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THE BOEUF GRAS
I said it was a fool's paradise, and it did not last long. The Queen-Regent had a convenient fashion of making nothing of her promises. She did not think base burghers and lawyers human creatures towards whom honour was necessary, and she naturally expected the States-General to act our Long Parliament over again.
It seems that Kings of France come of age at fourteen; and on the day that young Louis was thirteen he was declared to be major, and his mother ceased to be Regent, though she managed everything just as much as if she had still written Anne R. at the end of all the State papers. The advantage to the Court was that no promises or engagements made in his minority were considered to be binding. And so the whole matter of the States-General went to the wall.
There was a magnificent ceremony at the Parliament House, the old hall of the Augustins. The little King held a bed of justice, upon a couch under a purple velvet canopy, with all his grandees round him. I would not go to see it, I thought it a wicked shame to set up a poor boy to break all the solemn pledges made in his name, and I knew it was the downfall of Clement's hopes; but Meg went in her Princess's suite, and I had her account of it, the King looking very handsome with his long fair hair, and bowing right and left, with such a dignity and grace that no one saw what a little bit of a fellow he really was. Poor child! the best thing they could have taught him would have been to worshipping and loving no one but himself. Of course Meg saw nothing so plainly as how beautiful her little Marquis looked among the attendant young nobles, and I must own that he was a very fine fellow, and wonderfully little spoiled considering the sort of folk with whom he lived. On that ceremonial day there came doleful tidings to us. Worcester had been the scene of a massacre rather than a fight, and my brother was in despair and misery at not having been there--as if his single arm could have retrieved the day!--thinking shame of himself for resting at home while sword and block were busy with our friends, and no one knew where the King was. I know not whether it were the daunting of his hopes or the first beginning of the winter cold; but from that time he began to decline from the strength he had gained while I had him to myself in Holland, free from all pressing cares.
However, he still rode out in attendance on the Duke of Gloucester, who always preferred him to any other of the gentlemen who waited on the Queen. One evening in October he stayed out so late that we had begun to be anxious at his being thus exposed to the air after sunset, when he came up to our salon in high spirits, telling us that he had been returning with the Duke from a ride on the Amiens Road when they saw some altercation going on at the barriers between the guard and a gentleman on horseback, shabby and travel-stained, whom they seemed unwilling to admit. For the Parisians, who always worship success and trample on misfortune, had, since the disaster at Worcester, shown themselves weary of receiving so many unlucky cavaliers, and were sometimes scantly civil. The stranger, as he saw the others come up, called out: 'Ha, Walwyn, is it you? You'll give your word for me that the Chevalier Stuart is an honest fellow of your acquaintance, though somewhat out at elbows, like other poor beggars.'
And then Eustace saw that it was the King, sun-burnt, thin, and ill- clad, grown from a lad to a man, but with his black eyes glittering gaily through all, as no one's ever did glitter save King Charles's. He gave his word, and passed him through without divulging who he was, since it would not have been well to have had all the streets turn out to gaze on him in his present trim, having ridden on just as he crossed from Brigthelmstone. The two brothers did not know one another, not having met since Prince Henry was a mere infant of four or five years old; and Eustace said he found the little fellow drawing himself up, and riding somewhat in advance, in some princely amazement that so shabby a stranger should join his company so familiarly and without any check from his companion.
The King began to ask for his mother, and then, at a sign and hint from Eustace, called out:
'What! Harry, hast not a word for thy poor battered elder brother?'
And the boy's face, as he turned, was a sight to see, as Eustace told us.
He had left Queen Henrietta embracing her son in tears of joy for his safe return, and very thankful we were, though it did but take out first reception at the Louvre to see that though the King was as good-humoured, gracious, and merry as ever, he was not changed for the better by all he had gone through. He had left the boy behind him, and now seemed like a much older man, who only laughed and got what amusement he could out of a world where he believed in nothing noble nor good, and looked forward to nothing.
