Ponson du Terrail: A Toss-up for a Husband

One of my favourite authors is Ponson du Terrail. He really works best in his longer works – his tales that go on for thousands of pages. Very little of his work is in English. Here is something for those interested:

A TOSS-UP FOR A HUSBAND.

 

FROM THE FRENCH OF VISCOMTE PONSON DU TERRAIL.

I.

THE Marchioness was at her toilet. Florine and Aspasia, her two ladies’ maids, were busy powdering, as it were with hoar-frost, the bewitching widow.

She was a widow, this Marchioness, a widow of twenty-three; and wealthy, as very few persons were any longer at the court of Louis XV., her godfather.

Three-and-twenty years earlier, his Majesty had held her at the baptismal font of the chapel at Marly, and had settled upon her an income of a hundred thousand livres, by way of proving to her father, the Baron Fontevrault, who had saved his life at the battle of Fontenoy, that Kings can be grateful, whatever people choose to say to the contrary.

The Marchioness then was a widow. She resided, during the summer, in a charming little chateau, situated half-way up the slope overhanging the water, on the road from Bougival to Saint Germain. Madame Dubarry’s estate adjoined hers; and on opening her eyes she could see, without rising, the white gable-ends and the wide-spreading chestnut-trees of Luciennes, perched upon the heights. On this particular day—it was noon—the Marchioness, whilst her attendants dressed her hair and arranged her head-dress with the most exquisite taste, gravely employed herself in tossing up, alternately, a couple of fine oranges, which crossed each other in the air, and then dropped into the white and delicate hand that caught them in their fall.

This sleight-of-hand—which the Marchioness interrupted at times whilst she adjusted a beauty-spot on her lip, or cast an impatient glance on the crystal clock that told how time was running away with the fair widow’s precious moments—had lasted for ten minutes, when the folding-doors were thrown open, and a valet, such as one sees now only on the stage, announced with pompous voice—“The King!”

Apparently, the Marchioness was accustomed to such visits, for she but half rose from her seat, as she saluted with her most gracious smile the personage who entered.

It was indeed Louis XV. himself—Louis XV. at sixty-five; but robust, upright, with smiling lip and beaming eye, and jauntily clad in a close-fitting, pearl-grey hunting-suit, that became him to perfection. He carried under his arm a handsome fowling-piece, inlaid with mother-of-pearl; a small pouch, intended for ammunition alone, hung over his shoulder.

The King had come from Luciennes, almost alone, that is to say with a Captain of the Guard, the old Marshal de Richelieu, and a single equerry on foot. He had been amusing himself with quail-shooting, loading his own gun, as was the fashion with his ancestors, the later Valois and the earlier Bourbons. His grandsire, Henry IV., could not have been less ceremonious.

But a shower of hail had surprised him; and his Majesty had no relish for it. He pretended that the fire of an enemy’s battery was less disagreeable than those drops of water, so small and so hard, that wet him through, and reminded him of his twinges of rheumatism.

Fortunately, he was but a few steps from the gateway of the chateau, when the shower commenced. He had come therefore to take shelter with his god-daughter, having dismissed his suite, and only keeping with him a magnificent pointer, whose genealogy was fully established by the Duke de Thchelieu, and traced back, with a few slips in orthography, directly to Nisus, that celebrated greyhound, given by Charles IX. to his friend Ronsard, the poet.

“Good morning, Marchioness,” said the King, as he entered, putting down his fowling-piece in a corner. “I have come to ask your hospitality. We were caught in a shower, at your gate—Richelien and I. I have packed off Richelieu.”

“Ah, Sire, that wasn’t very kind of you.”

“Hush I” replied the King, in a good-humored tone. “It’s only mid-day; and if the Marshal had forced his way in here at so early an hour, he would have bragged of it every where, this very evening. He is very apt to compromise one, and he is a great coxcomb too, the old Duke. But don’t put yourself out of the way, Marchioness. Let Aspasia finish this becoming pile of your head-dress, and Florine spread out with her silver knife the scented powder that blends so well with the lilies and the roses of your bewitching face . . . . Why, Marchioness, you’re so pretty, one could eat you up

“You think me so, Sire?”

“I tell you so every day. Oh, what fine oranges!”

And the King seated himself upon the roomy sofa, by the side of the Marchioness, whose rosy finger-tips he kissed with an infinity of grace. Then taking up one of the oranges that he had admired, he proceeded leisurely to examine it.

“But,” said he at length, “what are oranges doing by the side of your Chinese powder-box and your scent-bottles? Is there any connection between this fruit and the maintenance—easy as it is, Marchioness—of your charms?”

