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In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
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page: 302

A WIDOW INDEED.

AMONG the moral gains of the last two centuries, is one which has, I think, never been sufficiently counted. We no longer tolerate the deliberate putting an end to human life for any imputed fault in politics or religion. But although we have ceased to commit the atrocity, we are apt to look at the self‐sacrifice of the victim through spectacles of enthusiasm which blind us to the tragedy it involved. Sir Thomas More went to his death triumphantly, but what of his orphaned household on the evening of that day? And Lady Rachel Russell stands out in history, a calm figure of devoted resignation, but the truth is that her first letter to Dr. FitzWilliam is hardly endurable to read, and that the gradual calming of her shaken nerve is one of the most touching records left us in our historic past. It is a great lesson for frail humanity to realize page: 303 that men are capable of inflicting such unwarrantable pain, for what man has done man may do.

French biographical history supplies us with a companion picture to that of Lady Rachel, and accident placed in my hands the story and the letters, which latter are absolutely unknown in England. The Maréchale‐Duchesse de Montmorency, whose real character can with patience be unearthed from the solemn diction of her biographer, and the strange old French of her own letters (a French anterior to that of Corneille and Racine, and not much later than that of the essays of Montaigne), is a figure well worth preserving. The original biography appears to have been published in 1684, sixteen years after her death, and was reprinted in Belgium at the beginning of this century, in 1824. It is probably impossible to find except on some old bookstall, and the antiquity of the story it relates may be imaginatively gauged by the fact that its heroine was a devoted friend of Madame de Sevigné’s grandmother. She is wrapt round in the printed pages by what may be figuratively termed the folds of a Veil of Devotion, under which it becomes a little difficult to realize the figure page: 304 of the adoring wife of Henri de Montmorency. Nevertheless we will try and discover what the poor young woman was really like, before age and bitter suffering had changed and chastened her almost beyond recognition.

Maria Felicia des Ursins was an Italian Princess, and the niece of Pope Sixtus the Fifth; she was born in Rome in the year 1600, when Elizabeth was ruling England in her old age, and the prosperous Shakespeare was adored by the play‐going people of London. Marie de Medicis had lately left Florence for Paris, to be the second wife of Henri the Fourth; the series of huge pictures constituting Rubens’ historic rhapsody, and now on the walls of the Louvre, show us the veritable form and face of one at least of the principal personages in the following story; the Royal Godmother; the Duchesse de Bracciano, mother of Felicia, was the cousin and intimate friend of Marie de Medicis, and would have accompanied the bride to Paris but for the expected birth of this youngest child. When the little girl was born, the Queen was godmother by proxy, the baptism took place at St. Peter’s, and the baby was, alas! destined to the grandeur page: 305 which beseemed the cousin of royalty. When she was four years of age she was given up to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, to be brought up under that lady’s care; her own mother, the Duchess of Bracciano, died three years later. Of her childhood we have a few scanty details—how she once told a lie about some apricots, and was greatly repentant, and how she nearly lost her life from an attack of small‐pox; the remedies inflicted by the Florentine doctors were truly horrible, nevertheless Felicia survived them, and at thirteen a marriage was arranged for her by the Queen of France, who betrothed her to Henri, Duc de Montmorency; he was five years older than herself, and the most accomplished of all the young French nobles. He was son and grandson to the two famous Constables de Montmorency, and had indeed been destined by his father for another bride, but the Queen had her own way; she sent the Marquis de Traynel to Florence with his wife to fetch Felicia, and the young Princess was married by proxy.

As soon as the ceremony was over, her father, the Duc de Bracciano, left secretly for Rome, page: 306 without bidding the poor little soul good‐bye. He wished to spare her the pangs of a farewell of which he knew the probable duration. Of all his many children, Felicia most resembled himself. But her brothers and her eldest married sister remained with her, and also the Princess Orsina, who seems to have been a trifle older than herself.

