A story of the French aristocracy, the book concerns Madame de Pompadour’s influence over the King and France. In US published under the title Petticoat Rule.
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Baroness Emmuska Orczy
First published in 1910
Copyright © 2018 Classica Libris
The kind friend whose appreciation has cheered me, the
Idealist whose work has guided me, the brilliant
Intellect whose praise has encouraged me
This book is dedicated
In token of admiration, regard, and friendship
The voice, that of a man still in the prime of life, but already raucous in its tone, thickened through constant mirthless laughter, rendered querulous too from long vigils kept at the shrine of pleasure, rose above the incessant babel of women’s chatter, the din of silver, china and glasses passing to and fro.
“Your commands, sire?”
Monsieur le duc d’Aumont, Marshal of France, prime and sole responsible Minister of Louis the Well-beloved, leant slightly forward, with elbows resting on the table, and delicate hands, with fingers interlaced, white and carefully tended as those of a pretty woman, supporting his round and somewhat fleshy chin.
A handsome man Monsieur le duc, still on the right side of fifty, courtly and pleasant-mannered to all. Has not Boucher immortalized the good-natured, rather weak face, with that perpetual smile of unruffled amiability forever lurking round the corners of the full-lipped mouth?
“Your commands, sire?”
His eyes — gray and prominent — roamed with a rapid movement of enquiry from the face of the king to that of a young man with fair, curly hair, worn free from powder, and eyes restless and blue, which stared moodily into a goblet full of wine.
There was a momentary silence in the vast and magnificent dining hall, that sudden hush which — so the superstitious aver — descends three times on every assembly, however gay, however brilliant or thoughtless: the hush which to the imaginative mind suggests the flutter of unseen wings.
Then the silence was broken by loud laughter from the King.
“They are mad, these English, my friend! What?” said Louis the Well-beloved with a knowing wink directed at the fair-haired young man who sat not far from him.
“Mad, indeed, sire?” replied the Duke. “But surely not more conspicuously so tonight than at any other time?”
“Of a truth, a hundred thousand times more so,” here interposed a somewhat shrill feminine voice, “and that by the most rigid rules of brain-splitting arithmetic!”
Everyone listened. Conversations were interrupted; glasses were put down; eager, attentive faces turned toward the speaker; this was no less a personage than Jeanne Poisson now Marquise de Pompadour; and when she opened her pretty mouth Louis the Well-beloved, descendant of Saint Louis, King of France and of all her dominions beyond the seas, hung breathless upon those well-rouged lips, whilst France sat silent and listened, eager for a share of that smile which enslaved a King and ruined a nation.
“Let us have that rigid rule of arithmetic, fair one,” said Louis gaily, “by which you can demonstrate to us that Monsieur le chevalier here is a hundred thousand times more mad than any of his accursed countrymen.”
“Nay, sire, ’tis simple enough,” rejoined the lady. “Monsieur le chevalier hath need of a hundred thousand others in order to make his insanity complete, a hundred thousand Englishmen as mad as April fishes, to help him conquer a kingdom of rain and fogs. Therefore I say he is a hundred thousand times more mad than most!”
Loud laughter greeted this sally. Madame la marquise de Pompadour, so little while ago simply Jeanne Poisson or Madame d’Étioles, was not yet blasée to so much adulation and such fulsome flattery; she looked a veritable heaven of angelic smiles; her eyes blue — so her dithyrambic chroniclers aver — as the dark-toned myosotis, wandered from face to face along the length of that gorgeously spread supper table, round which was congregated the flower of the old aristocracy of France.
She gleaned an admiring glance here, an unspoken murmur of flattery there, even the women — and there were many — tried to look approvingly at her who ruled the King and France. One face alone remained inscrutable and almost severe, the face of a woman — a mere girl — with straight brow and low, square forehead, crowned with a wealth of soft brown hair, the rich tones of which peeped daringly through the conventional mist of powder.
Madame de Pompadour’s sunny smile disappeared momentarily when her eyes rested on this girl’s face; a frown — oh! hardly that; but a shadow, shall we say? — marred the perfect purity of her brow. The next moment she had yielded her much-beringed hand to her royal worshipper’s eager grasp and he was pressing a kiss on each rose-tipped finger, whilst she shrugged her pretty shoulders.
“Brrr!” she said, with a mock shiver, “here is Mademoiselle d’Aumont frowning stern disapproval at me. Surely, Chevalier,” she asked, turning to the young man beside her, “a comfortable armchair in your beautiful palace of St. Germain is worth a throne in mist-bound London?”
“Not when that throne is his by right,” here interposed Mademoiselle d’Aumont quietly. “The palace of St. Germain is but a gift to the King of England, for which he owes gratitude to the King of France.”
A quick blush now suffused the cheeks of the young man, who up to now had seemed quite unconscious of Madame de Pompadour’s sallies or of the hilarity directed against himself. He gave a rapid glance at Mademoiselle d’Aumont’s haughty, somewhat imperious face and at the delicate mouth, round which an almost imperceptible curl of contempt seemed still to linger.
“La! Mademoiselle,” rejoined the Marquise, with some acerbity, “do we not all hold gifts at the hands of the King of France?”
“We have no sovereignty of our own, Madame,” replied the young girl drily.
“As for me,” quoth King Louis, hastily interposing in this feminine passage of arms, “I drink to our gallant Chevalier de St. George, His Majesty King Charles Edward Stuart of England, Scotland, Wales, and of the whole of that fog-ridden kingdom. Success to your cause, Chevalier,” he added, settling his fat body complacently in the cushions of his chair; and raising his glass, he nodded benignly toward the young Pretender.
“To King Charles Edward of England!” rejoined Madame de Pompadour gaily.
And “To King Charles Edward of England!” went echoing all around the vast banqueting-hall.
“I thank you all,” said the young man, whose sullen mood seemed in no way dissipated at these expressions of graciousness and friendship. “Success to my cause is assured if France will lend me the aid she promised.”
“What right have you to doubt the word of France, Monseigneur?” retorted Mademoiselle d’Aumont earnestly.