“These oranges,” replied the lady, gravely, “fulfilled just now, Sire, the functions of destiny.”

The King opened wide his eyes, and stroked the long ears of his dog, by way of giving the Marchioness time to explain her meaning.

“It was the Countess who gave them to me,” she continued.

“Madame Dubarry?”

“Exactly so, Sire.”

“A trumpery gift, it seems to me, Marchioness.”

“I hold it, on the contrary, to be an important one; since I repeat to your Majesty, that these oranges decide my fate.”

“I give it up,” said the King.

“Imagine, Sire; yesterday I found the Countess occupied in tossing her oranges up and down, in this way.” And the Marchioness recommenced her game with a skill that cannot be described.

“I see.” said the King; “she accompanied this singular amusement with the words, ‘Up, Choiseul! up, Praslin!’ and, on my word, I can fancy how the pair jumped.”

“Precisely so, Sire.”

“And do you dabble in politics. Marchioness? Have you a fancy for uniting with the Countess, just to mortify my poor ministers?”

“By no means, Sire; for, in place of Monsieur de Choiseul and the Duke de Praslin, I was saying to myself just now, ‘Up, Menneval! up, Beaugency! “‘

“Ay, ay,” returned the King; “and why the deuce would you have them jumping, those two good-looking gentlemen—Monsieur de Menneval, who is a Croesus, and Monsieur de Beaugency, who is a statesman, and dances the minuet to perfection.”

“I’ll tell you,” said the dame. “You know, Sire, that Monsieur de Menneval is an accomplished gentleman, a handsome man, a gallant cavalier, an indefatigable dancer, witty as Monsieur Arouet and longing for nothing so much as to live in the country, on his estate in Touraine, on the banks of the Loire, with the woman whom he loves or will love, far from the Court, from grandeur and from turmoil.”

“And, on my life, he’s in the right of it,” said the King. “One does become

so wearied at Court.”

“Aye, and no,” rejoined the widow, as she put on her last beauty-spot. “Nor are you unaware, Sire, that Monsieur de Beaugency is one of the most brilliant courtiers of Marly and of Versailles; ambitious; burning with zeal for the service of your Majesty; as brave as Monsieur de Menneval; and capable of going to the end of the earth. . . . with the title of Ambassador of the King of France.”

“I know that,” chimed in Louis XV., with a laugh. “But, alas, I have more ambassadors than embassies. My ante chambers overflow every morning.~~

“Now,” continued the Marchioness, “I have been a widow . . . these two years past.”

“A long time, there’s no denying.”

“Ah.” sighed she, “there’s no need to tell me’ so, Sire. But Monsieur de Menneval loves me . . . at least he says so, and I am easily persuaded.”

Very well; then marry Monsieur de Menneval.”

“I have thought of it, Sire; and, in truth, I might do much worse. I should like well enough to live in the country, under the willow trees, on the borders of the river, with a husband, fond, yielding, loving, who would detest the philosophers and set some little value on the poets. When no external noises disturb the honeymoon, that month, Sire, may be in definitely prolonged. In the country, you know, one never hears a noise.”

“Unless it be the north-wind moaning in the corridor, and the rain pattering on the window-panes.”—And the King shivered slightly on his sofa.

“But,” added the dame, “Monsieur de Beaugency loves me equally well.”

“Ah ha! the ambitious man!”

“ Ambition does not shut out love, Sire. Monsieur de Beaugency is a Marquis; he is twenty-five; he is ambitious. I should like a husband vastly who was longing to reach high offices of state. Greatness has its own particular merit.”

“Then marry Monsieur de Beaugency.”

“I have thought of that, also; but this

poor Monsieur de Menneval.”

“Very good,” exclaimed the King, laughing: “Now I see to what purpose the oranges are destined. Monsieur de Menneval pleases you; Monsieur de Beaugency would suit you just as well; and since one can’t have more than one husband, you make them each jump in turn.”

“ Just so, Sire. But observe what happens.”

“Ah, what does happen?”

“That, unwilling and unable to play unfairly, I take equal pains to catch the two oranges as they come down; and that I catch them both, each time.”

“Well, are you willing that I should take part in your game?”

“You, Sire’? Ah, what a joke that would be!”

“I am very clumsy, Marchioness. To a certainty, in less than three minutes Beaugency and Menneval will be rolling on the floor.”

“Ah!” exclaimed the lady; “and if you have any preference for one or the

other?”

“No; we’ll do better. Look, I take the two oranges . . . you mark them carefully—or, better still, you stick into one of them one of these toilet-pins, making up your own mind which of the two is to represent Monsieur de Beaugency, and leaving me, on that point, entirely in the dark. If Monsieur de Beaugency touch the floor, you shall marry his rival; if it happen just otherwise, you shall resign yourself to become an ambassadress.”