With the festivities mingled doubtless many tears, but they were cut short by the arrival of the French ships at Leghorn; and the young Duchess left her native Italy for ever, and, with a suitable train of attendants, set sail for Marseilles, where we learn that she visited several famous churches, and in particular the neighbouring grotto in which Mary Magdalene is said to have dwelt for many years in penitence. At Avignon she was met by her father‐in‐law, the old Constable de Montmorency, who received her most tenderly, but regretted to find her such a child. He left her on the borders of Dauphiné, to prepare the proper cortège for his son, and Felicia journeyed north, along the roads we know so well, though we now rush past them with lightning speed; and she finally reached Paris some days page: 307 before the young Duke. Marie de Medicis received her at the New Louvre, in that Pavilion du Roi which had been completed under Henri the Fourth. These noble rooms, long closed, are now shown to the public. The rest of the New Louvre is due to successive reigns. On the day when the young Duke was expected, Felicia took her station at one of the windows (doubtless the great window with the balcony upon the quay which looks across the Seine to Notre Dame and the Sainte Chapelle), and by her side was the Boy‐King Louis the Thirteenth, just a year younger than herself. Felicia this day was full of “extraordinary gaiety.” It is the only time we catch the glimpse of a smile enlivening her serious and passionate nature. Presently appeared the procession from Languedoc; a hundred of the best gentlemen of the province riding in splendid coaches, accompanying the extremely handsome young bridegroom, who was not quite twenty years of age; the bride being now in her fifteenth year. She was presented to him by the King, who said, “Here is my cousin. Behold the illustrious Italian. Is she not worthy of you? Are you not satisfied with her?” The page: 308 Queen‐mother also made a pretty speech, and the Duc de Montmorency, godson to the late King (the Grand Henri), replied suitably, as did the old Constable, his father. The young couple were solemnly and suitably married at the Louvre, and the King paid all the expenses of the splendid fête, Felicia being so nearly related to his mother.

And now began the singular romance which the old‐fashioned writer of this biography, evidently a priest of the seventeenth century, finds it difficult to tell in suitably, edifying words, although it is also whimsically evident that his human heart profoundly sympathized with the story he had to tell. Felicia, an exile from her family and her native land, and possessed of a soul naturally yearning towards unusual heights of religious devotion, received Henri de Montmorency as a special gift from heaven, and concentrated upon him all the passionate fervour of her nature. The Bishop of St. Pons, who had known her well at the Court, said of her many years after, that anyone, considering her character as it appeared to those among whom she lived, would never have supposed it possible that she could give her love to any man, had not page: 309 the evident object of her affection been actually visible in the person of her husband, She seemed to him, and to others, predestined to a life of prayer and good works, had not Henri de Montmorency intervened. It is a little difficult to translate the good bishop’s thought fully into common English, but it probably contained more than a kernel of truth. No children blessed the union, and she prayed incessantly for the heir that did not come, her husband consoling her by saying that if he had had a boy, he must have taken much more pains to save his money. Montmorency from the first regarded her with the highest esteem and admiration, but for some years he did not give her unmixed satisfaction. Her biographer treats this delicate subject with great reserve, saying that “he always loved her, but did not always love her only,” and that nevertheless his distractions were only “reprehensible amusements.” Felicia, under these troubled circumstances, showed unusual sense and courage for so young a wife. However much she was tormented by a natural jealousy, she exercised complete exterior self‐control, and at last literally conquered by prayer “this dear page: 310 husband (époux), whom alone she loved, and whose entire affection she herself desired.” And when at last Montmorency finally repented of his evil doings, he seasoned his repentance with a mild jest, saying, “My heart! if you cannot forget the past, think when you remember it, that if I had been better you would have shown less piety, for how many of your prayers would have then been left unsaid!” But he told everybody, especially the Court, that he owed his conversion to his wife, and that then, and in the future, she was the only woman for him.

It is impossible to understand the old French biographies without recognizing the double current of human passion and intense spiritual devotion. It meets the reader at every turn—sin and conviction of sin; failure and redress; the woman who leads “a youth of pleasure” not ending by “an old age of cards,” but on her knees in some convent; the man turning right round, and changing his ways in obedience to a call. French history is full of it. In Felicia’s young days we are told that she managed to lead a quiet life in Paris, even in the midst of “tumult and agitations.” Henri was there—“she saw him, page: 311 she possessed him, she was happy.” When he was obliged to go to Languedoc to his government, she returned to Chantilly, “that she might think more freely about him and pray for his preservation.” When he was seized with a contagious fever, she rushed down to Languedoc to nurse him, and here she had what she considered a distinct answer to prayer. One night, when he seemed to be sinking from hour to hour, the Duchess went into a cabinet adjacent to his room, and falling on her knees, cried, “My God! my God! wilt thou take him from me?” and hardly had the words left her lips, than an unknown voice replied very distinctly, “No, not now” (non pas pour cette fois).

