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CHAPTER III
Presentation at Versailles—La Rosière—Father and son—Mme. de Montesson—A terrible scene—The Comtesse de Custine—Mme. de Genlis enters the Palais Royal.
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AFTER her confinement the Maréchale d’Etrée came to see Félicité, brought her a present of beautiful Indian stuffs, and said that her parents, M. and Mme. de Puisieux, would have the pleasure of receiving her when she was recovered. Also that Mme. de Puisieux would present her at Versailles.

To this she looked forward with some trepidation, being dreadfully afraid of Mme. de Puisieux, who at first did not like her, and was extremely stiff. She drove down to Versailles in her carriage alone with her, Mme. de Puisieux saying very little, but criticising the way she did her hair. They slept at Versailles, in the splendid apartment of the Maréchal d’Etrée, who was very kind and pleasant to Félicité, and with whom she felt more at home. The next day she was obliged to spend such an enormous time at her toilette that by the time they started she was nearly tired out. Her hair was dressed three times over; everything was [376] the object of some tiresome fuss, to which policy obliged her to submit in silence.

At last, however, it was finished, and she stood in the presence of Louis XV. He was no longer young, but she thought him handsome and imposing. He had intensely blue eyes, a short but not brusque manner of speaking, and something royal and majestic about his whole bearing which distinguished him from other men. He talked a great deal to Mme. de Puisieux, and made complimentary remarks about Félicité, after which they were presented to the Queen, who was lying in a reclining chair, already suffering from the languor of the fatal illness caused by the recent death of her son, the Dauphin. Then came the presentation to Mesdames, and to the “Children of France,” and in the evening they went to the “jeu de Mesdames.”

After this Félicité and her husband returned to Genlis, where they spent the summer with the Marquis and the wife he had recently married.

They passed their time in all the amusements of the vie de chateau in those days.

The brothers went out shooting; there were visits, dances, village fêtes; they dressed up, wrote verses, acted plays, and went to see the “Rosière,” an institution which, in this century, would be an impossibility, and which even then many people were beginning to find silly and useless, as may be shown by the remarks of a M. de Matigny, a magistrate and bailli, who was staying in the house for some theatricals, and whom they tried to persuade to stop another day.

[377]

“I can’t,” he said. “I am obliged to go to another village.”

“What for?”

“Oh! for that nonsense they do every year.”

“What nonsense?”

“I have to go there as a judge to hear all the rubbish and gossip you can imagine for forty-eight hours.”

“What about?”

“A most stupid thing, as I will tell you. It is not to adjudge a house, or a field, or an inheritance, but a rose!”

“How? A rose? You are to give a rose?”

“Eh! Mon Dieu! Yes, it is I who have to decide this important affair. It is an old custom established there in barbarous times. It is astonishing that, in a century so enlightened as ours, they should not have done away with a folly that gives me a journey of ten or twelve leagues every summer, through abominable cross-lanes, for I have to make two journeys for that absurdity.”

“A rose does not seem to me particularly barbarous. But who do you give it to?”

“To the peasant girl declared to be the most virtuous and obedient to her parents.”

“And they assemble to give her a rose in public?”

“Yes. A fine reward for a poor creature who perhaps has not bread to eat, isn’t it? I shall have to go to-morrow to hear the evidence ... and again in a month for what they call the coronation. It might amuse you to see it once.... But the strangest thing is the importance these good people [378] attach to the ceremony, and the exultation of the relations of the ‘rosière.’ One would think they had gained a valuable prize. It may amuse one for the moment, but when one has to see it every year, it is a ridiculous thing for a reasonable man.”

Félicité soon managed to make friends with all her husband’s relations. M. and Mme. de Puisieux not only got over their prejudice against her, but were devoted to her. She spent months together with them at Sillery, and was a great deal with them at Paris, where her great delight was to know every one who could remember the court of Louis XIV., for which she had the most ardent admiration.

There were, of course, still those to be met with whose appearance, manners, and ways recalled that stately, magnificent court, which long afterwards was the beau ideal Napoleon vainly tried to realise. Amongst others was the Duc de Richelieu, one of the most brilliant, the most polished, the most dissipated, and the most heartless figures of the courts of Louis XIV. and Louis XV. His son, the Duc de Fronsac, was, though not equally attractive, quite as vicious as his father, and they entertained for each other a hatred they generally veiled, at any rate in public, under the most polished sarcasm.