‘‘Excellent ! Now, Sire, let’s see the result.”

The King took the two oranges and plied shuttle with them above his head. But, at the third pass, the two rolled down upon the embroidered carpet, and the Marchioness broke out into a merry fit of laughter.

“I foresaw as much” exclaimed his Majesty. “What a clumsy fellow I am

“And we more puzzled than ever, Sire!”

“So we are, Marchioness; but the best thing we can do, is to slice the oranges, sugar them well, and season them with a dash of West India rum. Then you can beg me to taste them, and offer me some of those preserved cherries and peaches that you put up just as nicely as my daughter Adelaide.”

“And Monsieur de Menneval? and Monsieur de Beaugency?” said the Marchioness, in piteous accents. “How is the question to be settled?”

Louis XV. began to cogitate. “Are you quite sure,” said he, “that both of them are in love with you?”

“Probably so,” returned she, with a little coquettish smile, sent back to her from the mirror opposite.

“And their love is equally strong.

“I trust so, Sire.”

“And I don’t believe a word of it.”

“Ah!” said the Marchioness, “but that is, in truth, a most terrible supposition. Besides, Sire, they are on their way hither.”

“Both of them?”

“One after the other: the Marquis at one o’clock precisely; the Baron at two. I promised them my decision to-morrow, on condition that they would pay me a final visit to-day.”

As the Marchioness finished, the valet, who had announced the King, came to inform his mistress that Monsieur de Beaugency was in the drawing-room, and solicited the favor of admission to pay his respects.

“Capital!” said Louis XV., smiling as though he were eighteen; “show Monsieur de Beaugency in. Marchioness, you will receive him, and tell him the price that you set upon your hand.”

“And what is this price, Sire?”

“You must give him the choice—either to renounce you, or to consent to send in to me his resignation of his appointments, in order that he may go and bury himself with his wife on his estate of Courlac, in Poitou, there to live the life of a country gentleman.”

“And then, Sire?”

“You will allow him a couple of hours for reflection, and so dismiss him.”

“And in the end?”

“The rest is my concern.”—And the King got up, taking his dog and his gun, and concealed himself behind a screen, drawing also a curtain, that he might be completely hidden.

“What is your intention, Sire?” asked the Marchioness.

“I conceal myselg like the Kings of Persia, from the eyes of my subjects,” replied Louis XV. “hush! Marchioness.”

A few moments later, and Monsieur de Beaugency entered the room.

 

 

II.

 

The Marquis was a charming cavalier; tall, slight, with a moustache black and curling upwards, an eye sparkling and intelligent, a Roman nose, an Austrian lip, a firm step, a noble and imposing presence.

The Marchioness blushed slightly at sight of him, but offered him her hand to kiss; and as she begged him by a gesture to be seated, thus inwardly took counsel with herself.

“Decidedly, I believe that the test is useless; it is Monsieur de Beaugency whom I love. How proud shall I be to lean upon his arm at the court-fetes! With what delight shall I keep long watches in the cabinet of his Excellency the Ambassador, whilst he is busy with his Majesty’s affairs!”

But after this “aside.” the Marchioness resumed her gracious and coquettish air; as though the woman comprehended the mission of refined gallantry which was reserved for her seductive and delicate epoch by an indulgent Providence, that laid by its anger and its evil days for the subsequent reign.

“Marchioness,” said Monsieur de Beaugency, as he held in his hands the rosy fingers of the lovely widow, “it is fully a week since you received me!”

 “A week? why, you were here yesterday.”

“Then I must have counted the hours for ages.”

“A compliment which may be found in one of the younger Crebillon’s books!”

“You are hard upon me, Marchioness.”

“Perhaps so. It comes naturally. I am tired.”

Ah, Marchioness! Heaven knows that I would make of your existence one never-ending fate!”

“That would, at least, be wearisome.”

“Say a word, Madam, one single word, and my fortune, my future prospects, my ambition!”

“You are still then as ambitious as ever?”

“More than ever, since I have been in love with you.”

“Is that necessary?”

“Beyond a doubt. Ambition—what is it but honors, wealth, the envious looks of impotent rivals, the admiration of the crowd, the favor of monarchs? . . . And is not one’s love unanswerably and most triumphantly proved, in laying all this at the feet of the woman whom one adores?”

“You may be right.”

“I may be right, Marchioness! Listen to me, my fair lady-love.”

“I am all attention. sir.”

