Monsieur de Chauvelin's Will/Chapter XII

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CHAPTER XII

DEATH OF LOUIS XV

FROM the day that Monsieur de Chauvelin died the King was seldom seen to smile. Every step he took, it seemed as though the Marquis's phantom walked beside him. Only travelling did something towards relieving his gloom, and consequently he was continually on the move, — from Rambouillet to Compiegne, from Compiegne to Fontainebleau, from Fontainebleau to Versailles. Paris Louis XV. never visited; he had a horror of his capital, ever since it had risen in revolt against the supposed baths of children's blood.

But all these noble residences, instead of distracting him from his grief, only recalled the past and its associations and turned his thoughts to sorrowful themes. These dismal reflections only Madame du Barry could chase away, and it was really pitiful to watch the efforts the young and charming favourite made to rekindle the warmth not only of the body, but of the heart of the aged Monarch.

All the time Society was falling to pieces no less surely than Monarchy. Voltaire, D'Alembert, Diderot had undermined the edifice with the waters of philosophic scepticism, and now came the torrents of Beaumarchais' scandal and scurrility to complete the ruin. Beaumarchais issued his notorious Mémoire against the Councillor Goezmann, and that magistrate, a member of the powerful Maupeou junta, was compelled to give up his office. The same author was rehearsing his 'Barber de Séville, and the public was already excited over the daring criticisms of society in general and the government in particular which the philosophical Figaro was expected to utter from the boards.

A scandalous adventure of Monsieur de Fionsac's had shocked, and two abominable adventures of the Marquis de Sade's had appalled, the world.

Society was on the road to the abyss,—no, not to the abyss, to the sewer rather.

Shameful, odious, atrocious these anecdotes one and all; yet they are the only ones to divert the King. Monsieur de Sartines combines them into a daily bulletin,—another ingenious idea of Madame du Barry's,—which his Majesty reads in bed of a morning. It is written and edited in the brothels of Paris, especially in the establishment of the notorious Madame Gourdan.

One day the King reads in the said journal how Monseigneur de Lorry, Bishop of Tarbes, had had the effrontery to drive into Paris in an open carriage with Madame Gourdan and two of her protegees sitting beside him. This was too much; the King informs the Grand Almoner, who summons the Bishop to an interview.

Happily the whole thing admits of an explanation favourable at once to the modesty and the benevolence of the Prelate. Returning from Versailles, the Bishop of Tarbes had seen three women on foot in the highway beside a disabled coach; pitying their predicament, he had offered them seats in his carriage. La Gourdan had seen the diverting side of the situation and had accepted the proposition.

Of course nobody would credit such simplicity on the part of the worthy Prelate, and he was overwhelmed with questions and remarks. "What! you don't know La Gourdan? You mean to tell me that? Nonsense, impossible! "

In the midst of all this the famous musical war between the Glückists and the Piccinists broke out, and the Court is divided into two hostile camps.

Ihe Dauphine, young, poetical, musically gifted, a pupil of Glück's, could see nothing in the native French operas but a collection of trivial airs more or less pretty and insignificant. Attending representations of Racine's tragedies, she conceived the idea of sending the text of the Iphigénie en Aulide to her master, and inviting him to clothe the verses of Racine in the equally melodious harmonies of his music. In six months the score was complete, and Glück brought it in person to Paris.

The German maestro instantly rose high in the Dauphine's favour, and was granted the entree to her private apartments at any hour.

Nothing can be properly appreciated without some preliminary training,—and least of all the grand style. Glück's music by no means produced all the effect it should have done just at first. Empty hearts and tired brains have no wish to think, noise is all they want; thought is an effort, noise a distraction. Accordingly the old-fashioned section of Society preferred Italian music,—the tinkling cymbal to the pealing organ.

Madame du Barry, in a spirit of contradiction, just because the Dauphine had brought German music into prominence, took sides for Italian, and sent librettos to Piccini. The latter duly returned the scores, and the new and the old society separated into two rival factions.

The truth is, an entirely new order of ideas was coming to the front and changing the face of old-fashioned French society, like the unfamiliar wild flowers that spring between the cracked pavingstones of a dark courtyard or among the crumbling ruins of an old castle.

