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The Dowager Queen
When I sit here alone in my château of Colombes, which I inhabit by grace of my nephew that great and glorious ruler whom they call The Sun King, I often think back over my life—one which has had more than its fair share of sorrow, humiliation, intrigue and tragedy. I am old now and my word stands for little, but though no one listens to me, I am allowed my comforts, for after all they must remember that I am the aunt of one King and the mother of another; and kings and queens never forget the deference due to royalty, for if they did not show it to others a day may come when it is not shown to them. Royalty is sacred to royalty—though not always so, alas, with the people. When I think of the manner in which the people of England treated their King—the wickedness, the cruelty, the bitter, bitter humiliation—even now my anger rises to such heights that I fear I shall do myself an injury. I should be old enough to restrain my temper now; I should remind myself that I have my silent accusers who would say that if the King had not had the misfortune to marry me, he would be alive and on his throne at this moment.
That is all in the past . . . all dead and gone. It is a new world now. There is a King on the throne of England for the Monarchy has been restored. The people love him, I am told; and indeed I was aware of this when I paid a visit to England not long ago. My dearest Henriette—the best-loved of all my children—glows when she talks of him. She always loved him dearly. He is witty, they say; he loves pleasure but he is shrewd. He is his grandfather—the father I never knew—all over again. He has charm though he is ugly. He was born ugly—the ugliest baby I ever saw. I remember when they first put him into my arms, I could not believe that this little unprepossessing thing could possibly be the child of my handsome husband and myself—for in spite of my small stature and certain defects, I was regarded in those days—even by my enemies—as having a goodly share of physical charms.
Are the troubles over? Is this the end of the nightmare which overshadowed England for all those years? Have people learned their lesson? With flowers and sweet music they welcomed Charles when he returned and there was rejoicing throughout London and the whole of England. They had done with the hideous Puritan rule. For ever? I wonder.
So Royalty has come back into its own. But it is too late for me. I am here, grateful to be in my small but beautiful château during the summer days, and in the winter, if I wish to go to Paris, my nephew has put the truly splendid Hôtel de la Balinière at my disposal.
He is kind to me—my glorious nephew. I think he has been a little in love with my sweet Henriette. And my son is kind, too. He always was—in that careless way which makes me think he would do anything for peace. I pray he will hold the crown. Louis respects him for all that he seems to devote himself to pleasure, and his great preoccupation would appear to be with the next seduction.
He looked at me so wisely when I was last in England. I begged him then to come to the true Faith, and he took my face in his hands and kissed me, calling me “Mam” as he used to when he was a little boy. “When the time is ripe,” he said enigmatically.
I never did understand Charles. I only know that he has this power to win people to him. He has grace for all his height, and charm which outshines his ugliness. If he could but get a child all would be well for England—as well as it could be, that is, unblessed by the true Faith as it is. And that may come. It has been my hope for so many years that it will.
Charles’s wife, dear Catherine, is so docile and so much in love with him. How can she be when he parades his mistresses before her and refuses—though in that charming, lighthearted way of his—to give up his profligate way of life?
I tried to talk to him when I was there—though more of religious matters, I must admit, than the need to get an heir. Catherine must be at fault. God knows he has enough bastards scattered throughout his kingdom, and he distributes titles and lands among them with a free hand. One of his courtiers said that a time will come when almost every Englishman, even from the remote corners of the country, will claim to be descended from Royal Stuart. And he cannot get one legitimate heir!
Life is strange. And I am now near to the end of mine. I think often of my dear husband Charles—of his saintly goodness, his gentleness, his loving kindness, and most of all the love which grew between us, though we had many a disagreement in the beginning, and in those early days there must have been times when he wished he had never been persuaded into the marriage, for all the good it was said it would bring to our two countries.
I dream of him now . . . going to his death on that cold January day. They told me he had said: “Give me an extra shirt. It is cold and I could tremble from the wind, and those who have come to see me die would think I trembled in fear of death.”
Nobly he went out to die. I see him in my dreams and I say to myself: “What did I do? If I had been a different woman, is it possible that this great tragedy, this murder, need never have happened?”
I want to go right back to the beginning. I want to think of everything that happened. And then I want to find the answer.
Could it have been different? Is it really possible that it need not have happened the way it did?
One cannot call the man who wielded the axe the murderer. But what of those cold-eyed men who passed the sentence?
I hate them. I hate them all.
But was I the one to blame?
The Early Days
I was born into a troubled world and when I was only five months old my father was murdered. Fortunately for me at that time I was in my nursery and knew nothing of this deed which was said to have had such a disastrous effect not only on our family but on the whole of France.
Everything I knew of him was through hearsay; but I was one to keep my ears and eyes open, and for a long time after his death, he was talked of, so that by cautious questioning and alert observation, in time I began to learn a great deal about the father who had been taken from me.
He had been a great man—Henri of Navarre, the finest King the French had ever known—but of course the dead become sanctified, and those who are murdered—particularly those in high places—become martyrs. My own dear Charles . . . but that was a long way ahead in the future. I had much to endure before I was overwhelmed by the greatest tragedy of my life.