On one occasion the Duc de Richelieu so far departed from his usual habit as to recommend to the Duc de Fronsac a lad who bore a strong resemblance to himself, begging him to give him a post in his household and look after him. Fronsac, struck with jealousy of this protégé of his father’s, did all he could to corrupt and ruin him, taught him to be a gambler and reprobate, and finally led [379] him into collision with himself in some love intrigue, challenged him to a duel, and killed him.

Shortly afterwards, passing his father in the great gallery at Versailles, the Duc de Richelieu said to him—

“Monsieur, you have killed your brother.”

“I knew it,” replied Fronsac, and passed on.

Within the first few years of her marriage, Félicité had three children—two girls and a boy.

The Comte de Genlis passed part of his time with her and the rest with his regiment, during which Félicité lived at Paris or stayed with his relations, chiefly the de Puisieux, leading a life of gaiety mingled with study and music, and going constantly into society, which has, perhaps, never been equalled in fascination and charm.

Her aunt, Mme. de Montesson, had, since her marriage, been on very friendly and intimate terms with her, although the two had never any real affection for each other, and now, M. de Montesson having died, his widow was aiming at nothing less than becoming the Duchess of Orléans, and found her niece a most useful and sympathetic confidant. For it had suited Mme. de Montesson to have a niece so well placed in society and so much sought after as the young Comtesse de Genlis. Félicité, on her part, was by no means blind to the advantage of having her aunt married to the first prince of the blood, and did everything in her power to forward her plans. The Duke had long been an admirer of Mme. de Montesson, who encouraged his devotion, was continually in his society, but had no intention whatever that their love-making should [380] end in any way but one. It was an ambition that seemed barred with almost insuperable difficulties, and yet it succeeded, though not to the full extent she desired.

The excellent M. de Puisieux died, and Félicité found her life still more taken up by his widow, with whom she now passed much of her time. Just then took place the marriage of the Duc de Berri, now Dauphin, with the Archduchess Marie Antoinette. Mme. de Puisieux would not go herself, but sent Félicité to see the fireworks in the place Louis XV.

As M. de Genlis was with his regiment, she went with a friend, the Marquise de Brugnon, who was also young and pretty, MM. de Bouzolle and de Nedonchel. A room had been lent them on the ground floor of a new house from which to see the fête, and, fearing there would be a great crowd, they arrived directly after dinner. There was some delay before the fireworks began, and Félicité, who was, with all her talents, very often extremely silly and affected, declared that she had waited so long she did not care to see the fireworks, and persisted in keeping her eyes shut until they were over.

The two gentlemen then went to look for the carriage, which had not come. They were away a long time. A fearful noise seemed to be going on in the place Louis XV., and when, after midnight, they did return, they assured the anxious, rather frightened young women that they could not find either carriage or servants, that the crowd was fearful, and there would be no chance of getting [381] away for at least two hours, so they had brought them some cakes and a chicken for supper. They did not tell them of the fire, the horrible confusion, and the people being crushed to death in the place. But presently groans and cries were heard just under their window, and, looking out, they saw two old ladies in full evening dress, with paniers—the Marquise d’Albert and the Comtesse de Renti, who, while trying to get to their carriage, had got separated from their servants and carried along by the crowd. As it was impossible to get them to the door, they leaned out of the window and drew them up with great difficulty. Mme. d’Albert was covered with blood, as some one in the crowd had snatched out one of her diamond ear-rings.

Their carriage never came, so Mme. de Genlis had to take them home in hers, which appeared about two o’clock, and it was half-past three when she arrived at the h?tel de Puisieux, where everybody was up and in a fever of anxiety, thinking she was killed, for they knew what she did not, that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of persons had perished.