The old ladies said he had grown like his grandfather, Henri IV., and when this was repeated Eustace shook his head, and told Meg that he feared it was in one way true enough, and Meg, who always hoped, bade us remember how many years the Grand Monarque had to dally away before he became the preserver and peace-maker of France.
However, even Meg, who had always let the King be like an old playfellow with her, was obliged to draw back now, and keep him at the most formal distance. I never had any trouble with him. I do not think he liked me; indeed I once heard of his saying that I always looked like a wild cat that had got into the salon by mistake, and was always longing to scratch and fly. He would be quite willing to set me to defend a castle, but for the rest----
It was not he whom I wished to scratch--at least as long as he let me alone--but M. de Poligny, who took to paying me the most assiduous court wherever I went, for his little schoolboy of a son, till I was almost beside myself with fear that Clement Darpent might believe some false report about me.
And then spring was coming on, and Eustace as yet made no sign of going to Holland. He only told me to be patient, and patience was becoming absolutely intolerable to my temper. Meantime, we heard that the First President, Mathieu de Mole, who had some time before been nominated Keeper of the Seals, but had never excised the functions of the office, had nominated M. Darpent to be his principal secretary at Paris, remaining there and undertaking his correspondence when he was with the Court. Clement had been recommended for this office by his brother-in-law, one of the Gneffiers du Roi, who was always trying to mediate between the parties. Mole was thoroughly upright and disinterested, and he had begged Clement to undertake the work as the one honest man whom he could trust, and Clement had such an esteem for him that he felt bound to do anything he could to assist him, in his true loyalty.
'I shall tell the King the truth,' said the good old man, 'and take the consequences.'
And his being in office gave another hope for better counsels and the States-General.
So Lady Ommaney told me, but I was anxious and dissatisfied. I had like Clement better when he had refused to purchase an office, and stood aloof from all the suite of the Court. She soothed me as best she could, and, nodding her head a little, evidently was hatching as scheme.
Now the children had a great desire to see the procession in the Mid- Lent week. It is after what we call Mothering Sunday--when the prettiest little boy they can find in Paris rides through the streets on the largest white ox. Now the lodgings whither Sir Francis and Lady Ommaney had betaken themselves, when my mother had, so to speak, turned them out, had a balcony with an excellent view all along the quais, and thither the dear old lady invited Meg, Madame d'Aubepine, and me, to bring Gaspard, with Maurice and Armantine; and I saw by her face that the bouef gras was not all that there was for me to see.
We went early in the day, when the streets were still not overmuch crowded, and we climbed up, up to the fifth story, where the good old lady contrived to make the single room her means could afford look as dainty as her bower at home, though she swept it with her own delicate white hands. There was an engraving of the blessed Martyr over the chimmey-piece, the same that is in the Eikon Basilike, with the ray of light coming down into his eye, the heavenly crown awaiting him, the world spurned at his feet, and the weighted palm- tree with Crescit sub pondere virtus. And Sir Francis's good old battle-sword and pistols hung under it. It made me feel quite at home, and we tried to make the children enter into the meaning of the point. At least Meg did, and I think she succeeded with her son, who had a good deal of the true Ribaumont in him, and whom they could not spoil even by all the misrule that went on at Court whenever the Queen was out of sight. He stood thoughtful by the picture while the little d'Aubepines were dancing in and out of the balcony, shrieking about every figure they saw passing in the road below.
Sir Francis, after receiving us, had gone out, as he said, to see what was going on, but I think he removed himself in order to leave us more at our ease. By and by there was a knock at the door, and who should come in but M. Darpent, leading a little boy of five or six years old, his nephew, he said, whom Lady Ommaney had permitted to bring to see the sight.
I heard afterwards that it was pretty to see the different ways of the children, and how Maurice d'Aubepine drew himself up, put on his hat, laid his hand on his ridiculous little sword, and insisted that the little Clement Verdon should stand behind him and his sister, where he could see nothing, while Gaspard de Nidermerle, with an emphatic 'Moi, je suis getilhomme,' put the stranger before himself and looked over his head, as he could easily do, being two or three years older.
