Monsieur de Chauvelin's Will/Chapter IV

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CHAPTER IV

THE KING'S CHIRURGEON

APRIL 25, 1774, King Louis XV. lay abed in the Blue Room of the Chateau of Versailles; by his bedside, on a truckle-bed, slept the surgeon Lamartiniėre.

The clock in the Great Court was striking five o'clock in the morning, and the Chateau was just beginning to get astir. Folks were moving to and fro like restless phantoms, stepping discreetly so as not to disturb the Monarch's slumbers. For some time now Louis XV., wearied with late hours and dissipation, could only win a brief repose by the abuse of protracted periods of sleeplessness, and by help of narcotics, when the former means failed to produce any effect.

The King was no longer young; he was entering his sixty-fifth year. After draining to the dregs every possible form of pleasure, diversion and flattery, he had nothing new left to experience, and he felt sick to death of everything. It was the worst of all his maladies, this fever of life-weariness; acute under Madame de Châteauroux, it had become intermittent under Madame de Pompadour, and chronic under Madame du Barry.

To those who have nothing left to know there sometimes remains something to love; it is a sovereign resource against the disease that had attacked Louis XV. Rendered indifferent towards individual affection by the attention he had inspired in a whole nation and which had been exaggerated to a sort of frenzy, this habit of the heart had seemed to him too commonplace for a King of France to yield to. Louis XV. had been loved by his People, his wife and his mistresses; but Louis XV. himself had never loved anyone.

There remains yet another rousing preoccupation for men grown blase with life,—to wit pain. But Louis XV., apart from the two or three illnesses he had suffered from, bad never felt pain; find now, favoured mortal that he was, the sole premonition of old age he experienced was an increasing sensation of fatigue, which the physicians told him was a warning to prepare for old age.

Sometimes at those famous Choisy suppers, where the tables rose ready furnished through the floor, where the waiting was done by the pages of the private household, where the Comtesse du Barry challenged the King with naughty innuendos, the Duc d'Ayen strove to rouse him with his great laugh, and the bon-vivant Marquis de Chauvelin plied him with dainty raillery, Louis XV. would be surprised to find his hand slack to lift the glass of the sparkling wine he had once loved so well, his brow loth to pucker in that inextinguishable laughter which the sallies of Jeanne Vaubernier had of old evoked, Autumn flowers of merriment on the frontiers of his prime. His brain remained obstinately cold to the seductive pictures of life and love and pleasure within reach of the happy possessors of sovereign power, unlimited wealth and excellent health.

Louis XV. was not of an open disposition; he was one who brooded over joy and sorrow. It may be, thanks to this self-concentration, he would have made a great Politician, if as he used to say himself, he had ever had the time. No sooner therefore did he observe the change that was beginning in him than, instead of making up his mind and inhaling philosophically these first breezes of old age that furrow the brow and whiten the hair, he turned his thoughts inwards and began to note his own symptoms.

This is a thing to make the most lighthearted of men dismal, this analysis of joy and grief; analysis is a silence interposed between laughter and weeping. Till then the King had only been bored, now he was a prey to positive melancholy. He had ceased to laugh at Madame du Barry's broad jokes, he could not raise a smile at the Due d'Ayen's wicked stories, he was unmoved at the most friendly advances of Monsieur de Chauvelin, his bosom friend, the fidus Achates of his Royal escapades. Madame du Barry felt particularly aggrieved at this mournful attitude, which expressed itself by an especial coldness towards her.

The change set the doctors talking, and they declared that if the King were not already ill, he was certainly on the road to be so.

Accordingly, on the 15th of the preceding April, Lamartinière, First Surgeon to the King, after administering to his Majesty his monthly dose of medicine, had ventured to make certain observations which he deemed highly necessary.

"Sire," the worthy Lamartinière had asked him, "Your Majesty having left off drinking, and eating, and . . . . amusing yourself, what does your Majesty propose to do?"

"Why, bless me, my good sir," the Monarch had replied, "whatever I may find most diverting, outside all these pastimes."

