What a city it is, this Versailles, palace of Le Grand Monarque. With its huge courtyards, vast ranges of buildings, miles of corridors and galleries. And then its pleasure grounds, parks, vistas, forest glades, and above all its cascades and fountains. And yet it was but another pleasure house which the King of France, for a mere whim, added to the vast number of existing castles and palaces he already possessed.
When I go to Versailles I do not wonder at the French Revolution, I wonder that it was so long delayed.
I remember reading in the ” Letters ” of Madame de Sevigne that thirty-six thousand men and over a million horses were employed to bring the water of the Seine to the new palace, and she goes on to speak of the frightful mortality among the workmen: “Every night,” says she, ” waggons full of dead were taken away. There was one poor woman who, having lost her son from this enforced labour, waylaid the King and accosted him, crying, ‘Tyrant, adulterer, royal mechanic, and a thousand other foolish and extravagant things. The King, surprised, stopped and asked, ` Are you speaking to me Yes,’ said the woman, and went on raving. So she was taken, condemned to,be whipped, and then imprisoned. The whipping was administered with extreme severity, yet never a word said the woman, suffering like a martyr, and all for the love of God.”
What a frivolous set they were, this household of le Roi Soleil. As one reads the memoirs of Madame de Motteville and Mademoiselle de Montpensier, this is what specially thrusts itself upon one’s attention. Yet among this flippant crowd we occasionally catch glimpses of quite other characters. See! here is the cassocked form of Bishop Bossuet, ” lI’Aigle de Meaux,” with his strict code of morality. . Bossuet, who for a few days actually prevailed upon the King to give up the company of Madame de Montespan; and spoke such thrilling words to the favourite, that the lady developed a religious turn of mind, and for a full week visited churches, fasted, and wept for her sins.
And there goes Fenelon, ” le Cygnet de Cambrian,” the good tutor of the naughty little Duke of Burgundy, eldest grandson of Louis XIV. They say that it was for the delectation of this young Prince that ” Telemachus ” was composed.
And Pascal we meet, purest and most mystic of men; and Voltaire, magnificent sceptic;. and Corneille and Racine; and La Fontaine, with his simple, almost childish, eccentricities.
And, above all, there is Moliere. What a story is that of the youth of this Jean Baptiste! How he tormented his respectable relations with his unconquerable craving for the stage! Again and again he came to grief; now his theatre failed, now he was imprisoned for debt, now he was running hither and thither over the country like a vagrant. Yet, all the time, he was thinking of his plays, his comedies, studying the life of the people, learning their modes of speech and ways of thought, till at last, after several years he had his heart’s desire, and saw his 11 Precieuses Ridicules” performed before the King and his Court. And it was here, in these very gardens of Versailles, that Moliere had his open-air theatre. How we should all like to have been present at that first performance of his, and how we should have laughed, for the wit of Moliere, like that of Shakespeare, never grows old.
How overwhelming is this Versailles, how difficult it is to concentrate one’s mind on any particular scene or character. Here comes Mademoiselle de la Valliere, demure little maid of honour, with her big blue eyes, her silvery fair hair, and the slight limp which is said to have made her so attractive. Do you remember the story of how, one day, a storm having broken over the gay party, when they were far away in the park, every one made for the nearest shelter, leaving the King to take care of the lame girl. “Take my arm,” said Louis, “we will go to the Chateau.” But it took some time to get there! The young King knew the grounds quite well enough to lose himself for an hour when he had a mind. ” I am getting very wet, your Majesty! ” ventured the lady presently.
“Count the drops of rain,” answered the King, ” and I will give them to you in pearls.”
It was in honour of this same little heroine that many of the great fetes were given at Versailles. Gorgeous indeed they must have been. The King himself, ” Le Roi Soleil,” as he loved to be called, would appear in cloth of gold, spangled all over with diamonds, glittering like the sun, his emblem. It was too, I think, at Versailles that the lottery was held, when Louis gained the diamond bracelets, and, passing by his meek little Spanish wife, and his expectant sister-in-law, placed the jewels in the hands of the blushing La Valliere. ” How beautiful they are,” said the young girl, making as though she would return them to the King. “The hands in which they find themselves are too lovely for them ever to return to mine,” answered the King.
Poor La Valliere! After all, was she not more sinned against than sinning 2 At all events, she had the merit of loving the King for his own sake, which is more than can be said of any one else, except, perhaps, Anne of Austria, his mother. At last, having lost what little beauty she ever possessed, and finding herself neglected, Louise de la Valliere retired to the Convent of Chaillot, and, with her departure, the poetry vanished for ever from the life of Louis XIV.
