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CHAPTER I
Birth of Félicité Ducrest—Chateau de Saint-Aubin—Made chanoinesse—Story of her uncle and her mother—Her childhood—Comes to Paris—Goes into society—Evil reputation of the h?tel Tencin.
Capital letter T

THE last of the four French heroines whose histories are here to be related, differed in her early surroundings and circumstances from the three preceding ones. She was neither the daughter of a powerful noble like the Marquise de Montagu, nor did she belong to the finance or the bourgeoisie like Mme. Le Brun and Mme. Tallien. Her father was noble but poor, her childhood was spent, not in a great capital but in the country, and as she was born nearly ten years before the first and six-and-twenty years before the last of the other three, she saw much more than they did of the old France before it was swept away by the Revolution.

Félicité Stéphanie Ducrest de Saint-Aubin was born January 25, 1746, at Champcéry, a small estate in Burgundy which belonged to her father, but which two years afterwards he sold, and bought the estate and marquisat [111] of Saint-Aubin on the Loire.

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The chateau, built close to the river, was large, picturesque, and dilapidated, with immense court-yards and crumbling towers; on the opposite bank was the Abbaye de Sept-Fonts, where Félicité and her brother were often taken for a treat, crossing the Loire in a boat and dining in the guest-room of the abbey.

These children, of whom she was the elder by a year, were the only ones who survived of the four born to their parents, and were devotedly fond of each other; the remembrance of their happy childhood together in the rambling old chateau and the great garden with its terrace over the Loire always remained vividly impressed upon the mind of Félicité.

They were in the habit of spending part of every summer at étioles, with M. le Normand, fermier général des postes, husband of Mme. de Pompadour, then the mistress of Louis XV. After one of these visits, when Félicité was about six years old, it having been decided to obtain for her and for one of her little cousins admission into the order of chanoinesses of the Noble Chapter of Alix; the two children with their mothers travelled in an immense travelling-carriage called a berline, to Lyon, where they were detained for a fortnight, during which the Comtes de Lyon examined the genealogical proofs of their noble descent. Finding them correct and sufficient for their admission into the order, they proceeded to Alix, at some distance from Lyon; where, with the huge abbey and church in the centre were, grouped, in the form of a semi-circle, the tiny houses, each with its [353] little garden, which were the dwellings of the chanoinesses.
Boucher
LA MARQUISE DE POMPADOUR

On the day of the ceremony the children, dressed in white, were brought into the church, where the grand prior, after making them say the creed and answer certain questions, cut off a lock of their hair, tied a piece of black and white material on their heads, put a black silk girdle round their waists, and hung round their necks the red cordon and enamelled cross of the order. After a short exhortation, followed by high mass, the children were embraced by the chanoinesses, and the day ended with suitable festivities.

The chanoinesses all bore the title of Countess; that chosen for Félicité was Comtesse de Lancy, her father being Seigneur of Bourbon-Lancy.

The chanoinesses were free to take vows or not, either at the prescribed age or later. If they did not, they had only the honour of the title of Countess and the decorations of the order. If they did, they got one of the dwellings and a good pension, but they could not marry, and must spend two out of every three years there; with the other year they could do as they liked. They might also adopt as a niece a young chanoinesse on condition she always stayed with them and took the vows when she was the proper age. Her adopted aunt might leave her all her jewels, furniture, &c., as well as her little house and pension. One of them wished to adopt Félicité, but her mother would not consent. They stayed there six weeks and then went home, Félicité in despair at leaving the nuns, [354] who petted and loaded her with bonbons, but much consoled by being called “Madame.”

They then returned to Lyon, where they parted company; Félicité’s aunt and cousin returning to Paris, while she and her mother went back to Burgundy.

After a time a governess was engaged for her, a certain Mlle. de Mars, a young girl of sixteen, whose chief instruction was in music, in which she excelled, but beyond the catechism and a few elementary subjects, knew little or nothing. She was a gentle, devout, sweet-tempered girl, and Félicité soon became passionately attached to her, and as her mother, occupied with her own pursuits and paying and receiving visits, troubled herself very little about the studies of her daughter, the child was left almost entirely to Mlle. Mars and the maids, who, however, were trustworthy women and did her no harm, beyond filling her head with stories of ghosts with which the old chateau might well have been supposed to be haunted. M. de Saint-Aubin kept a pack of hounds, hunted or fished all day, and played the violin in the evening. He had been in the army, but had resigned his commission early in consequence of some foolish scrape.

Félicité’s mother was the daughter of a most odious woman.

