Versailles

By William Makepeace Thackeray

[13]

You pass from the railroad station through a long, lonely suburb, with dusty rows of stunted trees on either side, and some few miserable beggars, idle boys, and ragged old women under them. Behind the trees are gaunt, moldy houses; palaces once, where (in the days of the unbought grace of life) the cheap defense of nations gambled, ogled, swindled, intrigued; whence high-born duchesses used to issue, in old times, to act as chambermaids to lovely Du Barri; and mighty princes rolled away, in gilt caroches, hot for the honor of lighting his Majesty to bed, or of presenting his stockings when he rose, or of holding his napkin when he dined.

Tailors, chandlers, tinmen, wretched hucksters, and greengrocers, are now established in the mansions of the old peers; small children are yelling at the doors, with mouths besmeared with bread and treacle; damp rags are hanging out of every one of the windows, steaming in the sun; oyster- shells, cabbage-stalks, broken crockery, old papers, lie basking in the same cheerful light. A solitary water-cart goes jingling down the wide pavement, and spirts a feeble refreshment over the dusty, thirty stones.

After pacing for some time through such dismal streets, we deboucher on the grande place; and before us lies the palace dedicated to all the glories of France. In the midst of the great lonely plain this famous residence of King Louis looks low and mean--Honored pile! Time was when tall musketeers and gilded body-guards allowed none to pass the gate. Fifty years ago, ten thousand drunken women from Paris broke through the charm; and now a tattered commissioner will conduct you through it for a penny, and lead you up to the sacred entrance of the palace.

We will not examine all the glories of France, as here they are portrayed in pictures and marble; catalogs are written about these miles of canvas, representing all the revolutionary battles, from Valmy to Waterloo--all the triumphs of Louis XIV.--all the mistresses of his successor--and all the great men who have flourished since the French empire began. Military heroes are most of these--fierce constables in shining steel, marshals in voluminous wigs, and brave grenadiers in bearskin caps; some dozens of whom gained crowns, principalities, dukedoms; some hundreds, plunder and epaulets; some millions, death in African sands, or in icy Russian plains, under the guidance, and for the good, of that arch-hero, Napoleon.

By far the greater part of "all the glories" of France (as of most other countries) is made up of these military men: and a fine satire it is on the cowardice of mankind, that they pay such an extraordinary homage to the virtue called courage; filling their history-books with tales about it, and nothing but it.

Let them disguise the place, however, as they will, and plaster the walls with bad pictures as they please, it will be hard to think of any family but one, as one traverses this vast gloomy edifice. It has been humbled to the ground, as a certain palace of Babel was of yore; but it is a monument of fallen pride, not less awful, and would afford matter for a whole library of sermons.

The cheap defense of nations expended a thousand millions in the erection of this magnificent dwelling-place. Armies were employed, in the intervals of their warlike labors, to level hills, or pile them up; to turn rivers, and to build aqueducts, and transplant woods, and construct smooth terraces, and long canals. A vast garden grew up in a wilderness, and a stupendous palace in the garden, and a stately city round the palace: the city was peopled with parasites, who daily came to do worship before the creator of these wonders--the Great King.

"Only God is great," said courtly Massillon; but next to him, as the prelate thought, was certainly Louis, his vicegerent here upon earth-- God's lieutenant-governor of the world--before whom courtiers used to fall on their knees, and shade their eyes, as if the light of his countenance, like the sun, which shone supreme in heaven, the type of him, was too dazzling to bear.

Did ever the sun shine upon such a king before, in such a palace?--or, rather, did such a king ever shine upon the sun? When Majesty came out of his chamber, in the midst of his super-human splendors, viz., in his cinnamon-colored coat, embroidered with diamonds; his pyramon of a wig; his red-heeled shoes, that lifted him four inches from the ground, "that he scarcely seemed to touch;" when he came out, blazing upon the dukes and duchesses that waited his rising--what could the latter do but cover their eyes, and wink, and tremble? And did he not himself believe, as he stood there, on his high heels, under his ambrosial periwig, that there was something in him more than man--something above Fate?

This, doubtless, was he fain to believe; and if, on very fine days, from his terrace before his gloomy palace of St. Germains, he could catch a glimpse, in the distance, of a certain white spire of St. Denis, where his race lay buried, he would say to his courtiers, with a sublime condescension, "Gentlemen, you must remember that I, too, am mortal."

