Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies/Volume I/Fourth Discourse (3.)

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3.

OF such sort be many fair dames, which in their old age be every whit as good as other women in their youth, and do give as great pleasure, from their having been in their time thoroughly well taught and trained. And be sure such lessons are not easily forgot. Then again the best of it is these be always most liberal and generous in giving, so as to keep in hand their cavalier and riders, which do get more money and demand an higher salary to bestride an old mount than a young one. 'Tis just the opposite with squires and real horsemen, which do never care so much to mount broke horses as young ones that be yet to break. However this is but reasonable after all.

There is a question I have seen debated on the subject of women of years, to wit: which doth bring the greater glory, to love a woman of years and have the enjoyment of her, or to so do with a young one. Not a few have I heard pronounce for the older woman. For they would maintain that the foolishness and heat which be in youth are of themselves debauched enough already and right easy to undo; whereas the prudence and coldness that would seem natural to age cannot but with difficulty be led astray. And so they which do succeed in corrupting such win the higher repute.

In like wise was the famous courtesan Laïs used to boast and glorify herself greatly of the fact that the philosophers did come so oft to visit her and learn in her school, more than of all the young and giddy folks which did frequent her society. So also Flora was ever proud to see great and dignified Roman senators arrive at her door, rather than young and foolish gallants. Thus methinks 'tis great glory to vanquish and overcome the wise prudence which should be in persons of ripe age, so far as pleasure and satisfaction go.

I do refer me to such men as have made experiment hereof, of the which sundry have told me how that a trained mount is ever more agreeable than a wild colt and one that doth not so much as know the trot. Furthermore, what pleasure and what greatest delight may not a man enjoy in mind, whenas he doth behold enter a ballroom, or one of the Queen's apartments, or a Church, or other place crowded with company, a lady of ripe years and dignity, de alta guisa (of lofty carriage) as they say in Italian, and above all a lady of honour to the Queen or some Princess, or the governess of some King's daughter, young queen or great princess, or mayhap mother of the maids of honour, one that is chose out and set in this high and sober office by reason of her modest and seemly carriage? You shall see her assuming all the part of the prudish, chaste and virtuous dame, while everybody doth of course suppose her so, by reason of her years; then what joy, when a man doth think in his heart, or e'en say it out to some trusty comrade and confidant of his, "Look at her yonder, with her solemn ways, her staid and cold and scornful mien! To see her, would you not deem butter would not melt in her mouth? Yet, alack-a-day! never a weathercock in all the wide world doth so shift and whirl so swift and nimbly as doth she."

For myself, I do verily believe the man which hath known this joy and can so say, is right well content at heart. Ha! ha! but I have known a many such dames in this world, which did counterfeit to be most modest, prudish and censorious duennas, yet were exceeding dissolute and lecherous when they did come to it. Yea! and they would be put on their backs far more than most young damsels, which, by reason of their too much inexperience, be afraid of the gentle strife! So do they say there is naught so good as old vixens for hunting abroad and getting food for their cubs to eat.

We read how of old days several Roman Emperors did take their pleasure in the debauching and having their will of suchlike high-born ladies of honour and repute, as well for the pleasure and contentment to be had therein,—and in good sooth there is more with such than with women of inferior sort,—as for sake of the glory and honour they did arrogate to themselves for having so debauched and bested them. So in like wise have I known in my own time not a few great Lords, Princes and Noblemen, which have found great boast and great content at heart, by reason of having done the same.

Julius Caesar and Octavius, his successor, were exceeding ardent after such sort of conquests, as I have alleged before; and after them Caligula, who summoning to his feasts the most illustrious Roman ladies together with their husbands, would gaze steadfastly at the same and examine them minutely, nay! would actually put out his hand and lift their faces up, if by chance any of them did hang their heads as conscious of being dames of honour and repute,—though truly other some were fain but to counterfeit this modesty, and play the shamefaced prude. But verily there cannot have been a many genuine prudes in the days of these dissolute Emperors; yet must they needs make the pretense, albeit nothing more. Else had the game not been worth the playing; and I have myself in our day seen many a fair lady do the like.