These new ideas came from England, and included many novelties unthought of before. There were gardens with intricate winding walks, and interspersed with lawns and clumps of trees and beds of flowers and stretches of turf; there were rustic cottages, and morning walks without powder or rouge, wearing a plain straw hat with a broad brim and a simple blue cornflower or a daisy stuck in it; there were gallops on well-bred horses, followed by grooms wearing black caps and short jackets and buckskins; there were four-wheeled phaetons, for a time prodigiously popular; Princesses dressed like shepherdesses, and actresses like Queens. There were women such as Duthé, Guimard, Sophie Arnould, Prairie, Cleophile, blazing with diamonds, while the Dauphine, the Princesse de Lamballe, Mesdames de Polignac, de Langeac and d'Adhémar asked no finer jewels than a parure of flowers.

At sight of all these new-fangled notions of a society marching recklessly towards a new and unknown future Louis XV. bowed his head in deeper and deeper despondency. In vain did the madcap Countess buzz about him like a bee, light as a butterfly, brilliant-plumaged as a humming-bird: the most the King could do was now and again to raise for a moment his heavy head, on which seemed to be set more visibly every hour the seal of death.

The fact is, time was passing, and the second month opening since the death of the Marquis de Chauvelin.

It was the 3rd May, and by the 28th of the same month it would be exactly two months since that nobleman died.

Then, as if everything concurred to deepen the lugubrious impression of coming disaster, the Abbé de Beauvais had been preaching before the Court, and in a sermon on the duty of preparing for death, and the peril of impenitence at the last, he had cried:

"Yet another forty days, Sire, and Nineveh shall be destroyed."

The result of all this was that from brooding over Monsieur de Chauvelin's sudden death the King turned to ponder on the Abbé de Beauvais' terrifying words,—that after reminding the Duc d'Ayen that by the end of May it would be just two months since Chauvelin died, he would mutter in the Duc de Richelieu's ear, " It was forty days that confounded Abbé de Beauvais said, was it not? "—adding plaintively, " I wish, I wish the forty days were over! "

Nor was this all. The Almanach de Liège, under the month April, prophesied: " In April of this year a lady in the highest favour at Court will play her last card."

This set Madame du Barry echoing the King's lamentations, and declaring of this fatal month what the King had said of the forty days: " I wish, I wish this cursed month were well ended! "

But in the said month of April which so terrified Madame du Barry, and during these forty days which the King so dreaded, omens and portents only multiplied. The Genoese Ambassador, whom the King was in the habit of seeing frequently, died with appalling suddenness. The Abbé de Laville, coming to the King's " lever " to tender his thanks for the post of Director of Foreign Affairs to which he had just been appointed, fell dead at the Monarch's feet, struck down by an apoplectic fit. To complete the tale, one day when the King was out hunting, a thunderbolt fell close beside him.

All these circumstances combined to render Louis XV. more and more gloomy. Still, Spring was come back, and might work some alleviation of the Monarch's sad condition. The new birth of Nature shaking off her winter winding-sheet, the re-clothing of the earth in green, the fresh leafage of the trees, the warm breezes that seem like fiery souls in search of corporeal habitations, the fragrant air peopled with a myriad living atoms,—all this would surely restore some life to the inert mass, some movement to the wornout machine.

About the middle of April Lebel had been struck by the remarkable beauty of a miller's daughter, whom he had chanced to see at her father's mill. He thought so dainty a morsel might stimulate the King's jaded appetite, and spoke in enthusiastic terms to his master of what he had seen. The latter gave a careless consent to this new attempt being tried to divert his melancholy.

As a general rule the girls who were to be honoured—or dishonoured—by the Royal favour went through certain preliminaries before arriving at the King's bedchamber. They were examined by the doctors and they passed through Lebel's hands; only after these formalities had been duly fulfilled, were they deemed eligible.

This time, however, so fresh and pretty was the child that all such precautions were omitted. Even had they been taken as usual, it would hardly have been possible for the most experienced physician to discover that a few hours before she had caught the small-pox.

The King had had the disease in his boyhood; yet two days after he had enjoyed the girl's society, he was attacked by it a second time, a malignant fever supervening on the top of everything, further to complicate matters.

On April 29th the first eruption declared itself, and the Archbishop of Paris, Christophe de Beaumont, hurried to Versailles.

The situation was of the strangest. The administration of the Last Sacraments, if the necessity should arise, could not take place till after the dismissal of the Royal concubine, and this same concubine, who was attached to the Jesuit faction whereof Christophe de Beaumont was the chief, this same concubine had rendered, by the overthrow of the Minister Choiseul and the defeat of the Parlement, such important services to the Church,—services which the Archbishop himself admitted,—that it was out of the question to disgrace and degrade her by canonical censure.

The chiefs of the party were, besides Monsieur de Beaumont and Madame du Barry, the Duc d'Aiguillon, the Due de Richelieu, the Due de Fronsac, Maupeou and Terray. All would fall by the same blow that overthrew Madame du Barry; so they had every motive not to declare against her.

