A Queen Of Hearts

August 8, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured

If ever woman was born for love and for empire over the hearts of men it was surely Jeanne Bécu, who first opened her eyes one August day in the year 1743, at dreary Vaucouleurs, in Joan of Arc’s country, and who was fated to dance her light-hearted way through the palace of a King to the guillotine.

Scarcely ever has woman, born to such beauty and witchery, been cradled less auspiciously. Her reputed father was a scullion, her mother a sempstress. For grandfather she had Fabien Bécu, who left his frying-pans in a Paris kitchen to lead Jeanne Husson, a fellow-servant, to the altar. Such was the ignoble strain that flowed in the veins of the Vaucouleurs beauty, who five-and-twenty years later was playfully pulling the nose of the fifteenth Louis, and queening it in his palaces with a splendour which Marie Antoinette herself never surpassed.

From her sordid home Jeanne was transported at the age of six to a convent, where she spent nine years in rebellion against rules and punishments, until “the golden head emerged at last from black woollen veil and coarse unstarched bands, the exquisite form from shapeless, hideous robe, the perfect little feet from abominable yellow shoes,” to play first the rôle of lady’s maid to a wealthy widow, and, when she wearied (as she quickly did) of coiffing hair, to learn the arts of millinery.

“Picture,” says de Goncourt, “the glittering shop, where all day long charming idlers and handsome great gentlemen lounged and ogled; the pretty milliner tripping through the streets, her head covered by a big, black calèche, whence her golden curls escaped, her round, dainty waist defined by a muslin-frilled pinafore, her feet in little high-heeled, buckled shoes, and in her hand a tiny fan, which she uses as she goes-and then imagine the conversations, proposals, replies!”

Such was Jeanne Bécu in the first bloom of her dainty beauty, the prettiest grisette who ever set hearts fluttering in Paris streets; with laughter dancing in her eyes, a charming pertness at her red lips, grace in every movement, and the springtide of youth racing through her veins.

When Voltaire first saw her portrait, he exclaimed, “The original was fashioned for the gods.” And we cannot wonder, as we look on the ravishing beauty of the face that wrung this eloquent tribute from the cold-blooded cynic-the tender, melting violet of the eyes, with their sweeping brown lashes, under the exquisite arch of brown eyebrows, the dainty little Greek nose, the bent bow of the delicious tiny mouth, the perfect oval of the face, the complexion “fair and fresh as an infant’s,” and a glorious halo of golden hair, a dream of fascinating curls and tendrils.

It was to this bewitching picture, “with the perfume and light as of a goddess of love,” that Jean du Barry, self-styled Comte, adventurer and roué, succumbed at a glance. But du Barry’s tenure of her heart, if indeed he ever touched it at all, was brief; for the moment Louis XV. set eyes on the ravishing girl he determined to make the prize his own, a superior claim to which the Comte perforce yielded gracefully.

Thus, in 1768, we find Jeanne Bécu-or “Mademoiselle Vaubarnier,” as she now called herself-transported by a bound to the Palace of Versailles and to the first place in the favour of the King, having first gone through the farce of a wedding ceremony with du Barry’s brother, Guillaume, a husband whom she first saw on the marriage morning, and on whom she looked her last at the church door.

Then followed for the maid of the kitchen a few years of such Queendom and splendour as have seldom fallen to the lot of any lady cradled in a palace-the idolatrous worship of a King, the intoxication of the power that only beauty thus enshrined can wield, the glitter of priceless jewels, rarest laces, and richest satins and silks, the flash of gold on dinner and toilet-table, an army of servants in sumptuous liveries, the fawning of great Court ladies, the courtly flatteries of princes-every folly and extravagance that money could purchase or vanity desire.

