Monsieur de Chauvelin's Will/Chapter V

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CHAPTER V

THE KING RISES

THE King thus left to himself, made no attempt to interrupt the self-willed doctor, whose snores went on, as regular as clockwork, for the full time he had mentioned. Half-past six struck. As the valet de chambre was about to enter, Lamartinière got up and slipped away into a neighbouring closet, while they removed his bed. Then he wrote a paper of directions for the assistant doctors, and took his departure.

The King ordered his personal attendants to come in first, and then to admit those privileged to enjoy the grande entreé. He bowed without speaking and then stretched out his legs for the valets to put on his stockings, fasten his garters and throw his dressing-gown about his shoulders. This done, he knelt down at his prie-Dicu, sighing audibly several times in the midst of the general silence. Every one had followed the King's example, and all were engaged in prayer,—though it must be admitted with an attention that was apt to wander. The King meantime kept turning round from time to time to gaze at the balustrade behind which usually gathered the most favoured and most cherished of his courtiers.

"What is the King looking for? " the Duo de Richelieu and the Duc d'Ayen asked each other in a whisper.

"He is not looking for us anyway; he could find us readily enough" said the Duc d'Ayen; "but stay, the King is getting up!"

In fact Louis XV. had finished his prayers, or rather had been so much preoccupied in mind that he had said none.

"I do not see my Master of the Wardrobe," said the King, looking about him.

"Monsieur de Chauvelin? " asked the Due de Richelieu.

"The same."

"But, Sire, he is here."

"Where, pray?"

"Yonder! " declared the Duke, turning round. Then suddenly he ejaculated an " Ah " of great surprise.

"What now? " demanded the King.

"Monsieur de Chauvelin is still at his prayers!"

It was true; the Marquis de Chauvelin, that amiable Pagan, that gay companion of the Monarch's little impieties, that witty enemy of the gods in general and of God in particular, had remained on his knees, not only against his habit, but also against etiquette, now that the King had finished his prayers.

"Well, well, Marquis," the King asked him with a laugh, "are you asleep?"

The Marquis rose slowly from his knees, made the sign of the cross and bowed to the King with deep respect.

Everybody was accustomed to laugh whenever Monsieur de Chauvelin was in a laughing mood; they thought now he was making fun and laughed as usual, the King amongst the number.

But almost immediately recovering his seriousness,

"Come, come. Marquis," said Louis XV., "you know I do not like jesting with sacred subjects. However, as you wish, I presume, to divert me, I must forgive you for the wish's sake; only I give you fair warning you have your work before you," he added with a sigh; " for indeed I am as dismal as a death's head."

"You dismal, Sire?" exclaimed the Duc d'Ayen, "and pray, what can it be saddens your Majesty?"

"My health, Duke! my health which is failing! I have Lamartinière to sleep in my chamber to give me confidence; but the maniac makes it his business to frighten me instead. Happily you seem in a laughing mood here,—eh, Chauvelin?'

But the King's challenge fell flat. The Marquis de Chauvelin himself, whose keen, mocking face was generally so ready to reflect the King's merry mood, the Marquis, so finished a courtier that he had never been known to lag behind, whatever wish the King expressed, the Marquis for once, instead of fulfilling the King's desire to be amused, remained stern and solemn, utterly absorbed in a fit of inexplicable gravity.

Some of those present, so remote was this gloom from Monsieur de Chauvelin's habitual bearing, thought the Marquis was but carrying on a jest, and that this gravity was the prelude to a wild burst of uproarious laughter. But the King this morning had no patience for waiting; so he began at once to rally the favourite on his melancholy.

"Why, what the deuce is wrong with you, Chauvelin?" asked the Monarch; "are you by way of continuing my last night's dream? Do you want to have yourself buried too, you of all people?"

"Oh! .... can your Majesty really have been dreaming such horrid things?" asked Richelieu.

"Yes, a nightmare, Duke. But egad! What I have to bear in my sleep, I should much prefer not to come across again when I am awake. Now, come, Chauvelin, what is wrong?"

But the Marquis only bowed by way of answer.

"Speak, man, speak, I order you to!" cried the King.

"Sire," answered the Marquis, "I have been reflecting."

"On what?" asked the astonished Monarch.

"On God! Sire"; is it not the beginning of wisdom?"

This preface, so cold and austere, made the poor King shudder. Bestowing a more attentive look on the Marquis, he discovered in his tired, age-worn features the probable reason for this unwonted melancholy.

"The beginning of wisdom?" he said.

"Well, well, I shall not be much surprised if this beginning has no sequel; it is too tiresome altogether. But you were not reflecting on God and nothing else. What else were you reflecting on?"

"On my wife and children, whom I have not seen for many a long day, Sire."

"True, true, Chauvelin, you are married and the father of a family; I had forgotten the fact; and you must have too, I should think, for during all the fifteen years we have enjoyed each other's society every day, this is the first time you have ever mentioned them to me. Well, well, if you are so enamoured of family life, bring them here; I will raise no objection, and your quarters in the Château are big enough, I should suppose."