But at Versailles things went on as gaily and indecorously as ever. See, here is the tall fair form of Madame de Montespan. Quite another character is she from the frail and gentle Louise. In one of the galleries there is a portrait of her, by Mignard. How superb she looks in her red gown smothered with lace and pearls! What other blonde would have dared to put that red feather in her hair? As some one has well remarked, she was not a beauty, she was THE beauty! Looking at her, we can well imagine the Marquis, her husband, mad with jealousy, forcing his way into the King’s presence. It was here, in the Hall of Mirrors, that they metthe gorgeous Louis and the stern courtier in his sombre black. ” Why this deep mourning, monsieur? ” inquired the King, who hated anything even remotely connected with death. ” Sire,” replied the Marquis in a tone of deep meaning, ” I am in mourning for my wife.” “For your wife? ” echoed Louis, startled. ” Ay, Sire, I shall never see her again! ” and, turning on his heel, he left the astonished King without another word, re-turning in his mourning coach to Paris, where he gave out to every one that his wife was dead.
We have no time to follow the life of this gay lady, and indeed it is not an inspiring theme. She was selfish, avaricious, shameless, ill-humoured, and, in spite of her wit, for my part, I think that her husband was well rid of her. At last she wearied the King with her arrogance and her tempers. “Madame,” said he one day, “I would have you know that I do not choose to be vexed by any one.” Yet even then Madame de Montespan did not recognise that her reign was over.
For some time past Louis had conceived a friendship for the beautiful and accomplished Madame Scarron, better known as Madame de Maintenon. He had plenty of opportunities for seeing her as she had been appointed governess to the children of Madame de Montespan. Gradually Louis fell into the habit of spending long hours conversing with the handsome governess, and, before long, it became apparent to every one that Madame de Maintenon had accomplished a work in which even Bossuet had failed, she had reformed the King. Whether the lady would have succeeded in her task had she been plainer it is difficult to say. I have never understood the character of Madame de Maintenon. Was she really a good woman, or merely a consummate hypocrite? I believe it is impossible to tell. All that is certain is, that after she took the King in hand he became a reformed character, and remained so to the end of his life. The poor, neglected Queen Marie-Therese, who had never lost her love and admiration for him, was en-chanted, and had no words to express her gratitude to the good fairy who had worked the miracle. When, two years later, his wife died, Louis married Madame de Maintenon, and from that day the Court at Versailles – was as correct and uneventful, as any ” Mrs Grundy ” of the period could desire.
Louis XV. followed closely the example of his great-grandfather’s unregenerate days, though without possessing his talent or strength of character. The Court of his reign had all the vice and none of the scanty virtues of that of his predecessor. On one favourite alone, Madame du Barri, he is said to, have squandered more than;C3,000,000! Is it a wonder that the people at last rebelled? The sight of those vast palaces and the extravagant fetes which were constantly being given, would have roused a less excitable mob than that of starving Paris. The storm of the Revolution had been a long time brewing. We forget the terrors of La Fronde which pre-ceded it by more than a century, but the English Queen,- Henrietta Maria, who had good cause to know what she was saying, had realised even then what the attitude of the people meant. ” Take care to conciliate your subjects,” said she to Anne of Austria. ” The mob is a wild beast. Once roused, no one can tame it! ” Yet, instead of conciliation, the policy of the Bourbons had been one long system of oppression and aggravation, and it was just when things were at their very worst that there rose on the scene that young Queen, whose phantom always haunts us as we make our way about Versailles.
We have all visited the little private rooms of Marie Antoinette. They lie at the heart of the giant palace. Poor Marie Antoinette, one cannot but feel great sympathy for her, in spite of her appalling extravagance and fits of irresponsibility. She and her husband, the good Louis, are but one more example of the truth of the ancient dictum: ” The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” As we enter those little rooms of hers, they recall to our memory a young boy and girl waiting for the news of an old king’s death. They dare not go near the sick-chamber for fear of infection, for Louis XV. is dying of smallpox, and has sent away even his mistress, Madame du Barri: At last, a lighted candle, which has been placed as a sign in the window of his room, is extinguished. There is a sound of many footsteps approaching. Every one is running to salute the new monarch. ” Le Roi est mort! Vive le Roi! ” cry the courtiers. But the new King and Queen are on their knees, weeping. ” God help us! ” says Louis XVI. ” How shall we govern this great nation and we so young and unused to rule? ”
Alas! it was here, at Versailles, Marie Antoinette finished the work of the Bourbons, with her reckless extravagance, her fetes, her balls. And finally, it was to these very rooms of hers that the fishwomen of Paris came in all their fury that terrifying October morning.
As we cross the courtyard later it suddenly occurs to me that these are the very same granite blocks over which the royal carriage rolled when Marie Antoinette and her children set forth on their slow ride to Paris. And I stand, looking down the long straight road, till it seems to me I have but just bidden her adieu, and that I can still hear in the distance the coarse voices of the shrieking mob. I am recalled to myself by an old cabman who is smoking a “cigarette as he waits for the return of his party.
“It was a large cottage for one man, eh, madame? ” says he. I nod. “You still have a king in England,” pursued the man. “Has he a house like that? ”
“No,” I answer, smiling. “I cannot say that he has.”
” Ah, no! ” replies the driver, and he does not look as if he had. I saw him one dayyour Edward, I mean. He might have been my brother, so pleasant he looked, bowing and smiling as if he knew us. Ah, he had no. need of a palace like Versailles, he lived in the hearts of his people. Madame, if our kings had resembled him, there would have been no Revolution. Mon Dieu! The French would have died for a king like your Edward! “