"The truth is I do not know much in the way of novelty to offer your Majesty. Your Majesty has made war, your Majesty has tried patronising learned men and artists, your Majesty has loved women and champagne. Now, when a man has already tasted glory, flattery, love and wine, I protest to your Majesty that I search in vain for a muscle, a tissue, a nervous ganglion displaying the existence of any further aptitude for any fresh distraction."

"Ah! really," cried the King, "you really believe that, Lamartinière?"

"Sire, just think; Sardanapalus was a king of great intelligence, almost as great as your Majesty, albeit he lived something like two thousand eight hundred years ago. He loved life and pondered deeply on how to use it to the best advantage. I seem to have heard that he made minute investigations as to the means of so exercising body and mind as to lead to the discovery of new pleasures the least suspected. Well, I have never read in history that he discovered one single gratification you have not found out yourself."

"Alas, yes! Lamartinière."

"I make one exception. Sire—in favour of champagne, a wine which Sardanapalus did not know. On the contrary his beverage was the thick, heavy, sticky wines of Asia Minor, liquid flames that ooze from the pulp of the Greek grapes, wines that intoxicate to mad frenzy, while champagne produces but a gay insanity."

"True, my dear Lamartinière, very true; the wine of Champagne is a pretty wine, and I have loved it well. But tell me, did he not end by burning himself on a funeral pyre, this Sardanapalus of yours?"

"Yes, Sire; it was the sole sort of pleasure he had not yet essayed; he kept it for the last."

"And doubtless it was to make this pleasure as keen as might be that he burned himself along with his Palace, his treasures, his favourite Queen."

"It was so, Sire."

"Would you by any chance advise me then, my dear Lamartinière, to burn down Versailles, and with it to burn myself, together with Madame du Barry? "

"No, no, Sire. You have fought battles, you have witnessed conflagrations, you were yourself within the range of the guns of Fontenoy. Fire and flame therefore would be no new diversion for you. Come, let us go through your resources of defence against ennui."

"Oh! Lamartinière, I am very, very ill armed."

"Y'ou have, to begin with. Monsieur de Chauvelin, your friend ... a man of wit, . . . a . . ."

"Chauvelin has no wit now, dear sir."

"Since when has that been so?"

"Why, since I have felt this weight of boredom, egad!"

"Pooh!" cried Lamartinière, "'tis as though you were to say Madame du Barry is no longer a fine woman since . . ."

"Since what?" . . . asked the King, reddening somewhat.

"Oh! I am no fool!" retorted the Surgeon roughly.

"So," said the King with a deep sigh, "it is finally decided I am going to be ill."

"I am afraid so. Sire."

"A remedy, then, Lamartinière, suggest a remedy; let us anticipate the evil."

"Rest, Sire; I know no better."

"Good!"

"Diet."

"Good!"

"Amusement."

"Stop, stop, Lamartinière."

"Why, what do you mean?"

"You prescribe amusement, but you never tell me how I am to amuse myself. Well, I call you an ignoramus, a thick-headed ignoramus! do you hear me, sir?"

"And you are wrong, Sire. 'Tis your fault and not mine."

"How do you mean?"

"No one can amuse people who are bored when they have Monsieur de Chauvelin for their friend and Madame du Barry for their mistress."

A silence followed, seeming to show that the King admitted there was some sense in Lamartinière's last observation."

Presently the King resumed:

"Well, well, Lamartiniėre, my friend, since we are on the subject of illness, let us discuss the thing thoroughly anyway. You say I have enjoyed every amusement there is in the world, do you not? "

"I do, and I speak the truth."

"War for instance?"

"War! when you have won the battle of Fontenoy?"

"Yes, truly an amusing spectacle, men torn to tatters, four leagues long and a league broad reeking with blood, a stench of carnage to turn a man's stomach."

"In a word, glory."

"Then, besides, was it I who won the battle? was it not rather the Maréchal de Saxe? or the Duc de Richelieu? or better still Pecquigny with his four guns? "

"No matter; who but you was given the triumph of it all, nevertheless? "

"I grant that; so that you think a sufficient reason for my loving glory. Ah! my good Lamartinière," added the King with a groan, " if you only knew how uncomfortable my bed was the night before Fontenoy!"