“Between us, who are well-born, and consort not with plebeians, that vulgar and sentimental sort of love which is painted by those who write books for your mantuamakers and chambermaids, would be in exceedingly bad taste. It would be but slighting love and making no account of its enjoyment, were we to go and bury it in some obscure corner of the Provinces, or of Paris—we, who belong to Versailles—living away there with it, in monotonous solitude and unchanging contemplation!”

 “Ah!” said the Marchioness. “think so you

“Tell me, rather, of fetes that dazzle one with lights, with noise, with smiles, with wit, through which one glides intoxicated, with the fair conquest in triumph on one’s arm. . . . Why hide happiness, in place of parading it? The jealousy of the world does but increase, and cannot diminish it. My uncle, the Cardinal, stands well at court. He has the King’s ear, and better still, the Countess’s. He will, ere long, procure me one of the Northern embassies. Cannot you fancy yourself; Madame the Ambassadress, treading on the platform of a drawing-room, as royalty with royalty, with the highest nobility of a kingdom—having the men at your feet, and the women on lower seats around you, whilst you yourself are occupant of a throne, and wield a sceptre?”

And as Monsieur de Beaugency warmed with his own eloquence, he gently slid from his seat to the knees of the Marchioness, whose hand he covered with kisses.

She listened to him, with a smile on her lips, and then abruptly said to him:

“Rise, sir, and hear me in turn. Are you in truth sincerely attached to me?”

“With my whole soul, Marchioness!”

“Are you prepared to make every sacrifice?”

“Every one, Madam.”

“That is fortunate indeed; for to be prepared for all, is to accomplish one, without the slightest difficulty; and it is but a single one that I require.”

“Oh, speak! Must a throne be conquered?”

“By no means, sir. You must only call to mind that you own a fine chateau in Poiton.”

“Pooh!” said Monsieur de Beaugency, “a shed.”

“Every man’s house is his castle.?’ replied the widow. “And having called it to mind, you need only order post-horses.”

“For what purpose?”

“To carry me off to Courlac. It is there that your almoner shall unite us, in the chapel, in presence of your domestics and your vassals, our only witnesses.”

“A singular whim, Marchioness; but I submit to it.”

“Very well. We will set out this evening. . . .Ah! I forgot.”

“What, further?”

“Before starting, you will send in your resignation to the King.”

Monsieur de Beaugency almost bounded from his seat.

“Do you dream of that, Marchioness?”

“Assuredly. You will not, at Courlac, be able to perform your duties at court.”

“And on returning?”

“We will not return.”

“We will—not—return!” slowly ejaculated Monsieur de Beaugency. “Where then shall we proceed?”

“Nowhere. We will remain at Courlac.”

“All the summer?”

“And all the winter. I count upon settling myself there, after our marriage. I have a horror of the court. I do not like the turmoil. Grandeur wearies me. . -I look forward only to a simple and charming country life, to the tranquil and happy existence of the forgotten lady of the castle What matters it to you? You were ambitious for my love’s sake.

I care but little for ambition; you ought to care for it still less, since you are in

love with me.”

“But, Marchioness—”

“Hush! it’s a bargain. . . . Still for form’s sake, I give you one hour to reflect. There, pass out that way; go into the winter drawing-room that you will find at the end of the gallery, and send me your answer upon a leaf of your tablets. I am about to complete my toilet, which I left unfinished, to receive you.”

And the Marchioness opened a door, bowed Monsieur de Beaugency into the corridor, and closed the door upon him.

“Marchioness” cried the King, from his hiding-place and through the screen, “you will offer Monsieur de Menneval the embassy to Prussia, which I promise you for him.”

“And you will not emerge from your retreat?”

“Certainly not, Madame; it is far more amusing to remain behind the scenes. One hears all, laughs at one’s ease, and is not troubled with saying any thing.”

It struck two. Monsieur de Menneval was announced. His Majesty remained snug, and shammed dead.

 

 

III.

 

Monsieur de Menneval was, at all points, a cavalier who yielded nothing to his rival, Monsieur de Beaugency. He was A Toss-up for a Husband. fair. He had a blue eye, a broad forehead, a mouth that wore a dreamy expression, and that somewhat pensive air which became so well the Troubadours of France in the olden time.

We cannot say whether Monsieur de Menneval had perpetrated verse; but he loved the poets, the arts, the quiet of the fields, the sunsets, the rosy dawn, the breeze sighing through the foliage, the low and mysterious tones of a harp, sounding at eve from the light bark shooting over the blue waters of the Loire—all things in short that harmonize with that melodious concert of the heart, which passes by the name of love.

