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( Originally Published 1936 )
Louis XIV. died at Versailles on September 2, 1715. For days de Maintenon had hardly left his side, indifferent to the whispering of courtiers already hanging on the skirts of the Due d'Orleans, the coming Regent. The King gave her his rosary. "It is not a relic, it is a keepsake." And in a broken voice he assured her that he was sorry that he had not made her happy, but that he had always loved and esteemed her quality. " What will become of you, Madame, you have nothing," he said. " I am nothing," she replied; " think only of God ! " To the little Dauphin, soon to be Louis XV., he said : " My child, you are going to be a great king. Do not imitate me in the taste I have had for making war. Think always of submitting your actions to God." And to the nobles who stood in his room, " I ask your pardon for the bad example I have set you. I am very sorry not to have done all I should have desired to do for you. I ask you to give my grandson the same diligence and the same: fidelity as you have bestowed on me."
He commended de Maintenon to the Duc d'Orleans.
"You know the esteem and regard in which I have always held her ; she has never given me any but good advice, she has been useful to me in all things, but especially as to my salvation." For the last time husband and wife were left alone together and then, quietly and unnoticed, de Maintenon drove away to St. Cyr, where she heard of her husband's death, and Versailles knew her no more. She dismissed her servants, gave away her linen, cut down her expenses, and at once increased her list of pensions. The inflexible woman was now eighty years old. She had longed for peace, but she had lived in the great world, and she soon found life in the convent dull and boring. But she did not waver. At six every morning she was at mass, and her days were spent with the pupils. She died in 1719. Saint-Simon maligned her, Voltaire sneered at her, but she was a very great woman, who played her part in the drama of royalty with single-hearted courage.
One incident only broke the monotony of de Maintenon's life at St. Cyr. In 1717 Peter the Great was staying in France, and the Trianon was given to him for a residence. Peter was a thrifty soul. " The Czar, being at Versailles and Trianon, sent for sixteen musicians, who entertained him for four days, especially in the evening until three or four o'clock in the morning : at the end of which time he sent them back to Paris without having paid them anything." During his stay he visited St. Cyr. De Maintenon says in one of her letters : " The Czar arrived at seven o'clock ; he sat down beside my bed and had me asked whether I was ill. I answered that I was. He had me asked the nature of my illness. I replied A great age with a weak constitution.' He did not know what to say to me and his interpreter did not seem to hear me." Peter was very anxious to have a good look at the old lady who had played so great a part in the governing of France, and he suddenly gave an order in Russian that the hangings of her bed should be opened. She blushed a little and then gave her little characteristic scornful smile.
The fashions at Versailles were very curious in the reign of Louis XIV. Saint-Simon tells us :
"The hair was drawn over an edifice composed of wire, and adorned with ribbons and all sorts of appendages, the whole being more than two feet high, so that a woman's face seemed to be in the middle of her body : even old ladies wore it just in the same way, only with black gauze instead of ribbons. Directly they moved the whole edifice trembled, and it was extraordinarily inconvenient."
Versailles was abandoned during the Regency, but Louis XV., a mere boy who had just attained his majority and was married to Marie Leczinska, set up his Court there and it became the favourite royal palace until the Revolution. Louis, " The Well-Beloved," far more than Voltaire or the encyclopxdists, was the father of the Revolution. An idle autocrat, jealous of his prerogatives, " incapable of thought or feeling," his long reign was one long story of disaster. India was lost, Canada was lost, and the piling up of taxation to meet military expenditure and royal prodigality excited resentment against an absolute rule that had grown incapable, and the anti-royalist sentiment was stimulated by the writings of philosophers.
La Pompadour, of whom I have already written, first appeared at Versailles in 1745 at a masked ball, and she was soon installed there in a small suite of rooms looking out on the northern parterre and consisting of an anteroom, a bedroom, a dining-room and a pantry. Louis was a shameless debauchee, and long before the death of Pompadour he had started the series of notorious incidents in the house known as Parc aux Cerfs in the Rue St. Mederic in the town of Versailles. Here favourite succeeded favourite, all young, all girls of the people, one the daughter of a cobbler, another of a bankrupt grocer, and so on. It was a vulgar, vicious king who followed the great Louis at Versailles. He neglected his wife and household. He snubbed his four unfortunate daughters whom, with exquisite politeness, he nicknamed Sow, Rag, Scrap and Bad Silk. Truth to tell, they could not have been attractive women. Adelaide was passionate and haughty ; Victoire was lazy and self-indulgent ; Sophie was extraordinarily ugly ; the best of them, Louise, escaped to the convent of the Carmelites at St. Denis near the burial-place of the French kings, and there she stayed until she died. She was pious and intelligent, but with all the Bourbon imperiousness. Her last words were : "To Paradise, quick, quick, full.speed," as though she were giving orders to her coachman.