Mme. de Puisieux was in tears on the staircase, and saw her come in with transports of joy. She had, for the first time since her widowhood, gone to supper with Mme. d’Egmont, daughter of the Duc de Richelieu, close to whose h?tel there was a corps de garde, to which numbers of bodies had been brought. The next day was one of desolation, especially among the artisans and the people of the lower classes, most of whom had lost some relative or friend. Mme. de Genlis’s maid had to go to the [382] Morgue to identify the body of her sister; the ma?tre d’h?tel lost a cousin. The place Louis XV., fated to be the scene of the murder of Louis XVI., Marie Antoinette, and so many innocent victims, had been a scene of death and horror at the celebration of their wedding fêtes. No wonder people said it was an unlucky beginning, especially those who were only too glad to find evils attending the Austrian marriage. [114]

The enthusiasm of Félicité for the court of Louis XIV. found worthier objects of admiration than the Duc de Richelieu, in the excellent Maréchal de Balincourt, and his friends, the Maréchal de Biron and the Marquis de Carrillac. This last was ninety-one years old, Biron was eighty-six or seven, and Balincourt not more than seventy. He used to speak with envy of Biron, saying: “He was thirty years old at the death of the late king.” When hearing them talk together she felt herself transported into the days of that magnificent reign.

They had all of them the stately courtesy, the chivalrous gallantry, and the delicate sense of honour which made them so bright a contrast to the vice and depravity around them.

[383]

Just after the last recorded incidents Félicité experienced a great sorrow in the loss of her friend, the Comtesse de Custine, an angelic woman, who, in spite of her beauty and youth (she was only twenty-four), lived as far as she could apart from the world, fearing the corruption and vice around her, and devoting herself to her religious and domestic duties. Her husband, who adored her, was necessarily absent with his regiment for long periods. Her brother-in-law, the Vicomte de Custine, of a character as bad as that of his brother was admirable, professed openly the most violent passion for Mme. de Genlis, who did not care at all for him, gave him no encouragement, but was rather flattered by the excess of his devotion and despair.

When the Comtesse de Custine died, after a short illness, her husband was away with his regiment, and did not arrive in time to see her alive. During the first days of his despair, while looking over her papers, he came upon a packet of letters which proved beyond all doubt the infamous treachery of the Vicomte, who had made his pretended love for Mme. de Genlis a shield to hide his real passion for his brother’s wife, which had been the horror and torment of her life, and which she had dreaded to reveal to her husband, whose temper was violent when aroused.

For some time Félicité had been wishing to obtain a place at court, and it had been suggested that she should be placed in the household of the comtesse de Provence, whose marriage with the second fils de France was about to take place.

But her aunt, Mme. de Montesson, was most [384] anxious that she should enter the service of the Duc de Chartres, who was the eldest son of the Duc d’Orléans, and very much opposed to Mme. de Montesson’s designs upon him.

It appeared after a time that the post in the household of the Comtesse de Provence was not attainable, and in the first disappointment of this refusal, Mme. de Montesson told her niece that she had only to ask and she would receive an appointment at the Palais Royal.

Mme. de Custine, whom she consulted, was absolutely opposed to it, and after urging the strongest reasons against it, added that it was evidently her duty to stay and take care of Mme. de Puisieux as long as she lived.

However, she allowed herself to be persuaded: she went with her aunt constantly to Raincy, the country place just bought by the Duc d’Orléans; she was attracted by the gentle, charming Duchesse de Chartres, she listened to the representations of the advantages she might secure for her children, and at length she laid the case before Mme. de Puisieux, who, unselfishly putting away the consideration of her own grief at their separation, and thinking only of the advantages to Félicité and her family, advised her to accept the position offered her.

Félicité seems, however, to have always considered that she made a mistake, or, indeed, as she says, committed a fault, one of the greatest in her life, by doing so; if so, it does not appear to be a surprising one, as the plan certainly would have offered strong attractions and inducements even to a woman less vain and ambitious than she was, but [385] it is certain that it caused many calamities and exercised an evil influence for which no advantages could compensate. She left the h?tel de Puisieux before Madame was up in the morning, as she dreaded the parting, and as her apartment in the Palais Royal was not ready she was lodged in one that had belonged to the Regent, with a door into the rue de Richelieu. She nearly had an accident before she got out of the carriage, and felt low-spirited and unhappy, wishing herself back in her own room at the h?tel de Puisieux as she looked round the luxurious boudoir lined with mirrors, which she did not like at all, and which seemed associated with the orgies of the Regency, of which it had been the scene.

She felt that she had exchanged security, the protection of a beautiful and well-ordered home, and the society of those she loved and respected, for dependence and danger.


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