On the other side, the party of Monsieur de Choiseul, which was everywhere, even in the very bedchamber, clamoured for the favourite's expulsion and a speedy confession on the King's part. It was indeed a curious spectacle; here was the party of philosophers, Jansenists and free-thinkers urging the King to confess, while the Archbishop of Paris, the priests and the men of piety were eager for the Royal penitent to refuse to take this step.

Such was the paradoxical condition of mind of those most interested in the question when, on May ist, at eleven in the morning, the Archbishop arrived to see the sick Monarch. Without awaiting further developments, poor Madame du Barry fled at once, on learning that the Archbishop was in the Palace.

It was the Duc de Richelieu who received the Prelate, of whose intentions he was still in ignorance.

"Monseigneur," began the Duke, " I pray and beseech you not to terrify the King with this inopportune theological dogma, which has been the death of so many sick men. If you are curious to hear a list of pretty, dainty sins, sit down there, and I will confess instead of the King; I'll tell you some tales the like of which you have not heard since you were Archbishop of Paris. But now, if my offer does not please you, if you are really resolved to confess the King and repeat at Versailles the scenes the Bishop of Soissons provoked at Metz, if you will dismiss Madame du Barry publicly and scandalously, just think of the consequences and how these will affect your own interests. You thereby assure the triumph of the Due de Choiseul, your bitterest enemy, from whom Madame du Barry has done so much to deliver you; you persecute your friend to benefit your enemy,—yes, Monseigneur I repeat, your friend, and so good a friend that only yesterday she was saying to me, and not for the first time either: 'If the Archbishop will only leave us in peace, he shall have his Cardinal's hat, I undertake to get it for him and I promise he shall not be disappointed.'"

The Archbishop let Monsieur de Richelieu say out his say, because although of the same opinion in his inmost heart, he felt he must make a show of being over-persuaded. Fortunately the Duc d'Aumont, Madame Adélaide and the Bishop of Senlis joined their instances to the Marshal's and gave the Prelate further arms against himself. He promised not to press the matter, and on entering the King's chamber said never a word about confession. This so greatly reassured the august patient that he had Madame du Barry recalled without a moment's delay, and when she arrived kissed her lovely hands with tears of pleasure in his eyes.

The next day. May 2nd, the King felt somewhat better; in place of Lamartinière, his ordinary medical attendant, Madame du Barry had sent him her own two doctors. Lorry and Bordeu. They had been instructed, first to hide from the King the true nature of his malady, to say nothing of the seriousness of his present condition, and above all to disabuse him of any notion that he was so ill as to require the services of the Priests.

This temporary improvement in the King's health enabled the Countess to resume for the moment her usual unconstrained behaviour, her general style of conversation and cajolery. But just as she had succeeded by dint of vivacity and wit in calling up a smile to the sick man's face, Lamartinière, who still enjoyed his right of entrée, appeared at the threshold, and deeply offended at the preference accorded to Lorry and Bordeu, marched straight up to the King, felt his pulse and solemnly shook his head.

The King had raised no objections, only gazing at him with terrified eyes. His fear was redoubled when he saw the great man shake his head so discouragingly.

"Well, Lamartinière?" asked the Monarch.

"Well, Sire, if my colleagues have not told you by this time how serious the case is, they are fools and liars."

"What is the matter with me in your opinion, Lamartinière? " the King inquired.

"Od's life! Sire, that is easy seen; Your Majesty has the small pox."

"And you say there is no hope of recovery?"

"No, I do not say that. Sire; a doctor never despairs. I only say this, that if Your Majesty is the most Christian King in anything more than name. Your Majesty should bethink you of your duties as a Christian."

"Very well," said the King. Then calling Madame du Barry, he went on:

"You hear, my sweet, I have the small-pox, and my condition is especially dangerous, first because of my age, and secondly because of my bad state of health in other respects. Lamartiniere has just reminded me that I am the most Christian King and the eldest son of the Church. It may be we shall have to part. I want to avoid a scene like that at Metz; so inform the Due d'Aiguillon of what I tell you, that he may make arrangements with you, if my state grows worse, for our separating without noise or scandal."

At the very time when the King was thus expressing himself, all the party of the Duc de Choiseul was beginning to make open complaint and accuse the Archbishop of weak complaisance, declaring that rather than incommode Madame du Barry he would let the King die without the sacraments of the Church.