Surely the lords in waiting could hardly think him serious, and vowed that his Majesty always loved a joke. However, mortal or not, the sight of that sharp spire wounded his Majesty's eyes; and is said, by the legend, to have caused the building of the palace of Babel-Versailles.

In the year 1681, then, the great king, with bag and baggage--with guards, cooks, chamberlains, mistresses, Jesuits, gentlemen, lackeys, Fenelons, Molieres, Lauzuns, Bossuets, Villars, Villeroys, Louvois, Colberts-- transported himself to his new palace: the old one being left for James of England and Jaquette his wife, when their time should come. And when the time did come, and James sought his brother's kingdom, it is on record that Louis hastened to receive and console him, and promised to restore, incontinently, those islands from which the canaille had turned him.

Between brothers such a gift was a trifle; and the courtiers said to one another reverently, "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool." There was no blasphemy in the speech; on the contrary, it was gravely said, by a faithful believing man, who thought it no shame to the latter to compare his Majesty with God Almighty.

Indeed, the books of the time will give one a strong idea how general was this Louis-worship. I have just been looking at one which was written by an honest Jesuit and protege of Pere la Chaise, who dedicates it to the august Infants of France, which does, indeed, go almost as far in print. He calls our famous monarch "Louis le Grand: 1, l'invincible; 2, le sage; 3, le conquerant; 4, la merveille de son siecle; 5, la terreur de ses ennemis; 6, l'amour de ses peuples; 7, l'arbitre de la paix et de la guerre; 8, l'admiration de l'univers; 9, et digne d'en etre le maitre; 10, le modele d'un heros acheve; 11, digne de l'immortalite, et de la veneration de tous les siecles!"

A pretty Jesuit declaration, truly, and a good, honest judgment upon the great king! In 30 years more: 1. The invincible had been beaten a vast number of times. 2. The sage was the puppet of an artful old woman, who was the puppet of more artful priests. 3. The conqueror had quite forgotten his early knack of conquering. 5. The terror of his enemies (for 4, the marvel of his age, we pretermit, it being a loose term, that may apply to any person or thing) was now terrified by his enemies in turn. 6. The love of his people was as heartily detested by them as scarcely any other monarch, not even his great-grandson, has been, before or since. 7. The arbiter of peace and war was fain to send superb ambassadors to kick their heels in Dutch shopkeepers' antechambers. 8. Is again a general term. 9. The man fit to be master of the universe was scarcely master of his own kingdom. 10. The finished hero was all but finished, in a very commonplace and vulgar way. And, 11, the man worthy of immortality was just at the point of death, without a friend to soothe or deplore him; only withered old Maintenon to utter prayers at his bedside, and croaking Jesuit to prepare him, with heavens knows what wretched tricks and mummeries, for his appearance in that Great Republic that lies on the other side of the grave. In the course of his fourscore splendid miserable years, he never had but one friend, and he ruined and left her. Poor La Valliere, what a sad tale is yours!…

While La Valliere's heart is breaking, the model of a finished hero is yawning; as, on such paltry occasions, a finished hero should. Let her heart break: a plague upon her tears and repentance; what right has she to repent? Away with her to her convent! She goes, and the finished hero never sheds a tear. What a noble pitch of stoicism to have reached! Our Louis was so great, that the little woes of mean people were beyond him; his friends died, his mistresses left him; his children, one by one, were cut off before his eyes, and great Louis is not moved in the slightest degree! As how, indeed, should a god be moved?…

Out of the window the king's august head was one day thrust, when old Conde was painfully toiling up the steps of the court below. "Don't hurry yourself, my cousin," cries Magnanimity; "one who has to carry so many laurels can not walk fast." At which all the courtiers, lackeys, mistresses, chamberlains, Jesuits, and scullions, clasp their hands and burst into tears. Men are affected by the tale to this very day. For a century and three-quarters have not all the books that speak of Versailles, or Louis Quatorze, told the story?

"Don't hurry yourself, my cousin!" O admirable king and Christian! what a pitch of condescension is here, that the greatest king of all the world should go for to say anything so kind, and really tell a tottering old gentleman, worn out with gout, age, and wounds, not to walk too fast!

