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CHAPTER II
M. de la Haie—Death of the Dauphin—M. de Saint-Aubin goes to St. Domingo—Taken prisoner by the English—Returns to France—Imprisoned for debt—His death—Difficulties and poverty—Félicité marries the Comte de Genlis—His family—The Abbesse de Montivilliers and the robbers—Life in the convent—Birth of a daughter.
Capital letter T

THE Marquis de la Haie, uncle of Félicité by the second marriage of her grandmother, strongly disapproved of the way in which his mother treated his half-sister and her children. He vainly tried to influence her to behave better to them, and showed them much kindness and affection himself. Unfortunately he was killed at the battle of Minden. A strange fatality was connected with him, the consequences of which can scarcely be appreciated or comprehended. He was one of the gentilhommes de la manche [112] to the Duc de Bourgogne, eldest son of the Dauphin, and elder brother of Louis XVI., who was extremely fond of him. One day he was playing with the boy, and [363] in trying to lift him on to a wooden horse he let him fall. Terrified at the accident, and seeing that the Prince had not struck his head, had no wound nor fracture nor any apparent injury, he begged him not to tell any one what had happened. The Duc de Bourgogne promised and kept his word, but from that day his health began to fail. None of the doctors could find out what was the matter with him, but, in fact, he was suffering from internal abscesses, which ultimately caused his death. Not till after La Haie had fallen at Minden did he confess, “It is he who was the cause of my illness, but I promised him not to tell.”

This young Prince possessed talent and spirit. Had not his life been sacrificed, the weak, unfortunate Louis XVI. would never have been King, and who can tell how vast might have been the difference in the course of events?

Mme. de Saint-Aubin had found an old friend from her convent, Mme. de Cirrac, who introduced her to her sister, the Duchesse d’Uzès, and others, to whose houses they were constantly invited to supper, but the young girl, with more perception than her mother, began to perceive, in spite of all the admiration lavished upon her, that it was her singing and playing the harp that procured her all these invitations, and that she could not afford to dress like those with whom she now associated, and this spoilt her pleasure in going out. While her mother was in this way striving to lead a life they could not afford, her father, whose affairs grew more and more unprosperous, went to St. Domingo on business.

[364]

He did no good, and on his way home was taken prisoner by the English and carried to England. There, amongst other French prisoners, he met the young Comte de Genlis, an officer in the navy who had distinguished himself at Pondicherry, been desperately wounded, and gained the cross of St. Louis. They became great friends, and M. de Genlis expressing great admiration for a miniature of Félicité which her father constantly wore, M. de Saint-Aubin poured into his ears the manifold perfections of his daughter, and read to him the letters he frequently received from her. When M. de Genlis soon afterwards was set free, he used all the means in his power to obtain the release of his friend, and, in the meanwhile, called upon Mme. de Saint-Aubin at Paris, bringing letters from M. de Saint-Aubin, who three weeks afterwards was set at liberty, and returned to France; but his affairs were in such a state that he was induced to give a bill which, when it fell due, he could not meet. Six hundred francs was all that was required to execute the payment, and Mme. de Saint-Aubin wrote to her half-sister, who had married a rich old man, M. de Montesson, asking her to give or lend her money. She refused to do so, and M. de Saint-Aubin was arrested and imprisoned. His wife and daughter spent every day with him for a fortnight, at the end of which, the money being paid, he was released. But his health seemed to decline, and soon afterwards he was seized with a fever which ended fatally, to the inexpressible grief of Félicité, who always laid his death at the door of Mme. de [365] Montesson, whether with justice or not it is impossible to say, though, at any rate, her refusal to help the sister who had been so shamefully treated, and who was in distress, sounds exceedingly discreditable.

Félicité and her mother took refuge in an apartment lent them by a friend in a Carmelite convent in the rue Cassette, where they received the visits of different friends in the parloir. Amongst the most assiduous was the Baron d’Andlau, a friend of the late M. de Saint-Aubin, a man of sixty, very rich and of a distinguished family. He wished to marry Félicité, who refused him, but so great were the advantages of such an alliance that her mother desired her to reconsider the matter. As she still declined, he turned his attentions to her mother, and married her at the end of a year and a half.

Meanwhile they stayed on at the convent, where Mme. de Saint-Aubin embroidered and wrote romances, one of which she sent to Voltaire, who wrote her several flattering letters; Félicité played the harp to amuse the nuns and to assist in the services of the chapel, made friendships in the convent, and adored the good sisters, who passed their time in devotion and charity, and amongst whom reigned the most angelic harmony and peace.

When they were obliged to give up their rooms in this convent, they moved to that of St. Joseph, in which Mme. de Saint-Aubin hired an apartment.

Mme. du Deffand then occupied one in another [366] part of the building, but at that time they had no acquaintance with her. The philosophers and the atheistic set had never at any time in her life the least attraction for Félicité, who held their irreligious opinions in abhorrence.

Very near this convent lived the sister of her father, the Marquise de Sercey, and her family, with whom she spent much of her time.

