No better description can be found of the court of Louis XIV. than the few famous sentences of La Bruyère: “There is a region in which joys are visible, but they are false, and sorrows hidden, but they are real. Who would believe that the eagerness about brilliant shows, the bursts of laughter and of applause at the theatres of Molière and of Harlequin; that the feastings, the huntings, the ballets, the carrousels, could conceal so much uneasiness, so many cares, and such various interests, so many fears and hopes, passions so keen, and affairs so important ? ”
Madame de Montespan, whose position made her doubly conspicuous, was one of the most characteristic figures in this little world. Her joys were visible, but they were false ; her sorrows hidden, but real. This common fate, and many of the qualities that distinguish her, were also shared by a group of women near her, — women of her own family, from whom she was less widely removed, in the eyes of her contemporaries, than we perhaps usually imagine.
Each and all of these women, in their degree, were so marked an expression of their time that the observation of their individual personalities becomes very interesting; and, in fact, Madame de Montespan cannot be understood intelligently if considered by herself alone. It is as surrounded by her sisters and her daughters that she stands smiling on destroying Time, with her immortal courtesy of bearing and free gracefulness of gay demeanor blended with something of insolent haughtiness. One who pauses for a moment delays long to contemplate the group.
It must be looked at in several successive phases to be seen in full. As it first became of importance it consisted of Madame de Montespan, in the days when she was the king’s mistress, and of her two sisters, the Abbess of Fontevrault and Madame de Thianges. Much goes to indicate that Madame de Montespan drifted into the position she occupied at this time ; that she did not assume it of her own will, but even unwillingly. Saint-Simon believed that she was thrown into the king’s arms by the blind carelessness of her husband; and Madame de Caylus, the niece, and the loyal and familiar niece, of Madame de Maintenon, says of the superb Vashti: “ Far from being dissolute by nature, the character of Madame de Montespan was originally alien to galanterie, and inclined to virtue. [Madame de Caylus believed the fonds of her character to be personal ambition.] Her project had been to govern the king by the power of her brilliancy. She had flattered herself that she could be not only mistress of herself, but of the king’s passion. . . . The result was more natural. . . . She was in despair, as I have said, at the coming of their first child : she was consoled before the second arrived ; and afterward carried shamelessness as far as it could go.”
She was at the height of her splendor when Madame de Sévigné saw her, one day in July, 1676, at Versailles. Going thither with her friends, the Villars, the father and mother of the famous marshal, and, at three o’clock, entering “that beautiful apartment of the king,” which is “so divinely furnished, in all respects magnificent,” she found herself one of an agreeable gathering — without crowd — of all that was most select, and exchanging courtesies with every one. The king bowed to her most graciously; the queen spoke to her, and so also did Madame de Montespan. Madame de Sévigné writes : —
“ She was modesty itself [je lui trou-vai le dos bien-plat], but, seriously, her beauty is something surprising, and her figure, too, which is not half as stout as it was, while her complexion, her eyes, her lips, are as fine as ever. Her dress was wholly of point de France; her hair was dressed in a thousand curls, the two at the temples falling very low on her cheeks; black ribbons on her head, the pearls of the Maréchale de l’Hospital ["larger than those of the queen,” says Mademoiselle in her Mémoires], and added to them diamond clasps and pendants of the greatest beauty, three or four jeweled pins; no coif; in a word, a triumphal beauty to win admiration from all the ambassadors.” She pictures delightfully the card-playing, the music, and the talking that went on in this gay assemblage : " The talk is incessant; nothing remains unspoken ” (rien ne demeure snr le cœur) ; and then continues: “At six o’clock they get into chariots; [in one] the king, Madame de Montespan, Monsieur, Madame de Thanges, and, on the step-seat, the excellent Madame d’Heudicourt, as if in Paradise. . . . You know how these chariots are arranged. The people in them do not sit opposite each other, but all the same way. The queen was in another with the princesses, and every one troops after according to fancy. They float on the canal in gondolas with music. They return at ten, when a play is acted. Midnight strikes; supper is served.” And so the festive day comes to an end.
