Jean Plaidy

Flaunting, Extravagant Queen

Chapter I


It would seem, Madame,’ said Prince von Kaunitz gleefully, ‘that at last we have what may be termed a firm offer from His Most Christian Majesty.’

Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, suppressed the smile of triumph which she felt rising to her lips. If Kaunitz were right, this should be one of the happiest moments of her life. But she feared there was little happiness left to her. She was in her fifties and she could not believe that she had long to live. The ruling of an Empire and the glorification of the House of Habsburg had made great demands on her natural shrewdness; and her deep-rooted sense of duty had insisted she fulfil them; but she was beginning to realise that she was a weary woman. It was being brought home to her that a woman who gives all her thoughts to state duties misses much of the pleasures of family life; and Maria Theresa, shrewd ruler of an Empire, felt the sudden desire for softer emotions.

The mood was ephemeral. If Kaunitz were right, and old Louis really serious about the marriage of his grandson to Maria Theresa’s youngest daughter, then there should be no room for any emotion but joy.

‘There have been many promises which have not yet been fulfilled,’ she said.

Kaunitz nodded in agreement. ‘But not because of Your Excellency’s servants at the Court of France. They have worked assiduously to bring about your wishes. Scarcely a day passes when some allusion is not made, in the King’s hearing, to the Archduchess. His Majesty has been made aware of the many enchanting qualities of your daughter, Madame.’

Maria Theresa smiled tenderly. ‘She grows in beauty every day,’ she said. ‘I am sure that if the King could see her he would be enchanted.’

‘And His Most Christian Majesty is, even at his age, most susceptible to feminine beauty, Madame,’ added Kaunitz with a smile.

The Empress frowned. It was undignified to discuss royal scandals with servants, but at the same time it was necessary to know all that went on in rival courts; and she was enough of a woman of the world to realise that the bedchambers of monarchs were often the hot-houses in which great events were planted, forced and nourished. This applied particularly to the Court of France, for French monarchs, it seemed, had through the ages been more susceptible to feminine charm than other kings; and in France it was almost a tradition that the King’s mistress should be the most important person at the Court.

It therefore made her faintly uneasy to ponder that the ageing voluptuary had replaced Madame de Pompadour by Madame du Barry who was, so it had been reported from many sources, a woman of the people, a low upstart who at one stage of her career had been nothing more than a low-class prostitute. And it was to this Court, the most brilliant doubtless but certainly the most cynical in the world, reigned over by a prostitute and an ageing sensualist continually on the look-out for new sensations, to which she would be utterly delighted to send her enchantingly lovely, high-spirited and somewhat wilful fourteen-year-old Marie Antoinette.

She spoke her thoughts aloud. Kaunitz was of course a trusted servant. ‘His Majesty of France would show nothing but respectful admiration to his grandson’s wife.’

‘Assuredly so, Madame.’

‘And the Dauphin?’

Maria Theresa was conscious of the shadow which passed over Kaunitz’s face. The Dauphin, the grandson of Louis Quinze of France, was a quiet boy, fond of hiding himself from his fellows, not exactly stupid yet nervous to such a degree that he seemed so. The fact that he must one day – and that day soon, for Louis Quinze was sixty years of age and had no son to succeed him – ascend the throne of France seemed, instead of inspiring him, to have filled him with horror of the future. In fact, for all his rank, for all that he was heir to one of the most coveted thrones in Europe, young Dauphin Louis, Duc de Berry, was a poor creature, and the glowing reports of those eager to promote the marriage could not completely hide this.

‘He is young,’ said Kaunitz now. ‘Scarcely more than a boy.’

He was not yet sixteen and Maria Theresa told herself that she should be pleased because he was not in the least like his grandfather. There was one thing of which Maria Theresa could be certain: her daughter would not allow her husband’s mistresses to dominate her, as so many Queens of France had been compelled to do.

‘He will grow up,’ she said firmly, and refused to worry about him.