Six years of such intoxicating life and then-the end. Louis is lying on his death-bed and, with fear in his eyes and a tardy penitence on his lips, is saying to her, “Madame, it is time that we should part.” And, indeed, the hour of parting had arrived; for a few days later he drew his last wicked breath, and Madame du Barry was under orders to retire to a convent. But her grief for the dead King was as brief as her love for him had been small; for within a few months, we find her installed in her beautiful country home, Lucienne, ready for fresh conquests, and eager to drain the cup of pleasure to the last drop. Nor was there any lack of ministers to the vanity of the woman who had now reached the zenith of her incomparable charms.

Among the many lovers who flocked to the country shrine of the widowed “Queen,” was Louis, Duc de Cossé, son of the Maréchal de Brissac, who, although Madame du Barry’s senior by nine years, was still in the prime of his manhood-handsome as an Apollo and a model of the courtly graces which distinguished the old noblesse in the day of its greatest pride, which was then so near its tragic downfall.

De Cassé had long been a mute worshipper of Louis’ beautiful “Queen,” and now that she was a free woman he was at last able to pay open homage to her, a homage which she accepted with indifference, for at the time her heart had strayed to Henry Seymour, although in vain. The woman whose beauty had conquered all other men was powerless to raise a flame in the breast of the cold-blooded Englishman; and, realising this, she at last bade him farewell in a letter, pathetic in its tender dignity. “It is idle,” she wrote, “to speak of my affection for you-you know it. But what you do not know is my pain. You have not deigned to reassure me about that which most matters to my heart. And so I must believe that my ease of mind, my happiness, are of little importance to you. I am sorry that I should have to allude to them; it is for the last time.”

It was in this hour of disillusion and humiliation that she turned for solace to de Cossé, whose touching constancy at last found its reward. It was not long before friendship ripened into a love as ardent as his own; and for the first time this fickle beauty, whose heart had been a pawn in the game of ambition, knew what a beautiful and ennobling thing true love is.

Those were halcyon days which followed for de Cossé and the lady his loyalty had won; days of sweet meetings and tender partings-of a union of souls which even death was powerless to dissolve. When they could not meet-and de Cossé’s duties often kept him from her side-letters were always on the wing between Lucienne and Paris, letters some of which have survived to bring their fragrance to our day.

Thus the lover writes, “A thousand thanks, a thousand thanks, dear heart! To-day I shall be with you. Yes, I find my happiness is in being loved by you. I kiss you a thousand times! Good-bye. I love you for ever.” In another letter we read, “Yes, dear heart, I desire so ardently to be with you-not in spirit, my thoughts are ever with you, but bodily-that nothing can calm my impatience. Good-bye, my darling. I kiss you many and many times with all my heart.” The curious may read at the French Record Office many of these letters written in a bold, flowing hand by de Cossé in the hey-day of his love. The paper is time-stained, the ink is faded; but each sentence still palpitates with the passion that inspired it a century and a quarter ago.

And with this great love came new honours for de Cossé. His father’s death made him Duc de Brissac, head of one of the greatest houses in France, owner of vast estates. He was appointed Governor of Paris and Colonel of the King’s own body-guard. He had, in fact, risen to a perilous eminence; for the clouds of the great Revolution were already massing in the sky, and the sans-culotte crowds were straining to be at the throats of the cursed “aristos,” and to hurl Louis from his throne. Brissac (as we must now call him) was thus an object of special hatred, as of splendour, standing out so prominently as representative of the hated noblesse.

Other nobles, fearful of the breaking of the storm, were flying in droves to seek safety in England and elsewhere. But when the Governor of Paris was urged to fly, he answered proudly, “Certainly not. I shall act according to my duty to my ancestors and myself.” And, heedless of his life, he clung to his duty and his honour, presenting a smiling face to the scowls of hatred and envy, and spending blissful hours at Lucienne with the woman he loved.

Nor was she any less conscious of her danger, or less indifferent to it. She also had become a target of hatred and scarcely veiled threats. Watchful eyes marked every coming and going of Brissac’s messengers with their missives of love; it was discovered that Brissac’s aide-de-camp, whose life they sought, was in hiding in her house; that she was supplying the noble emigrants with money. The climax was reached when she boldly advertised a reward of two thousand louis for a clue to the jewellery of which burglars had robbed her-jewels of which she published a long and dazzling list, thus bringing to memory the days when the late King had squandered his ill-gotten gold on her.