So my father died. There he was one day in good health—well, as near good health as a man of fifty can be who has lived a life of much indulgence—and the next a corpse brought home to the Louvre and laid on his bed in his closet there while the whole country mourned and the ministers guarded the palace and us children, particularly my brother Louis, who had then become King. And all the time I was sleeping peacefully in my cradle unaware of the action of a maniac which had robbed France of her King and me of my father.
There were seven of us in the nursery at that time. The eldest was Louis, the Dauphin, who was eight when I was born. After him came Elizabeth, who was a year younger than Louis. There was a gap of four years between Elizabeth and Christine and then the family increased with rapidity. There had been the little Duc d’Orléans who had died before there was time to give him a name, and after that Gaston and then myself, Henriette Marie.
My mother may have been unsatisfactory in the eyes of many but she certainly filled the nursery and that is said to be the first and most important duty of a queen. The people disliked her as much as they loved my father. For one thing she came from Tuscany, being the daughter of Francis the Second of that land; and the French had always hated foreigners. Moreover she was fat and not very handsome and was of the Medici family. People remember that other Italian woman, wife of Henri Deux, toward whom they had shown more venom than to any other monarch, blaming her for all the misfortunes of France, including the Massacre of St. Bartholomew and the deaths by poison of many people. They had made a legend of her—the Italian poisoner. It was unfortunate that my mother should bear the name of Medici.
However, while my father had been there my mother was unimportant. She had had to accept his infidelities. He was a great lover of women. The Evergreen Gallant, the people called him, and right up to his death he was involved with women. The Duc de Sully—his very able minister and friend—had deplored this characteristic; but it was no use. Great king that he was he was first of all a lover and the pursuit of women was to him the most urgent necessity of his life. He could not exist without them. While this is doubtless a great weakness in a king, it is a foible which people indulgently shrug aside and indeed often applaud. “There is a man,” they say, with winks, nods and affectionate smiles.
Even at the time of his death he was involved in a romantic intrigue. I learned all about it from Mademoiselle de Montglat, who was the daughter of our governess and who, because she was so much older than I, had been set in charge of me by her mother. I called her Mamanglat as at first she was like a mother to me and later like an elder sister; and I was more fond of her than anyone I knew. Mamanglat became affectionately shortened to Mamie, and Mamie she remained to me forever.
We were all terrified of Madame de Montglat, who was always reminding us that she had the royal permission to whip us if we misbehaved, and as we were the Royal Children of France, higher standards had been set for us than for all other children.
Mamie was not a bit like her mother. Although in a way she was a governess, she was more like one of us. She was always ready to laugh, tell us the latest scandal and to help us out of those scrapes into which children fall and which would have brought down the wrath of Madame de Montglat on our heads if they had come to her knowledge.
It was from Mamie that I began to understand what was going on around me, what it meant to be a child in a royal nursery, the pitfalls to be avoided—the advantages and the disadvantages. It seemed to me that there were more of the latter and Mamie was inclined to agree with me.
“Your father loved you children,” she told me. “He used to say you were all beautiful and he could not understand how two such as the Queen and himself could have begotten you. I used to have to peep out at you because my mother forbade me to appear before the King.”
“Because I was young and not ill favored—good looking enough to catch his eyes, she thought.”
Then Mamie would be overcome with laughter. “The King was like that,” she finished.
Being very young and ignorant of the world I wanted to ask a great many questions, but did not always do so being afraid of exposing my ignorance.
“You were his favorite,” said Mamie. “The baby—the child of his old age. He was proving, you see, that he could still get beautiful children—not that he need have worried. There was constantly some woman claiming that her child was his. Well, what was I saying? Oh . . . you were the favorite. He was always fond of little girls and weren’t you named for him . . . well, as near as a girl could be. Henriette Marie. Henriette for him and Marie for your mother. Royal names both of them.”
From Mamie I learned the gossip of the Court—past and present—much that was necessary for me to know and more besides. I heard from her that before he had married my mother, my father had been married to La Reine Margot, daughter of Catherine de Médicis—one of the most mischievous and fascinating women France had ever known. My father had hated Margot. He had never wanted to marry her and it was rather dramatically said that their marriage had been solemnized in blood, for during the celebrations the most terrible of all massacres had taken place—that which had occurred on the Eve of St. Bartholomew; and it was because so many Huguenots had been in Paris to attend the marriage of their leader’s son to Catholic Margot that they had been conveniently situated for destruction.
I supposed something like that would haunt a bride and bridegroom for ever. It was a mercy that my father escaped. But all his life—until the last fatal moment—he had had a knack of escaping. He had lived his life dangerously and joyously. Often careless of his royalty he had had an easy familiarity with his men. No wonder he had been popular. He had done a great deal for France too. He cared about the people; he had said he wanted every peasant to have a chicken in his pot on Sundays; moreover he had brought about a compromise between the Catholics and Huguenots and that had seemed an impossible task. He himself had paid lip service to the Catholics with his famous quip of Paris being worth a Mass when he had realized the city would never surrender to a Protestant.
He had been a wonderful man. When I was very young I used to weep tears of rage because he had been taken from me before I could know him.
He had been a good soldier, but it was said that he never let anything—not even the need to fight an enemy—stand in the way of his love affairs.
From the Trade Paperback edition.