Monsieur de Chauvelin's Will/Chapter IX
VENUS AND PSYCHE
THE morning after his despatch to Grosbois, Louis XV.'s first word was to ask for the Marquis de Chauvelin and his first look to see if he had arrived. The Marquis had travelled all night and appeared at the King's first 'lever.'
"Good, Marquis, good," cried the King, "so here you are. Good Lord! what a long time you have been away!"
"Sire, 'tis the first, and it shall be the last time of my leaving you; if I quit you again, it will be for ever . . . But indeed the King is very gracious to think I have been long absent; I have been but four and twenty hours away."
"You think so, dear friend; well, Well, it is that confounded prophecy that keeps knelling in my ears. So, not seeing you at your usual post, I imagined you were dead, and then, you understand . . . ?"
"I understand perfectly. Sire."
"However, let us say no more about it. Here you are, that is the main point. Very true the Countess still bears us a grudge; she is angry with you for having said what you did to her, and annoyed with me for having recalled you to Court after insulting her so outrageously. But never heed her ill humour; time will smoothe every difficulty, and the King will give time a helping hand."
"I thank you, Sire."
"Now tell me, what have you been doing during your exile?"
"Just think, Sire, I came very near being converted."
"I understand you are beginning to repent having sung the seven mortal sins in verse."
"Oh! if I had never done worse than sing them!"
"My cousin of Conti was talking to me of your lines only yesterday; he was delighted with them."
"Sire, I was a young man then, and impromptus came easy to me. I was there, at the Ile-Adam, alone with seven charming women. The Prince de Conti was away at the chase, while I was left at home at the Château, and made the ladies . . . verses. Ah! 'twas a fine time, a glorious time, Sire."
"Marquis, do you take me for your Father Confessor, and is this what you mean by your repentance?"
"My Confessor,—ah! yes, Your Majesty is right; this very morning I had appointed to confer with a Camaldulensian father at Grosbois."
"Alas! poor man, what an opportunity for worming out your secrets he has missed! Should you have told him everything, Chauvelin?"
"Everything, without exception, Sire."
"Truly, 'twould have been a long sitting!"
"My God! Sire, besides my own particular sins, I have so many sins of other folks' upon my conscience, above all I have . . ."
"You have mine, you would say? Those, Chauvelin, I dispense you from revealing; a man need only confess his own faults."
"Still, Sire, sin is appallingly epidemic at Court. I am but just come, and already I have heard speak of a strange adventure."
"An adventure, Chauvelin, and whom have they credited with this adventure of yours, pray?"
"Whom do they credit with most happy adventures, Sire?"
"Egad!" it should be myself."
"Or perhaps . . ."
"Or perhaps the Comtesse du Barry, eh?"
"You have guessed. Sire?"
"What! the Comtesse du Barry has been sinning? Plague on't, tell me about it, Chauvelin."
"I don't say that the escapade is exactly a sin in itself, I only say it came into my head in talking of sins."
"Now, Marquis, what is this escapade? tell me directly."
"What! directly, Sire? "
"Yes; you know kings are not fond of waiting."
"Sire, the thing is serious."
"Pooh! perhaps a difference of opinion with my little daughter-in-law?"
"Sire, I cannot deny it."
"There, the Countess will end in quarrelling with the Dauphine, and then, my word . . ."
"Sire, I think the Countess is by this time in full quarrel."
"With the Dauphine?"
"No; but with another little daughter-in-law of yours."
"What, the Comtesse de Provence?"
"Good! a pretty kettle of fish we have now? Look here, Chauvelin; is it the Comtesse de Provence who brings this complaint?"
"So they tell me."
"In that case the Comte de Provence will write the most odious epigrams on my poor Countess. Do what she will, she will be whipped in fine style."
"Then, Sire, 'twill only be a Roland for an Oliver, after all."
"What do you mean?"
"Just think, the Marquise de Rosen "That pretty little brunette, eh? the Comtesse de Provence's friend?"
"Yes, the lady Your Majesty has looked at so often in the last month."
"Oh! I have had scolding enough about it from a certain quarter, Marquis? Well, you say . . ."
"Who scolded you. Sire?"
"Egad! the Countess of course."
Well, Sire, if the Countess has scolded you, she has done more than scold somebody else!"
"Explain yourself, Marquis; you frighten me."
"Egad! Sire, I wish to frighten you."
"What! it is really serious then?"
"Well, it seems that . . . that———do you know, Sire, it is harder to tell about than it was to do."
"Really you frighten me, Marquis. Till now I supposed you were joking. But if there is something really serious that has happened, come, let us be serious about it."
At this moment the Due de Richelieu entered.
"News, Sire," he announced with a smile both ingratiating and uneasy,—the former by way of currying favour with the Monarch, the latter because it was a difficult and doubtful matter to break the influence of this favourite who had been recalled to Versailles after one day's exile.