“A truce! a truce! I entreat,” here broke in King Louis with mock concern. “Par Dieu, this is a banquet and not a Council Chamber! Joy of my life,” he added, turning eyes replete with admiration on the beautiful woman beside him, “do not allow politics to mar this pleasant entertainment. Monsieur le duc, you are our host, I pray you direct conversation into more pleasing channels.”
Nothing loth, the brilliant company there present quickly resumed the irresponsible chatter which was far more to its liking than talk of thrones and doubtful causes. The flunkeys in gorgeous liveries made the round of the table, filling the crystal glasses with wine. The atmosphere was heavy with the fumes of past good cheer, and the scent of a thousand roses fading beneath the glare of innumerable wax-candles. An odour of perfume, of powder and cosmetics hovered in the air; the men’s faces looked red and heated; on one or two heads the wig stood awry, whilst trembling fingers began fidgeting with the lace-cravats at the throat.
Charles Edward’s restless blue eyes searched keenly and feverishly the faces around him; morose, gloomy, he was still reckoning in his mind how far he could trust these irresponsible pleasure-lovers, that descendant of the great Louis over there, fat of body and heavy of mind, lost to all sense of kingly dignity whilst squandering the nation’s money on the whims and caprices of the ex-wife of a Parisian victualler, whom he had created Marquise de Pompadour.
These men who lived only for good cheer, for heady wines, games of dice and hazard, nights of debauch and illicit pleasures, what help would they be to him in the hour of need? What support in case of failure?
“What right have you to doubt the word of France?” was asked of him by one pair of proud lips — a woman’s, only a girl’s.
Charles Edward looked across the table at Mademoiselle d’Aumont. Like himself, she sat silent in the midst of the noisy throng, obviously lending a very inattentive ear to the whisperings of the handsome cavalier beside her.
Ah! if they were all like her, if she were a representative of the whole nation of France, the young adventurer would have gone to his hazardous expedition with a stauncher and a lighter heart. But, as matters stood, what could he expect? What had he got as a serious asset in this gamble for life and a throne? A few vague promises from that flabby, weak-kneed creature over there on whom the crown of Saint Louis sat so strangely and so ill; a few smiles from that frivolous and vain woman, who drained the very heart’s blood of an impoverished nation to its last drop, in order to satisfy her costly whims or chase away the frowns of ennui from the brow of an effete monarch.
And what besides?
A farewell supper, ringing toasts, good wine, expensive food offered by Monsieur le duc d’Aumont, the Prime Minister of France — a thousand roses, now fading, which had cost a small fortune to coax into bloom; a handshake from his friends in France; a “God-speed” and “Dieu vous garde, Chevalier!” and a few words of stern encouragement from a girl.
With all that in hand, Chevalier St. George, go and conquer your kingdom beyond the sea!
Great activity reigned in the corridors and kitchens of the old château. Monsieur le chef — the only true rival the immortal Vatel ever had — in white cap and apron, calm and self-possessed as a field-marshal in the hour of victory, and surrounded by an army of scullions and wenches, was directing the operations of dishing-up — the crowning glory of his arduous labours. Pies and patties, haunches of venison, trout and carp from the Rhine were placed on gold and silver dishes and adorned with tasteful ornaments of truly architectural beauty and monumental proportions. These were then handed over to the footmen, who, resplendent in gorgeous liveries of scarlet and azure, hurried along the marble passages carrying the masterpieces of culinary art to the banqueting-hall beyond, whilst the butlers, more sedate and dignified in sober garb of puce or brown, stalked along in stately repose bearing the huge tankards and crystal jugs.
All of the best that the fine old Château d’Aumont could provide was being requisitioned tonight, since Monsieur le duc and Mademoiselle Lydie, his daughter, were giving a farewell banquet to Charles Edward Stuart by the grace of God — if not by the will of the people — King of Great Britain and Ireland and all her dependencies beyond the seas.
For him speeches were made, toasts drunk and glasses raised; for him the ducal veneries had been ransacked, the ducal cellars shorn of their most ancient possessions; for him Monsieur le chef had raged and stormed for five hours, had expended the sweat of his brow and the intricacies of his brain; for him the scullions’ backs had smarted, the wenches’ cheeks had glowed, all to do honour to the only rightful King of England about to quit the hospitable land of France in order to conquer that island kingdom which his grandfather had lost.
But in the noble salle d’armes, on the other hand, there reigned a pompous and dignified silence, in strange contrast to the bustle and agitation of the kitchens and the noise of loud voices and laughter that issued from the banqueting hall whenever a door was opened and quickly shut again.
Here perfumed candles flickered in massive candelabra, shedding dim circles of golden light on carved woodwork, marble floor, and dull-toned tapestries. The majestic lions of D’Aumont frowned stolidly from their high pedestals on this serene abode of peace and dignity, one foot resting on the gilded shield with the elaborate coat-of-arms blazoned thereon in scarlet and azure, the other poised aloft as if in solemn benediction.
Monsieur Joseph, own body servant to Monsieur le duc, in magnificent D’Aumont livery, his cravat a marvel of costly simplicity, his elegant, well-turned calves — encased in fine silk stockings — stretched lazily before him, was sprawling on the brocade-covered divan in the centre of the room.
Monsieur Bénédict, equally resplendent in a garb of motley that recalled the heraldic colours of the Comte de Stainville, stood before him, not in an attitude of deference of course, but in one of easy friendship; whilst Monsieur Achille — a blaze of scarlet and gold — was holding out an elegant silver snuff-box to Monsieur Joseph, who, without any superfluous motion of his dignified person, condescended to take a pinch.
With arm and elbow held at a graceful angle, Monsieur Joseph paused in the very act of conveying the snuff to his delicate nostrils. He seemed to think that the occasion called for a remark from himself, but evidently nothing very appropriate occurred to him for the moment, so after a few seconds of impressive silence he finally partook of the snuff, and then flicked off the grains of dust from his immaculate azure waistcoat with a lace-edged handkerchief.
“Where does your Marquis get his snuff?” he asked with an easy graciousness of manner.
“We get it direct from London,” replied Monsieur Achille sententiously. “I am personally acquainted with Madame Véronique, who is cook to Madame de la Beaume and the sweetheart of Jean Laurent, own body-servant to General de Puisieux. The old General is Chief of Customs at Havre, so you see we pay no duty and get the best of snuff at a ridiculous price.”
