Francesca Carrara/Chapter 21

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CHAPTER XXI.

"When factious Rage to cruel exile drove
The Queen of Beauty and the court of Love,
The Muses droop'd, with their forsaken arts,
And the sad Cupids broke their useless darts."
Dryden.

Courted, flattered, and caressed, Francesca could scarcely believe such a change could have so rapidly taken place, and on what, moreover, appeared such slight grounds. Though more thoughtful than Madame de Mercœur, yet it asked far more knowledge of society—that wilderness of small intricacies—for her to penetrate into the motives of those who seemed so suddenly struck with her fascination; but she was too clear-headed to be deceived, and set it all down under one general belief in caprice. Still, it was pleasant to have a little circle gather round her, where before she had sat in solitary silence; it was pleasant, also, to have half a dozen cavaliers for the dance, of which she had hitherto been little more than a spectator; and it was not very disagreeable to hear how beautiful she was, from even the elderly dames of the court.

The gardens around Compiegne were very extensive; and sunshine and the open air seemed to give something of their own freedom to the gaiety which prevailed.

Most days, Francesca was called on to sing to the Queen, and, by some chance or other, Louis was constantly present, and often entered into conversation with her. He talked to her of Rome, and appeared to take great pleasure in exciting her enthusiasm, which dwelt delightedly on the bygone glories of the Eternal City; or took a more touching tone, when painting its present desolation,—yet lovely, and even sacred, in its ruins. It was very new to him, and herein was the secret charm.

Mademoiselle Mancini pouted, and revenged herself by an affectation of extreme intimacy; whispering to him even in his mother's presence, who now scarcely concealed her displeasure; and by tormenting her uncle with perpetual reproaches for what she termed his neglect of her interests. An old Italian exclaimed one day, as she left Mazarin's chamber, "I hear, Signora, many complaints of my master; but, truly, you avenge them all."

In the meantime, Francesca's favour with the Queen apparently increased daily; she was even named to accompany her en calèche, with Madame de Mercœur and Christina, the day previous to the departure of the latter.

The morning was delicious, and, arrived at a sheltered portion of the gardens, they alighted for the sake of walking. In the first avenue which they entered, they met Voiture. Voiture belonged to a race of poets essentially French, who sacrificed to the graces instead of the muses; to whom Cupid, with his wings and arrows, was the ideal of love, and whose art of poetry consisted in epigram, tournure, readiness, and facility. Mademoiselle expressed the spirit of the times, when she said, "Trifles weary me, excepting verses, and I am fond of them."

But the passion which gives its deep and melancholy tone to our English imaginative literature was unknown across the channel. Feeling never got beyond sentiment; and that bien arrangé. The heart's faith was but la galanterie—a term, by the by, which our word gallantry does not translate. Voiture carried this talent to perfection. His letters were charming—full of point and flattery; and his conversation sparkled with bon-mots and compliments. The Queen beckoned him to approach, and the whole party seated themselves by a fountain, beneath the extended boughs of a large old chestnut-tree.

"A scene from Bocaccio," said Christina; "nothing wanting but the lovers."

"I should like," said Anne, "to know of what M. Voiture is thinking,—he seems so lost in meditation!"

"It is sometimes," replied the poet, "dangerous to give utterance to one's thoughts; I claim full pardon for the presumption of mine."

"On one condition," said the Queen—"that you give them expression."

Voiture smiled, and, fixing his eyes on the shadow of the Queen in the water, repeated the following verses:—

"Je pensais que la destinée,
Après tant d'injustes malheurs,
Vous a justement couronnée
De gloire, d'éclat, et d'honneurs:
Mais que vous étiez plus heureuse,
Lorsque vous étiez autrefois,
Je ne veut pas dire amoureuse
La rime le veut toutefois.

"Je pensais que ce pauvre amour,
Qui toujours vous prêta ses armes,
Est banni loin de votre cour,
Sans ses traits, son arc, ses charmes,

Et ce que je puis profiter,
En passant près de vous ma vie,
Si vous pouvez si maltraiter
Ceux qui vous ont se bien servie.

"Je pensais, car nous autres poètes
Nous pensons extravagamment,
Ce que dans l'humeur où vous êtes,
Vous feriez si dans ce moment
Vous avisiez en cette place
Venir le Duc de Bokingham?
Et lequel serait en disgrace
De lui ou du Père Vincent?"

"Have I exceeded my poetical licence?" said Voiture, dropping on one knee.

"Ah! the follies of youth are now as nothing in my sight, God be praised!" said Anne; "I have long learnt to fix my wandering thoughts on graver subjects than the vain flatteries in which the young delight. Still, your verses are charming, and you must copy them for me." She extended her hand, which Voiture kissed with all possible devotion.

"I do not often," replied he, "task my memory with such trifles; but your Majesty's commands would impress the very air that passes on my mind."

"I should like," interrupted Christina, "to have seen the Duke of Buckingham; there was something picturesque and romantic about him, infinitely to my taste;—and was he so very handsome?"

"Very: but we are talking such nonsense!" answered Anne; not, however, with an air as if the nonsense displeased her.

"I have heard," continued Christina, "that it was quite a passion de Roman, and that the war with England was entirely caused by l'amour de vos beaux yeux."

"Rather a desperate method of recommending himself to my favour."

"Ah! women like to have desperate things done on their account; besides, people in love never calculate on probabilities. I daresay the Duke dreamed of winning you, like an Amadis, sword in hand."

"And, like most dreamers, woke, and found out his mistake."

"Pardieu!—it does not the least surprise me: if people will be beautiful, they must take the consequence. By the by, what trash the Queen of England talked the other night, when she contended, that no woman retained her beauty after five-and-twenty. I am sure, in this kingdom, such a speech is lèse majesté. But her fault brings its own punishment, for she spoke feelingly; God knows! there is little vestige of the lovely Henriette in her care-worn countenance."

Few persons flattered with greater audacity than the ex-Queen of Sweden; but it was amazing how much the appearance of flattery was done away with by her abrupt manner, and seeming carelessness as to whether what she said was even heard. But the discourse was interrupted by the approach of a large party, who, as soon as they perceived the Queen, advanced to pay their court. Among these was Evelyn, who drew near to Francesca with an unusual degree of anxiety.

"Dearest Francesca," he exclaimed, as soon as, by drawing her a little aside, the branches of a flowering shrub somewhat concealed them, "I think I may trust you, and will, therefore, as hastily as possible, make my request. The English Ambassador arrives here to-day, and it is of the utmost consequence that no suspicion should be entertained of my correspondence with Queen Henriette,—all my present sources of information would be at once closed. The visit is unexpected; and I dare not risk sending, still less dare I myself communicate, any intelligence. Will you take charge of a letter, and watch your opportunity for giving it unperceived?"

"Oh, yes," exclaimed Francesca; "And I think I could manage to do it this evening; as, after the play, there is a sort of fête at the Cardinal's."

"Good: the Queen will he sure to be there."

"Where is the letter?"

"Not yet written; but I will venture into the theatre to-night. I will bring you a bouquet of flowers—round them will be a note; and be careful to excite no suspicion in giving it."

Francesca promised, and the Queen advancing towards the calèche, hastily followed her. The carriage drove off; though not till Anne had given Voiture a most gracious smile, and bid him remember the verses.