Du Barry, the last of the King's mistresses, made her first appearance at Versailles in 1769. She was the daughter of a sempstress, and had been a milliner, and afterwards a gambler's decoy. With du Barry royal harlotry at last became ridiculous. De Montespan was a grande dame; La Pompadour was a woman of character ; du Barry was just a harlot, and, when she was installed at Versailles, autocracy grew vulgar. She insisted on attending the meetings of the Council and would perch herself on the arm of the royal chair, as Madame Campan tells us, " playing off all sorts of childish monkey tricks calculated to please an old sultan." She insisted on reading confidential State papers, and once in a fit of temper threw a bundle of them on the back of the fire.
lt was at the Versailles of du Barry that Marie Antoinette, a girl of fifteen, daughter of the heroic Marie Theresa, arrived in 1770-the palace gloomy, the King a vicious old roue, her husband a melancholy devot. The panic on what is now the Place de la Concorde was the first of the many tragic incidents of her married life. At Versailles the girl was lonely and unhappy, though the people were charmed by her beauty and would go out on a Sunday from Paris to Versailles that they might catch sight of her.
Louis XV. died of smallpox in 1774. Du Barry had stolen away from the palace a fortnight before, " unclean yet unmalignant not unpitiable thing," as Carlyle calls her, to finish her life on the guillotine. It was feared that the King's funeral might be made a scene of public rejoicing, so with little or no ceremony his body was hurried away from Versailles to its burying-place at St. Denis.
The Petit Trianon at Versailles is particularly associated with Marie Antoinette. It was built by Louis XV. during the Pompadour regime and du Barry used it for the supperparties which half-fed Paris denounced as orgies of dissipation, though they appear to have been comparatively harmless. There was a merry-go-round on the lawn and a model village at the end of the garden, for even the Court had been influenced by Rousseau and suffered from the fashionable yearning to return to nature. It was in the grounds of the Petit Trianon that Marie Antoinette gave a much-discussed fete to her brother, the Emperor Joseph II., who, during his visit to Paris, shocked the Court with very candid criticisms of the government of France. Here, too, Gustave III., King of Sweden, was entertained at vast expense and again to the scandal of poverty-stricken Paris. It was at the Trianon that Marie Antoinette incurred the condemnation of the censorious by acting in Beaurnarchais' The Barber of Seville and other plays. It was , at the Petit Trianon that she first learned of the plot of the diamond necklace, for it was here that Bohmer, the jeweller, came to beg her to pay for the jewel that she had never seen. The whole thing was a clumsy, vulgar plot, but it was one more blow at the prestige of the Crown, and in stimulating the resentment of the people it hastened the Revolution that was to begin four years later. Carlyle has magnificently summarised the unutterable business in a paragraph :
" Red-hatted Cardinal Louis de Rohan ; Sicilian jailbird Balsamo Cagliostro ; milliner Dame de Lamotte, ` with a face of some piquancy ': the highest Church Dignitaries waltzing, in Walpurgis Dance, with quackprophets, pickpurses and public women ; a whole Satan's visible world displayed ; working there continually under the daylight visible one; the smoke of its torment going up forever ! The Throne has been brought into scandalous collision with the Treadmill. Astonished Europe rings with the mystery for nine months ; sees only lie unfold itself from lie ; corruption among the lofty and the low, gulosity, credulity, imbecility, strength nowhere but in the hunger. Weep, fair Queen, thy first tears of unmixed wretchedness ! Thy fair name has been tarnished by foul breath ; irremediably while life lasts. No more shalt thou be loved and pitied by living hearts, till a new generation has been born, and thy own heart lies cold, cured of all its sorrows. The Epigrams henceforth become, not sharp and bitter ; but cruel, atrocious, unmentionable. On the 31st of May 1786 a miserable Cardinal Grand -Almoner Rohan, on issuing from his Bastille, is escorted by hurrahing crowds : unloved he, and worthy of no love ; but important since the Court and Queen are his enemies."
It was in the Salle des Menus at Versailles on May 5, 1789, that the sittings of the States-General were opened, Marie Antoinette appearing for the last time in her life in her regal robes. The outstanding figure of the assembly was Mirabeau, whom Madame de Stael, the daughter of Necker, then a young girl, noted with approval as he walked proudly in the procession that preceded the meeting. It is said that during this meeting at Versailles Mirabeau offered to barter his revolutionary enthusiasm for a foreign embassy, but the tale is incredible. Among the Deputies, too, was Robespierre, making his first unregarded entry on the public stage, and the Abbe Sieyes, soon to be known to fame as the master-maker of Constitutions, while sitting among the clergy was Talleyrand-Perigord, the Bishop of Autun. Marie Antoinette was pale-faced and her hair was already turning grey. She had forebodings of what was to happen.