These accusations soon reached the ears of Monsieur de Beaumont, who determined, in order to stop his enemies' mouths, to take up his residence at Versailles, in the house of the Lazarist Fathers. This he did at once to impress the public and to be in a position to choose the most favourable moment for fulfilling the ordinances of religion and sacrificing Madame du Barry only when the Monarch's condition should ■have become altogether desperate. It was on May 8th the Archbishop returned to Versailles and took up his abode there to await events.

Meantime scandalous scenes occurred at the King's bedside. The Cardinal de la Roche-Aymon agreed with the Archbishop of Paris in wishing everything to be managed without noise and publicity; but the Bishop of Carcassone thought otherwise, and was minded to play the zealot and revive the Metz incident. He proclaimed openly, "That the King ought to be confessed, the concubine expelled the Palace, the Canons of the Church obeyed; that the Monarch should afford an example to Europe and to the Christian land of France, which he had scandalized."

"And by what right do you impose advice on me?" demanded Monsieur de la Roche-Aymon angrily. The Bishop unfastened the pastoral cross from his neck and shoving it almost under the Prelate's nose:

"By the right this cross gives me," he said solemnly. "Learn, Monseigneur, to respect this right, and never suffer your King to die without the sacraments of the Church whose eldest son he is."

All this was said in the presence of Monsieur d'Aiguillon. Realizing all the scandal that must result from such a scene of disputation if it became public, he hurried to the King's bedside.

"Well, Duke," the Monarch asked him, "have you carried out my orders?"

"With regard to Madame du Barry you mean. Sire?"

"Precisely."

"I preferred to wait till they were repeated by your Majesty. I shall never be in too violent a hurry to part the King from those who love him."

"Thank you, Duke, but it has to be; take the poor Countess and conduct her quietly to your country estate of Rueil. I shall be grateful to Madame d'Aiguillon for any kindness she will be good enough to show her."

Despite these formal instructions Monsieur d'Aiguillon was unwilling even now to hurry the favourite's departure, and concealed her in the Château, announcing her final going for the next day, and in this way appeasing to some extent the claims of the ecclesiastical conscience.

After all it was a good thing the Duc d'Aiguillon had kept Madame du Barry at Versailles, for in the course of next day, May 4th, the King asked to see her once more with such eager insistance that the Duke at last admitted she was still at Versailles.

"Tell her to come here then, tell her to come here," cried the King excitedly,— and presently Madame du Barry entered the King's bedchamber for the last time. She left the presence bathed in tears.

The poor woman, a good-natured, light-hearted, amiable, easy creature, loved Louis XV. as a daughter loves a father.

Madame d'Aiguillon packed her into her travelling coach along with Mademoiselle du Barry the elder, and carried her away to Rueil to wait events.

Hardly was she outside the Palace precincts ere the King asked for her again.

"She is gone," he was told.

"Gone?" muttered the King; "then it is high time for me to go too. Bid them offer up prayers to St. Geneviève.

Monsieur de Vrillière wrote at once to the Parlement, which in cases of supreme importance, possessed the right of opening or not opening the time-honoured reliquary.

May 5th and 6th passed without a word being spoken of confession, viaticum or extreme unction.

The Cure of Versailles came to the Palace with a view to preparing the King for the pious ceremony; but he encountered the Due de Fronsac, who gave him his word as a gentleman of birth that he would pitch him out of the window at the first syllable he might utter on this subject.

"If I am not killed by the fall," was the Curé's answer, " I will come in again by the door, as I have the right to do."

However on the 7th, at three o'clock in the morning, it was the King himself who peremptorily demanded the Abbé Mandoux to be sent for, a poor priest who knew nothing of Court intrigues, a simple-minded ecclesiastic who had been made the King's Confessor, and who was blind.

His Majesty's confession lasted seventeen minutes. This ended, the Dues de la Vrillière and d'Aiguillon were for still deferring the viaticum; but Lamartinière, the bitter enemy of Madame du Barry, who had introduced Lorry and Bordeu to the King's favour, approaching his Royal master:

"Sire," said he, " I have seen your Majesty in many difficult straits, but never have I admired your conduct so highly as I do to-day. If you follow my advice, you will complete forthwith what you have so well begun."

The result was the King had Mandoux recalled, and received absolution at his hands.

As for the proposed public and conspicuous act of repentance that was solemnly to annihilate Madame Du Barry, this was not so much as mentioned. The grand Almoner and the Archbishop had together drawn up the following form of declaration which was made in the presence of the viaticum:

"Albeit the King is accountable for his conduct to God alone, he hereby declares his repentance for having been the occasion of scandal to his subjects, and his desire to live henceforward only for the maintenance of true religion and the happiness of his subjects."

