Jean Plaidy

Louis the Well-Beloved

Chapter I


The woman at the window was staring along the Avenue de Paris; she could survey the Grande Écurie and the Petite Écurie; and there was much coming and going. She was trembling, and anxious that the child should not notice her agitation.

But he was pulling at her skirt. ‘Maman Ventadour, you are looking out there and not at me.’

She turned from the window and as she glanced at him her expression grew soft, as it always did for this beautiful and beloved child.

‘Watch,’ he commanded.

As the Duchesse de Ventadour nodded to imply that he had her attention, he put his hands on the carpet and his feet swung into the air. His face, upside-down, scarlet with the exertion, laughed at her, demanding her approbation.

‘That, my darling,’ she said, ‘was very good. But you have shown me how clever you are. Let that suffice.’

He was on his feet, his head on one side, his thick auburn hair falling about his animated face. ‘I would like to show you again, Maman,’ he said.

‘No more now, my dearest.’

‘But just once more, Maman.’

‘Just once,’ she agreed.

She watched him turn his somersault, while he shrieked with delight as he bounded to his feet once more; and she smiled saying to herself: Who would harm him? Who could be anything but moved by his charm and his beauty?

He was contented now; he came to stand by her knee and leaned his head against her breast while she let her fingers caress those masses of auburn hair.

She was unable to resist the impulse to hold him tightly against her for she feared that, with one of those sudden movements of his, he might look quickly into her face and sense her apprehension.

‘You’re hurting me, Maman,’ he said; but she did not hear him, for she was recalling how she had saved his life three years before, when she had entered the sickroom where the doctor, Fagon, had she not interfered, would have carried out his drastic ‘cures’ on this precious body as he had on the boy’s mother, father and brother.

‘I shall nurse the child,’ she had said then, fiercely determined: ‘I . . . and I alone.’

There had been no protest, which was strange, for Madame de Maintenon believed Fagon to be the foremost doctor in France. But perhaps three deaths in one year had shaken even her faith. Perhaps there had been something so fiercely maternal about the Duchesse de Ventadour that it had been deemed wise to try her nursing in place of Fagon’s disastrous treatment.

So out of the sickroom – the two-year-old child in her arms, wrapped in blankets which she had brought with her – had marched Madame de Ventadour; and night and day she had nursed the sick child, brought him out of danger and cared for him since, so that he would allow no other to look after him, to be his governess and companion, to take the place of the mother who had died six days before his father.

Now he wriggled out of her arms and two dimpled hands were placed on her lap while he stared up at her.

‘Great-grandfather is going away,’ he told her.

She caught her breath but said nothing.

‘He will not be King then,’ he went on. ‘There must be a King of France. Do you know who, Maman?’

She put her hand to her breast; he was so observant that he might notice how her fluttering heart disturbed her corsage.

He had sprung back; he was standing on his hands, his legs waving in the air, his face flushed and impish.

‘I’ll tell you, Maman,’ he said. ‘When my great-grandfather goes away, I shall be King of France.’

* * *

In the great state bedroom Le Roi Soleil lay dying, as he had lived, with the utmost dignity. He lay back in the great bed which was as high as the cornice, and the corners of which were decorated with ostrich feathers. The hangings were of damask – gold and silver – because it was late August and the heavier ones of crimson velvet had not yet replaced them.

He had in life strictly observed the stern Etiquette of Versailles, and it was characteristic that he should continue to observe it with death close at hand. The calmest person in the death chamber was Louis Quatorze.

He had made his confession; he had received Extreme Unction, a ceremony which had taken place under the eyes of those of his subjects who had come to the palace to see him die, as in the past they had come to watch him dance in the state apartments and walk in the exquisite gardens about the château. He accepted them now as always. He was their King and, while he demanded complete obedience from them, he would not shirk what he believed to be his duty towards his subjects.

He had sent away Madame de Maintenon, his children’s governess whom he had secretly married thirty years before. She had wept so sorrowfully and he could not bear to see her tears.

‘You are grieved to see that there is little time left to me,’ he had said to her. ‘You must not grieve for I am an old man and have lived long enough. Did you think that I was immortal? I have made my confession. I put my trust in God’s mercy. I could wish, now that I have come to my death-bed, that I had lived a saintly life.’

She had nodded; she had ever been ready to remind him of his sins; and when she had left him it was easier for him to forget them.

The pain in his leg was at times so acute that he could think of nothing else. The herb baths and the asses’ milk had failed to cure that leg, and it was no use their trying to hide from him the fact that gangrene had set in; he himself had suggested amputation but it was too late. He was living through his last hours.

It was all over; the long reign had come to an end. For seventy-two years he had been King of France – he had grown from the petted to the adored; and perhaps because he had never during the whole of his life completely forgotten the humiliation his family had suffered when he was a child during the war of the Fronde, he had acquired that supreme dignity, that determination that he alone should be the head of his state. ‘L’état, c’est moi!’ he had said; and that was never forgotten.

When one was nearing the end, one remembered incidents which at the time they had happened seemed insignificant but which were, when recalled, seen to be revealing. There had been an occasion when he had paid a call on Condé at Chantilly and the fish ordered for the banquet had failed to arrive. The cook, so overcome by what must have seemed to him a major tragedy – the god-like King having to sit down to a banquet which was not quite perfect – had committed suicide, being unable to face the shame.

And at the time, thought Louis, it had not seemed incongruous.

He looked back now and saw himself passing majestically through life. The ceremonies of the Court in which he played the central part were performed as though his person were sacred; and indeed he had come to think it was so. He had stood at the head of the state; and unlike other Kings of France he had never allowed his mistresses to take a hand in the government of the kingdom. He was the state – he and he alone.

Here in this bed, which he knew he would never leave, he had time to look back over his life and to some extent assess his actions. There had always been those to tell him that he was a god and he had no wish to contradict this. But gods did not lie a-bed with an evil limb which was destroying them. He was mortal; he was full of human weaknesses; and because there had never been any to point these out to him he had never sought to suppress them.

He knew that every day in France there were people who died of starvation, and that it was he who had wasted the substance of France on wars. Ah, but had that not been for the glory of France, for the enrichment of his people? No, for the glory of Louis, for the enrichment of Louis! War had excited him. He had had dreams of a French colonial Empire, the greatest in the world. And all over the country there were examples of his love of ostentation.

There was this château itself, Versailles, which he had determined should be the most splendid in the world; and it was by no accident that symbolism had crept into the decorations. Le Vau’s columns had been intended to represent the months of the year; the masks on the keystones over the ground-floor windows showed the progress of man through life, for Versailles was meant to represent a solar system which revolved about one great sun – and that sun was Le Roi Soleil.

And because of this passion for building great châteaux, because of his determination to go to war, many of his people had suffered.

If I could begin again, thought the dying King, I would act differently. I would make the people my first consideration and they would love me now as they loved me in the days when they first proclaimed me – a four-year-old boy – their King.

Four years old! he ruminated. It was too young to become the King of France.

And now in a nursery close to this room there was another little boy who in a day or so – perhaps two, but no more – would wear the crown of France.

Contemplating the accession of Louis XV, Louis XIV became so alarmed for the future that he forgot to regret the past.

He lifted his hand and immediately a man of about forty came to his bedside.

‘Your wishes, Sire?’ he asked.

Louis looked searchingly into the face of his nephew, Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, who reminded the King so strongly of his own brother, the mincing, often vicious Monsieur, who had always been dissatisfied with a fate which had brought him into the world two years after Louis.