"Sire," replied the Marquis, "Madame de Chauvelin lives in great retirement and in the strict exercise of her religion, and ..."

"And she would be shocked at our Versailles doings, eh I understand. 'Tis like my daughter Louise, whom I cannot get away from Saint-Denis. In that case I can see no way out of the difficulty, my dear Marquis.

"I crave the King's pardon; there is one."

"To wit?"

"My term of service is up to-night ; if the King would permit me to go to Grosbois to spend a few hours with my family."

"You are joking. Marquis. What, leave me?"

"I will come back. Sire; but I should not like to die without having made some testamentary arrangements."

"Die! devil take the man! what business has he to talk of dying? How old are you. Marquis?"

"Sire, I am ten years younger than your Majesty, though I look ten years older."

The King turned his back on the unfortunate wit, and addressing himself to the Due de Coigny, who was standing close to the Royal dais.

"Ah! there you are, Duke," he said; "you come at the very right moment; they were talking about you the other evening at supper. Is it true you have given hospitality, in my Castle of Choisy, to that poor fellow Gentil-Bernard,—a good deed, and a praiseworthy. Still, if all the Governors of my Castles did the same and sheltered poets run mad, there would be nothing left for me but to go and live at Bicetre. How is the poor wretch?"

"Still very bad, Sire."

"And how did this happen to him?"

"Why, because he lived a bit too merry a life in former days, and above all because he would play the young man quite recently."

"Ah yes! I understand. Of course, he is a very old man."

"I ask the King's pardon, but he is only a year older than your Majesty."

"Really and truly this is unbearable,"

cried the King, turning his back on the Duc de Coigny; "not content with being gloomy as tombstones to-day, they must be as stupid as owls into the bargain."

The Duc d'Ayen, one of the wittiest men of that witty age, saw the King's growing ill-humour, and fearing to feel some of the effects of it himself, he determined to put an end to it as soon as might be, and stepped two paces forward to bring his presence to the King's notice. He wore on waistcoat, gaiters and coat gold embroideries so large and splendid they could not fail to attract attention. The King soon noticed him, and cried:

"Why, upon my word, Duke, you shine like the sun. What, have you robbed a coach? I thought all the broiderers in Paris were ruined since the Comte de Provence's marriage, when never a Courtier paid them and the Princes deemed it best not to come,—for want of money, or want of credit, no doubt."

"So they are all ruined, Sire."

"Who? the Princes, the broiderers, or the Courtiers."

"Why, all of them, I think, more or less. But the broiderers are the cleverest; they will get out of their difficulties."

"How?"

"By the new invention you see here,"—and he pointed to his finery.

"I don't understand."

"Yes, Sire, these clothes embroidered like this are called à la chancellière."

"I am as much in the dark as ever."

"There is only one way to make your Majesty understand the riddle; that would be to quote the verses these scamps of Parisians have made, but I dare not do that."

"You dare not, you, Duke," laughed the King.

"My word! no, Sire; unless I have the King's express orders."

"You have them."

"Your Majesty will at any rate remember that I am only obeying orders. Well, here are the lines:

"On fait certains galons de nouvelle matière;
Mais ils ne sont que pour jours de galas.
On les nomme a la chancellière.
Pourquoi? C'est qu'ils sont faux et ne rougissent pas.[1]

The Courtiers looked at each other, astounded at such audacity, then all turned with one accord towards Louis XV. in order to mould the expression of their faces on his. The Chancellor Maupeou, then at the height of his favour and supported by the King's favourite mistress, was too lofty a personage for men to dare listen to the epigrams which were constantly being directed against him. The Monarch smiled, after that all lips smiled; he made no reply, so no one said a word either.

Louis XV. was strangely constituted. He was horribly afraid of death, and forbid any mention of his own. At the same time he found a curious pleasure in seizing every opportunity of jeering at the foible almost all people have for hiding their age and infirmities. He loved to tell a Courtier:

"You are getting an old man, you look wretched and ill, your time will soon be here."

He made a system of it, and this very day when he had already received two crushing blows, he deliberately exposed himself to the risk of a third. By way of renewing the interrupted conversation with the Duc d'Ayen, he asked him suddenly:

"How is the Chevalier de Noailles? is it true he is sick?"

"Sire, we had the calamity to lose him yesterday."

"Ah! I told him what was coming."

Then staring round the ranks of courtiers, now swollen by the advent of those admitted only to the petite entreé, he caught sight of the Abbé de Broglio, a harsh, rough, crabbed character, and addressed him thus:

"Your turn next. Abbé; you were just two days his junior."

"Sire," retorted Monsieur de Broglio, white with anger, "Your Majesty was out a-hunting yesterday. A storm of rain came on, and the King got wet just like the rest,"—and pushing his way through the crowd he went away in a rage.