“Ah! that’s lucky for you, my good Eglinton,” said Monsieur Bénédict, with a sigh. “Your Marquis is a good sort, and as he is not personally acquainted with Madame Véronique, I doubt not but he pays full price for his snuff.”
“One has to live, friend Stainville,” quoth Achille solemnly, “and I am not a fool!”
“Exactly so; and with an English milord your life is an easy one, Monsieur.”
“Comme-ci! comme-ça!” nodded Achille deprecatingly.
“Le petit Anglais is very rich?” suggested Bénédict.
“Boundlessly so!” quoth the other, with conscious pride.
“Now, if perchance you could see your way to introducing me to Madame Véronique. Eh? I have to pay full price for my Count’s snuff, and he will have none but the best; but if I could get Madame Véronique’s protection…”
Achille’s manner immediately changed at this suggestion, made with becoming diffidence; he drew back a few steps as if to emphasize the distance which must of necessity lie between supplicant and patron. He took a pinch of snuff, he blew his nose with stately deliberation — all in order to keep the petitioner waiting on tenterhooks.
Finally he drew up his scarlet and gold shoulders until they almost touched his ears.
“It will be difficult, very, very difficult my good Stainville,” he said at last, speaking in measured tones. “You see, Madame Véronique is in a very delicate position; she has a great deal of influence of course, and it is not easy to obtain her protection. Still, I will see what I can do, and you can place your petition before her.”
“Do not worry yourself, my good Eglinton,” here interposed Monsieur Bénédict with becoming hauteur. “I thought as you had asked me yesterday to use my influence with our Mademoiselle Mariette, the fiancée of Colonel Jauffroy’s third footman, with regard to your nephew’s advancement in his regiment, that perhaps —— But no matter — no matter!” he added, with a deprecatory wave of the hand.
“You completely misunderstood me, my dear Stainville,” broke in Monsieur Achille, eagerly. “I said that the matter was difficult; I did not say that it was impossible. Madame Véronique is beset with petitions, but you may rely on my friendship. I will obtain the necessary introduction for you if you, on the other hand, will bear my nephew’s interests in mind.”
“Say no more about it, my good Eglinton,” said Bénédict, with easy condescension, “your nephew will get his promotion on the word of a Stainville.”
Peace and amity being once more restored between the two friends, Monsieur Joseph thought that he had now remained silent far longer than was compatible with his own importance.
“It is very difficult, of course, in our position,” he said pompously, “to do justice to the many demands which are made on our influence and patronage. Take my own case, for instance — my Duke leaves all appointments in my hands. In the morning, whilst I shave him, I have but to mention a name to him in connection with any post under Government that happens to be vacant, and immediately the favoured one, thus named by me, receives attention, nearly always followed by a nomination.”
“Hem! hem!” came very discreetly from the lips of Monsieur Bénédict.
“You said?” queried Joseph, with a slight lifting of the right eyebrow.
“Oh! nothing — nothing! I pray you continue; the matter is vastly entertaining.”
“At the present moment,” continued Monsieur Joseph, keeping a suspicious eye on the other man, “I am deeply worried by this proposal which comes from the Parliaments of Rennes and Paris.”
“A new Ministry of Finance to be formed,” quoth Monsieur Achille. “We know all about it.”
“With direct control of the nation’s money and responsible to the Parliaments alone,” assented Joseph. “The Parliaments! Bah!” he added in tones of supreme contempt, “bourgeois the lot of them!”
“Their demands are preposterous, so says my milord. ’Tis a marvel His Majesty has given his consent.”
“I have advised my Duke not to listen to the rabble,” said Joseph, as he readjusted the set of his cravat. “A Ministry responsible to the Parliaments! Ridiculous, I say!”
“I understand, though,” here interposed Monsieur Achille, “that the Parliaments, out of deference for His Majesty are willing that the King himself shall appoint this new Comptroller of Finance.”
“The King, my good Eglinton,” calmly retorted Monsieur Joseph, “the King will leave this matter to us. You may take it from me that we shall appoint this new Minister, and an extremely pleasant post it will be. Comptroller of Finance! All the taxes to pass through the Minister’s hands! Par Dieu! does it not open out a wide field for an ambitious man?”
“Hem! hem!” coughed Monsieur Bénédict again.
“You seem to be suffering from a cold, sir,” said Monsieur Joseph irritably.
“Not in the least,” rejoined Bénédict hastily, “a slight tickling in the throat. You were saying, Monsieur Joseph, that you hoped this new appointment would fall within your sphere of influence.”
“Nay! If you doubt me, my good Stainville…” And Monsieur Joseph rose with slow and solemn majesty from the divan, where he had been reclining, and walking across the room with a measured step, he reached an escritoire whereon ink and pens, letters tied up in bundles, loose papers, and all the usual paraphernalia commonly found on the desk of a busy man. Monsieur Joseph sat down at the table and rang a handbell.
The next moment a young footman entered, silent and deferential.
“Is any one in the ante-room, Paul?” asked Joseph.
“Yes, Monsieur Joseph.”
“About thirty persons.”
“Go tell them, then, that Monsieur Joseph is not receiving tonight. He is entertaining a circle of friends. Bring me all written petitions. I shall be visible in my dressing room to those who have a personal introduction at eleven o’clock tomorrow. You may go!”
Silently as he had entered, the young man bowed and withdrew.
Monsieur Joseph wheeled round in his chair and turned to his friends with a look of becoming triumph.
“Thirty persons!” he remarked simply.
“All after this appointment?” queried Achille.
“Their representatives, you see,” explained Monsieur Joseph airily. “Oh! my ante-chamber is always full — You understand? I shave my Duke every morning; and every one, it seems to me, is wanting to control the finances of France.”
“Might one inquire who is your special protégé?” asked the other.
“Time will show,” came with cryptic vagueness from the lips of Monsieur Joseph.
In addition to a slight tickling of the throat, Monsieur Bénédict seemed to be suffering from an affection of the left eye which caused him to wink with somewhat persistent emphasis:
“This is the third time you have made that remark, Stainville,” said Joseph severely.
“I did not remark, my dear D’Aumont,” rejoined Bénédict pleasantly, “that is, I merely said ’Hem! hem!’”
