gave it to me."
Socrates advises persons of means to imitate the swans, which, realizing the benefit of an approaching death, sing while in their death agony. The Abbe Brantome relates an interesting story of the death of Mademoiselle de Lineul, the elder, one of the queen's daughters, which resembles that of Desyvetaux.
"When the hour of her death had arrived," says Brantome, "Mademoiselle sent for her valet, Julian, who could play the violin to perfection. 'Julian,' quoth she, 'take your violin and play on it until you see me dead—for I am going—the Defeat of the Swiss, and play it as well as you know how; and when you shall reach the words "tout est perdu," play it over four or five times as piteously as you can:' which the other did. And when he came to 'tout est perdu' she sang it over twice; then turning to the other side of the couch, she said to those who stood around: 'Tout est perdu a ce coup et a bon escient;' all is lost this time, sure.'"
Some of Ninon's Lovers
Notwithstanding her love of pleasure, and her admiration for the society of men, Ninon was never vulgar or common in the distribution of her favors, but selected those upon whom she decided to bestow them, with the greatest care and discrimination. As has been already said, she discovered in early life, that women were at a discount, and she resolved to pursue the methods of men in the acceptance or rejection of friendship, and in distributing her favors and influences. As she herself declared:
"I soon saw that women were put off with the most frivolous and unreal privileges, while every solid advantage was retained by the stronger sex. From that moment I determined on abandoning my own sex and assuming that of the men."
So well did she carry out this determination that she was regarded by her masculine intimates as one of themselves, and whatever pleasures they enjoyed in her society, were enjoyed upon the same principle as they would have delighted in a good dinner, an agreeable theatrical performance, or exquisite music.
To her and to all her associates, love was a taste emanating from the senses, a blind sentiment which assumes no merit in the object which gives it birth, as is the case of hunger, thirst, and the like. In a word, it was merely a caprice the domination of which depends upon ourselves, and is subject to the discomforts and regrets attendant upon repletion or indulgence.