It was a year earlier than this that Madame de Montespan went by water, in all magnificence, to meet the king returning from a victorious campaign. She was “ in a painted and gilded barge, furnished in red damask, . . . with a thousand ciphers, a thousand streamers of France and Navarre. Never was anything more splendid. . . . She embarked [at Moulins] on the Allier to take the Loire at Nevers, which will carry her to Tours, and then to Fontevrault, where she will await the king’s return.”
It was not merely with the charms of Cleopatra or Armida, or those of the fairy “ Niquée,”— to whom both Madame Sévigné and Saint-Simon compare her, — that she held the admiration of Louis. Charming wit, delightful powers of conversation, added flavor and quality to this radiant beauty. Madame de Caylus says that “ her talk gave charm to the most serious subjects, and ennobled the most common.” La Grande Mademoiselle (Mademoiselle de Montpensier, the king’s cousin) describes her, in 1671 (before her relations with the king were acknowledged), during a sojourn of the court at Tournay, as full of vivacity. “ She went often to a benevolent establishment for little girls to see them at their work. In the evening, with the queen, she would tell us all she had seen, imitating the children in the most amusing way in the world. The queen showed her much friendship, and took great pleasure in her society.”
Madame de Caylus again says : “ She had been perfectly well educated by a mother of the greatest piety, who sowed in her heart, from her earliest childhood, seeds of religion which she never did away with.” And elsewhere: “Madame de Montespan had qualities not at all common, greatness of soul and elevation of mind. She showed it in the suggestions she made to the king regarding the education of Monseigneur. She did not consider merely present times, but the idea posterity would conceive of this education from the choice made of those who were to conduct it.” Saint-Simon speaks in general terms of her regard for worthy people, and her entire freedom from levity in matters of religion.
About lighter matters, too, points of taste and such like, her praises are sung. Mademoiselle describes a present the king made to the Dauphiness on her marriage, — “ the prettiest thing in the world,” she says. “ It was a coffer mounted in gold, in which there were all sorts of jewels and trinkets [to the amount of 50,000 livres, states another chronicler], and trimmed gloves which Madame de Montespan had taken pleasure in trimming. She had much enjoyed arranging the whole thing.”
She gave evidence of more artistic taste in a superb volume she had made for the king as a New Year’s gift. Dangeau says : “ Madame de Montespan made a present to the king, in the evening, after supper, of a book bound in gold, and full of miniature paintings representing all the cities of Holland which the king took in 1672. [She had been with him there in 1671.] . . . Racine and Despréaux have written the text for it, and have added an Éloge of his Majesty. . . . Nothing was ever seen richer, better executed, or more agreeable.”
It was in sympathy with her, and in admiration of her beauty, wit, taste, and splendor, that her two sisters drew close to Madame de Montespan on terms of simple good-fellowship, which her glory made extremely agreeable, all the more that her affection for them was sincere and cordial, and that the king became their personal friend. In truth, the relation between the sisters and the king was from first to last of a singularly free and familiar nature; in conversation, at least, they met on the footing of equals, or even the balance of superiority swayed to the feminine side. Their esprit was delightful: its note was the same as that of Madame de Montespan ; its character was universally recognized, and was so unique that it became known by the name of their family and distinguished as “ the Mortemart brilliancy.” Saint-Simon speaks of its " peculiar, delicate, and exquisite quality. always natural and always agreeable,” and adds, “ One still perceives with pleasure this charming and simple quality in those persons yet living whom they brought up, and to whom they were attached ; among a thousand others they can be distinguished in the most common conversations.” Madame de Maintenon, praising a granddaughter of Madame de Montespan says, “ Elle s’exprime en Mortemart.”