On the morning of June 20 the Deputies assembled to find the doors of the Salle closed against them. Leaving the palace they went to the tennis court in the Rue St. Francois, and there took oath not to break up until the Constitution had been made and accepted.
On October 5 the women of Paris, hungry and angry, led by " brown-locked demoiselle Theroigne," marched from Paris to Versailles. The National Assembly was discussing the order of the day when Mirabeau startled the President with the statement : " Paris marche sur nous." Lafayette, always constitutional, would have stopped the march of the women, but the grenadiers of the Guards bluntly declared : " We cannot turn our bayonets against women crying to us for bread." Soon the women, weary and bedraggled, were before the palace, demanding bread and speech with the King. The King saw five of them, talked to them kindly, promised them food. They came out beaming, only to be sent back again to demand the promise in writing. But nothing happened, and hungry and weary, and ever growing angrier, they broke into the meeting of the Assembly with the demand, " Du pain et pus tant de longs discours."
Night fell. The King and Queen were fearful and half inclined to follow the prudent royal princes already in exile. Outside the palace still stood the crowd of damp misery, until at last the Assembly decreed that bread should be sold at eight sous the half-quartern, and butchers' meat at six sous the pound. Then some of the women began to drift back to Paris. But not all.
At midnight Lafayette arrived. The Court crowded round him, eager for his advice, the Queen alone showing courage and calmness. Everything seemed quiet, and Lafayette went to the Hotel de Noailles near the palace. At half-past four the mob, however, attacked the palace, apparently intending to assassinate the Queen, and lest worse might befall, the King pledged his word to move the Court from Versailles to Paris.
The royal family started at one o'clock the next day, never to return, surrounded by a crowd of shrieking revolutionists who carried the heads of two murdered soldiers at the top of poles. It was six in the evening when they arrived at the IIotel de Ville, the King assuring the Mayor that he always came with pleasure and confidence among his good people of the city of Paris. And from the Hotel de Ville they went on to the Tuileries.
Versailles had been the scene in which the drama of France had been set for a hundred years, but after the sad procession of King and Queen with their howling escort had passed out of sight, Versailles remained just a park and a mzcsee almost for another hundred years.
On October 5, 1870, the King of Prussia with Moltlce, Bismarck and his staff arrived at Versailles. Sedan had been won, the Second Empire had come to an end, and the siege of Paris had begun. The King took up his residence at the Prefecture, not at the chateau, and his staff were quartered in various houses, eating at the famous Hotel des Reservoirs. For a while there was some hesitation as to whether Paris should be bombarded or not, and Bismarck was furious with the suggestion that he opposed the bombardment because of the works of art in the city. Such weakness was not for the man of iron. " I think nothing in Paris would give me a transient desire to spare it if I considered the bombardment right from a political and military point of view." On January 18, 1871, in the Galerie des Glaces in the Palace of Versailles the Hohenzollern German Empire was proclaimed, the old Kaiser Wilhelm standing surrounded by his victorious Marshals and the other German sovereigns while the trombones sounded and " Now thank we all our God " was lustily sung. Five weeks later, on February 26, the treaty that gave Germany Alsace and Lorraine and a war indemnity of five milliards of francs was signed in Versailles in a room in the house where Bismarck was living, by five German plenipotentiaries and by Thiers, the little spare man of shrewd common sense, and Jules Favre, the rather shaggy demagogue, who five months before had uttered the famous declaration, " Pas un pouce de notre territoire, pas une pierre de nos forteresses." That was the day of humiliation.
Again the scene is Versailles. Again the Galerie des Glaces where the Hohenzollern Empire had begun. On a brilliantly hot Saturday in June 1919, on a raised dais surrounded by a crowd of eager onlookers, the representatives of the Allied Powers and of Germany signed the second Treaty of Versailles which the Government of the German Republic had been compelled to accept. The representatives first of the Great Powers and then of all the little Powers, including Liberia, solemnly signed their names -a long and dreary business-and then the two Germans, Herr Muller, thin and long, looking rather like a village schoolmaster, and Herr Bell, short and stout and prosperous, both strained-looking and weary, signed away all that Bismarck had won. Afterwards I watched from the windows of the Salle the acclaiming crowds wildly cheering Clemenceau and Wilson and Lloyd George, while Herr Muller and Herr Bell slipped quietly and sadly into their car and drove away.
That was the day of triumph-and men are already asking if the triumph was worth while.