The Royal family, including Madame Louise, who had quitted her Convent to attend upon her father, assembled at the foot of the staircase to receive the blessed sacrament.

While His Majesty was receiving the consolations of Religion, the Dauphin, who was not allowed to see his father as he had not had the smallpox, was writing to the Abbé Terray in the following terms:

"To the Controller General,

"Sir,—I beg you to see to the distribution amongst the poor of the different parishes of Paris of two hundred thousand livres for prayers for the King's recovery. If you think the sum excessive, deduct it from our allowances, Madame la Dauphine's and mine.

"Louis-Auguste."

In the course of May 7th and 8th the disease went from bad to worse. The King felt his body literally falling to pieces as he lay. Deserted by his courtiers, who dared not stay beside this living corpse, he had none to watch over him but his three daughters, who never left his side for an instant.

The King was appalled and conscience stricken. In this horrible corruption which was destroying him bodily he saw a direct punishment from Heaven. In his eyes the invisible hand that was disfiguring his person with loathsome plague spots, was the hand of God. In a delirium that was more of the mind than of the body, and the more dreadful for that very reason, he saw the flames of the burning pit, and screamed for his Confessor, the poor blind Priest, his only hope and refuge, to hold the crucifix betwixt him and the lake of fire. Then with his own hands he would take the holy water, and lifting sheets and blankets, drench himself from head to foot with the blessed liquid, uttering groans of terror the while. Next he would ask for the crucifix, and seizing it with both hands, kiss it again and again, crying: "Lord! Lord! intercede for me, for me the chiefest of all sinners that have ever lived."

In these terrible accesses of despairing anguish the King passed the 9th day of the month. All day long,—and all day was one agonized confession,—neither the Priest nor his daughters ever left his side. His body was a prey to the most hideous corruption and the living corpse of the doomed King exhaled so fearful a stench that two lackeys fell down stifled, one of whom died.

By the morning of the 10th the bones of the thighs could be seen through the gaping rents in the flesh. Three more lackeys fainted. Terror seized the Palace, and all its inhabitants took to flight, not a living soul was left in the vast pile save the three devoted women and the good Priest.

The whole day of the 10th was one long death struggle; the King would not die, though he lay practically a dead man already in his bed, which was virtually a tomb. At last, at five minutes to three, he sprang up, stretched out his arms, fixed his eyes on a corner of the bedchamber, and cried:

"Chauvelin! Chauvelin! but I tell you it is not two months yet . . ., "—and fell back a corpse.

God had granted courage to the three Princesses and the devoted Priest to nurse the living King, but the Monarch once dead, their task no less than his was ended. Moreover all three were already stricken with the disease that had just killed their father.

The funeral arrangements were left to the Grand Master, who completed all his preparations without setting foot inside the Palace. The nightsoilmen of Versailles were the only persons to be found to undertake the risk of putting the King's body in the leaden coffin destined for its reception. In this he was laid without balms or aromatics, simply wrapped in the sheets of the bed whereon he had died. Then the leaden coffin was placed inside an oak shell, and the whole carried into the Chapel Royal.

On the 12th, what had once been Louis XV. was carried to Saint-Denis. The coffin was in a great hunting coach; a second carriage was occupied by the Due d'Ayen and the Duc d'Aumont; in a third rode the Grand Almoner and the Cure of Versailles. A score of pages and fifty grooms, mounted and bearing torches, formed the funeral cortége.

The procession, starting from Versailles at eight in the evening, reached Saint-Denis at eleven. The body was lowered into the Royal vault, which it was not to quit till the day when the Basilica was profaned by the Revolutionary mob; this done, the entrance was immediately closed, the door walled up and every chink stopped, that no emanation from this: human dung-heap might filter through from the lodging of the dead to pollute the homes of the living.

We have described elsewhere the delight of the Parisians at the death of Louis XIV. Their satisfaction was equally great when they found themselves rid of him whom thirty years before they had surnamed The well-beloved.

The Cure of Sainte-Geneviève was rallied on the small effect produced by the wonder-working shrine of the Patron Saint of Paris. "Why, what have you to complain of," was his sardonic answer, "is not the King dead?"

Next day Madame du Barry received at Rueil a letter banishing her the country.

Sophie Arnould heard the news simultaneously of the King's death and Madame du Barry's banishment. " Alas! " she exclaimed, "behold us orphaned of father and mother both!"

It was the only funeral oration pronounced over the tomb of the grandson of Louis XIV.