Afterward such of them as did hit the worthy Emperor's taste, these he would take aside openly and from their very husbands' side, and leading them from the hall would escort them to a privy chamber, where he would take his pleasure of them to his full content. This done he would lead them back to sit down once more in their place; and then before all the company would proceed to commend their beauties and special hidden charms that were in them, specifying these same separately and severally. And any which had any blemishes, faults or defects of beauty, these he would by no means let off in silence, but was used always to describe and declare the same openly, without disguising or concealing aught.

Nero was even yet worse than this, being so curious as that he did examine his own mother's dead body, gazing steadfastly upon the same and handling all her limbs and parts, commending some and abusing others.

I have heard the same thing told of sundry great Lords of Christian days, which have had this same strange curiosity toward their dead mothers.

Nor was this all with the said Caligula; for he was used to retail all their movements, their naughty ways and tricks, and the modes and fashions they did follow in their doing of it, and in special of any which had been modest and prudish, or which had made pretense to be so at table. For verily if a-bed they were fain to do the like, there is small doubt but the cruel tyrant did menace them with death, unless they would do all his pleasure for his full content, and so constrained them by the terror of execution. Then after would he speak despitefully of them to his heart's content, to the sore shame and general mockery of the poor dames, who thinking to be accounted chaste and modest as ever women can be, and to play the hypocrite and counterfeit donne da ben (virtuous ladies), were utterly and entirely revealed in their true colours and made known as mere harlots and wanton wenches. And truly this was no bad business so to discover them in a character they did never wish to be known. And better still, 'twas always, as I have said, great ladies that were so entreated, such as wives of consuls, dictators, praetors, quæstors, senators, censors, knights, and others of the highest estate and dignity, as we might say in our own days and Christian lands, mighty Queens, (which yet are not to be compared with Consuls' wives, seeing these were paramount over all men), Princesses of greater and less puissance, Duchesses, Marchionesses, and Countesses, great and small, Baronesses, Knights' dames, and the like ladies of rank and rich estate. And truly there is no doubt at all but that many Christian Emperors and Kings, if they had the power to do the like of the Emperor Caligula toward ladies of such quality, would avail themselves thereof. But then they be Christians, which have the fear of God before their eyes, his holy ordinances, their own conscience and honour, and the ill-repute of their fellows, to say naught of the ladies' husbands, to whose generous spirit suchlike tyranny would be unendurable. Wherein of a surety our Christian Kings be deserving of high esteem and commendation, thus to win the love of fair ladies rather by dint of gentleness and loving arts than by brute force and harsh rigour,—and the conquest so gained is by far a nobler one.

I have heard speak of two great Princes[1] which have taken exceeding pleasure in thus discovering their ladies' beauties, charms and especial graces, as well as their deformities, blemishes and defects, together with their little ways, privy movements and wanton wiles,—not however in public, as did Caligula, but in privity, with their close and particular friends. Truly a sad fashion to entreat the pretty persons of these poor ladies. Thinking to do well and sport agreeably for to pleasure their husbands, they be but scorned therefor and made a laughing-stock.

Well, to return to our former comparison,—just as we do see beautiful buildings based on better foundations and of better stone and material some than others, and for this cause endure longer in their glory and beauty, even so there be some dames of bodies so well complexioned and fairly fashioned, and endowed with so fine a beauty, as that time doth in no wise so prevail over them as with others, nor seem to undermine their comeliness at all.

We read in history how that Artaxerxes,[2] among all the wives he had, did love the most Astacia, which was a woman of very ripe age, yet still most beautiful, and had been the mistress of his late brother Darius. His son did fall so deep in love with her, so exceeding fair was she in spite of years, that he did demand to share her with his father, in the same way as his share of the Kingdom. But the father, angered by this and jealous at the notion of another sharing with him this dainty morsel, did make her Priestess of the Sun, forasmuch as in Persia women which hold this estate must vow themselves to absolute chastity.

We read again in the History of Naples how Ladislas, a Hungarian and King of Naples, did besiege in Taranto the Duchess Marie, widow of Rammondelo de Balzo, and after sundry assaults and feats of arms, did take her by arrangement with her children, and wed her, albeit she was of ripe years, yet exceeding fair to look upon, and carried her with him to Naples. She was thereafter known as Queen Marie and fondly loved and cherished of the King.