The young Marquis, her cousin, was starting for St. Domingo, and the day before his departure a fête de famille took place, exceedingly characteristic of the France of the eighteenth century.

Félicité composed some verses all about flowers and friendship, which were pronounced to be “very touching,” and which she sang dressed up as a shepherdess, having first presented him with a bouquet. She next appeared in a Spanish costume singing a romance composed by her mother, and finally she played the harp, which seems to come in like a chorus throughout all her eventful life.

Meanwhile, she and M. de Genlis had fallen in love with each other, and resolved to marry. As he had neither father nor mother, there was nobody whose consent he was absolutely bound to ask; but a powerful relation, M. de Puisieux, who was the head of his family, had already, with his consent, begun to negotiate his marriage with a rich young girl. Instead of telling M. de Puisieux the state of the case while there was still time to retire without difficulty, M. de Genlis said nothing, but proposed that they should at once marry secretly, to which neither Félicité nor her relations seem to have made any objection. She had no money, and had [367] refused all the marriages proposed to her; here was a man she did like, and who was in all respects unexceptionable, only that he was not well off. But his connections were so brilliant and influential that they could soon put that right, and it was agreed that the marriage should take place from the house of the Marquise de Sercey.

It was celebrated in the parish church at midnight, and the day was publicly announced, and the young Countess and her harp consigned to the care of her husband.

The announcement caused a tremendous uproar in his family, and the only relations who would have anything to do with them were the Count and Countess de Balincourt, who called at once and took a fancy to the young wife, who was only seventeen, clever, accomplished, attractive, and pretty. Mme. de Montesson also, pleased with the marriage of her niece, paid them an early visit, liked M. de Genlis, and invited them to her house.

But the other relations of M. de Genlis would neither return his calls, answer his letters, nor receive him, with the exception of his elder brother, the Marquis de Genlis, who invited them to go down to Genlis, which they did a few days after their wedding.

The young Comte de Genlis had left the navy, by the advice of M. de Puisieux, who had got him made a Colonel of the Grenadiers de France. [113] He had only a small estate worth about four hundred a year and the prospect of a share in the succession to the property of his grandmother, the Marquise de [368] Droménil, who was eighty-seven and lived at Reims.

M. de Puisieux was furious at being not only deceived and treated without consideration, but actually made a fool of, and that he was by no means a person to be trifled with the elder brother of the Comte de Genlis had found to his cost.

No lad ever started in life with more brilliant prospects than the Marquis. At fifteen he already possessed the large estate of Genlis, free from debt or mortgage, that of Sillery was settled upon him, and he was already a colonel, owing to the influence of M. de Puisieux, his guardian, and a great favourite of Louis XV.

“Conduct yourself properly,” said he; “you will make a great marriage. Being colonel at your age, you have a splendid military career before you, and as I look upon you as my son I will get the King to make Sillery into a duchy on the occasion of your marriage.”

All this was a certainty supposing he had possessed the most moderate talents, and behaved with common decency. But at seventeen he was already notorious, even at the court of Louis XV., for his vicious life; an incorrigible gambler, and over head and ears in debt. His guardian reproached him, and his debts were paid, but the same thing kept happening until, when he was twenty years old, he lost in one night five hundred thousand francs, his debts besides amounting to another hundred thousand.

Having lost patience, and seeing nothing but ruin before him, M. de Puisieux appealed to [369] the King, got a lettre de cachet, and shut up his hopeful ward at the Chateau de Saumur, where he remained for five years, while half of what he owed was being paid off. At the end of this time he was ordered to Genlis, where an allowance of fifteen thousand francs was made to him while the remainder of his debts were gradually paid, after which he was allowed to spend three months of the year at Paris, but M. de Puisieux refused to remove the “interdict” until he had made a good marriage. That the lettres de cachet had their abuses is incontestable, but they had their advantages too.

Félicité found the Marquis very pleasant, frivolous, amusing, light-hearted, and of unalterable good temper.

Some weeks after their marriage the Comte de Genlis had to rejoin his regiment, which was at Nancy, and as it was then not the custom for officers’ wives to accompany them, and he thought Félicité too young to be left by herself at a court such as that of Louis XV., he decided to take an apartment for her at Origny, in a convent where he had relations, as people often did in such cases.

Félicité cried bitterly when her husband left her, but she soon dried her tears, and made herself happy in her new home. She had charming rooms in the interior of the conventual buildings, which were immense; she had her maid with her, and her manservant was lodged with those of the Abbess in the exterior part of the abbey. She dined with the Abbess, and her déjeuner was brought to her own apartment, which consisted, of course, of several rooms.

[370]

The abbey was very beautiful, and there were more than a hundred nuns besides the lay sisters and the pensionnaires (children and young girls being educated there).

The Abbess was always of a noble family, the one at that time being Mme. de Sabran, and although no proofs were exacted, the nuns nearly all belonged to families of good blood.

Each nun had a comfortable cell, and a pretty little garden of her own in the enclosure of the vast garden of the abbey. One nun, who was considered especially fortunate, had in her garden a rock from which came a spring of delicious water.

