THE brilliancy and magnificence of the court, as well as the reign of Louis XIV, were such that the least details of his life seem interesting to posterity, just as they excited the curiosity of every court in Europe and of all his contemporaries. Such is the effect of a great reputation. We care more to know what passed in the cabinet and the court of an Augustus than for details of Attila's and Tamerlane's conquests.
One of the most curious affairs in this connection is the mystery of the Man with the Iron Mask, who was placed in the Ile Sainte-Marguerite, just after Mazarin's death, was removed to the Bastille in 1690, and died in 1703. His identity has never been revealed. That he was a person of very great consideration is clear from the way in which he was treated; yet no such person disappeared from public life. Those who knew the secret carried it with them to their graves.
Once the man scratched a message on a silver plate and flung it into the river. A fisherman who picked it up brought it to the governor. Asked if he had read the writing, he said, "No; he could not read himself, and no one else had seen it." "It is lucky for you that you cannot read," said the governor. And the man was detained till the truth of his statement had been confirmed.
The king surpassed the whole court in the majestic beauty of his countenance; the sound of his voice won the hearts which were awed by his presence; his gait, appropriate to his person and his rank, would have been absurd in anyone else. In those who spoke with him he inspired an embarrassment which secretly flattered an agreeable consciousness of his own superiority. That old officer who began to ask some favour of him, lost his nerve, stammered, broke down, and finally said: "Sire, I do not tremble thus in the presence of your enemies," had little difficulty in obtaining his request.
Nothing won for him the applause of Europe so much as his unexampled munificence. A number of foreign savants and scholars were the recipients of presents or pensions; among Frenchmen who were similarly benefited were Racine, Quinault, Flechier, Chapelain, Cotin, Lulli.
A series of ladies, from Mazarin's niece, Marie Mancini, to Mme. la Valliere and Mme. de Montespan, held sway over Louis' affections; but after the retirement of the last, Mme. de Maintenon, who had been her rival, became and remained supreme. The queen was dead; and Louis was privately married to her in January 1686, she being then past fifty.
Francoise d'Aubigne was born in 1635, of good family, but born and brought up in hard surroundings. She was married to Scarron in 1651; nine years later he died. Later, she was placed in charge of the king's illegitimate children. She supplanted Mme. de Montespan, to whom she owed her promotion, in the king's favour. The correspondence in the years preceding the marriage is an invaluable record of that mixture of religion and gallantry, of dignity and weakness, to which the human heart is so often prone, in Louis; and in the lady, of a piety and an ambition which never came into conflict. She never used her power to advance her own belongings.
In August 1715, Louis was attacked by a mortal malady. His heir was his great-grandson; the regency devolved on Orleans, the next prince of the blood. His powers were to be limited by Louis' will, but the will could not override the rights which the Paris Parliament declared were attached to the regency. The king's courage did not fail him as death drew near.
"I thought," he said to Mme. de Maintenon "that it was a harder thing to die." And to his servants: "Why do you weep? Did you think I was immortal?"
The words he spoke while he embraced the child who was his heir are significant.
"You are soon to be king of a great kingdom. Above all things, I would have you never forget your obligations to God. Remember that you owe to Him all that you are. Try to keep at peace with your neighbours. I have loved war too much. Do not imitate me in that, or in my excessive expenditure. Consider well in everything; try to be sure of what is best, and to follow that."
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