Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 36
THE DUCHESS JOSIANA.
IN 1705, although Lady Josiana was twenty-three and Lord David forty-four, the wedding had not yet taken place, and that for the best reason in the world. Did they hate each other? Far from it; but what cannot escape you inspires you with no haste to obtain it. Josiana wanted to remain free; David, to remain young. To have no tie until as late as possible seemed to him to be a prolongation of youth. Middle-aged young men abounded in those rakish times; they grew grey as young fops. The wig was an accomplice; later on, powder became the auxiliary. At fifty-five Lord Charles Gerrard, Baron Gerrard, one of the Gerrards of Bromley, filled London with his successes; the young and pretty Duchess of Buckingham, Countess of Coventry, made a fool of herself for love of the handsome Thomas Bellasys, Viscount Fauconberg, who was sixty-seven. Men quoted the famous verses of Corneille, the septuagenarian, to a girl of twenty, beginning, "Marquise, si mon visage." Women, too, had their successes in the autumn of life,—witness Ninon and Marion. Such were the models of the day.
Josiana and David were carrying on a flirtation of a peculiar kind. They did not love, they pleased, each other. To be in each other's society sufficed them: why hasten the conclusion? The novels of those days carried lovers and engaged couples only to that stage which was the most becoming. Besides, Josiana, while she knew herself to be a bastard, felt herself a princess, and carried her authority over him with a high hand in all their arrangements. She had a fancy for Lord David. He was handsome; but she cared very little about that. She considered him elegant: that was the all-important thing. To be fashionable is everything. Caliban, fashionable and magnificent, would distance Ariel poor. Lord David was handsome; so much the better. The danger in being handsome is being insipid; and that he was not. He betted, boxed, ran into debt. Josiana was proud of his horses, his dogs, his losses at play, and especially of his mistresses. Lord David, on his side, bowed down before the fascinations of the Duchess Josiana,—a maiden without spot or scruple, haughty, inaccessible, and audacious. He addressed sonnets to her, which Josiana sometimes read. In these sonnets he declared that to possess Josiana would be to mount to the stars; but this did not prevent him from postponing the ascent until the following year. He waited patiently in the ante-chamber outside Josiana's heart; and this suited both of them. Every one at court commended the good taste of this delay. Lady Josiana said, "It is a pity that I should be obliged to marry Lord David,—I, who would desire nothing better than to be in love with him!"
Josiana was "the flesh" personified. It would be difficult to conceive of a more magnificent creature. She was very tall,—too tall. Her hair was of that tint which might be called red gold. She was plump, fresh, strong, and rosy, and possessed of immense boldness and wit. She had eyes which were too eloquent. She had neither lovers nor chastity. She walled herself around with pride. Men! fie! a god alone would be worthy of her,—a god or a monster. If virtue consists in impregnability, then Josiana was the most virtuous of women, though by no means the most innocent. She disdained intrigues; but she would not have been displeased had she been suspected of some, provided that they had been of a brilliant character proportionate to the merits of one so exalted as herself. She thought little of her reputation, but a great deal of her glory. To appear yielding, and yet be unapproachable, is perfection. Josiana felt herself majestic and material. Hers was a cumbrous type of beauty. She usurped rather than charmed; she trod upon hearts; she was of the earth earthy. She would have been as much astonished to find a soul in her bosom as to see wings on her back. She discoursed learnedly on Locke; she was polite; she was even suspected of knowing Arabic.
To be flesh and to be a woman are two very different things. Where a woman is vulnerable,—on the side of pity for instance, which so readily turns to love,—Josiana was not. Yet she was not unfeeling. The old comparison of flesh with marble is absolutely false. The beauty of flesh consists in not being marble. Its beauty is to palpitate, to tremble, to blush, to bleed; to have firmness without hardness; to be white without being cold; to have its sensations and its infirmities. Its beauty is to be life, and marble is death. Flesh, when it attains a certain degree of beauty, has almost a claim to the right of nudity; it conceals itself in its own dazzling charms as in a veil. He who looked upon Josiana nude, would have perceived her outlines only through a sort of halo. She would have shown herself without hesitation to a satyr or a eunuch. She had the self-possession of a goddess. To have made her nudity a torment to an ever-pursuing Tantalus, would have been a delight to her.
