THE marriage of the youthful Princess Hélène Massalski with the Prince Charles de Ligne was the result of a long process of social diplomacy, conducted by the Marquis de Mirabeau and the ladies of the De Ligne family through their agent, a certain Madame de Pailly, who played the part of a general pacificator and go-between. The easy-going rules of the Abbaye aux Bois, which allowed its more favored pupils frequent opportunities of seeing and being seen at juvenile balls and fêtes, had brought the beautiful and well-dowered little Pole to the notice of various great ladies with sons to “establish;” and before the child had attained her fifteenth year, matrimonial proposals, of different degrees of importance and advantage, had been made for her.
Among these was the Duc d’Elbeuf, second son of the Comte de Lorraine, Grand Ecuyer of France, and of almost royal blood. This alliance would naturally have gratified the pride of Hélène’s guardian, the Prince Bishop of Wilna, but, influenced by her, he rejected it. Young as she was, she had a secret preference for a suitor far less desirable in position and character. This was the Prince Frédéric de Salm, whom she had met at a child’s party, and whose beauty of person and gayety of manner had captivated her fancy.
The prince, though not yet thirty years of age, was already deeply in debt, and a libertine of the most pronounced kind. Neither of these facts weighed very seriously in the society of those times ; the evil odor which attached to his name arose from a more damaging accusation. He lay under the suspicion of lacking personal courage. There was an ugly story afloat of a duel with one of the king’s officers, when M. de Salm appeared in a cloak which he refused to remove, and under which was concealed a steel cuirass. This fact was not discovered until his opponent, making a rapid pass, encountered the cuirass with his sword; the recoil threw him to the ground, and the seconds had great difficulty in preventing the prince from running him through then and there, before he could recover his footing !
Of all this, however, the little conventbred heiress could know nothing. She saw in the Prince de Salm only an elegant courtier, the inheritor of a great name, and, what was even more important, a splendid family hôtel on the Quai d’Orsay. Parisian to her finger-tips in all her instincts and desires, a residence in Paris seemed of more consequence to her than the husband who should share it with her; and actuated by this double motive, she worked upon her uncle to reject one suitor after another, in the hope that with time his objections to the one chosen by herself might be overcome.
While she thus objected and temporized, the Prince Charles de Ligne, on his side, exhibited a similar coldness with regard to the proposed match. His indifference verged on reluctance. Twelve years the senior of Hélène, serious and studious in his tastes, with a passion for art, music, and science, for humanitarian projects and military tactics, there was little to excite his enthusiasm in the prospect of becoming the husband of an untrained and half-educated child of fifteen. His heart was, moreover, filled with the image of another woman, and hints had not been wanting as to Hélène’s preferences in the De Salm matter.
“ The little person in question,” he writes icily to his aunt, “ as it seems to me, is rather decided in her views, for so young a girl; and certainly not overdelicate in her tastes, since her liking seems to be for the Prince Frédéric de Salm, with his abominable reputation. I dare say the affair will come to nothing. It appears to take a long time to get an answer out of the uncle.”
But the likings or dislikings of boys and girls were insignificant factors of great marriages in the eighteenth century. Notwithstanding the disinclination of the Princess Hélène and the indifference of the younger Prince de Ligne, the negotiations went on. Madame de Pailly came and went, explaining, protesting, promising. Hélène’s imagination was skillfully fired by descriptions of the splendor of the château of the De Lignes in the Pays-Bas, of the almost royal state of their residence in Brussels, of the diamonds and the equipages which would be hers ; and hints were dropped as to the ease with which the Prince Charles might be persuaded to spend the winters in Paris, where his father was in high favor and a chosen intimate of the queen’s coterie. These arguments at last prevailed. The youthful pair gave consent, the prince bishop gave consent, the De Ligne connection were delighted, and on the 25th of May, 1779, the contract of marriage was duly signed at Versailles, in the presence of Louis XVI., Marie Antoinette, and the assembled court. The Princess Hélène received by way of dowry three palaces and a château in Poland, a number of terres considérables, 1,800,000 roubles, and a revenue of 60,000 livres in rentes ; the prince bishop, furthermore, making himself responsible for all expenses whenever the young couple chose to sojourn in Paris. It is easy to suppose that this last article was dictated and suggested by the bride. The Prince de Ligne, on his part, settled on his son an income of 30,000 livres, which he engaged to double in case children should be born of the marriage ; he also undertook to provide a residence for the Prince and Princess Charles, either at the château of Bel Œil or in his palaces at Brussels or Vienna. The future thus secured, the marriage ceremony took place four days after the signing of the contract, at the Abbaye aux Bois; the Duchesses de Choiseul, de Mortemart, de Chatillon, and various other great ladies attending in the capacity of witnesses.
Hélène had previously been allowed one interview with her fiancé, — under decorous surveillance, of course. She kept her eyelashes modestly lowered, but this did not hinder her from sketching his portrait afterward, at full length, for the benefit of her comrades of the convent : “ He is fair. His figure is slender. He resembles his mother, who is very handsome and has an aristocratic air; but there is something German about him, which I cannot exactly describe, but which does not quite please me.”
Her trousseau was, to her thinking, infinitely more interesting than the bridegroom. It was valued at 100,000 crowns, beside lace, jewels, and a superb corbeille presented by the De Lignes. There were certain diamond bracelets and girandoles, — the latter enormous earrings, of great value, for wear on state occasions, — on which her mind was intent; and one of her chief anxieties was that they might not arrive from Flanders in time for the wedding. They came, however ; so did Prince Charles, and his father, who fell in love at once with his daughter-in-law, who was “ adorably pretty ” in her toilette de mariage. Her attitude décente and pleine de sensibilité gave great satisfaction to all her “witnesses.” The bride presented each of her companions in the Classe Rouge with a pretty trinket, and the prince bishop treated the whole school, even the little Blues, to a magnificent collation “ with ices,” beside the largesse to each of a charming bag of bonbons. Under these joyous auspices, the newly wedded pair departed, at the conclusion of the ceremony, in a postchaise with six horses and postilions in pink and silver, and took the road to Brussels at a triple gallop.
A splendid fete at Bel Œil followed their arrival. For a whole day, the peasants on the vast estate, costumed à la Watteau as shepherds and shepherdesses, disported themselves on the lawns, amid a brilliant crowd of gentry and nobility. There were music, dancing, puppet shows, a theatre, a vast banquet for everybody, and in the evening an illumination and a display of fireworks. The prince seemed to be greatly pleased with the beauty and precocious talent of his young wife, and his mother writes to her sisterin-law a month after the marriage : “ Our new child is charming, sweet, and docile. She seems to have no will of her own, and is pleased with everything. She is, in short, all that we could desire in a daughter, and every one who has met her since she came is delighted.”
It is sufficiently amusing to hear Hélène spoken of as possessing “ no will of her own.” She was, in fact, as her history proves, headstrong and willful to the last degree ; “ as obstinate as the Pope’s mule,” her biographer frankly confesses.