The “ queen of abbesses,” Madame de Fontevrault, came from time to time out of her cloister, still invested with her veil and her vows, but possessing even more esprit, and some thought even more beauty, than Madame de Montespan, and took her place, in all the private (but not the public) gaieties of the king, with Madame de Thianges and the most choice selection of all the ladies of the court; but always maintained extreme personal demeanor in these places and parties where her attire seemed so little to belong. That she was “ very learned ” is testified by more than one authority. She seems to have been familiar not only with Italian and Spanish, but to have written and spoken Latin easily ; and also to have had some slight knowledge of Greek,— enough to undertake a version of Plato with the aid of a Latin translation. This was sent by her to Racine, who rewrote some part of it ; and in 1732 it was published under the title " Le Banquet de Platon, traduit un tiers par feu Monsieur Racine de l’Académie française, et le reste par Madame . . .” About the same time (thirty years after her death) there was published a little paper of hers on Politeness (la politesse) ; but she read more than she wrote. Madame de Caylus says of her: “There could not be combined in the same person more reason, wit, and learning ; and her learning was really a consequence of her reason. Having no natural inclination for convent life [religieuse sans vocation], she sought an interest suitable to her position ; but her acquisitions cost her nothing of her native qualities.”
She was even a good theological scholar, according to Saint-Simon. “ She had also,” he declares, “ remarkable talents for governing, an ease and a facility which made her regard merely as play the guidance of all her order,1 and of many great matters into which she entered, where it is true her position much contributed to success. She was very regular and very exact, but with such sweetness, such graces, such ways, as made her adored at Fontevrault and by her whole order. Her least letter’s were things to keep; her ordinary conversation, even if about matters of business or discipline, was charming; and her addresses before the chapter on fête days were admirable. Her sisters loved her passionately [with periods of hot coolness], and notwithstanding their imperiousness of disposition, increased by the height of favor, they showed real deference to her. . . . The king felt for her an esteem and regard and friendship which neither the fall of Madame de Montespan nor the rise of Madame de Maintenon could diminish. [When she died] he truly mourned her, and solaced himself by showing his regret; he gave her abbey to her niece, her brother’s daughter, a nun of the house and a person of high merit.”
Madame de Thianges was very different from the abbess; she was the eldest of the three by ten years, and she lorded it over her sisters, and even over the king, whom she amused almost better than the others could. Madame deSévigné writing in later days (1685) from the country to her daughter at court, says, “You shall tell me some day about the gaiety of those great dinners, and what story Madame de Thianges chose to amuse the company with, for she knows more than one.” Twenty-five years earlier, Somaize, in his Dictionnaire des Précieuses, describes her as one of the most agreeable women of the court, adding, “ But there is no reason for surprise at this, since she is the daughter of Metrobarzane [the Due de Mortemart].” 2 He continues: “ Tisimene [the précieux name of Madame de Thianges] has retained her father’s love of letters and regard for men of letters, whom she looks on with good will, provided they have some gaiety; for over - melancholy things displease her.” Earlier still (in 1657), two years after her marriage, this quatrain was Written on her : —
Le moyen de vous oublier
Lorsque partout on entend publier
Qu’en beautez, en vertuz, vous passez pour un ange ? ”
But it was not as un ange (rhymesuggested) that she appeared to Mademoiselle de Montpensier, la Grande Mademoiselle, when, in this same year (1657), she was the guest of Mademoiselle. Her hostess calls her “ une fort plaisante créature,” and reports that “ she led at Saint-Fargeau the most ridiculous life in the world. She did not rise from her bed till she was told that I had sent for dinner ; she came to the table in very negligent dress, and often with disheveled hair. She used to say, ‘ don’t mind being found looking so by the people who come to see Mademoiselle: those who know anything will attribute my lack of ceremony to familiarity ; fools will think me a crazy woman, for which I don’t care a bit.’ It got to be a way of hers [elle arrivoit assez de manière à cela]; for she would have to be sent for twenty times, and all the pages and footmen in the house would be after her, and sometimes three or four pages bringing her her dress, — she laughing at it all. As she likes extremely to sit up late, when I had gone to bed (which was not early, for she made me sometimes stay up till two o’clock, listening to her talk), she would go into her chamber and play little games with her women and my pages and valets, till four or five in the morning ; sometimes she had little repasts. The next morning she would tell us about it as if these doings had been the finest in the world.”