“Even so, I heard you,” said Joseph, with some acerbity, “and I would wish to know precisely what you meant when you said ’Hem! hem!’ like that.”
“I was thinking of Mademoiselle Lucienne,” said Bénédict, with a sentimental sigh.
“Yes! I am one of her sweethearts — the fourth in point of favour. Mademoiselle Lucienne has your young lady’s ear, my good D’Aumont, and we all know that your Duke governs the whole of France exactly as his daughter wishes him to do.”
“And you hope through Mademoiselle Lucienne’s influence to obtain the new post of Comptroller for your own Count?” asked Monsieur Joseph, with assumed carelessness, as he drummed a devil’s tattoo on the table before him.
A slight expression of fatuity crept into the countenance of Monsieur Bénédict. He did not wish to irritate the great man; at the same time he felt confident in his own powers of blandishments where Mademoiselle Lucienne was concerned, even though he only stood fourth in point of favour in that influential lady’s heart.
“Mademoiselle Lucienne has promised us her support,” he said, with a complacent smile.
“I fear me that will be of little avail,” here interposed Monsieur Achille. “We have on our side, the influence of Madame Auguste Baillon, who is housekeeper to Monsieur le docteur Dubois, consulting physician to Mademoiselle d’Aumont. Monsieur le docteur is very fond of haricots cooked in lard — a dish in the preparation of which Madame Baillon excels — whilst, on the other hand, that lady’s son is perruquier to my Eglinton. I think there is no doubt that ours is the stronger influence, and that if this Ministry of Finance comes into being, we shall be the Chief Comptroller.”
“Oh, it will come into being, without any doubt,” said Bénédict. “I have it from my cousin François, who is one of the sweethearts of Mademoiselle Duprez, confidential maid to Madame Aremberg, the jeweller’s wife, that the merchants of Paris and Lyons are not at all pleased with the amount of money which the King and Madame de Pompadour are spending.”
“Exactly! People of that sort are a veritable pestilence. They want us to pay some of the taxes — the corvée or the taille. As if a Duke or a Minister is going to pay taxes! Ridiculous!”
“Ridiculous, I say,” assented Achille, “though my Marquis says that in England even noblemen pay taxes.”
“Then we’ll not go to England, friend Eglinton. Imagine shaving a Duke or a Marquis who had paid taxes like a shopkeeper!”
A chorus of indignation from the three gentleman rose at the suggestion.
“We all know that England is a nation of shopkeepers. Monsieur de Voltaire, who has been there, said so to us on his return.”
Monsieur Achille, in view of the fact that he represented the Marquis of Eglinton, commonly styled “le petit Anglais,” was not quite sure whether his dignity demanded that he should resent this remark of Monsieur de Voltaire’s or not.
Fortunately he was saved from having to decide this delicate question immediately by the re-entry of Paul into the room.
The young footman was carrying a bundle of papers, which he respectfully presented to Monsieur Joseph on a silver tray. The great man looked at Paul somewhat puzzled, rubbed his chin, and contemplated the papers with a thoughtful eye.
“What are these?” he asked.
“The petitions, Monsieur Joseph,” replied the young man.
“Oh! Ah, yes!” quoth the other airily. “Quite so; but — I have no time to read them now. You may glance through them, Paul, and let me know if any are worthy of my consideration.”
Monsieur Joseph was born in an epoch when reading was not considered an indispensable factor in a gentleman’s education. Whether the petitions of the thirty aspirants to the new post of Comptroller of Finance would subsequently be read by Monsieur Paul or not it were impossible to say; for the present he merely took up the papers again, saying quite respectfully:
“Yes, Monsieur Joseph.”
“Stay! you may take cards, dice, and two flagons of Bordeaux into my boudoir.”
“Yes, Monsieur Joseph.”
“Have you dismissed every one from the ante-chamber?”
“All except an old man, who refuses to go.”
“Who is he?”
“I do not know; he…”
Further explanation was interrupted by a timid voice issuing from the open door.
“I only desire five minutes’ conversation with Monsieur le duc d’Aumont.”
And a wizened little figure dressed in seedy black, with lean shanks encased in coarse woollen stockings, shuffled into the room. He seemed to be carrying a great number of papers and books under both arms, and as he stepped timidly forward some of these tumbled in a heap at his feet.
“Only five minutes’ conversation with Monsieur le duc.”
His eyes were very pale, and very watery, and his hair was of a pale straw colour. He stooped to pick up his papers, and dropped others in the process.
“Monsieur le duc is not visible,” said Monsieur Joseph majestically.
“Perhaps a little later…” suggested the lean individual.
“The Duke will not be visible later either.”
“Then tomorrow perhaps; I can wait — I have plenty of time on my hands.”
“You may have, but the Duke hasn’t.”
In the meanwhile the wizened little man had succeeded in once more collecting his papers together. With trembling eager hands he now selected a folded note, which evidently had suffered somewhat through frequent falls on dusty floors; this he held out toward Monsieur Joseph.
“I have a letter to Monsieur le valet de chambre of the Duke,” he said humbly.
“A letter of introduction? — to me?” queried Joseph, with a distinct change in his manner and tone. “From whom?”
“My daughter Agathe, who brings Monsieur’s chocolate in to him every morning.”
“Ah, you are Mademoiselle Agathe’s father!” exclaimed Joseph with pleasant condescension, as he took the letter of introduction, and, without glancing at it, slipped it into the pocket of his magnificent coat. Perhaps a thought subsequently crossed his mind that the timorous person before him was not quite so simple-minded as his watery blue eyes suggested, and that the dusty and crumpled little note might be a daring fraud practised on his own influential personality, for he added with stern emphasis: “I will see Mademoiselle Agathe tomorrow, and will discuss your affair with her.”
Then, as the little man did not wince under the suggestion, Monsieur Joseph said more urbanely:
“By the way, what is your affair? These gentlemen,” and with a graceful gesture he indicated his two friends, “these gentlemen will pardon the liberty you are taking in discussing it before them.”
“Thank you, Monsieur; thank you, gentlemen,” said the wizened individual humbly, “it is a matter of — er — figures.”
“Yes! This new Ministry of Finance — there will be an auditor of accounts wanted — several auditors, I presume — and — and I thought…”
“Yes?” nodded Monsieur Joseph graciously.