It was an oddly assorted family of which she now found herself a member. There was her husband, the eldest son, his brief liking for his inconsequent bride soon cooling into reserve and alienation. His sister Christine, the Princess Clary, the favorite of her father, who was accustomed to call her his chef d’œuvre, was a graceful, gracious creature, full of tact and judgment, who might have been a valuable friend and guide to her young sister-in-law, had it not been for the insistent jealousy of her mother, who felt that she, and she alone, had the right to “ form ” her son’s wife, and would brook no interference.
To be “ formed ” by the elder Princess de Ligne could scarcely have been an agreeable process. She was a dominant influence in her family, but this was from the rigidity of her morals and the firmness of her will rather than from the attachment she inspired in her husband and children. The Prince de Ligne frankly acknowledged her merits, and treated her always with a charming courtesy. “ My wife is an admirable woman,” he was accustomed to say ; “ she is sometimes out of humor, but this quickly passes, drowned in the tears which fill her eyes, and does no harm to any one, because she has an excellent heart.”
It was easy for the prince to bear his wife’s humors, because, personally, they caused him no inconvenience whatever. He was never long at home, and she was always at her best in his company. It was during his long absences that her sterner qualities exhibited themselves, when, intent on repairing the breaches which his extravagance had made in their fortunes, she put the establishment on the most economical footing, and pared and scraped, to the discomfort of everybody, only to have her amiable prodigal return in due time and resume his favorite pastime of “ flinging millions out of the windows.” Hélène, who had a born gift as ménagère, would gladly have assisted in these thrifty intervals, but her offers of help were resented and dryly refused. Economy per se could scarcely be palatable to a pleasure-loving child of sixteen, and, repulsed and wearied by her mother-in-law’s stern tutelage, she welcomed her spouse and his father back from their long absences as a prisoner welcomes freedom.
It was with her father-in-law that she felt most in sympathy, among these new relatives. Their natures and their tastes were in many ways accordant. The elder Prince de Ligne was one of the most agreeable men of his time. Possessed of great personal beauty, with manners full of grace, a tender and penetrating voice, and that indefinable quality which we call “ charm ;” gay, entertaining, full of wit, of good nature, he was also a deep thinker, and a close reasoner on men and manners. He was equally a favorite with the court circles of Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, with the gentry and peasantry of his own Low Countries, with Frederick the Great, Maria Theresa, and the great Catherine herself ; in fact, his influence with the latter lady was so great as to lead to the suspicion that, at one time or another, he may have figured in the list of her innumerable lovers. He was of her company when, in 1784, she made that famous journey to the Crimea which had for its secret object the meeting with the Emperor Joseph of Austria, which later led to the first partition of Poland.
“ I felt as if dreaming,” writes the Prince de Ligne in one of his brilliant letters, “ when I found myself in the depths of an enormous coach big enough for six, — a coach which was a real car of triumph, ornamented with devices in precious stones, and drawn by sixteen Tartar horses, — seated between two personages, the heat of whose august shoulders nearly stifled me, and heard, as in a dream, one say to the other, ‘ They tell me I have thirty millions of subjects, counting males only,’ and the other reply, ‘ And I have twenty-two millions, all included.’ Then they fell to work, disposing, in the course of their conversation, of towns, cities, and even provinces, changing them about without seeming to consider it anything at all, till at last I said, ‘ Your Majesties are only putting wretchedness in the place of misery; ’ whereupon the Emperor replied, addressing the Empress, ‘ Madame, we are spoiling him. He has not the least respect for either of us.' ”
It was during this journey of Catherine’s that Potemkin, the then reigning favorite, arranged a series of theatrical effects along the route, by which smiling villages were made to appear at stated intervals, with here and there, at greater distances, towns and even cities, — the latter, erections of painted canvas, — while figurantes from the opera, appropriately dressed, played the part of a contented peasantry, living happily among their fields and dancing on the green. The imperial cortége rolled by over the heavy roads, and hey, presto! the village with its cheerful inhabitants was whipped up, hurried over roundabout ways, and set down a few miles farther on, to rejoice the eyes of the deceived Empress, and confirm her opinion that Russia was a land of ideal prosperity, and that statements to the contrary must be held as vexatious and unwarrantable. So easily are the great ones of the earth juggled and befooled by lesser creatures whom they reckon their puppets and tools.
But, delightful as was the Prince de Ligne in imperial and royal circles and the great world of fashion, he was no less so in the bosom of his own family. His infidelities and extravagances were forgotten and condoned the moment he appeared. It was easy to blame during his absence ; even his severe wife could find nothing to reproach him with when he was present. His coming animated the household like the breaking out of the sun. The sparkle of his talk, the magic of his good humor, waked every one to joy and laughter. With his arrival. fêtes, balls, amusements of all sorts, recommenced ; the dull surface of everyday life shone and scintillated. He professed a preference for Brussels over any ther city, and a passion for living on his estate. “ What a beautiful life is mine spent at my beloved Bel Œil! “ he would cry rapturously ; and twenty-four hours later he would be off full whirl for Paris, Vienna, London, wherever his vagrant fancies led him, to return no more for months.
For Marie Antoinette the Prince de Ligne professed a vrai culte. “ Who could see her without adoring her ? ” he wrote, thirty years after her death. But his true culted, the passion of his heart, was for his oldest son Charles, the husband of Hélène. His own boyhood had been most unhappy, under the rule of an august, capricious, and unloving father ; he avenged himself on past sorrow by lavishing a double measure of tenderness on his own child, together with a romantic admiration which made him more like a lover than a parent. “ Mon brave Chariot,” “ mon génie,” “ mon excellent ouvrage, “ he calls him ; nothing could be more intimate than their relations. There is one charming description of a skirmish between the Prussian and Austrian troops in 1778, when the father and son rode to the charge hand in hand, and the elder said to the younger, “ It would be pleasant to be wounded by the same ball, would it not, my boy ? ” “ Charlot is so brave that it is a joy to see him,” he writes ; and in another place comes this message : “ Embrasse ta mère pour avoir eu l’esprit de me faire un fils comme toi.”
It was through the influence of this volage father - in - law that the Princess Helene, five years after her marriage, achieved the desire of her heart, a home in Paris. In September, 1784, her busband purchased a handsome hôtel on the Rue Claussée d’Antin, and here, two years later, their first and only child was born, a daughter, to whom was given the name Sidonie.
It is needless to say with what delight Hélène found herself once more a dweller in her beloved Paris. Many of her old schoolfellows of the abbaye, who had married into illustrious families, were leaders of the world of fashion ; she lost no time in renewing acquaintance, and everywhere was received with effusion. Her beauty and esprit, the splendor of her equipages and appointments, her natural coquetry and desire to please, her extravagance, the very levity and inconsequence of her character, exactly fitted her to shine in the glittering court circle of the period. It was never more brilliant or more reckless of expense or consequences. Already the menacing shadows of the Revolution were dimming the outer edges of the brightness, but, heedless of impending fate, the gay crowd fluttered and buzzed, unconscious as a flight of gauzy-winged insects on the brink of a whirlpool.