A little later, Mademoiselle gives in great detail the story of a quarrel on the part of Madame de Thianges with the Chevalier de Bethune, which began by her taking her busk ” and breaking with it a glass from which he was just about to drink, spilling the wine all over him. This not sufficiently relieving her excitement, she came to Mademoiselle in tears of anger to demand punishment for the chevalier, — “ a very civil youth, who was only too courteous to ladies.” “ I told her,” says Mademoiselle, “ to go to bed, and not to cry so, and that I would attend to the matter.” “She was horribly exasperated [elle avoit un déchaînement horrible] against the chevalier; ” but Mademoiselle induced him to beg her pardon, and “ when her good humor returned she told us that she sacrificed her resentment to God, and that it was that obliged her to pardon. She said wonderful things to us about piety ; she had had an admirable access of it that year at Christmas. I give that name to this good impulse because it did n’t last long.”
In 1674 (seventeen years later) Madame de Sévigné writes of her : “ M. de Grignan spoke truly in saying that Madame de Thianges no longer wears rouge, and that she covers her bosom. She is scarcely recognizable in this disguise ; but nothing is more a fact. She is often with Madame de Longueville, and in the full fashion of piety. She is always in very good company, and is not solitary. The other day I was near her at dinner : a servant offered her a large glass of liqueur ; she said to me, Madame, this man does not know that I am pious.’ That made us laugh. She spoke very naturally of her good intentions and of her change; she keeps a watch on what she says about others, and when anything escapes her she suddenly checks herself, and exclaims with detestation of the bad habit.3 For my part, I find her more charming than she was.”
Her sister, Madame de Fontevrault was not of this mind. She wrote at this time to Madame de Sablé (her longtime friend, though between forty and fifty years older than herself): “I begin to believe that she makes it a point of conscience to treat me ill, seeing that this flying out at me [déchaînement] began almost at the same time as her devoutness, and that it continues without my being able to divine the grounds of it.” Six months later, the abbess recurs to the subject of her sister’s “ devoutness,” saying, “ It seems to me it might be very real if she quitted the court; but I cannot believe that one can maintain in that region a life as austere as should be that of true Christians.”
As long as she lived, even after the departure from court of Madame de Montespan, unique privileges and distinctions were hers there. She had at Versailles a magnificent apartment adjoining that of Monseigneur, where the princes and princesses, her nephews and nieces, by whom she was both loved and feared, and all the other most distinguished people at the court, constantly visited her.
She was folle on two points, Madame de Caylus says, — her own personal appearance and her family, being equally proud of both. “ As to her person, she considered herself a chef d’œuvre of nature, not so much for external beauty as for the delicacy of the organs that composed her body ; and, uniting the two points of her insanity, she believed that her beauty and the perfection of her temperament arose from the difference which birth had made between her and the world in general.”