Myself once saw the fair Duchesse de Valentinois (Diane de Poitiers) at the age of seventy, as fair of face, as freshlooking and lovable as at thirty; and verily she was well loved and courted by one of the greatest and most gallant Kings in all the world. I may tell her age frankly, without wrong to the beauty of this fair lady, seeing whenever a lady is loved of a great King, 'tis sure sign perfection doth abundantly reside in her, and make her dear to him. And surely that beauty which is given of heaven should never be spared in favour of heaven's demigods.

I saw this lady, six months before she died, still so very fair I can imagine no heart so flinty as not to have been stirred thereby, and though a while before she had broke a leg on the stony pavement of Orleans, riding and sitting her horse as lightly and cleverly as she had ever done. But the horse slipped and fell under her; and for this broken limb, and all the pains and sufferings she did endure, one would have thought her fair face must have been changed. But nothing of the sort, for her beauty, grace, majesty and gallant mien were just what they had ever been. And above all, she did possess an extraordinary whiteness of skin, without any recourse had to paint; only 'tis said that every morning she did employ certain washes compounded of spring water and sundry drugs, the which I cannot name like good doctors or cunning apothecaries can. I do believe that if this fair lady had lived yet another hundred years, she would never have aged, whether in face, so excellently framed was it, or in body, the parts covered and concealed that is, of such excellent temper and good condition was this. The pity is earth should ever cover these beauteous forms!

Likewise myself have seen the Marquise de Rothelin,[3] mother of the Dowager Princess de Condé and the late deceased M. de Longueville, in no wise diminished of her beauty by time or age, but keeping the fresh flower of her youth as aforetime, except only that her face did grow something redder toward the end. Yet did her beautiful eyes, that were unmatched in all the world, and which her daughter hath inherited, never alter, but were to the last as meet to wound hearts as ever.

Another I have seen in like case was Madame de la Bourdaisière,[4] afterward by a second marriage wife to the Maréchal d'Aumont. This lady in her later days was so fair to look on you would have said she was in her early youth still, and her five daughters, all beautiful women, did in no wise eclipse her. And readily enough, if the choice had been to make, would a man have left the daughters to take the mother in preference; yet had she borne a number of children. And truly of all women she did most take heed of her good looks, for she was a mortal enemy of the night damp and moonlight, and did avoid these all ever she could. The ordinary use of paint for the face, practised by so many ladies, was quite unknown to her.

I have also seen, and this is a more striking instance still, Madame de Mareuil, mother of the Marquise de Mézières and grandmother of the Princess-Dauphin, at the age of an hundred, at which she died, looking as fresh and upright, as alert, healthy and comely as at fifty. She had been a very handsome woman in her younger days.

Her daughter, the Marquise de Mézières named above, was of like sort and died in the like good case, but she was twenty years younger when this took place, and her figure had shrunk somewhat. She was aunt of Mme. de Bourdeille, my elder brother's wife, and did bring him the like excellent qualities. For albeit she have passed her fiftythird year and hath had fourteen children, one may truthfully say this,—and others which see her are of better judgment than I, and do assure me of the fact,—that the four daughters she hath by her side do look like her own sisters. So do we often see winter fruits, and relics of the past season, match those of Summer itself, and keep their sweetness, and be as fine and savour as these, and even more.

The Amirale de Brion too, and her daughter, Mme. de Barbézieux,[5] did continue very handsome women to quite old age.

I have been told of late how that the fair Paule de Toulouse,[6] so renowned of old days, is yet as beautiful as ever, though she is now eighty-four, and no change is to be seen, whether in her fine, tall figure or her beautiful face.

Another I have seen is the Présidente de Conte, of Bordeaux, of equal age and equal beauty, in all ways most lovable and desirable; and indeed she was a woman of many perfections. Many other such could I name, but I should never have done.

A young Spanish knight speaking of love to a lady of advanced age, but still handsome, she did make him this answer: A mis completas desta manera me habla V. M.? "How can you speak so to my complines?" meaning to signify by complines her age and the decline of her best days, and the approach of night. The knight did reply: Sus completas valen mas, y son mas graciosas que las horas de prima de qualquier otra dama, "Your complines are better worth, and more fair and delectable than the hours of prime of any other lady." A very pretty conceit surely!

Another speaking in like wise of love to a lady of ripe years, and she making objection to him of her withered beauty,—which yet was not over and above so,—did thus answer her: A las visperas se conoce la fiesta,—"at vespers is the feast at its best."