The lessons inculcated by her motherin-law, the tastes which her studious husband had set himself to foster, melted as in a moment from the memory of Hélène. She spent her days in a whirl of enjoyments, returning home only to dress or sleep, and scarcely ever seeing her husband, who, absorbed in his own pursuits, rarely accompanied her into society. A crowd of admirers surrounded her ; she knew how to retain them without distinguishing any one with a compromising preference. The gravity of Prince Charles de Ligne and his literary and artistic tastes seemed to set him widely apart from the world of fops and flatterers in which she lived ; they voted him a bore, and she soon learned to regard him as an insignificant person, upon whom occasional raillery, and even ridicule, could be safely lavished.
It was not a pleasant position for a young man of spirit, that of husband to a reigning beauty whose circle regarded him with well-bred contempt; and it is not to be wondered at that his dislike of the Paris ménage increased with every month of their stay. He took advantage of the brief rapprochement which followed the birth of their little daughter to persuade Hélène to return to Bel Œil for the summer, and departed with his father for Russia at the command of the imperious Empress, leaving her there.
A good deal of inevitable friction attended this long summer sojourn. The elder Princess de Ligne had decided views as to the management of infants. Hélène was not suffered to interfere in the smallest particular, and, thwarted and set aside, grew to feel that her child belonged to the De Lignes rather than to herself, and took little interest in it. Nor was the winter more to her taste. The insurrection which had broken out in Flanders made Brussels an unsafe residence, and the entire family removed to the palace in Vienna, where the regiment of Prince Charles happened to be stationed. It had been for years one of the homes of the De Lignes. The Princess Clary and her sisters had grown up there, and all the prettiest women of the court were their early playmates, and as intimate with their brothers as with themselves. Prince Charles probably did not dislike the opportunity of showing his disdainful wife that whereas in Paris he was neglected and undervalued, in Vienna he ranked as a person of consequence ; and she, resenting every difference in custom and etiquette between the two courts, and finding that of Austria formal and provincial, made scornful comparisons. There was, beside, the Countess Kinsky.
This beautiful young woman, as fascinating as she was beautiful, had a strange and romantic history. Born Countess Diedrichstein, her parents and those of the Count Kinsky had arranged a union between them while she was still in earliest youth. She saw her bridegroom for the first time when he arrived for the marriage ceremony. At its conclusion, he escorted her courteously to her home, and said, “ Madame, we have obeyed our relations. It pains me to leave you, but it is my duty to explain that I have for a long time past been attached to a lady without whom it would be impossible for me to support life. I am now about to rejoin her.” He then kissed her hand, sprang into a post-chaise which stood waiting, and departed at a gallop. She never saw him again.
Left thus in this singular position of being neither maid, wife, nor widow, the young countess developed, under the shadow of her cruel destiny, into one of the chief ornaments of the Austrian court. Of exquisite beauty, with great loveliness of nature and an intellect of more than common strength and cultivation, she combined every quality which would naturally attract and rivet the affections of a man as capable of a strong devotion and as fastidious as the Prince Charles de Ligne. That she was the dominating influence of his life there seems no room to doubt; and no doubt, also, the subtle instinct of Hélène detected the relation. She might not love her husband, but she could easily be jealous of him.
With the spring came the question of return to Bel Œil, which the unquiet state of political affairs in the Netherlands rendered unsafe. Prince Charles departed with his regiment, which was under orders to rejoin its army corps ; leaving the question still under discussion. Scarcely had he gone when he received a letter from his wife asking leave to make a visit to Poland, that she and her uncle might have the opportunity to talk over a variety of business affairs. The permission was granted without demur, on the condition that the little Sidonie should be left behind in the care of her grandmother ; and early in September Hélène left Vienna for Warsaw, where at that time the prince bishop was living. It was the final parting between the husband and wife, though neither of them had a suspicion of the fact.
Warsaw presented a spectacle of extraordinary splendor. The king and court were there in attendance on the meeting of the Diet, and the little city was crowded with illustrious and picturesque figures. In dress and equipage the Polish nobility of that day were the most superb in Europe. A half-barbaric splendor distinguished their entertainments. The fantastic customs of ancient chivalry were still to a great degree preserved. At a banquet, it was nothing unusual for a knight to fill his lady’s slipper with champagne or tokay, and carry it from one to the other round a glittering circle as a drinking-cup, from which the health of the fair owner was enthusiastically quaffed by all present.
The Princess Charles made her appearance on this dazzling scene preceded by a reputation for beauty and wit which at once lent her vogue, and she was speedily on intimate terms with all who were best worth knowing in the court circle. Enchanted with her liberty, with her native land, she gave herself up to unrestrained enjoyment. She forgot the past, her husband and her child. The Princess Charles de Ligne existed no longer ; she was once more Hélène Massalski.
The winter flew as on wings. Spring came, summer was at hand ; no slightest sign did she give of a desire to return to her home or family. The De Lignes, hurt and angered at her prolonged absence, disdainfully forbore to urge her. Indifferent to their opinions, she came and went, as the sittings and adjournments of the Diet dictated, between Warsaw and her uncle’s country-seat at Werky, and asked no better than to have her present existence continue forever.
An influence as sudden as it was powerful had taken possession of her life. She had made the acquaintance of a man who was to rule all her future fate. This was the Count Vincent Potocki, grand chamberlain to the king, great-nephew to Stanislaus Leszczynski, his predecessor, and, as a consequence, cousin-german to Maria Leszczynski, wife of Louis XV., anl former queen of France. To this illustrious descent Count Potocki, who was at that time thirty-seven years of age, added extraordinary personal attractions. His portrait is thus sketched by his biographer: —
“ The Count Vincent was remarkably handsome, distinguished, and elegant, his manners affable and fascinating at the outset; but on a closer view one discovered in him more of subtlety than frankness, more of egotism than devotion, and a great dryness of heart. He lacked firmness in his decisions, and he was easily influenced by his subordinates. His immense fortune, always involved in speculations or risky commercial enterprises, was not nearly as remunerative as he would fain have had the world believe, and this fact often threw him into ill temper.”
The grand chamberlain had been twice married. From his first wife, Ursula Zamoyski, he had been promptly divorced, after the easy-going Polish fashion, which at that day regarded such separations as lightly as in some parts of our own country they are regarded now. His second wife, Anna Mycielska, who was passionately devoted to him, had borne him two sons. The younger was but a few weeks old when Count Potocki made Hélène’s acquaintance, and the countess, detained by the state of her health, was still at their countryplace in the Ukraine.
The attraction was mutual, but evidenced in very different ways. Count Vincent’s emotions were by no means so violent as to deprive him of reasoning power. Hélène’s great fortune had its weight with him as well as her charms of person and the flattering preference which she evinced for his society. He understood perfectly how to play upon her impetuous and undisciplined nature : he affected a cautious reserve, a distant admiration, held back as if fearful of compromising her or himself, and by this avoidance stimulated her passion as fuel stimulates flame.