An early portrait of her (1658), executed after the fashion of the time by Mademoiselle, touches with caricature these same outlines. It is written in the character of the subject herself, who thus is presented as saying: “I have the air belonging to my birth; that is to say, of a woman of very high rank. . . . The alliances of my house permit me to believe that I am descended from Rosanire, daughter of Policandre, king of the Picts ; judge from this whether I have not a fine manner, and whether I do not carry myself nobly. People do battle with me because of this ; but such battles are not unpleasant. ... I am on as familiar terms with the lower classes as that princess was from whom I have the honor of descending.” Mademoiselle had implied previously that the princess sometimes forgot her high estate and enjoyed the frolics of a shepherdess : this is evidently a “ skit ” at the midnight revelries of Madame de Thianges while at Saint-Fargeau, which it is clear seemed very undignified to the granddaughter of Henri IV., who never forgot her birth, even in her not infrequent hours of extravagant action and feeling. The portrait continues : “It is said that my eyes are beautiful and sweet, and opinion about their glances is dependent on whether I am liked or no. I have a beautiful mouth and teeth and a charming laugh, a beautiful bosom, admirable hands. My manner is melancholy, although I have an extremely gay disposition. . . . I have a very agreeable and entertaining mind, and rarely is dullness to be found where I am ; at least, the granddaughter of the great Euric [Queen Christina of Sweden, who much admired Madame de Thianges] has often told me so. I dance badly ; and in that I resemble neither my great-grandmother, nor my great-great-grandmother, nor my grandmother of five generations back. There is no song [chanson] that I do not know. My memory is unrivaled, and if I had chosen to employ it about more solid things perhaps it would have been not less useful ; but as we know that, according to the common saying, memory and judgment are inharmonious, the world may think as it chooses about this. . . . Finally, to sum up, I think there is much more that is good than bad about me.”
If she was at all beautiful in youth, in later years she must have had a deplorable appearance, for Saint-Simon describes her thus, with a freedom not to be repeated if it were not so strange a picture : “ She was blear-eyed and wore a shade of green silk, and under her chin a great linen bib. It was not needless, for she drooled incessantly and greatly. In this attire, she seemed from her air and her manners the queen of the world; and every evening, with her bib and her green shade, she was carried in a chair to the top of the little stairway of the king, entered his private apartments, and was there with him and his family, seated in an armchair, from after supper till the king’s bed-hour. . . . There she engrossed the conversation [tenoit dé], disputing, often bitterly, with the king, who liked to irritate her. . . . Sometimes, in anger, she abused him, and the more the king laughed the greater grew her fury.” The king allowed himself other liberties with her, of a less pardonable kind and stranger still. She and Mademoiselle were very fastidious in eating. “ The king found pleasure in putting hairs in their butter and their tarts, and playing off on them other odious tricks of this kind. They would scream and be sick, and he would laugh heartily. Madame de Thianges would be for going, would scold the king [chantoit pouilles au roi] without restraint, and sometimes across the table would pretend to throw these nastinesses in his face.” What a picture ! Louis le Grand ! the majestic monarch!
These scenes were after the departure from court of Madame de Montespan, whose beauty, wit, taste, and splendor had paled under the cloud stealthily and treacherously cast upon her by her sombre rival. But in her downfall there was, as Sainte-Beuve has remarked, a certain dignity and even stateliness ; the “ esprit Mortemart ” saved appearances to the last. On the other hand, never was more conspicuous the coldness of nature of both those two consummate egotists, Louis and Madame de Maintenon.
The final and complete separation of the king from Madame de Montespan, with whom his relations had long been only those of courtesy, was chiefly brought about by Bossuet, who abhorred her presence at court if only as a continual and visible reminder of past immoralities. But Madame de Maintenon’s hatred of her former benefactress was deeper and more subtle than that of the eloquent moralist, and it was through her influence that the fatal blow was dealt by the immediate hand of Madame de Montespan’s eldest (illegitimate) son, the Duc du Maine, whom Madame de Maintenon bad stolen from his mother, and converted into her enemy as selfishly as she had her royal lover. Mere boy as he was in age, he felt, with the instincts of a born courtier, that his mother had become an embarrassing weight on his fortunes, while from his former governess he could hope and expect all things; and consequently he gladly himself carried to Madame de Montespan the order, the very positive order, of the king which imposed on her permanent exile from the court.
She withdrew to Paris, to the community of Les Filles de Saint-Joseph, which she had founded; but in her restless unhappiness she could not remain there, and she wandered hither and yon, — to the baths at Bourbon, to Fontevrault, and to her son, her Montespan son, the Duc d’Antin, with whom readers of Sainte - Beuve are familiar as le parfait courtisan. Her children, whom she passionately loved, were, with the exception of M. du Maine, most dutiful to her, and unfailing in attentions. " It were little to say,” declares Saint-Simon, “ that she had influence over them ; it was authority, and she used it unhesitatingly. She made them gifts continually, both from affection and to preserve their attachment, and also to keep open this connection with the king, who had no sort of intercourse with her, even through their children.” Both she and her children for long, weary years were constantly hoping for the death of Madame de Maintenon, and for her own consequent return to favor.