The King watched his departure with mournful eyes, adding:

"You see how he is, that Abbé de Broglio,—always losing his temper."

Next, noticing at the door his physician Bounard, and with him Bordeu, a protege of Madame du Barry and an aspirant to his colleague's post, he called them both to his side.

"Come here, gentlemen; they are talking of nothing else but death here this morning, and that is your business. Which of you will find us the Fountain of Youth? 'Twould be a wondrous fine discovery, and I guarantee him a fortune for life. Are you the man by any chance, Bordeu? Nay, Æsculapius as you are to Venus, I see you have not had occasion to think of these little renewals yet."

"I crave pardon, Sire; on the contrary I have a system that should bring us back to the Golden Age of history."

"Of fable, you mean," interrupted Bounard tartly.

"You think so," went on the King. "You think so, my poor Bounard? The fact is that, but for your care, my youth is nothing else but a sorry fable, and the man who would make me young again now should be historiographer of France into the bargain; for indeed he would have tread the finest pages of my reign. Do it, Bordeu,—a cure worthy of immortal fame indeed. Meanwhile, just feel Monsieur de Chauvelin's pulse. There he stands all pale and sad. Give me your opinion as to his health, which is very precious to our pleasures . . . and to my heart," he added rapidly.

Chauvelin smiled bitterly as he offered his wrist to the doctors.

"Which of you two is it to be, gentlemen?" he asked.

"Both of them," said the King, laughing;" but not Lamartini^re; he would as likely as not threaten you with apoplexy, as he did me."

"Well, you first, Monsieur Bounard; the past comes before the future. W^hat is your opinion?"

"Monsieur le Marquis is very ill; there is plethora, congestion of the vessels of the brain, He would do well to be bled, and that without the smallest delay."

"And you, Monsieur Bordeu, what say you? "

"I pray my learned colleague to pardon me; but I am not in agreement with what his experience suggests. If I were talking to a pretty woman, I should say he had the vapours. What he wants is cheerfulness, rest, no worries, no anxieties, a life of perfect ease,—in one word all he enjoys as the friend of the august Sovereign whom he has the honour to serve. I prescribe a continuation of the self-same treatment."

"Verily two very instructive opinions! Monsieur de Chauvelin must needs feel much enlightened! My poor Marquis, if you die, Bordeu is a dishonoured man."

"Not at all. Sire, the vapours prove fatal, when not attended to."

"Sire, if I die, I ask God to grant it may be at your feet."

"Heaven forfend! you would give me a horrid fright. But is it not time for mass? Here I think come my lord the Bishop of Seéez and the Curé of SaintLouis, our parish. Now at any rate I shall get some satisfaction. ' Good-day, Monsieur le Cure, how goes it with your flock? Are there many sick, many poor? ' "

"Alas, yes! Sire, very many."

"But are not alms abundant? Is bread dearer? Is the number of those in want increased."

"Ah, yes! Sire."

"How does that come about? Where do they come from? "

"Why, Sire, the very footmen of your Palace come to me asking charity."

"I can well believe it; they don't pay them their wages. Do you hear. Monsieur de Richelieu? Cannot this be set right? Deuce take it, you are First Gentleman of the Bedchamber for the year."

"Sire, the footmen are out of my department; they come under the regulation of the General Interdance."

"And the General Interdance will refer them on to someone else!" cried the King, moved to pity for a moment; "but after all I cannot see to everything myself. We will to mass," he added, turning to the Abbé de Beauvais, Bishop of Séez, who was preaching his Lenten sermons before the Court,

"I am at Your Majesty's orders," replied the Bishop with a bow. "But I have heard very grave and solemn words here. The talk has been of death; yet no one thinks of it seriously; no one thinks how it comes at its appointed hour, when least expected; how it surprises us in the midst of our pleasures, and mows down small and great alike with its inexorable scythe. No one thinks how there comes an age when repentance and penitence are no less a necessity than a duty, when the fires of concupiscence must burn low before the great thought of salvation."

"Richelieu," broke in the King, smiling, " methinks the Bishop is throwing a fine shower of stones into your garden."

"Yes, Sire, and he throws them so hard that some rebound into your own Park of Versailles."

Ah, ha! well answered, Duke; you are as quick of fence as if you were twenty still. Your discourse opens well, my lord Bishop; we will hear the rest of it on Sunday in Chapel; I promise you I will listen. Chauvelin, to ease your melancholy we will dispense with your attendance. Go wait for me in the Countess's apartments," he added beneath his breath. "She has just received her gold mirror, Rotiers' masterpiece. We must have a look at that."

"Sire, I would rather go to Grosbois."

"Enough, you grow tiresome, my friend; go to the Countess, she will exorcise your blue devils. Gentlemen, to mass! Egad! here's a day begun mighty ill. What a thing it is to be growing old!"

  1. "They are making Court braids of a new kind of stuff, but they are only for gala days. They call them à la chancellière. But why? Why, because they are shams, and are no whit ashamed."