She, for her part, took absolutely no thought of convention or the opinion of the world. She loved for the first time; loved with the fiery ardor of her youth and her race, and without reserve abandoned herself to the new and powerful emotion. Her one imperative desire was to win full response from the man she loved. For his sake, she altered all her habits, dropped out of society, professed a preference for quiet, and let fall a word now and then as to the evils of modern dissipation and its waste of time ! The world, quick to guess at the reasons for this remarkable change, laughed in its sleeve — and out of it; and still the exigeant lover kept aloof, told his feelings with his eyes rather than with his tongue, and bewildered Hélène with his coldness and discretion.
It is droll to hear that her disquiet and suspense led her to make a confidante of his first wife, now remarried to the Count de Mniseck. She, delighted at the chance of avenging herself on the rival who had supplanted her, lent her aid to establishing an understanding between her late husband and this new object of his affections. Letters flew to and fro, in which the word amitié continually occurred, but never the word amour. Little by little the intimacy strengthened. The grand chamberlain became Hélène’s business adviser. This led to constant interviews, always conducted, with due regard to propriety, in the presence of secretaries and ladies in waiting ; till the day came, as such days always will, when, half by accident, half by design, a private meeting took place, in which the boundary between love and friendship was overstepped, and each made to the other an avowal of attachment. After this, sure of his ground, Count Potocki took on masterful airs. He exacted that Hélène should burn her husband’s letters and those of all her early friends; he regulated her visitors and intimacies, and little by little confined her to a narrow circle in which he rejoiced with undisputed authority.
Just at this crisis the Countess Potocka rejoined her husband at Warsaw. Rumors had already reached her, and, with the sharpened perception of jealous love, she at once detected in her husband a change which confirmed her apprehensions. Cut to the heart and wounded in her tenderest affections, she reproached him for his unfaithfulness, and firmly refused to make the acquaintance of her rival.
“It is of no use to argue,” she told him. “ I cannot and will not receive a woman who, whatever your relations may be, has robbed me of your heart.”
In vain the count expostulated, protested, explained. The indignant wife continued inexorable, and the Princess de Ligne, when she presented herself, found the door of the countess closed against her.
Deeply wounded by this affront, Hélène gave way to the natural violence of her temper. She demanded of Count Potocki that he should force his wife to atone for an insult which dishonored her in the eyes of the world. In vain he sought to appease her; she refused to listen, and, after a stormy scene, they parted in anger.
Ardent and undisciplined natures are most subject to swift reactions. Penitence trod closely on the heels of Hélène’s wrath. Broken-hearted at the misunderstanding with her lover, she wrote to him next day, in a letter which agitation rendered almost illegible : —
“I am alone in the world. I have alienated all my friends at your command, and broken all my old ties. I had only you left, and yesterday you canceled and took back every expression of affection which you ever uttered to me. How little there is left for me to live for you can easily imagine. Farewell, dear Vincent. Whatever happens, you are the object of my eternal love ; of my eternal regret, if indeed we are parted forever.
“ If you are quite decided not to see me again, send back my letters, and write at the end of this the one word ‘ Adieu.’ ”
This letter, dispatched by a trusty messenger, was returned unopened by the Countess Potocka,with this brief indorsement : “ The count left this morning for Niemirow.” This news flung Hélène into a tumult of despair. She realized the situation. Her weak and selfish lover had fled, to escape the embarrassments of their equivocal position, leaving her alone and unaided to confront the world and the triumphant malice of the Countess Potocka. But she was not a woman to sit tamely down under such an affront. Madame Potocka little knew the impetuosity of her rival, or she would have thought twice before driving her to extremes. In five minutes Hélène had made up her mind ; and with her, to resolve and to act were identical impulses. She ordered a post-chaise, and in half an hour after the return of her note she was on the road to Niemirow, attended by a single maid. The postilions were urged to utmost rapidity ; and a few hours after his own arrival on his estates, Count Potocki was startled by the unexpected apparition of his abandoned lady-love.
His sensations were probably tinged with dismay rather than with delight, but her beauty, her emotion, the very indiscretion which evinced the strength of her attachment, combined to complete the conquest of his vacillating affections. His wife, his children, every other duty and claim vanished from his mind; Hélène reigned supreme ; and after the first transport of reconciliation had subsided, it was agreed between them that steps should at once be taken to secure a divorce from their respective partners, after which they would be free to marry.
Letters were accordingly dispatched post - haste to the Countess Anna, the Prince Charles de Ligne, and the Prince Bishop of Wilna. In the first, Count Potocki offered his wife the guardianship of her two sons and a considerable settlement, if she would join him in effecting the annulment of their marriage ; in the second, Hélène boldly demanded of her husband her freedom, her fortune, and her daughter ; in the third, they united in imploring the intervention of the bishop in securing the accomplishment of their wishes.
It does not seem to have occurred to the writers of these letters that any one could object to their projects. Divorce was an every-day affair in Poland, and what we intensely desire we are apt to consider proper and reasonable. The replies proved unexpectedly disappointing.
“ Have you forgotten,” wrote the Countess Anna, “ that we married because of the strong mutual attraction between us, and not merely because our relatives wished it ? Such a union should be eternal; God has set his seal of approval upon ours by giving us children. You may look upon it more lightly, but I shall be faithful to our vows, convinced that not my duty only, but my happiness as well, lies in so doing.
舠 Have you forgotten how, when our little Francois was horn, you knelt in the next room, praying that God would spare me and our child ? You loved me then ; look closely into your own soul, and I think you will find that you love me still. My own feeling for yon is ineffaceable. I have shown you my heart without disguise ; now read your own. A single word will secure my pardon and forgiveness for all; that word I await with the utmost impatience.”
Prince Charles de Ligne dryly and formally refused to consent to a divorce or to relinquish the guardianship of his daughter. The elder prince wrote to the Prince Bishop of Wilna as follows : —
“ I am persuaded that a woman enslaved by a silly and tyrannical Pole can have no power to influence her guardian, who is the granduncle of Sidonie as well, from paying over the moneys which by right and agreement, and with the full consent of all parties concerned, were reserved for lifting the mortgages on the estates in Galicia. She neither can have nor ought to have any control over such property so long as she is living under the influence of a man who is openly managing her affairs to the detriment of her daughter and rightful heiress.
“ As I am firmly persuaded that should the Princess Charles marry Count Potocki she would be far more wretched than she is now, I, as well as her husband, utterly refuse to consent to a divorce.
“ The diamonds and other property of the princess shall at once be sent after her, and she is requested to forward to Pradel the various engravings and drawings belonging to the Prince Charles which are in her possession.”
Many articles of value belonging to Hélène had been left behind, at the hurried departure of the family from Brussels, three years previously, and some debts had been left unpaid, from the difficulty of calling in the bills at such short notice. Madame de Ligne took advantage of this circumstance to address to her daughter-in-law the following bitter and insulting letter : —
BRUSSELS, February 24, 1791.