She had first married M. de Mézières, a man of talent and learning, who possessed an estate in Burgundy, and was early left a widow.

After a very few months she married the Marquis de la Haie, who had been the page and then the [355] lover of the infamous Duchesse de Berri, eldest daughter of the Regent d’Orléans.

The Marquis was celebrated for his good looks, and was very rich; but her marriage with him was disastrous for the son and daughter of her first husband, to whom she took a violent and unnatural dislike. She sent her son to America to get rid of him when he was thirteen, and when he arrived there he escaped to Canada, took refuge with the Indians, and made them understand that he had been abandoned by his mother and wanted to live with them, to which they consented on condition of his being tattooed all over.

The courage, strength, and vigour of the boy delighted the Indians, whose language he soon learned and in whose sports and warlike feats he excelled. But, unlike most Europeans who have identified themselves with savages, he did not forget his own language or the education he had received. Every day he traced upon pieces of bark verses or prose in French and Latin, or geometrical problems; and so great was the consideration he obtained among the Indians that when he was twenty he was made chief of the tribe, then at war with the Spaniards. Much astonished at the way in which the savages were commanded by their young leader, the Spaniards were still more surprised when, on discussing terms of peace, he conversed with them entirely in Latin. Struck with admiration after hearing his history, they invited him to enter the Spanish service, which, when he had arranged a satisfactory treaty for his Indian friends, he did; made a rich marriage, and being one of those men [356] who are born to lead, rose as rapidly to power among the Spaniards as among the Indians, and at the end of ten or twelve years was governor of Louisiana. There he lived in prosperity and happiness on his estates in a splendid house in which he formed a magnificent library; and did not visit France until the death of his cruel mother, after which he spent some time in Paris to the great satisfaction of his sister and niece. The latter, who was then at the Palais Royal, describes him as a grave, rather reserved man, of vast information and capacity. His conversation was intensely interesting owing to the extent of his reading in French, Spanish, and Latin, and the extraordinary experiences of his life. He used to dine with her nearly every day, and through his silk stockings she could see the tattooed serpents of his Indian tribe. He was an excellent man, for whom she had the greatest respect and affection.

Mme. de la Haie treated her daughter as badly as her son. She placed her at six years old in a convent, seldom went to see her, when she did showed her no sign of affection, and at fourteen insisted upon her taking the veil. But the irrevocable vows were not to be pronounced for another year, by which time the young girl declared that they might carry her to the church but that before the altar she would say no instead of yes. The Abbess declared that so great a scandal could not be permitted, the enraged mother had to give way, and the young girl joyfully resumed the secular clothes now much too small for her.

But she was left to live in the convent without [357] ever leaving it, and her lot would have been deplorable indeed but for the affection and sympathy she met with from every one, above all, from the good abbess, Mme. de Rossgnol, who had taken care of her education, and with whom she dined and spent the whole day.

Thus time passed on till she was six-and-twenty, when she formed an intimate friendship with the Marquise de Fontenille, a widow who had come to live in the convent. M. Ducrest, then de Champcéry, a good-looking man of thirty-seven, who had lately left the army, was a relation of Mme. de Fontenille, and often came to the parloir to see her. He also saw Mlle. de Mézières, with whom he fell in love, and whom he proposed to marry. He had a few hundreds a year, the small castle of Champcéry, and a little property besides; while Mlle. de Mézières had less than two thousand pounds, her mother having seized all the rest of the fortune of her father. But such was her unnatural spite against her daughter that she refused her consent for three months, and although she was at last obliged to give it, she would give neither dot, trousseau, nor presents, all of which were provided by the good Abbess.

She came to the wedding with the son and daughter of her second marriage; the latter was afterwards the celebrated Mme. de Montesson. But she managed permanently to cheat her elder daughter out of nearly the whole of the property of her father, and always behaved to her and to her children with the most heartless cruelty.

The mania for education which characterised [358] Félicité through life began at an early age. While still a child she had a fancy to give instruction to the little boys who came to cut reeds growing by the pond or moat at the foot of the terrace of the chateau.

As the window of her room looked upon the terrace, and was only five feet from the ground, she let herself down by a cord, taking care to choose the days when there was a post, Mlle. de Mars was busy writing to her friends, and her mother out of the way. Leaning upon the low wall of the terrace she instructed the little boys who stood below in what she happened to know herself, i.e., the catechism, the beginning of the principles of music, and certain tragedies which she and they declaimed, and as these instructions were mingled with cakes, fruit, and toys which she threw over the wall to them, they were very well attended, until Mlle. de Mars one day surprised them, and laughed so heartily at the verses recited in patois by the little boys that the class came to an end.