Well, I lost my chance; I never saw the great ox wreathed with flowers, nor the little boy on his back, nor all the butchers with their cleavers round him, nor the procession of the trades, the fishwomen, dames des halles, as they called them, all in their white caps and short petticoats, singing a ballad in honour of the Duke of Beaufort, the faggot-carriers with sticks, the carpenters with tools, all yelling out songs in execration of Cardinal Mazarin, who had actually entered France with an army, and vituperating with equal virulence the Big Beard, as they called the President Mole.
They told me the sight had been wonderful, but what was that to me when Clement Darpent stood before me? He looked then and worn, and almost doubtful how to address me; but Lady Ommaney said, in her hearty way:
'Come, come, young folks, you have enough to say to one another. Sit down there and leave the ox to the children and us old folks in our second childhood. You believe and old woman now, M. Darpent?'
'You never distrusted me?' I demanded.
He said he had never distrusted my heart, but that he had heard at all hands of the arrangement with M. de Poligny, whose lawyer had actually stopped proceedings on that account. My brother had indeed assured him that he did not mean to consent; and he ought, he allowed, to have rested satisfied with that assurance, but---He faltered a little, which made me angry. The truth was that some cruel person had spoken to him as if my dear Eustace and his protection would soon be removed; and while Solivet was at hand, Eustace, in his caution, he refrained from such intercourse with Clement as could excite suspicion. Besides, he was a good deal away at St. Germain with the Duke. All this I did not understand. I was vexed with Clement for having seemed to doubt us, and I did not refrain from showing my annoyance that he should have accepted any kind of office in the rotten French State. It seemed to me a fall from his dignity. On this he told me that it was not purchased, and it was serving under a true and loyal man, whom he felt bound to support. If any one could steer between the Prince and the Cardinal, and bring some guarantee for the people out of the confusion, it was the Keeper of the Seals, the head of the only party who cared more for the good of the country than their private malice and hatred.
'And,' he said diffidently, 'if under M. Mole's patronage, the steps could be gained without loss of honour or principle, you remember that there is a noblesse de la robe, which might remove some of Madame de Ribaumont's objections, though I do not presume to compare it with the blood of the Crusaders.'
I am ashamed to say that I answered, 'I should think not!' and then I am afraid I reproached him for bartering the glorious independence that had once rendered him far more than noble, for the mere tinsel show of rank that all alike thought despicable. How I hate myself when I recall that I told him that if he had done so for my sake he had made a mistake; and as for loyalty rallying round the French Crown, I believed in no such thing; they were all alike, and cared for nothing but their ambitions and their hatreds.
Before anything had been said to soften these words--while he was still standing grave and stiff, like one struck by a blow--in came the others from the window. Meg, in fact, could not keep Cecile d'Aubepine back any longer from hindering such shocking impropriety as out tete-a-tete. We overheard her saving her little girl from corruption by a frightful French fib that the gentleman in black was Mademoiselle de Ribaumont's English priest.
I am sure out parting need have excited no suspicions. We were cold and grave and ceremonious as Queen Anne of Austria herself, and poor Lady Ommaney looked from one to the other of us in perplexity.
I went home between wrath and shame. I knew I had insulted Clement, and I was really mortified and angry that he should have accepted this French promotion instead of fleeing with us, and embracing our religion. I hated all the French politics together a great deal too much to have any comprehension of the patriotism that made him desire to support the only honest and loyal party, hopeless as it was. I could not tell Meg about our quarrel; I was glad Eustace was away at the English's ambassador's. I felt as if one Frenchman was as good, or as bad, as another, and I was more gracious to M. de Poligny than ever I had been before that evening.
My mother had a reception in honour of its being Mid-Lent week. Solivet was there, and, for a wonder, both the d'Aubepines, for the Count had come home suddenly with message from the Prince of Conde to the Duke of Orleans.
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