“My daughter does bring you in your chocolate nice and hot, Monsieur Joseph, does she not? — and — and I do know a lot about figures. I studied mathematics with the late Monsieur Descartes; I audited the books of the Société des Comptables of Lyons for several years; and — and I have diplomas and testimonials…”
And, carried away by another wave of anxiety, he began to fumble among his papers and books, which with irritating perversity immediately tumbled pell-mell on to the floor.
“What in the devil’s name is the good of testimonials and diplomas to us, my good man?” said Monsieur Joseph haughtily. “If, on giving the matter my serious consideration, I come to the conclusion that you will be a suitable accountant in the new Ministerial Department, ma foi! my good man, your affair is settled. No thanks, I pray!” he added, with a gracious flourish of the arm, “I have been pleased with Mademoiselle Agathe, and I may mention your name whilst I shave Monsieur le duc tomorrow. Er — by the way, what is your name?”
“Durand, if you please, Monsieur Joseph.”
The meagre little person with the watery blue eyes tried to express his gratitude by word and gesture, but his books and papers encumbered his movements, and he was rendered doubly nervous by the presence of these gorgeous and stately gentlemen, and by the wave of voices and laughter which suddenly rose from the distance, suggesting that perhaps a brilliant company might be coming this way.
The very thought seemed to completely terrify him; with both arms he hugged his various written treasures, and with many sideway bows and murmurs of thanks he finally succeeded in shuffling his lean figure out of the room, closely followed by Monsieur Paul.
Monsieur Durand’s retreat had fortunately occurred just in time; men’s voices and women’s laughter sounded more and more distinct, as if approaching toward the salle d’armes.
In a moment, with the swiftness born of long usage, the demeanour of the three gentlemen underwent a quick and sudden change. They seemed to pull their gorgeous figures together; with practised fingers each readjusted the lace of his cravat, re-established the correct set of his waistcoat, and flickered the last grain of dust or snuff from the satin-like surface of his coat.
Ten seconds later the great doors at the east end of the hall were thrown open, and through the embrasure and beyond the intervening marble corridor could be seen the brilliantly lighted supper-room, with its glittering company broken up into groups.
Silent, swift and deferential, Messieurs Joseph, Bénédict, and Achille glided on flat-heeled shoes along the slippery floors, making as little noise as possible, effacing their gorgeous persons in window recesses or carved ornaments whenever a knot of gentlemen or ladies happened to pass by.
Quite a different trio now, Messieurs Joseph, Bénédict, and Achille — just three automatons intent on their duties.
From the supper-room there came an incessant buzz of talk and laughter. Monsieur Joseph sought his master’s eye, but Monsieur le duc was busy with the King of England and wanted no service; Monsieur Achille found his English milord, “le petit Anglais,” engaged in conversation with his portly and somewhat overdressed mamma; whilst Monsieur Bénédict’s master was nowhere to be found.
The older ladies were beginning to look wearied and hot, smothering yawns behind their painted fans. Paniers assumed a tired and crumpled appearance, and feathered aigrettes nodded dismally above the high coiffures.
Not a few of the guests had taken the opportunity of bringing cards or dice from a silken pocket, whilst others in smaller groups, younger and not yet wearied of desultory talk, strolled toward the salle d’armes or the smaller boudoirs which opened out of the corridor.
One or two gentlemen had succumbed to Monsieur le duc’s lavish hospitality; the many toasts had proved too exacting, the copious draughts altogether too heady, and they had, somewhat involuntarily, exchanged their chairs for the more reliable solidity of the floor, where their faithful attendants, stationed under the table for the purpose, deftly untied a cravat which might be too tight or administered such cooling antidotes as might be desirable.
The hot air vibrated with the constant babel of voices, the frou-frou of silk paniers, and brocaded skirts, mingled with the clink of swords and the rattle of dice in satinwood boxes.
The atmosphere, surcharged with perfumes, had become overpoweringly close.
His Majesty, flushed with wine, and with drowsy lids drooping over his dulled eyes, had pushed his chair away from the table and was lounging lazily toward Madame de Pompadour, his idle fingers toying with the jewelled girdle of her fan. She amused him; she had quaint sayings which were sometimes witty, always daring, but which succeeded in dissipating momentarily that mortal ennui of which he suffered.
Even now her whispered conversation, interspersed with profuse giggles, brought an occasional smile to the lips of the sleepy monarch. She chatted and laughed, flirting her fan, humouring the effeminate creature beside her by yielding her hand and wrist to his flabby kisses. But her eyes did not rest on him for many seconds at a time; she talked to Louis, but her mind had gone a-wandering about the room trying to read thoughts, to search motives or divine hidden hatreds and envy as they concerned herself.
This glitter was still new to her; the power which she wielded seemed as yet a brittle toy which a hasty movement might suddenly break. It was but a very little while ago that she had been an insignificant unit in a third-rate social circle of Paris — always beautiful, but lost in the midst of a drabby crowd, her charms, like those of a precious stone, unperceived for want of proper setting. Her ambition was smothered in her heart, which at times it almost threatened to consume. But it was always there, ever since she had learnt to understand the power which beauty gives.
An approving smile from the King of France, and the world wore a different aspect for Jeanne Poisson. Her whims and caprices became the reins with which she drove France and the King. Why place a limit to her own desires, since the mightiest monarch in Europe was ready to gratify them?
Money became her god.
Spend! spend! spend! Why not? The nation, the bourgeoisie — of which she had once been that little insignificant unit — was now the well-spring whence she drew the means of satisfying her ever-increasing lust for splendour.
Jewels, dresses, palaces, gardens — all and everything that was rich, beautiful, costly, she longed for it all!
Pictures and statuary; music, and of the best; constant noise around her, gaiety, festivities, laughter; the wit of France and the science of the world all had been her helpmeets these past two years in this wild chase after pleasure, this constant desire to kill her Royal patron’s incurable ennui.
Two years, and already the nation grumbled! A check was to be put on her extravagance — hers and that of King Louis! The parliaments demanded that some control be exercised over Royal munificence. Fewer jewels for Madame! And that palace at Fontainebleau not yet completed, the Parc aux Cerfs so magnificently planned and not even begun! Would the new Comptroller put a check on that?