He was timid, but he passionately loved the beautiful widow; and his dearest dream was of passing his whole life at her feet, in well chosen retirement, far from those envious lookers-on, who are ever ready to fling their sarcasms on quiet happiness, and who dissemble their envy under cloak of a philosophic scepticism.

He trembled, as he entered the Marchioness’s boudoir. He remained standing before her, and blushed as he kissed her hand. At length, encouraged by a smile, emboldened by the solemnity of this coveted interview, he spoke to her of his love, with a poetic simplicity and an unpremeditated warmth of heart—the genuine enthusiasm of a priest, who has faith in the object of his adoration.

And as he spoke, the Marchioness sighed, and said within herself:

“He is right. Love is happiness. Love is to be two indeed, but one at the same time; and to be free from those importunate intermeddlers, the indifference or the mocking attention of the world.”

She remembered, however, the advice of the King, and thus addressed the Baron.

“What will you indeed do, in order to convince me of your affection?”

“All that man can do.”

The Baron was less bold than Monsieur e Beaugency, who had talked of conquering a throne. He was probably more sincere.

“I am ambitious,” said the widow.

“Ah!” replied Monsieur de Menneval, sorrowfully.

“And I would that the man whom I marry, should aspire to every thing, and achieve every thing.”

“I will try so to do, if you wish it.”

“Listen; I give you an hour to reflect. I am, you know, the King’s god-daughter. I have begged of him an embassy for you.”

“Ah I” said Monsieur de Menneval, with indifference.

“lIe has granted my request. If you love me, you will accept the offer. We will be married this evening, and your Excellency the Ambassador to Prussia will set off for Berlin immediately after the nuptials. Reflect; I grant you an hour.”

“It is useless,” answered Monsieur de Menneval; “I have no need of reflection, for I love you. Your wishes are my orders: to obey you is my only desire. I accept the embassy.”

“Never mind!” said she, trembling with joy and blushing deeply. “Pass into the room, wherein you were just now waiting. I must complete my toilet, and I shall then be at your service. I will summon you.”

The Marchioness handed out the Baron by the right-hand door, as she had handed out the Marquis by the left; and then said to herself:

“I shall be prettily embarrassed, if Monsieur de Beaugency should consent to

end his days at Courlac!”

Thereupon, the King removed the screen and reappeared.

His Majesty stepped quietly to the round table, whereon he had replaced the oranges, and took up one of them.

“Ah 1” exclaimed the Marchioness, “I perceive, Sire, that you foresee the difficulty that is about to spring up, and go back accordingly to the oranges, in order to settle it.”

As his sole reply, Louis XV. took a small ivory-handled pen-knife from his waistcoat pocket, made an incision in the rind of the orange, peeled it off very neatly, divided the fruit into two parts, and offered one to the astonished Marchioness.

“But, Sire, what are you doing?” washer eager inquiry.

“You see that I am eating the orange.”

“But—”

“It was of no manner of use to us.”

“You have decided then?”

“Unquestionably. Monsieur de Menneval loves you better than Monsieur de Beaugency.”

“That is not quite certain yet; let us wait.”

“Look,” said the King, pointing to the valet, who entered with a note from the Marquis. “You’ll soon see.”

The widow opened the note, and read:

“Madam, I love you—Heaven is my witness; and to give you up is the most cruel of sacrifices. But I am a gentleman. A gentleman belongs to the King. My life, my blood are his. I cannot, without forfeit of my loyalty, abandon his service—”

 “Et cetera,” chimed in the King, “as was observed by the Abbe Fleury, my tutor. Marchioness call in Monsieur de Menneval.”

Monsieur de Menneval entered, and was greatly troubled to see the King in the widow’s boudoir.

“Baron,” said his Majesty, “Monsieur de Beaugency was deeply in love with the Marchioness; but he was more deeply still in love—since he would not renounce it, to please her—with the embassy to Prussia. And you, you love the Marchioness much better than you love me, since you would only enter my service for her sake. This leads me to believe that you would be but a lukewarm public servant, and that Monsieur de Beaugency will make an excellent ambassador. He will start for Berlin this evening; and you shall marry the Marchioness. I will be present at the ceremony.”

“Marchioness,” whispered Louis XV. in the ear of his god-daughter, “true love

is that which does not shrink from a sacrifice.”

And the King peeled the second orange and eat it, as he placed the hand of the widow in that of the Baron.

Then he added:

“I have been making three persons happy: the Marchioness, whose indecision I have relieved; the Baron, who shall marry her; and Monsieur de Beaugency, who will perchance prove a sorry ambassador. In all this, I have only neglected my own interests, for I have been eating the oranges without sugar And yet they pretend to say that I am a selfish Monarch!”

 

 

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