Your husband has written me, madame, that it is his desire that all the property belonging to you in this house should be forwarded to Poland, with the exception of some of the books. I was on the point of complying with his wishes, when your creditors, getting wind of my intentions, put in an objection. Not being able, as they state, to get any reply from you to the letters they have written, they very naturally object to the removal of the articles which serve as their sole security. It is only out of respect for me, and because I have pledged myself to write to you on the subject, that they have consented to be patient a little longer, till sufficient time has elapsed for you to receive this letter and return an answer.
I must therefore request, madame, that if you wish to save yourself from the scandal of having your effects sold at public auction, you will at once forward an order on the bank, so that by the first of April I may be in a position to satisfy these claims. The bills that have been sent in, together with others of which I have knowledge, amount to 5000 florins of our money. As I do not propose to remain in Brussels later than the 15th of April, I hereby give you notice that if by the first of that month I have not received money from you, I shall send your belongings to be sold for whatever they will bring, for the satisfaction of your creditors, after which I shall concern myself no longer with your affairs.
The prince bishop’s reply was dry and evasive. He answered, through his secretary, that the matter required consideration, and he could take no decided step till he had thought it over.
These letters left Hélène in a painful position. She was living at Niemirow, in a small château belonging to Count Potocki, which bordered on the larger estate of Kowalowka, where his sons with their attendants were domiciled. To save appearances so far as was possible, he had left the place pending the result of their applications, so the blow fell upon her when she was quite alone. With the easy optimism which was part of her character, she had persuaded herself that all would go well; now she saw herself discredited with her relations, compromised in the eyes of the world, whose sympathies were with the Countess Anna, and, in spite of her large income, pinched for money. She had never for a moment entertained the idea of becoming the mistress of Count Potocki, but having, under a rash impulse, placed herself in opposition to conventional law, she now felt its sting. She had burned her bridges ; she could not return to her old life ; all her hope lay in the loyalty and fidelity of the man for whom she had sacrificed so much, and on these, as she instinctively felt, she could not rely. She knew that his affection would not stand the strain of adverse circumstances and threatened disgrace, and his coldness and changed manner during his brief visits confirmed her fears, the climax of her misfortune seemed to be reached when the count fell ill of a putrid fever, and for three months lay between life and death at Kowalowka, — close to her, but inaccessible ; for she only ventured to penetrate to his sick-room disguised and at long intervals, to assure herself that he was properly cared for by the nurses who had him in charge. It was truly a terrible time, and she had not a single friend at hand to help her to endure it.
Count Potocki recovered at last, and, after a tedious convalescence, departed for Galicia. His shallow heart had been touched by Hélène’s devotion and solicitude, and he went away renewing his vows of fidelity, and swearing to leave no stone unturned toward the accomplishment of the coveted divorce. His promises tranquilized her, but a heavy sadness hung over her spirits which nothing seemed able to dissipate. It was exactly at this moment of depression, when hope was at its lowest ebb, that, in the twinkling of an eye, all the circumstances of her life were changed and every impediment to happiness was removed. She received news of the death of her husband.
The Prince Charles de Ligne had been struck by a ball, and instantly killed, in an engagement between the French and Austrian forces on September 14, 1792. His brilliant military courage had won him distinction, and to every one but his wife his loss was a cause of profound regret. To her it brought nothing but the sense of joyful deliverance. Not an impulse of pity or sorrow dampened her delight.
“ I am free ! ” she wrote exultantly to the grand chamberlain. “ It is the divine will. That cannon was loaded from all eternity.” The last sentence is a quotation from Madame de Sévigné.
Naturally, the blow fell most heavily on the heart of the bereaved father. Years afterward, in alluding to the loss of almost his entire fortune, he said, “ When the soul has once been crushed by the death of what it holds most dear, it can defy the storms of Fate. Persecution, injustice, ruined fortune, — all, all seem insignificant.”
Prince Charles de Ligne left a will, in which he ordered that his heart should be buried separately from his body, and wrapped in a handkerchief which had been used by “ her whom I love, and who during my life has possessed all my heart. I beg of her goodness that she will embroider in my hair on the handkerchief, upon the first corner the word ‘ Alona,’ on tbe second ‘ Tendresse D6licieuse,’ on the third ‘ Indissoluble,’ and on the fourth ‘ From the 21st of May, 1787, to 舒,’ the date of my death, whatever it may be.” He requested that the portraits of his intimate friends should be hung together in a tower at Bel Œil, with his bust in the middle, “the face turned toward the portrait of Madame de Kirisky,” and that over the door should be inscribed these words, “ Chambre des Indissolubles.” To Madame de Kinsky, also, he bequeathed his favorite dog, “ who has been to me what I have been to her, a good dog and always faithful.” Eighty thousand florins were left to a child frankly designated as “ ma fille bâtarde, Christine,” of whom he made his sister, the Princess Clary, the personal guardian. There was no mention of his wife in the will, except in one bitter sentence when devising to his daughter Sidonie her mother s portrait, “ with the proviso that she shall take pains in no respect to imitate or resemble her.” It was the Countess Kinsky who placed in the coffin the handkerchief with the four embroidered corners, “pour lui obéir autant que possible.”
“As if death had received from heaven the cruel mission of removing all obstacles to Hélène’s wishes,” the loss of Prince Charles was almost immediately followed by that of the younger son of the Countess Anna, who died at Kowalowka of a malignant sore throat, and so suddenly that she could not be summoned to take leave of him. Almost at the same moment Hélène received tidings of the death of her brother, the Prince Xavier Massalski, which left her heiress of another enormous fortune. The impediments to her marriage, which had seemed so insurmountable, melted in a moment into thin air. The Countess Anna, heart-broken at the loss of her child, withdrew all objections to the divorce, stipulating only that she should have the guardianship of the older boy, and that the marriage should be formally annulled by the papal court at Rome. This last clause involved a considerable delay, and it is not impossible that the countess hoped that with time the vagrant heart of her spouse might swing back to its original allegiance.
Hélène made haste to apprise her uncle of the happy change in her fortunes. That easy-going prelate was persuaded without difficulty to see that Count Potocki living could be made infinitely more useful by way of a nephew than Prince Charles de Ligne dead. He accordingly withdrew all opposition to the match, and invited his niece to join him at Werky, his country-seat, where he was then residing, and await under his protection the papal authorization needed for the legalization of her second marriage. Three months later, he was further persuaded by the impatient lovers to allow of its immediate celebration without waiting longer to hear from Rome, an irregularity for which his niece and her husband were to suffer heavily in later years. The ceremony took place at midnight, in the chapel of the Bernardine convent, in the neighborhood of Werky.