At first she marvelled that Louis should consent. It was a humiliation for him as well as for her. The weakness in him which had served her own ends seemed monstrous when it yielded to pressure from others.
He had assured her that she should not suffer; jewels, palaces, gardens, she should have all as heretofore. Let Parliament insist and grumble, but the Comptroller would be appointed by D’Aumont, and D’Aumont was her slave.
D’Aumont, yes! but not his daughter — that arrogant girl with the severe eyes, unwomanly and dictatorial, who ruled her father just as she herself, Pompadour, ruled the King.
An enemy, that Lydie d’Aumont! Madame la marquise, whilst framing a witticism at which the King smiled, frowned because in a distant alcove she spied the haughty figure of Lydie.
And there were others! The friends of the Queen and her clique, of course; they were not here tonight; at least not in great numbers; still, even the present brilliant company, though smiling and obsequious in the presence of the King, was not by any means a close phalanx of friends.
Monsieur d’Argenson, for instance — he was an avowed enemy; and Marshal de Noailles, too — oh! and there were others.
One of them, fortunately, was going away; Charles Edward Stuart, aspiring King of England; he had been no friend of Pompadour. Even now, as he stood close by, lending an obviously inattentive ear to Monsieur le duc d’Aumont, she could see that he still looked gloomy and out of humour, and that whenever his eyes rested upon her and the King he frowned with wrathful impatience.
“You are distrait, ma mie!” said Louis, with a yawn.
“I was thinking, sire,” she replied, smiling into his drowsy eyes.
“For God’s sake, I entreat, do not think!” exclaimed the King, with mock alarm. “Thought produces wrinkles, and your perfect mouth was only fashioned for smiles.”
“May I frame a suggestion?” she queried archly.
“No, only a command.”
“This Comptroller of Finance, your future master, Louis, and mine…”
“Your slave,” he interrupted lazily, “and he values his life.”
“Why not milord Eglinton?”
“Le petit Anglais?” and Louis’s fat body was shaken with sudden immoderate laughter. “Par Dieu, ma mie! Of all your witty sallies this one hath pleased us most.”
“Why?” she asked seriously.
“Le petit Anglais!” again laughed the King. “I’d as soon give the appointment to your lapdog, Marquise. Fido would have as much capacity for the post as the ornamental cypher that hangs on his mother’s skirts.”
“Milord Eglinton is very rich,” she mused.
“Inordinately so, curse him! I could do with half his revenue and be a satisfied man.”
“Being a cypher he would not trouble us much; being very rich he would need no bribe for doing as we wish.”
“His lady mother would trouble us, ma mie.”
“Bah! we would find him a wife.”
“Nay! I entreat you do not worry your dainty head with these matters,” said the King, somewhat irritably. “The appointment rests with D’Aumont; an you desire the post for your protégé, turn your bright eyes on the Duke.”
Pompadour would have wished to pursue the subject, to get something of a promise from Louis, to turn his inveterate weakness then and there to her own account, but Louis the Well-beloved yawned, a calamity which the fair lady dared not risk again. Witty and brilliant, forever gay and unfatigued, she knew that her power over the monarch would only last whilst she could amuse him.
Therefore now with swift transition she turned the conversation to more piquant channels. An anecdote at the expense of the old Duchesse de Pontchartrain brought life once more into the eyes of the King. She was once more untiring in her efforts, her cheeks glowed even through the powder and the rouge, her lips smiled without intermission, but her thoughts drifted back to the root idea, the burden of that control to be imposed on her caprices.
She would not have minded Milord Eglinton, the courteous, amiable gentleman, who had no will save that expressed by any woman who happened to catch his ear. She felt that she could, with but very little trouble, twist him round her little finger. His dictatorial mamma would either have to be got out of the way, or won over to Madame la marquise’s own views of life, whilst Milord could remain a bachelor, lest another feminine influence prove antagonistic.
Pompadour’s bright eyes, whilst she chatted to the King, sought amidst the glittering throng the slim figure of “le petit Anglais.”
Yes, he would suit her purpose admirably! She could see his handsome profile clearly outlined against the delicate tones of the wall; handsome, yes! clear-cut and firm, with straight nose and the low, square brow of the Anglo-Saxon race, but obviously weak and yielding; a perfect tool in the hands of a clever woman.
Elegant too, always immaculately, nay daintily dressed, he wore with that somewhat stiff grace peculiar to the English gentleman the showy and effeminate costume of the time. But there was weakness expressed in his very attitude as he stood now talking to Charles Edward Stuart: the kindly, pleasant expression of his good-looking face in strange contrast to the glowering moodiness of his princely friend.
One Lord Eglinton had followed the deposed James II into exile. His son had risked life and fortune for the restoration of the old Pretender, and having managed by sheer good luck to save both, he felt that he had done more than enough for a cause which he knew was doomed to disaster. But he hated the thought of a German monarch in England, and in his turn preferred exile to serving a foreigner for whom he had scant sympathy.
Immensely wealthy, a brilliant conversationalist, a perfect gentleman, he soon won the heart of one of the daughters of France. Mademoiselle de Maille brought him, in addition to her own elaborate trousseau and a dowry of three thousand francs yearly pin-money, the historic and gorgeous chateau of Beaufort which Lord Eglinton’s fortune rescued from the hands of the bailiffs.
Vaguely he thought that some day he would return to his own ancestral home in Sussex, when England would have become English once again; in the meanwhile he was content to drift on the placid waters of life, his luxurious craft guided by the domineering hand of his wife. Independent owing to his nationality and his wealth, a friend alike of the King of France and the Stuart Pretender, he neither took up arms in any cause, nor sides in any political intrigue.
Lady Eglinton brought up her son in affluence and luxury, but detached from all partisanship. Her strong personality imposed something of her own national characteristics on the boy, but she could not break the friendship that existed between the royal Stuarts and her husband’s family. Although Charles Edward was her son’s playmate in the gardens and castle of Beaufort, she nevertheless succeeded in instilling into the latter a slight measure of disdain for the hazardous attempts at snatching the English crown which invariably resulted in the betrayal of friends, the wholesale slaughter of adherents, and the ignominious flight of the Pretender.