From her earliest childhood Félicité had shown a remarkable talent for music and acting, of which her mother was so proud that she did her best to spoil the child by bringing her forward on every occasion to display her talents. She learned to sing, to play the harp, to recite verses; she was dressed up as an Amour or a Hebe, she acted Iphigenia and Hector and Zaire, and the constant flattery and notice she received evidently and naturally turned her head and laid the foundation of that vanity and self-satisfaction which appears so conspicuously in the records of her life.

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When she was about twelve years old she left Burgundy with her mother and Mlle. de Mars. They travelled partly by boat on the Loire, partly with their own carriage and horses, to Paris, where they established themselves, and where Félicité pursued her musical studies with increased ardour. She must have been a precocious young person, for when she was eleven years old the son of the neighbouring doctor fell in love with her, managed to give her a note, which she showed to Mlle. Mars, and meeting with indignant discouragement, he ran away for three years, after which he came home and married somebody else.

M. de Saint-Aubin, meanwhile, whose affairs, which grew worse and worse, were probably not improved by his mismanagement nor by the residence of his wife and daughter in Paris, stayed in Burgundy, coming every now and then to see them. Mlle. de Mars had left them, to the great grief of Félicité, who was now fourteen, and whom the Baron de Zurlauben, Colonel of the Swiss Guards, was most anxious to marry; but, as he was eighty years old, she declined his offer, and also another of a young widower who was only six-and-twenty, extremely handsome and agreeable, and had a large fortune.

By this time, however, she had made up her mind to marry an homme de qualité, who belonged to the court. What she then wished was to marry a certain M. de la Popelinière, whom she thought combined the advantages she desired, though he was nothing more illustrious than a fermier général, besides being an old man. However, her admiration [360] was not sufficiently returned for him to be of the same opinion.

Since the departure of Mlle. de Mars the vanity and thirst for admiration fostered by her mother’s foolish education had greatly increased, but between Mme. de Saint-Aubin and her daughter, though there was affection, there was neither ease nor confidence; the young girl was afraid of her mother, but adored her father. The society into which she was thrown formed her character at an early age, and the artificial, partly affected, partly priggish tone which is apparent in all her voluminous writings detracted from the charm of her undoubtedly brilliant talents.

She already played the harp so remarkably as to excite general admiration, and amongst those who were anxious to be introduced to and to hear her was the philosopher d’Alembert.

Félicité was very much flattered when she heard this, and very much disgusted when she saw him, for he was ugly, common-looking, had a shrill voice, and told stories that displeased her.

D’Alembert was one of the most constant and intimate habitués of the salon of Mme. Geoffrin, then the stronghold of the philosophers and encyclop?dists, as that of the Duchesse de Luxembourg was of the aristocratic beau monde.

There was also the salon of Mme. du Deffand, who, while more decidedly irreligious and atheistical than Mme. Geoffrin, was her superior in talent, birth, and education, and always spoke of her with the utmost disdain, as a bourgeoise without manners or instruction, who did not know [361] how to write, pronounce, or spell correctly, and saw no reason why people should not talk of des z’haricots.

D’Alembert, one of the leading encyclop?dists, like most of them, intensely vain, and about whose origin nothing was known, claimed to be the illegitimate son of the Marquise de Tencin, of scandalous reputation. Mme. de Créquy, in her “Souvenirs,” scorns the idea, saying also that much of the evil spoken of Mme. de Tencin was untrue; but it is certain that many dark and mysterious rumours clung to the h?tel Tencin, the garden of which extended over what is now the rue de la Paix. Originally intended for the cloister, Mlle. de Tencin refused to take the vows at Grenoble, and was a conspicuous figure in the wild orgies of the Regency. An intimate friend of the notorious John Law, then controller-general of finance, she succeeded, partly by his influence, in getting her brother made Cardinal and Archbishop of Embrun, and during his lifetime did the honours of his h?tel, where, during the days of his power, John Law was a leading spirit. Fortunes were lost and won there in a night, but darker secrets than those of the gambling table were whispered concerning the h?tel Tencin, its inhabitants and guests. More than ordinary scandals, even in the days of the Regent Orléans and his shameless daughters, were circulated, and even the murder of one of her lovers was so far believed that Mme. de Tencin was arrested, though shortly afterwards acquitted.

After her brother’s death she lost much of her prestige, and held her salon in the rue St. Honoré, most of her habitués, after her death, transferring themselves to the house of Mme. Geoffrin.



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