"News,—and where from, my dear Duke? " inquired the King. Then, looking round, he saw the Marquis de Chauvelin laughing in his sleeve.
"You are laughing, old friend; but you don't look merry," he called to him.
"Sire, the storm is going to break; I can see it by the mournful looks the Due de Richelieu wears."
"You are mistaken. Marquis; I said I had news; very true, but I do not undertake to tell it."
"But how, pray, am I to know it else?"
"A page of Madame de Provence's household is in your antechamber with a letter from his mistress; Your Majesty has only to give your orders."
"Oh, ho!" cried the King, who would have been only too glad to refer all the blame to the Comte or Comtesse de Provence, whom he disliked, "since when, pray, have the sons of France or their wives been used to write letters to the King instead of appearing in person at his 'lever'?"
"Presumably the letter will give Your Majesty the reason for this breach of etiquette."
"Get the letter, Duke, and give it me."
The Duke bowed and left the presence; then returning in a moment and handing the letter to the King, "Sire," he said, "do not forget that I am Madame du Barry's friend, and that by anticipation I constitute myself her advocate."
The King threw a glance at Richelieu and opened the letter. His face darkened perceptibly as he mastered the contents.
"Oh!" he muttered, "this is going too far; you have undertaken a thankless task, Duke. Upon my word, Madame du Barry is a perfect madwoman."
Then turning towards the officers of his household, " Go some of you this very instant and greet Madame de Rosen from me; ask after her health and tell her I will receive her immediately after my 'lever,' before going to mass. Poor Marquise! dear little woman!"
Each looked at the other. Was a new planet about to rise on the horizon of Royal favour? Nothing more likely. The Marquise was young and pretty. Appointed twelve months before this date a lady in attendance on Madame de Provence she had struck up an intimacv with the reigning favourite and attended all her private entertainments, where the King had often seen her. However, at the instigation of the Princess, who felt aggrieved at these friendly relations, she had suddenly left off frequenting Madame du Barry's society, whereat the latter had exhibited no small annoyance. So much the Count already knew. The present letter, the contents of which were a secret to everybody else, had affected the King profoundly. He looked thoughtful, spoke only a word or two to a few special intimates, and dismissed the company sooner than usual, after bidding Monsieur de Chauvelin to remain behind. The ceremonial ended, everybody quitted the King's chamber, and his Majesty being informed that Madame de Rosen was at the door, he ordered her to be admitted. She entered in the most pathetic guise, her eyes streaming with tears, and threw herself on her knees before the King, who at once raised her from that humble posture.
"Forgive me, Sire," she began, "for having invoked such august protection in order to win access to Your Majesty; but indeed, indeed I felt so desperate . . ."
"Oh! I forgive you with all my heart, Madame; I have to thank my grandson for using his influence to unlock a door for you which henceforward shall be always open for your admission. But for the matter of complaint . . . the main point."
The Marquise only dropped her eyes.
"Come, I am pressed for time," resumed the King; " they wait my coming to mass. Is it really true what you write here? Can the Countess have actually allowed herself to . . . "
"Oh! Sire, my cheeks still burn with shame at the thought. I am here to crave justice of the King. Never was a lady of quality so treated before."
"What! really and truly," asked the Monarch, smiling in spite of himself, "treated like a disobedient little girl, without any mitigation at all?"
"Yes, Sire, at the hands of four waitingmaids, under her own eyes, in her own boudoir," the young Marquise assured him, her eyes still fixed on the ground.
"Plague on't!" returned the King, whose mind ran riot among these piquant details, "the Countess never said a word about this little plan of hers." Then with the leer of a satyr, "and how did it all happen? tell me about it, Marquise."
"Sire," replied the poor girl, blushing more hotly than ever, "she invited me to breakfast. I excused myself on the plea of being so much occupied with my duties about the person of her Royal Highness, which begin at eight o'clock in the morning. She sent word I was to come at seven and that she would not detain me long; as a matter of fact. Sire, it was not half an hour before I left her apartments."
"You may make your mind easy, Madame, I will have an explanation with the Countess, and justice shall be done you. But in your own interests, I beg you not to talk overmuch about your mishap. Above all your husband must not hear a word of it; husbands are devilish prudish about such things."
"Oh! Sire, Your Majesty may be assured that for my part I shall know how to hold my tongue; but my enemy the Countess, I feel convinced she has already boasted of her exploit to all her most intimate friends, and to-morrow all the Court will be in the secret . . . Oh God! oh God! what an unhappy woman I am,"———and the fair Marquise hid her face in her hands, at the imminent risk of washing away the rouge with her tears.