The Abbess might receive in her apartment and at dinner whatever guests she chose, men or women, but no men might go to the cloisters or any other part of the abbey. She had a carriage, horses, and servants of her own, and might go out when and where she pleased, taking with her any nuns she chose. She often drove to see different farms, &c., belonging to the abbey, and to visit sick people.

The state and power of some of these abbesses, and the comfortable, cheerful security of their lives at that time made the position much sought after. It was a splendid provision for the daughters of great houses, and a happy life enough if they did not wish to marry. The following anecdote is given by Mme. de Créquy, and, although it happened rather earlier in the eighteenth century, perhaps forty or fifty years before the time now in question, it is so characteristic of the state of things that still prevailed that it may not be out of place to give it.

[371]

The Abbesse de Montivilliers was one of the greatest abbesses in France, and was at the time this happened Mme. du Froulay, whose niece, Mme. de Créquy, then a pensionnaire in the abbey, relates the story.

“The huissiers and valets de porte, who lived outside the enclosure, had permitted a poor beggar to take shelter every night under a lofty arch leading into the first court of the abbey. He was an unfortunate man, who had neither arms nor legs, and a poor woman, young and, they said, almost pretty, used to come and fetch him each morning with a sort of wheelbarrow, and establish him on the high road to beg. They had bread, soup, and cider given them at the abbey, but very often did not finish them.

“Two murders had been committed upon that same high road; the tribunal of the Abbess had discovered nothing, and terror spread through the country-side.... The peasants declared they were committed by evil spirits.

“One autumn night, after ten o’clock, the beggar had not come in. They supposed the woman who took care of him had neglected to fetch him, and charitably waited till half-past. The sister cellarer sent for the keys, to take them, as usual, to the prioress, who would put them under her pillow. She was a demoiselle de Toustain, who, par parenthèse, had had the golden ball of her prioress’s staff engraved with the motto of her family, ‘Tous-teints-de-sang’ (‘All stained with blood’), which my aunt had thought out of place on an emblem of religious and pastoral office. She had remarked to the [372] Prioress, ‘My dear daughter, a war-cry is always improper for a bride of Jesus Christ....’

“Instead of the keys of the abbey strange news was brought to Mme. de Toustain. A rich and vigorous farmer had just been attacked on the high road. He had stunned with his club one of his assailants whom the soldiers of the maréchaussée had brought with his accomplice to the archway. They asked for the prison to be opened to put them in, and for the farmer to be allowed to pass the night in the precincts, that he might not fall into the hands of the other robbers. The Prioress having replied that it was too late, they woke the Abbess, who ordered all the doors to be opened that the brigadier required, but the old Prioress was so obstinate about the rules that the Abbess had to get up herself and demand the keys, which otherwise she would not give up.

“As an Abbess of Montivilliers is not rigorously cloistered, my aunt, who was perfectly charitable and courageous, thought herself obliged to go out to the first court, and did so, at any rate with a cortège suitable to her dignity.

“She was preceded by a cross-bearer between two acolytes bearing tall candles, and followed by a dozen assistants, with veils down and crossed hands; all the lay sisters of the abbey were ranged round their ladies in large grey capes, carrying lighted torches in those beautiful gothic lanterns, with the arms of the royal abbeys emblazoned in stained glass, which are used in processions at night round the cloisters. Never in modern romances have I seen anything so [373] romantic and picturesque as that nocturnal scene.

“Mme. de Montivilliers ordered the gates of the prison to be thrown open, which no one but herself would have dared to do against the orders of the Prioress. She gave shelter and a cordial to the brave farmer, and ordered her surgeon to examine the wounded robber, who was a young man dressed in woman’s clothes, and it was then learned from the farmer that the other criminal was that infernal beggar who had been sheltered beneath the porch of the abbey, before which he now lay on a litter waiting to be put in the dungeon. He had the torso of a giant, but no legs or arms, only a kind of stump of one arm. His head was enormous....

“When everything was disposed for the general safety Mme. de Montivilliers raised her veil, and every one knelt to receive her benediction.”

The robbers, who were both executed, were father and son. Their plan was for the cripple to beg for money to be dropped into his hat, then with his stump he pulled down a heavy weight hung in the tree above him which stunned the victim, who was then finished by the other. The farmer had been too quick for them. In the hollow or small cellar under the arch where he slept were found gold, ornaments, hair cut off the nuns, which was always sold for the profit of the Order of the Saint-Rosaire, daggers, and knives. How he got them all was never discovered.

The young Comtesse de Genlis was very happy at Origny, and amused herself like a child amongst the nuns. She ran about the corridors at night [374] dressed like the devil, with horns; she put rouge and patches on the nuns while they were asleep, and they got up and went down to the services in the church in the night without seeing themselves thus decorated; she gave suppers and dances amongst the nuns and pupils to which no men were, of course, admitted; she played many tricks, and wrote constantly to her husband and mother, the latter of whom came to spend six weeks with her. When her husband came back they went to Genlis, where her brother, who had just gone into the Engineers, paid them a long visit, to her great joy.

Then they went to Paris, where her first child, a daughter, was born.


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