What a proper fund of slavishness is there in the composition of mankind, that histories like these, should be found to interest and awe them. Till the world's end, most likely, this story will have its place in the history-books, and unborn generations will read it, and tenderly be moved by it.

I am sure that Magnanimity went to bed that night, pleased and happy, intimately convinced that he had done an action of sublime virtue, and had easy slumbers and sweet dreams--especially if he had taken a light supper, and not too vehemently attacked his "en cas de nuit." …

The king his successor has not left, at Versailles, half so much occasion for moralizing; perhaps the neigbhboring Parc aux Cerfs would afford better illustrations of his reign. The life of his great grandsire, the Grand Llama of France, seems to have frightened Louis the well-beloved; who understood that loneliness is one of the necessary conditions of divinity, and, being of a jovial, companionable turn, aspired not beyond manhood.

Only in the matter of ladies did he surpass his predecessor, as Solomon did David. War he eschewed, as his grandfather bade him; and his simple taste found little in this world to enjoy beyond the mulling of chocolate and the frying of pancakes. Look, here is the room called Laboratoire du Roi, where, with his own hands, he made his mistress's breakfast; here is the little door through which, from her apartments in the upper story, the chaste Du Barri came stealing down to the arms of the weary, feeble, gloomy old man.

But of women he was tired long since, and even pancake-frying had palled upon him. What had he to do, after forty years of reign; after having exhausted everything? Every pleasure that Dubois could invent for his hot youth, or cunning Lebel could minister to his old age, was flat and stale; used up to the very dregs; every shilling in the national purse had been squeezed out, by Pompadour and Du Barri and such brilliant ministers of state. He had found out the vanity of pleasure, as his ancestor had discovered the vanity of glory: indeed, it was high time that he should die. And die he did; and round his tomb, as round that of his grandfather before him, the starving people sang a dreadful chorus of curses, which were the only epitaphs for good or for evil that were raised to his memory….

On the 10th of May, 1774, the whole court had assembled at the chateau; the Oeil de Boeuf was full. The Dauphin had determined to depart as soon as the king had breathed his last. And it was agreed by the people of the stables, with those who watched in the king's room, that a lighted candle should be placed in a window, and should be extinguished as soon as he had ceased to live.

The candle was put out. At that signal, guards, pages, and squires, mounted on horseback, and everything was made ready for departure. The Dauphin was with the Dauphiness, waiting together for the news of the king's demise. An immense noise, as of thunder, was heard in the next room; it was the crowd of courtiers, who were deserting the dead king's apartment, in order to pay their court to the new power of Louis XVI.

Madame de Noailles entered, and was the first to salute the queen by her title of Queen of France, and begged their Majesties to quit their apartments, to receive the princes and great lords of the court desirous to pay their homage to the new sovereigns. Leaning on her husband's arm, a handkerchief to her eyes, in the most touching attitude, Marie Antoinette received these first visits.

On quitting the chamber where the dead king lay, the Due de Villequier bade Mr. Anderville, first surgeon of the king, to open and embalm the body: it would have been certain death to the surgeon.

"I am ready, sir," says he; "but while I am operating, you must hold the head of the corpse; your charge demands it."

The Duke went away without a word, and the body was neither opened nor embalmed. A few humble domestics and poor workmen watched by the remains, and performed the last offices to their master. The surgeons ordered spirits of wine to be poured into the coffin.

They huddled the king's body into a postchaise; and in this deplorable equipage, with an escort of about forty men, Louis, the Well-beloved, was carried, in the dead of night, from Versailles to Saint-Denis, and then thrown into the tombs of the kings of France!

If any man is curious, and can get permission, he may mount to the roof of the palace, and see where Louis XVI. used royally to amuse himself by gazing upon the doings of all the towns-people below with a telescope. Behold that balcony, where, one morning, he, his queen, and the little Dauphin stood, with Cromwell Grandison Lafayette by their side, who kissed her Majesty's hand, and protected her; and then, lovingly surrounded by his people, the king got into a coach and came to Paris: nor did his Majesty ride much in coaches after that….

He is said to have been such a smart journeyman blacksmith that he might, if Fate had not perversely placed a crown on his head, have earned a couple of louis every week by the making of locks and keys. Those who will may see the workshop where he employed many useful hours: Madame Elizabeth was at prayers meanwhile; the queen was making pleasant parties with her ladies; Monsieur the Count d'Artois was learning to dance on the tightrope; and Monsieur de Provence was cultivating l'eloquence du billet and studying his favorite Horace.