The Marquis de Portés, a friend who had braved the contagious fever, tried to prevent her re‐entering the room. He believed the Duke to be at the very moment of death, and he held out the will, probably as a sign that all was over. She brushed past the Marquis, saying that her husband would not die. She hushed the prayers for the dying which were being recited round his bed, and in an hour the Duke awoke as if from a profound sleep.

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And now how shall the rest of the story be told? I pass over the many details of the way in which Felicia dealt with the immense complicated household of the great Seigneur. How she kept the gentlemen in check and ruled the gentlewomen, and did constant acts of charity; and how from the age of nineteen her health became very delicate, and how she never allowed scandal to be talked in her presence, and how the young King said he wished all the young Court ladies were as modest as Mme. de Montmorency. The portrait is stippled in with many words.

And as this is a short story of the wife and not of the husband, I will not enter into the politics of the troubled time further than to explain their effect on the Duke’s career. He continued to be Governor of Languedoc, and she to do the social honours of that great position for some years longer.

In 1629 she was obliged to leave him and take the long, fatiguing journey to Paris, that she might hold her nephew, the young Prince de Conti, at the baptismal font. The godfather was Cardinal Richelieu. After the ceremony a great fête was held at the Hôtel de Mont‐ page: 313 morency Montmorency , attended by the King and all the great nobility. It was still a youthful Court; the Duchess, whose age marched with the century, was just nine‐and‐twenty, the King was eight‐and‐twenty, and her husband thirty‐four.

A small war was now got up by the French king against Piedmont and Savoy, in which Montmorency is said to have covered himself with glory by his feats in the field; and Louis, who had accompanied his army, wrote to the Queen‐mother that Montmorency had not only won a battle, but had wounded the Italian Prince Doria, making him prisoner, and had also taken nineteen flags. All this so terrified Felicia, that she persuaded the King to recall her husband from the war, and the latter promised her that he would so organize the government of Languedoc as to live more in Paris, and also at Chantilly, where he now began to spend great sums of money over that splendid château which was eventually destroyed at the French Revolution, and which in our own days was rebuilt by the Duc d’Aumale. But vain were all these projects, evil days were coming on the Montmorencys, concerning which I find in the old page: 314 book a most extraordinary prophecy, which at the time was kept carefully from the Duchess by all concerned.

The Duke, passing through Avignon with Marshal de Schomberg, was told of a holy monk who when at his prayers was seen to be elevated above the ground. There is a well‐known picture in the Louvre of a similar occurrence, in which the monk is represented as peeling carrots in the convent kitchen while engaged meanwhile in interior prayer. The two nobles went to the convent at Avignon, saw the monk hovering in the air, and tried to kiss his feet. Marshal de Schomberg was allowed to perform the act of homage, but when Montmorency approached, the feet were withdrawn from his lips, at which he was greatly alarmed, supposing that the hindrance could only be accounted for by some forgotten sin on his own part. But on being interrogated by the superior of the convent, the monk replied that he could not allow his feet to be kissed by “a man predestined so soon to enter into the glory of the saints.” The reply was carefully kept secret from the subject of the prophecy, and remained untold until after his death.