The three children of Madame de Montespan who form this group are, Madame la Duchesse, married to the grandson of the great Condé; the Duchesse d’Orléans, wife of the king’s nephew, son of Monsieur; and the Comte de Toulouse.
The eldest, Madame la Duchesse, was the most like her mother, with not less charm, but with even less worth. Our constant authority, Saint-Simon, thus describes her : —
“ With a figure slightly, but scarcely perceptibly, twisted, her face suggested the most tender passions, and her nature was such as to play with them at her will without being governed by them. All modes of pleasure seemed to belong to her. At ease with every one, she had the art of giving ease to each. There was nothing in her that did not, with unequaled grace in her slightest actions, turn naturally to pleasing, with a wit just as natural, that had a thousand charms. She loved nobody ; yet, while this was recognized, one could not prevent one’s self from seeking her favor, nor persuade one’s self, even persons the most remote from her, that one had failed to win it. Even the people who had most grounds for fearing her she fascinated, and those who had the most reasons for hating her had need to recall them often to resist her charms. Never the least ill humor under any circumstances. Playful, gay, agreeable, with the most delicate wit, invulnerable to surprises and contretemps, free in moments of the most perplexing and constraining incidents, she passed her youth in frivolity and pleasure of every kind, which, as often as she could, she carried to debauchery.”
“ With these qualities,” continues this pitiless exposition, “ with much intelligence and ability for political intrigue and affairs, with a subtlety which cost her nothing, but with little power of managing matters of long continuance, she was contemptuous, mocking, biting, incapable of friendship, very capable of hate, and then malicious, proud, implacable, fruitful in black designs and in the most cruel chansons, with which she gayly smothered people whom she seemed to love, and who were constantly with her. In her was to be seen the siren of the poets; such charms and dangers were hers. With age came ambition, but the taste for pleasure still remained, and the appearance of frivolous interests served for a long time to mask serious purposes.”
Madame de Grignan wrote of her : — “ She has the prettiest, the most brilliant, the most charming little visage I ever saw in my life; and her wit is sharp, amusing, frolicsome, to the last point. Nothing is droller than to be present at her toilet, and to see her dress her hair. I was there the other day. She woke soon after midday, put on her dressing-gown, and set about dressing her hair and eating her panada [un pain au pot]. She herself curls and powders her hair, and eats at the same time; the same fingers are busy alternately with the puff and the panada ; she eats her powder and panadas her hair, and the result is an excellent breakfast and a charming coiffure.” Such was Madame la Duchesse, always thus styled, half royally, as the wife of M. le Duc.
Madame la Duchesse d’Orléans was another sort of person. We turn again to a page of Saint-Simon, and see her picture : —
“ She was tall and every way majestic [yet, “without being humpbacked nor twisted, she had one side larger than the other, and her step was irregular”] ; her complexion, her neck, her arms, were admirable, and her eyes also; her mouth well enough, with beautiful though rather long teeth ; too large and too flabby cheeks, which spoiled her looks, but did not quite deprive her of beauty; what disfigured her the most were her eyebrows, which were as if skinned, and were red, with very little hair ; beautiful eyelids and chestnut hair growing prettily [bien plantés].” Then he speaks of her intelligence, and says she had remarkable coherence of mind ("une grande suite dans l’esprit ”) and the famous Mortemart quality, “ a natural eloquence, a justness of expression, a singularity in the choice of terms which was always original and always surprising, with that special manner of phrase peculiar to Madame de Montespan and her sisters, and caught only by persons familiar with her and brought up by her. Madame la Duchesse d’Orléans said everything she wished and as she wished with infinite delicacy and agreeableness; she said even what she did not say, and made everything understood to the degree and with the meaning which she wished to give to it; but she had a thick utterance, so slow, so confused, so difficult to ears that were not well accustomed to it, that this defect, which she seemed unconscious of, extremely injured the effect of what she said.