It is said that each member of the august family succeeded remarkably well in his or her pursuits; big Monsieur's little notes are still cited. At a minuet or sillabub, poor Antoinette was unrivaled; and Charles, on the tightrope, was so graceful and so gentil that Madame Saqui might envy him. The time only was out of joint. Oh, curst spite, that ever such harmless creatures as these were bidden to right it!

A walk to the little Trianon is both pleasing and moral; no doubt the reader has seen the pretty, fantastical gardens which environ it; the groves and temples; the streams and caverns (whither, as the guide tells you, during the heat of summer, it was the custom of Marie Antoinette to retire with her favorite, Madame de Lamballe): the lake and Swiss village are pretty little toys, moreover; and the cicerone of the place does not fail to point out the different cottages which surround the piece of water, and tell the names of the royal masqueraders who inhabited each.

In the long cottage, close upon the lake, dwelt the Seigneur du Village, no less a personage than Louis XV.; Louis XVI., the Dauphin, was the Pailli; near his cottage is that of Monseigneur the Count d'Artois, who was the Miller; opposite lived the Prince de Conde, who enacted the part of Gamekeeper (or, indeed, any other role, for it does not signify much); near him was the Prince de Rohan, who was the Aumonier; and yonder is the pretty little dairy, which was under the charge of the fair Marie Antoinette herself.

I forget whether Monsieur the fat Count of Provence took any share of this royal masquerading; but look at the names of the other six actors of the comedy, and it will be hard to find any person for whom Fate had such dreadful visitations in store. Fancy the party, in the days of their prosperity, here gathered at Trianon, and seated under the tall poplars by the lake, discoursing familiarly together: suppose, of a sudden, some conjuring Cagliostro of the time is introduced among them, and foretells to them the woes that are about to come.

"You, Monsieur l'Aumonier, the descendant of a long line of princes, the passionate admirer of that fair queen who sits by your side, shall be the cause of her ruin and your own, [14] and shall die in disgrace and exile. You, son of the Condes, shall live long enough to see your royal race overthrown, and shall die by the hands of a hangman. [15] You, oldest son of St. Louis, shall perish by the executioner's ax; that beautiful head, O Antoinette, the same ruthless blade shall sever."

"They shall kill me first," says Lamballe, at the queen's side.

"Yes, truly," says the soothsayer, "for Fate prescribes ruin for your mistress and all who love her."

[16]

"And," cries Monsieur d'Artois, "do I not love my sister, too? I pray you not to omit me in your prophecies."

To whom Monsieur Cagliostro says, scornfully, "You may look forward to fifty years of life, after most of these are laid in the grave. You shall be a king, but not die one; and shall leave the crown only; not the worthless head that shall wear it. Thrice shall you go into exile; you shall fly from the people, first, who would have no more of you and your race; and you shall return home over half a million of human corpses, that have been made for the sake of you, and of a tyrant as great as the greatest of your family. Again driven away, your bitterest enemy shall bring you back. But the strong limbs of France are not to be chained by such a paltry yoke as you can put on her: you shall be a tyrant, but in will only; and shall have a scepter, but to see it robbed from your hand."

"And pray, Sir Conjurer, who shall be the robber?" asked Monsieur the Count d'Artois.

This I can not say, for here my dream ended. The fact is, I had fallen asleep on one of the stone benches in the Avenue de Paris, and at this instant was awakened by a whirling of carriages and a great clattering of national guards, lancers, and outriders, in red. His Majesty, Louis Philippe, was going to pay a visit to the palace; which contains several pictures of his own glorious actions, and which has been dedicated, by him, to all the glories of France.



[13] From "The Paris Sketch Book."

[14] In the diamond-necklace affair.

[15] He was found hanging in his own bed- room.

[16] Among the many lovers that rumor gave to the Queen, poor Fersen is the most remarkable. He seems to have entertained for her a high and perfectly pure devotion. He was the chief agent in the luckless escape to Varennes; was lurking in Paris during the time of her captivity; and was concerned in the many fruitless plots that were made for her rescue. Fersen lived to be an old man, but died a dreadful and violent death. He was dragged from his carriage by the mob. In Stockholm, and murdered by them.--Author's note.