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This journey to the South of France was the last undertaken by the hapless man; his wife had insisted on accompanying him, but when she reached Beziers, a town not far from Montpellier, she fell violently ill with acute rheumatism, which was attributed to her having, when lately in Lyons, spent her nights at her window, watching for the couriers, during the anxieties of the Italian War. And what was worse and more alarming was the intelligence that Gaston of Orleans, the King’s rebellious brother, had returned to France from the Spanish Netherlands. The quarrel was a complicated one; Marie de Medicis sided with her younger son, and Richelieu with the King; Richelieu’s chief object being to lower the influence of the great feudal nobles; and, as is well known, he succeeded in giving to the monarchy that fatal supremacy which long afterwards was one great source of the Revolution. It was sorely against his wife’s wish that Montmorency took the side of Gaston, and it is difficult to understand how he can have so utterly miscalculated. Ill as she was, she put forth her whole strength to induce him to change his mind, but in vain. One night he pacified page: 316 her by going to bed in an adjoining room, after wishing her a tender good‐night, but he presently got up softly and secretly, and went off to meet the conspirators. On another occasion after he had so deceived her, she insisted on leaving her sick‐bed three times, and had herself carried into his room. to see if he were safe, and each time she found him there; his hour had not yet come; and the third time she besought him in the tenderest way to give up his designs, which she assured him “he could not carry out without causing her death of grief.” He wept and caressed and cajoled her, but she saw through him only too well. No other human being was now anything to him but his wife Felicia, yet not even for her would he renounce his ambition. On the 24th of August, 1632, he came for the last time and sat by her bedside; he told her he hoped finally to reconcile Gaston with the King, talked of things he meant to do on his return, and told her that he felt sure of success. The poor woman could do nothing and could say no more; she could only weep upon her pillow, and when Henri had at last got out of the room he was so agonized that page: 317 he fainted away. He was afterwards heard praying amidst his sobs—praying for his wife’s temporal welfare and for the safety of his own soul, “que mon salut eternel ne perisse point avec ma vie.” And he was gone.

The end came very quickly. In one of the first engagements with the troops of the King, Montmorency received eighteen wounds and was taken prisoner. It may be thought it would have been happier for him if he had died on the field of battle, and assuredly to Felicia it would have been a far lesser shock; but the intervening weeks gave him the opportunity of making a singularly pious and resigned end. When the écuyer sent by his unhappy wife came to his bedside, the surgeons were dressing his wounds, and Montmorency said, “Tell your mistress how numerous and how severe are the wounds you have beheld, and assure her that which I have caused to her heart is the cruellest of all to me.” And he wrote this letter with his own hands:—

“MY HEART,—I have been singularly consoled by the sight of Maurins. I had already written what the surgeons thought of my wounds. I assure you that they are exactly as he will de‐ page: 318 scribe them to you, and the sharpest pain I feel in my unhappy condition is the thought of your grief. Arise above it for the love of me, I beseech you, since I was not killed, and God does all for the best. Adieu. Je suis tout votre. describe

“MONTMORENCY.”

The next page contains a curious and pathetic record of how the poor Duchess was tossed backwards and forwards in the throes of a heart and conscience almost too delicate for this world’s work. She refused to attempt to corrupt the guards, and she gives a strange hint of wishing to fly into Italy and let it be thought she was dead; she seems to have imagined that if Montmorency was supposed to be a widower his life might be saved by a royal alliance, but she knew that this would be a sinful thing to do. Somebody suggested recourse to witchcraft, and the possible help of the devil, but to this also Felicia turned a deaf ear; she would not risk her husband’s soul for his temporal safety. At last his friends determined to try and save him without letting the Duchess know their ways and means; they were foiled, because he was so weakened by the loss of blood as to be constantly fainting away, and it was impossible page: 319 to make any plans involving personal exertion on the part of the prisoner. All this is very obscurely told, for when the biography was originally put together only fifty‐two years had elapsed since the catastrophe, and it is probable that some of the people concerned were still alive. In the meantime the different members of the royal family, and many of the great nobility, tried hard to save Montmorency, and the wretched Gaston, who had been the tempter and caused all the misery, implored the clemency of the King, but in vain. Louis the Thirteenth, inspired by Richelieu, left the Duke to be tried by the parliament of Languedoc, “according to the laws of the State,” which meant death. The prisoner pleaded guilty, was at once condemned, and turned every thought of his heart to the ordinances of his religion. He died with perfect courage and resignation, at the age of thirty‐seven; supremely dear to one poor woman’s heart, dear to his sister the Princess de Condé, dear to France, which regarded him as a national hero, and regretted by the whole of Europe in an age when Europe was more vitally united than she is now. This is his last letter to his wife:—

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“MY DEAR HEART,—I bid you a last farewell with an affection as deep as that which has always been between us. I conjure you by the repose of my soul, which I trust will soon be in heaven, to accept this affliction from the gentle hand of our Saviour. I have received such graces from His goodness that you can feel that you have every subject of consolation. Adieu once again, my dear heart. MONTMORENCY.”