No doubt it was this dual nationality in the present Lord Eglinton, this detachment from political conflicts, that was the real cause of that inherent weakness of character which Madame de Pompadour now wished to use for her own ends. She was glad, therefore, to note that whilst Charles Edward talked earnestly to him, the eyes of “le petit Anglais” roamed restlessly about the room, as if seeking for support in an argument, or help from a personality stronger than his own.
Lady Eglinton’s voice, harsh and domineering, often rose above the general hum of talk. Just now she had succeeded in engaging the Prime Minister in serious conversation.
The King in the meanwhile had quietly dropped asleep, lulled by the even ripple of talk of the beautiful Marquise and the heavily scented atmosphere of the room. Pompadour rose from her chair as noiselessly as her stiff brocaded skirt would allow; she crossed the room and joined Lady Eglinton and Monsieur le duc d’Aumont.
She was going to take King Louis’s advice and add the weighty influence of her own bright eyes to that of my lady’s voluble talk in favour of the appointment of Lord Eglinton to the newly created Ministry of Finance.
In a small alcove, which was raised above the level of the rest of the floor by a couple of steps and divided from the main banqueting hall by a heavy damask curtain now partially drawn aside, Mademoiselle d’Aumont sat in close conversation with Monsieur le comte de Stainville.
From this secluded spot these two dominated the entire length and breadth of the room; the dazzling scene was displayed before them in a gorgeous kaleidoscope of moving figures, in an ever-developing panorama of vividly coloured groups, that came and went, divided and reunited; now forming soft harmonies of delicate tones that suggested the subtle blending on the palette of a master, anon throwing on to the canvas daring patches of rich magentas or deep purples, that set off with cunning artfulness the masses of pale primrose and gold.
Gaston de Stainville, however, did not seem impressed with the picturesqueness of the scene. He sat with his broad back turned toward the brilliant company, one elbow propped on a small table beside him, his hand shielding his face against the glare of the candles. But Lydie d’Aumont’s searching eyes roamed ceaselessly over the gaily plumaged birds that fluttered uninterruptedly before her gaze.
With one delicate hand holding back the rich damask curtain, the other lying idly in her lap, her white brocaded gown standing out in stiff folds round her girlish figure, she was a picture well worth looking at.
Lydie was scarcely twenty-one then, but already there was a certain something in the poise of her head, in every movement of her graceful body, that suggested the woman accustomed to dominate, the woman of thought and action, rather than of sentiment and tender emotions.
Those of her own sex said at that time that in Lydie’s haughty eyes there was the look of the girl who has been deprived early in life of a mother’s gentle influence, and who has never felt the gentle yet firm curb of a mother’s authority on her childish whims and caprices.
Monsieur le duc d’Aumont, who had lost his young wife after five years of an exceptionally happy married life, had lavished all the affection of his mature years on the girl, who was the sole representative of his name. The child had always been headstrong and self-willed from the cradle; her nurses could not cope with her babyish tempers; her governesses dreaded her domineering ways. Monsieur le duc was deaf to all complaints; he would not have the child thwarted, and as she grew up lovable in the main, she found her father’s subordinates ready enough to bend to her yoke.
From the age of ten she had been the acknowledged queen of all her playmates, and the autocrat of her father’s house. Little by little she obtained an extraordinary ascendancy over the fond parent, who admired almost as much as he loved her.
He was deeply touched when, scarce out of the school room, she tried to help him in the composition of his letters, and more than astonished to see how quick was her intelligence and how sharp her intuition. Instinctively, at first he took to explaining to her the various political questions of the day, listening with paternal good-humour, to her acute and sensitive remarks on several important questions.
Then gradually his confidence in her widened. Many chroniclers aver that it was Lydie d’Aumont who wrote her father’s celebrated memoirs, and those who at that time had the privilege of knowing her intimately could easily trace her influence in most of her father’s political moves. There is no doubt that the Duc himself, when he finally became Prime Minister of France, did very little without consulting his daughter, and even l’abbé d’Alivet, in his “Chroniques de Louis XV,” admits that the hot partisanship of France for the Young Pretender’s ill-conceived expeditions was mainly due to Mademoiselle d’Aumont’s influence.
When Vanloo painted her a little later on, he rendered with consummate and delicate skill the haughty look of command which many of Lydie’s most ardent admirers felt to be a blemish on the exquisite purity and charm of her face.
The artist, too, emphasized the depth and earnestness of her dark eyes, and that somewhat too severe and self-reliant expression which marked the straight young brow.
Perhaps it was this same masterful trait in the dainty form before him that Gaston de Stainville studied so attentively just now; there had been silence for some time between the elegant cavalier and the idolized daughter of the Prime Minister of France. She seemed restless and anxious, even absent-minded, when he spoke. She was studying the various groups of men and women as they passed, frowning when she looked on some faces, smiling abstractedly when she encountered a pair of friendly eyes.
“I did not know that you were such a partisan of that young adventurer,” said Gaston de Stainville at last, as if in answer to her thoughts, noting that her gaze now rested with stern intentness on Charles Edward Stuart.
“I must be on the side of a just cause,” she rejoined quietly, as with a very characteristic movement of hers she turned her head slowly round and looked Monsieur de Stainville full in the face.
She could not see him very well, for his head was silhouetted against the dazzling light beyond, and she frowned a little as she tried to distinguish his features more clearly in the shadow.
“You do believe, Gaston, that his cause is just?” she asked earnestly.
“Oh!” he replied lightly, “I’ll believe in the justice of any cause to which you give your support.”
She shrugged her shoulders, whilst a slightly contemptuous curl appeared at the corner of her mouth.
“How like a man!” she said impatiently.
“What is like a man?” he retorted. “To love — as I love you?”
He had whispered this, hardly above his breath lest he should be overheard by some one in that gay and giddy throng who passed laughingly by. The stern expression in her eyes softened a little as they met his eager gaze, but the good-humoured contempt was still apparent, even in her smile; she saw that as he spoke he looked through the outspread fingers of his hand to see if he was being watched, and noted that one pair of eyes, distant the whole length of the room, caught the movement, then was instantly averted.
“Mademoiselle de Saint Romans is watching you,” she said quietly.
He seemed surprised and not a little vexed that she had noticed, and for a moment looked confused; then he said carelessly:
“Why should she not? Why should not the whole world look on, and see that I adore you?”