As Hélène entered the church, she experienced a strange and sudden emotion of fear and anguish. Sinking upon her knees, she remained for some moments motionless, with her eyes fixed on the ground. The count offered his hand to raise her ; she recoiled from him with a look of terror. A fearful hallucination had taken possession of her mind. Three dark biers seemed to shape themselves, over which she must pass on her way to the altar. Terrified by her paleness and the expression of her eyes, Count Potocki asked in a low tone what was the matter. At the sound of his voice the vision fled ; she rose, firmly mounted the three steps of black marble which had simulated the sinister shapes of her dream, and the ceremony proceeded. At its close the newly married couple returned to Werky, and in the bliss of their long-deferred union that momentary anguish was speedily forgotten.
After a prolonged stay in Lithuania the Count and Countess Potocki went back to the Ukraine, and Hélène was triumphantly installed mistress of Kowalowka, upon whose outskirts she had passed the most humiliating months of her life, — disregarded, unhappy, and alone. The sorrows of the past were forgotten, and, tenderly and joyously, she wrote her husband, absent from her for a few days : — “ To-morrow I hope to see you. and to find you exactly the same as when you left me ; for there is no smallest particular in which I would have you changed. Mind, temper, talents, faults even, are exactly pleasing to me. If you were to become more perfect, you would no longer be the Vincent for whom I have committed so many follies, — follies which would seem unpardonable except for the merciful Heaven which has taken pity upon us, and out of all folly has brought forth wisdom.”
So privately had the marriage been celebrated, and so slowly did news travel to a distance in those days, that it was not till the following year, and after the birth of a son to Hélène and her husband, that the Countess Anna, who was living with her child in Paris, was apprised of it. The decree of divorce not having been sent her for signature, she supposed matters to have remained instatu quo, and her resentment on learning the true state of affairs found vent in the following letter to the Prince Bishop of Wilna: —
“ I learn, Monseigneur, that the count my husband is living publicly at Kownlowka with the Princess de Ligne, who has assumed the name of the Countess Potocka. As the act annulling my marriage has neither been signed by me nor approved by the court of Rome. I leave at once for Warsaw, to take steps to break up this illegal union; and henceforward I refuse all consent to a divorce.”
This letter fell like a bombshell in the midst of all parties concerned. The bishop, absorbed in the political agitations of the period, had suffered the informalities attending his niece’s marriage to escape his mind. She and her husband had been equally careless of the matter. A large sum was needed to secure the action of the papal court, and this it had not been convenient to pay, their extravagant way of living and the grand chamberlain’s passion for play keeping them always short of ready money. Delighted with her husband and child, busy in the beautification of her new home, Hélène had lived unthinkingly on in a state of supreme content, when suddenly, like a flash of lightning which reveals a lurid abyss, came her uncle’s letter, full of fury and reproach at their unpardonable and immoral neglect of so vital a matter. The bishop did not hesitate to accuse Count Potocki of having deliberately deferred the legalization of the marriage, because he preferred to enjoy his wife’s revenues without the burden of a lawful tie, and he concluded by renouncing all further concern with his niece and her affairs.
To a dispassionate observer it would seem equally culpable in a guardian and church dignitary to promote a union not strictly in accordance with law, use his personal influence to persuade a somewhat reluctant priest to perform the ceremony, and later forget to inquire whether the formalities essential to its legalization had or had not been complied with. But this mixture of insouciance and violence was in accordance with the character of the prince bishop, — a character blent of contradictory qualities : good humor and unreason, strength and weakness, all easy indulgence at one moment, stern and unjust the next, disposed always to throw on others the blame which rightfully he should have shared.
Months of anxiety and miserable uncertainty followed the receipt of these letters. It was not till the close of the following year, and after the birth of a second son to Hélène, that the Countess Anna was persuaded to withdraw her opposition to the divorce. Meanwhile, terrible events had occurred in Poland. An insurrection against the yoke of Russia had broken out; for many weeks the insurgents held possession of Warsaw. The prince bishop, together with many nobles of the Russian party, was thrown into prison, and on the 28th of June, 1794, the mob, “ desirous of emulating the horrors of Paris,” broke in, and with savage cruelty put to death every prisoner in the place, the bishop among them. In him Hélène lost her nearest relation and most powerful friend.
The defeat of the patriots under Kosciusko followed, and the final partition of Poland between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Lithuania fell to the share of the Czarina, and her first step was to sequestrate the estates of all the Polish nobility. As the Bishop of Wilna had perished because of his adherence to the Russian cause, justice would seem to dictate that his property should be exempted from confiscation, but other influences were at work. ’The Prince de Ligne had written to the Empress, begging her intervention in behalf of his granddaughter Sidonie, who, as he stated, was in danger of being despoiled of her rightful share in the inheritance of her granduncle by reason of the greed of her mother’s second husband. The Czarina, therefore, took possession of the effects of the prince bishop, to hold them, as it were, in trust for the benefit of Sidonie, then nine years of age.
While this matter was still in abeyance, the Countess Potocka gave birth to her third and last child, a daughter, who died at the end of six weeks. Following this loss came a fresh stroke of misfortune. The implacable Countess Anna put in a claim to the effect that as the birth of the two elder children antedated by many months the decree of divorce, they must be held as illegitimate and incapable of inheriting property; thus leaving her own son, the young Count Francois, sole heir to the estates of his father.
The only hope of evading this claim, which was based on a strict construction of the law, lay in the mercy of the Empress Catherine, who had it in her power to change the act of annulment to the date of application before the marriage, and thus restore a legal status to the children. Count Potocki hastened to St. Petersburg to implore the help of the all-powerful Czarina. Many long and tedious weeks of dolay were necessary to obtain a hearing, with much bribery, petitioning, and pulling of wires; but in the end the Empress, who seems to have acted in the matter with unusual impartiality and kindness, granted his request. After looking carefully into the matter, and satisfying herself as to the exact truth of the counter - statements, she redated the decree of divorce, thus relieving Hélène of her cruel and ambiguous position, and securing the legitimacy of her sons, while at the same time she guarded the rights of the other children, and insisted upon a generous provision for the little François and the Princess Sidonie. Money matters were more stringent than ever with the count and countess thenceforward, but for the moment that seemed a matter of insignificance, as, embracing her babies with tears of joy, Hélène gayly cried, “ At last you are true Potockis, though it has cost us dear to make you so,”
Three weeks after the departure of the grand chamberlain from St. Petersburg, the Empress died suddenly of an apoplectic seizure. He had achieved his mission just in time.
Three tranquil years followed, the best of Hélène’s life. Happy with the husband who, with all his faults, was to her the ideal of human perfection, and with the children whom she adored, she played with infinite enjoyment and grace the part of châtelaine in her beautiful Ukraine home. The French Revolution had filled Poland with émigrés of high rank, and among those in the neighborhood of Kowalowka were a number of old friends : the Marquis de Mirabeau, the Prince Valentin Esterhazy, the Count and Countess d’Aragon, and the Countess Diane de Polignac, with her brothers and their children. To all these the Countess Potocka extended a generous hospitality. For the Marquis de Baden and his family, who had fled from their burning château in a state of complete destitution, she did more ; for she received them as inmates of her family, on a visit which lasted for years, — a kindness which did the more honor to her heart since it would seem to he their misfortunes rather than their personal attractions which commended them to her; the marquis being a dry, formal little gentleman, and his wife and daughters suspicious, difficult of temper, and disposed to be quarrelsome.