"W'ell, so be it; we will say no more of personal glory; but surely, without caring to gain it yourself, you can have it given you, be glorified, by painters and poets and historians."

"Lamartinière, I have a perfect horror of all those fellows, who are either boobies as dull and commonplace as my own lackeys or else such monsters of selfconceit that my grandfather's triumphal arches would be too low for them. That Voltaire beats them all; did not the fellow clap me on the shoulder one evening, calling me Trajan, if you please? They tell him he is king of my kingdom, and the noodle believes it. I will have nothing to do, I tell you, with immortality such as these folk could give me; one musjt pay too dear for it in this perishable world, and perhaps even in the next."

"In that case, what do you wish. Sire? tell me that."

"I wish to make my life last as long as ever I can. I wish that life to contain the greatest possible number of things I love; and for that it is neither to the poets nor the philosophers nor the warriors I shall go. No, Lamartini^re, after God, understand, I only esteem (my mind is made up on the point) the doctors, — when they are good ones of course."

"Indeed!"

"So tell me the truth frankly, dear Lamartinière."

"I will, Sire."

" What is it I have to fear? "

" Apoplexy."

" It is a fatal complaint? "

"Yes, unless the patient is bled in time."

"Lamartinière, you shall never leave me."

"Impossible, Sire; I have my patients, my private patients."

"Very good! but it appears to me that my health, my private health, is as important to France and to Europe as that of all your patients put together. Every night your bed shall be made next to mine."

"Sire! . . ."

"What difference can it make to you whether you sleep here or elsewhere? You will reassure me by the mere fact of your presence, my dear Lamartinifere; you will frighten away the disease, I tell you, for disease knows you and knows it has no more redoubtable foe than you."

This is why the Surgeon Lamartini&re found himself, on April 25, 1774, lying on a truckle-bed in the Blue Room at Versailles about five o'clock in the morning, fast asleep, while the King for his part was lying awake.

Louis XV. who, as we have just stated, was lying awake, gave vent to a heavy sigh; but seeing that a sigh has no positive meaning by itself apart from what signification the utterer thereof attaches to it, Lamartinière, who was sleeping instead of sighing, heard it between his snores, but paid it, or rather appeared to pay it, not the smallest attention.

The King, finding that his Surgeon-in-Ordinary was insensible to this appeal, leant over the edge of the bed and by the light of the great wax candle that burned in its marble socket, gazed down at his medical attendant, whose face a thick soft blanket, drawn up to the very brim of his night-cap, hid from the most scrutinizing of looks.

"Oh dear!" moaned the King, "oh dear!"

Lamartinière heard this too; but seeing that an ejaculation may often escape a man in his sleep, there is no adequate reason for its rousing another from his slumbers. So the surgeon went on snoring.

"Lucky dog to be able to sleep like that!" muttered Louis XV. Then he added:

"What coarse, material fellows these doctors are! "—and therewith he made up his mind to wait a little longer. But after waiting a quarter of an hour to no purpose,

"Halloa, Lamartinière!" he called at last.

"Well, what is it. Sire?" asked his Majesty's doctor with a growl.

"Ah! my poor Lamartmière," repeated the King, groaning as dismally as he could.

" Well, what is it? "—and the surgeon, grumbling and grunting like a man who is sure his position will shield him, slipped out of bed,—to find the King seated on the side of his.

"Well, Sire, are you ill? " he asked.

"I think I am, my dear Lamartiniere," replied his Majesty.

"Ah! I see you are somewhat agitated."

"Very much agitated, yes."

"What at?"

"I have no notion."

"But I have," muttered the surgeon; "it is fear that is the matter with you."

"Feel my pulse, Lamartinière."

"Exactly what I am doing."

"Well?"

"Well, Sire, it beats eighty four to the minute,—which is very good for an old man."

"P'or an old man, Lamartinière?"

"Certainly."

"I am only sixty four; at sixty four a man is not old yet."

"A man is no longer young at any rate."

"Come now, what do you prescribe?"

"First, what do you feel?"

"I am stifling, I seem to be stifling."