The marriage was what she desired more than anything in the world. It was necessary to Austria. There must be peace between her country and its old enemy. Habsburg and Bourbon must join hands and stand together in this changing world. The little island off the coast of Europe was growing far too powerful. It was clear that that Protestant community of islanders was already contemplating the acquisition of an Empire which was to exceed in might all other empires. In a changing world friendships must be formed with old enemies.

‘And,’ went on Kaunitz, ‘His Majesty has appointed the date. He suggests that Easter would be a good time for the wedding.’

‘I agree wholeheartedly. Easter-tide when the year is young. It will give us plenty of time to make our arrangements.’

She was smiling, determined to forget her misgivings regarding this marriage. She was also going to forget her anxieties about her son Joseph whom she had made co-regent a few years before, and whose head seemed full of the wildest plans which she feared could bring nothing but disaster; she would forget Maria Amalia, her daughter, whom she had married to the Duke of Parma and who was already, by her levity, attracting scandalous gossip; she would forget all her children who had disappointed her and think of her youngest, her little pet, her enchanting Antoinette who would make the most brilliant marriage of all, would sit on the throne of France and make firm that friendship between Habsburg and Bourbon which was so necessary to Austria.

She dismissed Kaunitz, for she wished to be alone with her thoughts.

* * *

When Kaunitz had left her she went to the window and looked out on the gardens.

She was thinking that she must go ahead with her preparations, that old Louis must not be given an opportunity to retreat from his promise, that she must watch for mischief from her old enemy, Frederick of Prussia, who would naturally do all he could to prevent the match. She hoped Joseph would not be indiscreet. She feared that indiscretion was one of the most persistent characteristics of her family. From whom had they inherited it? Not from their mother. From their father, François of Lorraine, perhaps. In any case, she must guard against it.

She must be continually on her guard. How she longed to pass over the reins of government to young Joseph! But how could she trust Joseph? Was she going to let him throw away all that she had built up with shrewdness and careful planning? No, she must remain in command until she was sure that her son had come to wisdom and understanding.

She could smile at herself; she was a woman who had wished to be an Empress and also a mother. She asked too much of life.

As she stood looking down on the garden she heard the sudden barking of a dog which was running across the lawns, past the fountain, its lead trailing on the grass.

‘Catch him,’ cried a voice. ‘Catch him … quickly, I say. Mops! Mopsee … Come here, I say.’

Now she came into sight – a small flying figure – and the Empress’ throat became constricted with her sudden emotion. She was so lovely, that child; so young, so innocent. Of them all, thought Maria Theresa, I love my little Antoinette the best.

Oh, what daintiness, thought the mother. She is small for her age, but doubtless she will grow. She is like a fairy creature with those dainty limbs and those wide blue eyes, that flowing golden hair and skin like rarest porcelain. Surely she is the loveliest child in the world. She will do well at the Court of France, where beauty is admired.

‘Come here, Mops! Did you not hear?’ The voice was high-pitched and imperious, yet clearly it was telling the young pug-dog that this was a game; he was to try to elude her while she was trying to catch him. A childish game for an archduchess to play when she was fourteen years of age and shortly to become Dauphine of France.

Now another figure had come into view. This was one of the serving girls. Young Antoinette, so Maria Theresa had heard, chose her friends where she would, without consideration of rank. Maria Theresa had not curbed this trait in her daughter. ‘Nay,’ she had said, ‘it is well for her to form her own judgements.’ But was she right? Had she, so obsessed with matters of state, neglected her duties as mother? Was that why Maria Amalia was taking her lovers in Parma; was that why Joseph seemed determined to go his own way?

In any case it was time that Antoinette ceased to romp in the gardens with dogs and serving girls.

The dog had turned and was running towards the girls, barking joyously. The servant girl succeeded in grasping the strap attached to the dog’s collar. Antoinette closely followed; the dog darted away but both girls had their hands on the leash and so they collided and fell sprawling on the grass.

A strange sight, thought Maria Theresa; a serving girl, a pug-dog, and an Archduchess rolling on the grass together in the garden of the Imperial Palace.