The intelligence that the execution had taken place was brought to Felicia by two Capuchin fathers, who were reluctantly persuaded to precede the government commissioners. They entered her room in profound silence and found her sitting in a passion of tears; but no sooner did she see them than she suddenly became quiet, saying afterwards that she felt as if Almighty God had seized her in a firm grasp, “and as one whom another was tightly holding to avoid any possibility of motion,” and she then and there made three resolutions, firstly to embrace the religious life as soon as she was free to do so, secondly to follow strictly step by step whatever appeared to be the will of God, page: 321 thirdly to make a sacrifice of every feeling of resentment; and when, as she interiorly uttered this last promise, the remembrance of a gesture of her fatal enemy Cardinal Richelieu rushed into her mind, she heard a voice saying imperiously, “Je veux que cela meure aujourd’hui.”

Madame de Montmorency survived her husband for thirty‐four years, but though she was nearly sixty before she was able to carry out her desire of taking the veil, her life was so associated with the order of the Visitation that it is difficult to describe it in a manner interesting to the general reader. She was for some time kept in a kind of royal imprisonment in the Château of Moulins, where her brother the Père des Ursins, a bare‐footed Carmelite, came to visit her, and when at last she was set free by the King’s decree, she made up her mind not to leave that town. Her brother stayed with her for two months, and was to her an immense consolation; with his approval she acquired a large house next door to the Convent of Saint Marie de Moulins and obtained permission to open a door of communication. Here she kept up a large household of retainers suitable to her rank, and page: 322 though she lived personally according to a strict religious rule, she was obliged to keep up much intercourse with the outer world. Anne of Austria wrote her a very affectionate letter, and Gaston wrote her another which cost her many bitter tears. He told her he was coming to see her, and she consented to receive him. In this she strictly obeyed her husband’s dying injunctions to pardon the direct and indirect authors of his condemnation.

Ten years after her husband’s death, Louis the Thirteenth passed through Moulins, and Madame de Montmorency, who was in church with the nuns, heard the drums and trumpets which announced the arrival of the King, and wept at the sound, but had the self‐command to continue quietly saying her prayers. Both the King and Richelieu sent a messenger to the woman whose earthly happiness they had ruined. She spoke to both of these, saying to the first, “Sir, I beg of you to tell the King that I have been much surprised that his Majesty yet remembers such an unhappy creature, and one so unworthy of the honour.” And to the second messenger she said, “Sir, you will say if you please to your master that my tears speak for me, and that I page: 323 am his very humble servant,” but neither the King nor Richelieu dared to present themselves before her. And when on the 4th of the December of that same year she received the news of the death of Richelieu, she opened the letter and read it in perfect silence. She then folded up the letter, telling none but the Superior of the news which it contained, and as soon as the hour of recreation was ended and she had returned to her own rooms, she made up several rolls of money, which she sent round to the different churches of the town and ordered Masses to be said for the repose of her enemy’s soul.

Madame de Montmorency caused a wonderfully beautiful tomb to be erected over her husband many years after his death; and she obtained permission to have his coffin brought from the South of France to Moulins. It was opened in the presence of officers sent by her, who found his body embalmed and in the same state as when first he was laid in the grave. It was borne through France in a chariot covered with a great pall of black velvet, and drawn by eight horses in funeral trappings. The Queen had written to the Duchess to beg her that this should page: 324 be done very quietly, and the cortège avoided passing through any of the great towns of Languedoc; but in Limousin, one of his old friends, M. Soudheilles, seeing it approach near to one of his estates, called together the nobility of the neighbouring country, who went out in a procession to meet it. It was brought into Moulins at night and the coffin laid where the splendid monument can be seen to this day.¹

Madame de Montmorency was a seer of visions, and quite convinced that her Henri appeared to her three separate times, to her immense consolation. At one moment she made the sacrifice of all the letters he had ever written to her except those dated from prison. She wished to forget the too poignant sense of loss. She was an old woman of sixty‐six when she was called to rejoin him in perfect faith. I trust that the story of her life‐long grief, and the way in which she bore it, may not be without some interest to the modern world.


¹ This monument was spared at the Revolution, as having been erected in honour of a man put to death by a king.

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