The Duc, at last alarmed for her-never for himself-begged her either to escape, or, as he wrote, to “come quickly, my darling, and take every precaution for your valuables, if you have any left. Yes, come, and your beauty, your kindness and magnanimity. I am ashamed of it, but I feel weaker than you. How should I feel otherwise for the one I love best?”

But already the hour for flight had passed. The passions of the mob were breaking down the barriers that were now too weak to hold them in check; the Paris streets had their first baptism of blood, prelude to the deluge to follow; hideous, fierce-eyed crowds were clamouring at the gates of Versailles; and de Brissac was soon on his way, a prisoner, to Orleans.

The blow had fallen at last, suddenly, and with crushing force. When “Louis Hercule Timoleon de Cossé-Brissac, soldier from his birth,” was charged before the National High Court with admitting Royalists into the Guards, he answered: “I have admitted into the King’s Guards no one but citizens who fulfilled all the conditions contained in the decree of formation”: and no other answer or plea would he deign to his accusers.

From his Orleans prison, where he now awaited the inevitable end, he wrote daily to his beloved lady; and every day brought him a tender and cheering letter from her. On 11th August, 1792, he writes: “I received this morning the best letter I have had for a long time past; none have rejoiced my heart so much. Thank you for it. I kiss you a thousand times. You indeed will have my last thought. Ah, my darling, why am I not with you in a wilderness rather than in Orleans?”

A few days later news reached Madame du Barry that her lover, with other prisoners, was to be brought from Orleans to Paris. He would thus actually pass her own door; she would at least see him once again, under however tragic conditions. With what leaden steps the intervening hours crawled by! Each sound set her heart beating furiously as if it would choke her. Each moment was an agony of anticipation. At last she hears the sound of coming feet. She flies to the window, piercing the dark night with straining eyes. The sound grows nearer, a tumult of trampling feet and hoarse cries. A mob of dark figures surges through her gates, pours riotously up the steps and through the open door. In the hall there is a pandemonium of cries and oaths; the door of her room is burst open, and something is flung at her feet. She glances down; and, with a gasp of unspeakable horror, looks down on the severed head of her lover, red with his blood.

The sans-culottes had indeed taken a terrible revenge. They had fallen in overwhelming numbers on the prisoners and their escort; the soldiers had fled; and de Brissac found himself the centre of a mob, the helpless target of a hundred murderous blows. With a knife for sole weapon he fought valiantly, like the brave soldier he was, until a cowardly blow from behind felled him to the ground. “Fire at me with your pistols,” he shouted, “your work will the sooner be over.” A few moments later he drew his last gallant breath, almost within sight of the house that sheltered his beloved.

United in life, the lovers were not long to be divided. “Since that awful day,” Madame du Barry wrote to a friend, “you can easily imagine what my grief has been. They have consummated the frightful crime, the cause of my misery and my eternal regrets-my grief is complete-a life which ought to have been so grand and glorious! Good God, what an end!”

Thus cruelly deprived of all that made life worth living, she cared little how soon the end came. “I ask nothing now of life,” she wrote, “but that it should quickly give me back to him.” And her prayer was soon to be granted. A few months after that night of horrors she herself was awaiting the guillotine in her cell at the conciergerie.

In vain did an Irish priest who visited her offer to secure her escape if she would give him money to bribe her jailers. “No,” she answered with a smile, “I have no wish to escape. I am glad to die; but I will give you money willingly on condition that you save the Duchesse de Mortemart.” And while Madame de Mortemart, daughter of the man she loved, was making her way to safety under the priest’s escort, Jeanne du Barry was being led to the scaffold, breathing the name of the man she had loved so well; and, however feeble the flesh, glad to follow where he had led the way.