“ Every degree and kind of propriety and decorum found their centre in her, and the most intense arrogance was enthroned in her. . . . M. le Duc d’Orléans, who often laughed about it, called her Madame Lucifer in speaking to her, and she agreed that this name did not displease her. ... At the same time, the timidity of Madame la Duchesse d’Orléans was extreme. She would be made ill by a somewhat severe look from the king, and perhaps by one from Madame de Maintenon; at least she trembled before her ; and she never answered these personages about the most common and public things but with stammering and in fright. I say ‘ answered,’for as for beginning the conversation, especially with the king, that would have been more than she could do. For the rest, her life was a very languid one, though she had excellent health: solitude and reading till her lonely dinner, working the rest of the day, and receiving, from five o’clock in the evening, persons who found neither amusement nor freedom in her society, for she never knew how to put people at their ease.
“ Of her two brothers, each was, turn by turn, her favorite.” The younger of these brothers, the Comte de Toulouse, remained faithful to his mother, and it is he and his sisters, as we have said, who grouped themselves about Madame de Montespan in the years immediately succeeding her banishment from court. There is much interest to be found in following the course of their lives, but that we cannot do here. We can only now consider Madame de Montespan herself in her last days, which she passed at Paris.
The attachment she had so long retained to a court life, as well as her chimerical hopes, died within her as the cold years deepened her neglectedness, and she turned more and more to what she esteemed religious duties. She relinquished even her relations with her daughters; she saw them only rarely and by arrangement: but she occupied herself with the interests of D’Antin, for whom previously she had felt only indifference.
“ Little by little ” (we follow SaintSimon again) “ she came to giving almost all she had to the poor. She sewed for them many hours a day on common and coarse articles, like chemises and other such needful things, and made those about her work on them, too.”
What a contrast to the scene in the king’s apartment described by Madame de Sévigné ! All her luxuriousness disappeared; her table became most frugal, her fasts frequent, her prayers incessant, her penances severe; and she forever suffered the secret punishment of a terrible fear of death. Yet with all this she could never cast off that queenlike state which she had assumed in her pride of place, and which clung to her in her humbled condition as a permanent habit of life. Her armchair — the supreme sign and token of dignity in those days — was the only one in her apartment. Others were brought for Monsieur, or la Grande Mademoiselle, or Madame la Princesse, when they visited her, but for any one else, for her children, even the Duchesse d’Orléans, never, — they had to sit on common chairs; and not even the greatest personage did she rise to receive. Visits in return she paid to no one; an occasional message of compliment sent to certain people was the height of her condescension.
“ All France,” says Saint-Simon, “was at her doors. I know not through what fancy it had come, as years went on, to be considered a sort of duty to go there. . . . She spoke to each as a queen who holds her court, and to be addressed by whom is an honor. . . . She was beautiful as the day to the last moment of her life, . . . with a grace which made her haughtinesses overlooked, and which was in harmony with them.”
It is almost impossible not to linger, but we must hasten to the end. She died at Bourbon, after only a few hours’ illness; but during those few hours the fear of death, which all her life had so continually appalled her, suddenly vanished, and disquieted her no more. She summoned her attendants and servants, and made before them confession of her sins, asking pardon for the scandal she had so long occasioned, and even for her high temper, “ with a humility so serious, so deep, so penitent, that nothing could be more edifying.” Sweetness and peace marked all her actions.
Her funeral was strangely uncared for and obscure, but she was bitterly wept by all the countless poor she had befriended. Her daughters were heartbroken. “ The grief of Madame la Duchesse was astonishing, — she who had piqued herself all her life on loving no one.” The memory of Madame de Montespan is protected by this group of her children, her servants, the poor, as they stand mourners at her death-bed.