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