This interval of serenity had a sudden and terrible interruption. In March, 1797, the little Vincent, Hélène’s second son, died, after a brief illness, of malignant sore throat; and two years later his brother followed him, victim of the same dread disease, to which the name of diphtheria had not yet been given. Hélène’s anguish at this double bereavement nearly cost her her life. At the burial of the second boy, as she stood by the side of the tomb in which already two of her children reposed, and saw the little coffin of the third lowered into it, recollection of the dark vision of her marriage night swept over her. “Three ! There are really three ! ” she exclaimed, with a piercing cry, and fell to the ground, insensible.
It was long before her despair gave place to melancholy resignation, which disguised itself in cheerfulness only when she was in the presence of her husband. No other child came to them, and as time wore on the complications and perplexities of their entangled affairs pressed upon them more and more heavily. In the year 1800 Count Potocki made a second journey to Russia, to petition the Emperor Paul for relief from the exactions and confiscations which threatened the loss of nearly their entire fortune. Hélène remained behind, the prey to apprehensions of various kinds, among which jealousy predominated. She distrusted her husband as much as she adored him ; all the fine phrases and protestations with which his letters were filled could not disguise from her his preoccupations and infidelities, and she was never easy when he was out of her sight. She busied herself with the estate and with trying to bring order out of their mismanaged affairs, but it was a hopeless task. Matters were in desperate confusion. The serfs of Kowalowka were ground down to the extreme of penury by an iron-heeled intendant. She could do little to alleviate the suffering which she saw about her.
She tells a pathetic story, in one of her letters, of a peasant whom she found cast despairingly down on the earth beside his dying ox. When she asked why he did not detach the animal and get it home, he explained that this was the one day of the week when he was suffered to work for himself; all the others belonged to the count: if he lost this, he and his family must die of hunger.
“ I have given orders,” she adds, “ that no one shall be forced to labor for us more than three days out of the six; and as I cannot see all the people myself, I have asked them to choose two of the most reasonable among them who shall come every Saturday and tell me of any complaints which should rightfully be made.” She speaks of peasants cruelly beaten by the sub-intendant, and of her interference in their behalf. “ I am told that they all bless me.” she says; and indeed her management of the estate shows equal benevolence of heart and capacity for business.
An accent of bitterness betrays itself occasionally. “ I only ask and desire to be your head servant, to obey and carry out your wishes,” she writes, “but I will not endure that any one else in your employment shall boast an authority superior to mine. If I make mistakes, very well; whether I do or not will soon be seen ; at all events, I am not likely to leave matters worse than I found them.”
Count Potocki’s mission to St. Petersburg proved altogether fruitless. His insight into human nature was not profound, and he had little idea of diplomacy or finesse; in addition he was indolent and pleasure-loving, and when rebuffed found it easier to let the matter drop, and turn to something more agreeable, than to persist firmly in an unwelcome solicitation. Such trifling methods availed little at the Russian court in the first year of our century, and after some months of idling and drifting he summoned to his aid his far cleverer wife. She joined him at St. Petersburg in September.
From the notes which she kept from day to day we can get an idea of the remarkable confusion of the time. The increasing insanity of the Emperor Paul was manifesting itself in a series of “accentuated follies” which kept every Russian subject, and in especial every resident of the capital, in daily terror for his life and liberty. Extraordinary ukases daily appeared; were daily revoked, altered, reissued. No one could follow the strange mutations of the law and be sure whether or not he was offending against it. One morning, the wearing of frock-coats, waistcoats, and trousers was prohibited, and all mankind was commanded to appear in uniform, with breeches and high top-boots à la postilion. Another time, it was round hats that were interdicted. Later, the Emperor forbade the Academy of Sciences to employ the word “ revolution ” when speaking of the movements of the heavenly bodies ! Next, the actors of the theatre were ordered to use the word 舠permission,” instead of the word 舠 liberty,” in the phrasing of their handbills. All tri - colored stuffs and ribbons were strictly proscribed. Two newspapers which had ventured on a veiled allusion to a recent attempt to assassinate the king of England were suppressed, and various persons who had discussed the news were arrested, closely questioned, and subjected to several days’ imprisonment. Persons desirous of quitting St. Petersburg for any absence, long or short, were commanded to report their intention a fortnight beforehand, that the Czar might have time to consent to or forbid the journey. A strict ordinance made it obligatory for all persons, of whatever age or sex, or whatever the state of the weather, to leave their carriages whenever that of the Czar appeared, and stand humbly by the roadside till he had passed. Every day, invalids, aged persons, delicate women, were to be seen shivering on the snowy pave, while the all-powerful autocrat rolled past; and the situation was complicated from the fact that the Emperor elected to go out in all manner of disguises and in every sort of vehicle, so that to recognize him in time was almost impossible; notwithstanding which, infractions of the rule were punished in the most merciless manner with the knout or Siberia. Meeting an Englishman one day who did not take off his hat to him, the Emperor angrily demanded the reason. He was told that the man was so shortsighted that he had failed to recognize his Majesty. Paul thereupon issued a decree ordering the Englishman to wear spectacles for the rest of his life. Years afterward, the Duke of Wellington had the privilege of seeing this curious state document.
It was a veritable Reign of Terror. A gloom that could be felt rested upon the capital. Every one trembled for himself and all belonging to him. Even the Empress and the grand dukes were not exempt from the consequences of these edicts ; in fact, the half-crazed Emperor was on the point of sentencing all the members of his own family to imprisonment, when, on the 23d of March, 1801, the saving catastrophe occurred in the assassination of the Czar. All St. Petersburg drew a long breath of relief ; there was but one feeling, that of escape from imminent danger, and a veiled rejoicing which every one shared, though no one ventured openly to express it.
The new Emperor, Alexander, had always shown a warm sympathy for the persecuted Poles, and was disposed, so far as was possible, to stand their friend. Thanks to this clement disposition and to the tact and grace of Hélène, who influenced the negotiations far more than did her husband, the Potockis succeeded in their suits. Kowalowka could not be reclaimed; it was too deeply burdened with debts; but the estates in Lithuania were relieved from sequestration. After some months of travel, the count and countess established themselves at Brody, in Galicia, an estate smaller in extent than Kowalowka, but warmer, sheltered in situation, and infinitely more comfortable.
The next two years were passed in rather a dull round of employments and amusements; the chief variety in Hélène’s lonely and somewhat sombre life being the periodic attacks of fierce jealousy which the inconstancy of her husband provoked. In 1803, her anger and suffering on account of a certain Mademoiselle Karwoska were so great that she actually resolved on separating herself from Count Potocki, and set out for Germany to join her friend the Princess Jablonowska. Here a singular encounter took place. She met her former fatherin-law, the Prince de Ligne, and through his advice and influence was induced to return to her husband.