"Be comforted. Marquise," said the King soothingly; "the Court could not find a prettier souffre-doulerr than you. If they talk about the thing, it is only because they are sorry to have missed the sight, just as the gods did in Olympus once à propos of the same little mishap befalling Psyche. I could mention some of our fine ladies who could not find the same consolation so easily as you. You, Marquise, have nothing to regret in what happened,"
The Marquise curtsied and blushed more furiously still, if such a thing were possible. The King gazed entranced at her scarlet cheeks and becoming tears.
"Now then," he went on, " go back to your room and dry those pretty eyes. To-night at the tables we will arrange the whole matter, I pledge you my word," — and with the gallantry and grace that marked his blood, the King conducted the young Marquise back to the door, whence she had to make her way through the crowd of staring, wondering, inquisitive courtiers. The Due d'Ayen, captain of the King's Bodyguard, stepped up to the Monarch and bowing silently before him, awaited His Majesty's commands.
"To mass, Duke, to mass,—now I have done my part as Father Confessor," ordered the Sovereign.
"So charming a penitent can have committed none but charming faults, Sire."
"Alas! poor child, 'tis not her own sins she expiates," observed the King, as he strode down the Great Gallery on his way to the Chapel Royal. The Duc d'Ayen followed his master, keeping one step in the rear,—near enough to hear and answer questions, but without actually walking side by side with the Sovereign, according to the rules of etiquette.
"A man would be too happy to be her accomplice, even in a crime. Sire."
"Her sin is really the Countess's."
"Oh! the King knows what to think in that quarter."
"Doubtless they caluminate the good Countess. She is extravagant, sometimes even, as on the present occasion, a perfect madcap, and I mean to take her to task about it, but she has an excellent heart. Say what ill they like of her, I shall not believe a word. Lord! I know very well I am not her first lover, and that in her good graces I succeeded Radix de Sainte-Foy."
"Yes, Sire," retorted the Duke, with the spice of malice concealed under the most urbane manner that was characteristic of the man, "as Your Majesty succeeded Pharamond,—after an interval."
The King, for all his wit, was no match for so hard a hitter, if he confined himself to mere repartee. He felt the stab, but pretended not to see the point. He hastened to accost a Chevalier of Saint Louis whom he happened to see as he passed. Louis XV. was good-natured and condescending, permitting a great deal of licence to his intimates, and provided he was amused, caring little about anything else. The Duc d'Ayen in particular was privileged to say whatever came to the tip of his tongue. Madame du Barry, all powerful as she was, never dreamt of combating his influence; his name, his position, his wit raised him above attack. During mass the King's thoughts often wandered to the tempest this new escapade of Madame du Barry's would raise, if it were to reach the Dauphin's ears. That Prince had indeed only the day before spoken his mind pretty freely to the Countess, who in spite of his wishes had pushed her nephew the Vicomte du Barry into an equerry's post in his household.
"Don't let him come near me," the Dauphin had declared, "or I shall order my people to turn him out."
Obviously this state of mind did not promise much complaisance towards the coarse practical joke the Countess had indulged in. Louis XV. accordingly left the Chapel Royal in a state of no small embarrassment. Before proceeding to the council chamber, he paid a visit to the Dauphine, whom he found superbly dressed and wearing in her hair a diamond spray beautifully mounted.
"That is a magnificent ornament in your hair," observed the King.
"You think so, Sire? Strange Your Majesty does not recognise it? "
"Recognise it? I recognise it?"
"Of course, for was it not Your Majesty who ordered them to bring it to my rooms."
"I don't know what you mean."
"Yet the thing lies in a nutshell. Yesterday a jeweller came to the Palace with this ornament of fleurs-de-lis and surmounted with the crown of France, which Your Majesty had commissioned. Since the day God took the Queen from us, I alone, he supposed, had the right to wear such a jewel. So he offered it to me, after your orders and no doubt according to your intentions."
The King reddened, but said nothing.
"More storms brewing," he thought to himself. " The Countess might surely have avoided giving fresh cause for trouble with this silly Marquise affair"———"Shall you be at the cards this evening, Madame? " he added aloud.
"If Your Majesty so commands."
"Command you, my daughter! Nay, I ask you to come, it will give me pleasure."
The Dauphine bowed coldly. The King saw she did not mean to unbend; so he left her, saying he had to attend a council.
"My children do not love me," he said to the Due d'Ayen, who had been by his side all along.
"The King is mistaken," the latter replied. " I can assure Your Majesty you are at least as much beloved by your august children as you love them yourself."
Louis XV. understood the double entendre', but showed no sign of vexation. Such was his established custom. Otherwise he would have to banish the Due d'Ayen ten times a day, and since the grief and annoyance Monsieur de Chauvelin's absence had caused him, he realized more than ever how indispensable the society of his favourite courtiers was to him.
"Pooh!" he would say, "they may tickle me as much as they please, my hide is tough enough. It will last out m^y time; my successor must do as he can."
Strange such apathy and indifference,—for which the unhappy Louis XVI. was to pay the fatal penalty.