“Meseems you protest over-much, Gaston,” she said, with a sigh.
“You talk of love too lightly.”
“I am in earnest, Lydie. Why should you doubt? Are you not beautiful enough to satisfy any man’s ardour?”
“Am I not influential enough, you mean,” she said, with a slight tremor in her rich young voice, “to satisfy any man’s ambition?”
“Is ambition a crime in your eyes, Lydie?”
“I am ambitious; you cannot condemn me for that,” he said, now speaking in more impressive tone. “When we were playmates together, years ago, you remember? in the gardens at Cluny, if other lads were there, was I not always eager to be first in the race, first in the field — first always, everywhere?”
“Even at the cost of sorrow and humiliation to the weaker ones.”
He shrugged his shoulders with easy unconcern.
“There is no success in life for the strong,” he said, “save at the cost of sorrow and humiliation for the weak. Lydie,” he added more earnestly, “if I am ambitious it is because my love for you has made me humble. I do not feel that as I am, I am worthy of you; I want to be rich, to be influential, to be great. Is that wrong? I want your pride in me, almost as much as your love.”
“You were rich once, Gaston,” she said, a little coldly. “Your father was rich.”
“Is it my fault if I am poor now?”
“They tell me it is; they say that you are over-fond of cards, and of other pleasures which are less avowable.”
“And you believe them?”
“I hardly know,” she whispered.
“You have ceased to love me, then?”
There as a tone of tender reproach there, which the young man was swift enough to note; the beautiful face before him was in full light; he could see well that a rosy blush had chased away the usual matt pallor of her cheeks, and that the full red lips trembled a little now, whilst the severe expression of the eyes was veiled in delicate moisture.
“Your face has betrayed you, Lydie!” he said, with sudden vehemence, though his voice even now hardly rose above a whisper. “If you have not forgotten your promises made to me at Cluny — in the shadow of those beech trees, do you remember? You were only thirteen — a mere child — yet already a woman, the soft breath of spring fanned your glowing cheeks, your loose hair blew about your face, framing your proud little head in a halo of gold — you remember, Lydie?”
“I have not forgotten,” she said gently.
“Your hand was in mine — a child’s hand, Lydie, but yours for all that — and you promised — you remember? And if you have not forgotten — if you do love me, not, Heaven help me! as I love you, but only just a little better than any one else in the world; well, then, Lydie, why these bickerings, why these reproaches? I am poor now, but soon I will be rich! I have no power, but soon I will rule France, with you to help me if you will!”
He had grown more and more vehement as he spoke, carried along by the torrent of his own eloquence. But he had not moved; he still sat with his back to the company, and his face shaded by his hand; his voice was still low, impressive in its ardour. Then, as the young girl’s graceful head drooped beneath the passionate expression of his gaze, bending, as it were, to the intensity of his earnest will, his eyes flashed a look of triumph, a premonition of victory close at hand. Lydie’s strong personality was momentarily weakened by the fatigue of a long and arduous evening, by the heavy atmosphere of the room; her senses were dulled by the penetrating odours of wine and perfumes which fought with those of cosmetics.
She seemed to be yielding to the softer emotions, less watchful of her own dignity, less jealous of her own power. The young man felt that at this moment he held her just as he wished; did he stretch out his hand she would place hers in it. The recollections of her childhood had smothered all thoughts of present conflicts and of political intrigues. Mademoiselle d’Aumont, the influential daughter of an all-powerful Minister, had momentarily disappeared, giving way to madcap little Lydie, with short skirts and flying chestnut curls, the comrade of the handsome boy in the old gardens at Cluny.
“Lydie, if you loved me!” whispered Stainville.
“If I loved you!” and there was a world of pathos in that girlish “if.”
“You would help me instead of reproaching.”
“What do you want me to do, Gaston?”
“Your word is law with your father,” he said persuasively. “He denies you nothing. You said I was ambitious; one word from you — this new Ministry…”
He realized his danger, bit his lip lest he had been too precipitate. Lydie was headstrong, she was also very shrewd; the master-mind that guided the destinies of France through the weak indulgence of a father was not likely to be caught in a snare like any love-sick maid. Her woman’s instinct — he knew that — was keen to detect self-interest; and if he aroused the suspicions of the wealthy and influential woman before he had wholly subjugated her heart, he knew that he would lose the biggest stake of his life.
Lately she had held aloof from him, the playmates had become somewhat estranged; the echoes of his reckless life must, he thought, have reached her ears, and he himself had not been over-eager for the companionship of this woman, who seemed to have thrown off all the light-heartedness of her sex for the sake of a life of activity and domination.
She was known to be cold and unapproachable, rigidly conscientious in transacting the business of the State, which her father with easy carelessness gradually left on her young shoulders, since she seemed to find pleasure in it.
But her influence, of which she was fully conscious, had rendered her suspicious. Even now, when the call of her youth, of her beauty, of the happy and tender recollections of her childhood loudly demanded to be heard, she cast a swift, inquiring glance at Gaston.
He caught the glance, and, with an involuntary movement of impatience, his hand, which up to now had so carefully masked the expression of his face, came crashing down upon the table.
“Lydie,” he said impetuously, “in the name of God throw aside your armour for one moment! Is life so long that you can afford to waste it? Have you learned the secret of perpetual youth that you deliberately fritter away its golden moments in order to rush after the Dead Sea fruit of domination and power? Lydie!” he whispered with passionate tenderness, “my little Lydie of the crisp chestnut hair, of the fragrant woods around Cluny, leave those giddy heights of ambition; come down to earth, where my arms await you! I will tell you of things, my little Lydie, which are far more beautiful, far more desirable, than the sceptre and kingdom of France; and when I press you close to my heart you will taste a joy far sweeter than that which a crown of glory can give. Will you not listen to me, Lydie? Will you not share with me that joy which renders men the equal of God?”
His hand had wandered up the damask curtain, gently drawing its heavy folds from out her clinging fingers. The rich brocade fell behind him with a soft and lingering sound like the murmured “Hush — sh — sh!” of angels’ wings shutting out the noise and glare beyond, isolating them both from the world and its conflicts, its passions, and its ceaseless strife.
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