He pointed out to her that the only possible justification for her conduct lay in the profound and passionate strength of her attachment to Count Potocki. If she now abandoned him, she must evermore seem in the eyes of the world a mere vulgar coquette, the slave of fragile and temporary caprices. He spoke also of her daughter Sidonie, describing the grace and sweetness of her early maidenhood, and the tender affection and respect with which she had been trained to regard her mother, whose history had been carefully concealed from her. An adept in the springs and intricacies of human nature, the Prince de Ligne perfectly understood the character of his late belle-fille, its fervor, its impetuosity, its latent capacities for generosity, and in his gravely - kind, sweet-toned argument he played on her impulses as upon an instrument. Hélène was touched to the heart by a tenderness so little expected or deserved. With torrents of tears she consented to all that he required, and at once set out on her return to her husband. He, for his part, had passed some days of anxiety, but, understanding her nature quite as well as did the Prince de Ligue, was not unprepared for the sudden reaction which brought her back to him, and was only too ready to welcome and pardon. A reconciliation followed, which lasted for a few happy days, after which misunderstandings began again.
The tenderness then newly awakened in her mind for her only living child increased as time went on, and correspondence brought them nearer to each other. It opened her eyes to the injustice of which she had been guilty in placing her fortune so completely in the power of Count Potocki. At his death it would revert to his son, leaving Sidonie unprovided for. Long meditation over this matter led to a singular resolution. In 1806 she proposed to Count Potocki that a match should be made between his son and her daughter, by which the estates should be united, and all difficulties as to inheritance amicably settled.
It was a strange proposal, and, stranger still, all parties concerned were gradually inclined to agree to it. A year later the marriage actually took place at Teplitz, September 8, 1807. The young people were well pleased with each other, and from the very outset the union was harmonious and peaceful. The embarrassment of a meeting between the respective mothers of the bride and the bridegroom was alleviated by the tact and self-control of Hélène, who announced herself too unwell to be present at the marriage ceremony. She sent her daughter a superb parure of diamonds and pearls, and a few weeks after the marriage had the joy of folding in her arms the child whom she had last seen as an infant a year old.
Their meeting took place in Paris. A year previously, having made an advantageous sale of part of their Polish property, the Count and Countess Potocki had purchased an hôtel in the Rue Caumartin, and removed their residence thither. They maintained an almost royal state : the furniture of the house was valued at nearly a million of francs, an army of servants waited on their will, their chef was one of the most celebrated of the day, and three times a week they gave a splendid dinner to ten or twelve persons, followed by a reception. It is amusing to note that these recherché banquets took place at five P. M., the fashionable dining hour of the period ; and Hélène notes as an evidence of the sparkle and wit of the conversation, which made all present oblivious of the flight of time, that her guests sometimes remained as late as eleven o’clock at night !
It is not difficult to understand the constant money difficulties of the Potockis when we read the details of their extravagant manner of living. In going from Poland to Paris they traveled separately, giving each other rendezvous at this point or that; because each necessarily journeyed with so large a suite that to unite them taxed the resources of the road too heavily. The count was accompanied by four secretaries, two intendants, a physician, two valets de place, and four lackeys, beside a couple of private postilions who rode with those provided by the posting service. He was preceded by a courier, who went ahead to secure and prepare his lodgings for the night. Four large carriages were needed to convey this train of attendants, beside an immense fourgon for the baggage : and all this that one inconsiderable Polish gentleman, not traveling in a public capacity, should make in comfort a three weeks’ slow journey on wheels!
Sidonie was as much enchanted with her mother as her mother was with her. In her lonely childhood, presided over by the stern Princess de Ligne, the girl had dreamed dreams about this beautiful unknown parent, whose picture she possessed, and from whom came occasional perfumed letters and gifts. She had always "longed to have a mother like other girls,” and their meeting was full of happy emotions. Hélène pressed her child to her heart, wept over her, pulled out her comb to let her long fair hair fall over her shoulders, turned her from side to side, crying in a voice suffocated by sobs, “It is such a long time, — such a long time ! ” Sidonie, on her part, submitted with the sweetest grace to this inspection, saying between tears and laughter, 舠 Now, mamma, it is your part to make me over into your own daughter. You must help me to learn all that you find wanting in me.”
The rooms were heaped with cartons containing gifts for the bride from her delighted mother: feathers, flowers, ribbons, fans, cashmere shawls, trinkets in coral, in amber, in shell, and a quantity of beautiful gowns, both for state occasions and for daily use. With the glee of a child, Sidonie ran from one room to another, her young husband following, charmed with her pleasure. Count François easily fell under the spell of his fascinating mother-in-law, she learned to love him, and the affection and devotion of these dear children became from that time forward the chief happiness of her life.
The even tenor of her existence, with her beloved daughter at hand, was broken only when Count Potocki returned, as he often did, to Poland, leaving her behind in Paris. His absences were often inexplicably long, and anonymous letters apprised her of the fact that he was still under the spell of “the Karwoska.” More than once, in a frantic paroxysm of jealousy, Hélène departed for Poland at a gallop, with but a single hour of preparation, intent on surprising her prodigal in the midst of his sins ; but somehow he and “ the Karwoska ” were more alert than she was, and she never quite attained the confirmation of her suspicions. Her physicians considered that these frantic journeys shortened her life.
In the year 1810, at a ball given in Paris by the Duke of Saxe Weimar, Count Potocki had the extraordinary experience of meeting, in the same room and at the same time, all his wives, past and present: the Maréchale de Mniseck with her husband, the Countess Anna, and Hélène. He bore himself under these untoward circumstances with the greatest ease, saluted each lady courteously, and betrayed no embarrassment of manner : but Hélène was so discomposed by the contretemps that she escaped from the fête as soon as possible, and could not be persuaded to go out again so long as her predecessors remained in Paris.
She died on the 30th of October, 1815, at the age of fifty-two, in the arms of the child whom for so many years she had abandoned and forgotten, and during the absence of the husband whom she so passionately loved. His grief was extreme. 舠 She is dead, and all my happiness has perished with her.”he writes. Nevertheless, a few years later, we hear of him as the suitor of his divorced wife, the Countess Anna, who signs the letter accepting his offer, “ Your wife in the past, and your wife in the future.” Only the death of the count prevented this singular second union !
Another extract, “ even more stupefying,” concludes the narrative. It is taken from the registers of the cemetery of Pèrela-Chaise.
舠 Hélène Massalski, wife of Potocki, in the second row to the right of the tomb of Marshal Ney, 44th division : interred temporarily for five years the 2d of November, 1815 ; removed the 21st of March, 1840, to the fosse commune, where she remains.”
So all that life could give to our little fairy princess, born under such brilliant auguries, dowered with so many gifts, the spoiled pet of the Abbaye aux Bois, the favorite pupil of Madame de Rochechouart, was a few years of checkered splendor, a love always uneasy and often thwarted and betrayed, and in the end a nameless and forgotten grave.
Un peu d’espoir,
Un peu de rêve,
Et puis — bon soir.”