"On the contrary you are cold."

"I must be red in the face."

"Nonsense, you are quite pale. One piece of advice, Sire,—try to get to sleep; it would really oblige us."

"I am not sleepy now."

"Come now, what does this excitement mean?"

"Egad! I think you ought to know, Lamartinière, or where is the use of being a doctor?"

"Have you had a bad dream?"

"Well, yes, I have."

"Just a dream!" cried Lamartinière, lifting his hands to heaven, "a dream!"

"Egad!" protested the King, "there are some dreams! "

"Well, well! come tell us your dream, Sire."

"It cannot be told, my friend."

"Why not? everything can be told."

"To a Confessor, yes."

"Then send for your Confessor, quick; meantime I will take my lancet away with me."

"A dream is sometimes a secret."

"Yes, and sometimes a question of remorse. Your Majesty is right; I will take my leave, Sire,"—and the doctor began to draw on his stockings and get into his breeches.

"Come, Lamartinière, come, never get angry, old friend. Well then, I dreamt . . . I dreamt they were carrying me to Saint-Denis."

"And that the hearse jolted you . . . Bah! when you come to make that journey. Sire, you will never notice it."

"How can you jest on such subjects?" the King expostulated with a shudder.

"No, I dreamt they were taking me to Saint-Denis, and that I was buried alive in the velvet of my coffin."

"Did you feel incommoded in the coffin, eh?"

"Yes, a little."

"Vapours, black humours, difficult digestion."

"Oh! but I ate no supper, yesterday."

"An empty stomach then."

"You think so?"

"Ah! now I have it; at what o'clock did you leave Madame la Comtesse yesterday?"

"Why, it is two days since I have so much as seen her."

"You are sulking,—black humours, you see, as I said."

"On the contrary it is she who is sulking at me. I promised her something I have failed to give her.

"Quick, give her this something, and find your cheerfulness again.

"I cannot, I am overwhelmed with melancholy."

"Ah, an idea! Go and breakfast with Monsieur de Chauvelin."

"Breakfast!" cried the King, " ah I that was all very well in the days when I had an appetite."

"This will never do!" expostulated the surgeon, folding his arms. " You will have nothing more to do with your friends, nothing more to do with your mistress, nothing more to do with your breakfast, and you think I am going to allow that? Well, Sire, I will tell you one thing, and that is, that if you change your habits at this time of day, you are a lost man."

"Lamartinière! my friend sets me yawning, my mistress sends me to sleep, my breakfast chokes me."

"Good! it is very certain you are ill then."

"Ah! Lamartinière," cried the King; "I have had many years of happiness."

"And you make that a grievance? what things men are!"

"No, I make no complaint of the past, it is the present I hate. The stoutest cart feels the wear and tear at least,"—and the King heaved a sigh.

"True, wear and tear, wear and tear," the surgeon repeated sententiously."

"So that the springs grow stiff and rusty," sighed the King, "and I long for rest."

"Very well then, go to sleep, go to sleep!" cried Lamartinière, getting into bed again.

"Let me complete my simile, my dear doctor."

"Can I be mistaken, or are you turning poet. Sire? Another nasty complaint that!"

"Not I! on the contrary you know I loathe them all, your poets. To gratify Madame de Pompadour, I made that common fellow Voltaire a gentleman; but since the day he dared to speak to me as an equal, calling me Titus or Trajan,—I don't know which it was, I have done with the business. I only mean to say, poetry apart, that I believe my time is come to put on the drag."

"You want to hear my advice. Sire? "

"I do, my friend."

Well then, Sire, my advice is,—don't do that, but take out the horse and give him a rest."

"It's hard," muttered Louis XV.

"But so it is. Sire, when I speak to the King, I call him Your Majesty; when I am dealing with my patient, I do not so much as say ' Sir ' to him. So now, Sir, give the nag a rest, and quick about it. Now the thing is settled, we have still an hour and a half left for sleep, Sire; so let us get to sleep."

So saying the Surgeon buried himself again under his blanket, and five minutes afterwards was snoring in so plebeian a fashion, that the rafters of the Blue Room positively quivered with indignation.