The king had made her a duchess, and Jupiter a Nereid. In admiring her you felt yourself becoming at once a pagan and a lackey. She seemed to have emerged from the foam of the ocean. In her there was something of the wave, of chance, of the patrician, and of the tempest. She was well read and accomplished. Never had a passion approached her, yet she had sounded them all. She felt an instinctive loathing of their realization, and at the same time a longing for them. If she had stabbed herself, it would, like Lucretia, not have been until afterwards. She was a virgin stained with every defilement of an imaginary sort. She was a possible Astarte embodied in a real Diana. She was, in the insolence of her high birth, at once tempting and inaccessible. Nevertheless, she might find it amusing to plan a fall for herself. She dwelt in a halo of glory, half wishing to descend from it, and perhaps feeling curious to know what a fall was like. She was a little too heavy for her cloud. To err is a diversion. Princely unconstraint has the privilege of experiment; and what is frailty in a plebeian, is only frolic in a duchess. Josiana was in everything—in birth, in beauty, in irony, in brilliancy—almost a queen. She had felt a momentary infatuation for Louis de Boufflers, who used to break horse-shoes between his fingers. She regretted that Hercules was dead. She lived in some undefined expectation of a voluptuous and supreme ideal. Morally, Josiana brought to one's mind the line of Horace, Desinit in piscem,—
"Un beau torse de femme en hydre se termine.
Hers was a noble neck, a splendid bosom, tranquilly heaving over a proud and arrogant heart, a glance full of life and light, a countenance pure and haughty; but (who knows?) below the surface was there not, in a semi-transparent and misty depth, an undulating, supernatural prolongation, perchance deformed and dragon-like,—proud virtue ending in vice in the depths of dreams?
With all that she was a prude. It was the fashion. Remember Elizabeth. Elizabeth was of a type that prevailed in England for three centuries,—the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth. Elizabeth was more than English, she was Anglican. Hence the deep respect of the Episcopalian Church for that queen,—a respect resented by the Church of Rome, which counterbalanced it with a dash of excommunication. In the mouth of Sixtus V., when anathematizing Elizabeth, malediction turned to madrigal: "Un gran cervello di principessa," he says. Mary Stuart, less concerned with the church and more with the woman part of the question, had little respect for her sister Elizabeth, and wrote to her as queen to queen and coquette to prude: "Your disinclination to marriage arises from your not wishing to lose the liberty of being made love to." Mary Stuart toyed with the fan, Elizabeth with the axe. An uneven match. They were rivals, besides, in literature. Mary Stuart composed French verses; Elizabeth translated Horace. The ugly Elizabeth decreed herself beautiful; liked quatrains and acrostics; had the keys of towns presented to her by cupids; bit her lips, after the Italian fashion, rolled her eyes after the Spanish style; had in her wardrobe three thousand dresses and costumes, of which several were for the character of Minerva and Amphitrite; esteemed the Irish for the width of their shoulders; covered her farthingale with braids and spangles; loved roses; cursed, swore, and stamped; struck her maids of honour with her clinched fists; used to send Dudley to the devil, beat Burleigh the Chancellor, who would cry (poor old fool!), spat on Mathew, collared Hatton, boxed the ears of Essex, showed her legs to Bassompierre,—and was a virgin. What she did for Bassompierre the Queen of Sheba had done for Solomon; consequently she was right, Holy Writ having created the precedent. That which is Biblical may well be Anglican. Biblical precedent even goes so far as to speak of a child who was called Ebnehaquem, or Melilechet; that is to say, "the Wise Man's son."
Why object to such manners? Cynicism is at least as good as hypocrisy. Nowadays England, whose Loyola is named Wesley, casts down her eyes a little at the remembrance of that past age; she is vexed at the memory, yet proud of it.
Amidst such manners as these, a taste for deformity existed, especially among women, more especially among beautiful women. What was the use of being beautiful if one did not possess a baboon? What was the charm of being a queen if one could not bandy words with a dwarf? Mary Stuart had "been kind" to the bandy-legged Rizzio. Maria Theresa of Spain had been "somewhat familiar" with a negro; hence the "black abbess." In the alcoves of the great century a hump was the fashion: witness the Marshal of Luxembourg; and before Luxembourg, Condé, "such a pretty little man!" Beauties themselves might be ill-made without detriment; that was admitted. Anne Boleyn had one breast bigger than the other, six fingers on one hand, and a projecting tooth; La Vallière was bandy-legged,—which did not hinder Henry VIII. from going mad for the one, and Louis XIV. for the other.
Morals were equally awry. There was not a woman of high rank who was not a sort of monster. Every Agnes was a Melusina at heart. They were women by day and ghouls by night. They sought the scaffold to kiss the heads of the newly beheaded on their iron stakes. Marguerite de Valois, the grandmother of prudes, wore, fastened to her belt, the hearts of her dead lovers in tin boxes, padlocked. In the eighteenth century the Duchess de Berry, daughter of the Regent, was herself an obscene and royal type of all these creatures.
These fine ladies, moreover, knew Latin. From the sixteenth century this had been accounted a feminine accomplishment. Lady Jane Grey had carried the fashion to the extent of knowing Hebrew. The Duchess Josiana Latinized. Then (another fine thing) she was secretly a Catholic,—after the manner of her uncle, Charles II., rather than her father, James II. James II. had lost his crown by reason of his Catholicism, and Josiana did not care to risk her peerage. Thus it was that while she was a Catholic among her intimate friends and the refined of both sexes, she was outwardly a Protestant for the benefit of the riff-raff. This is a pleasant view to take of religion. You enjoy all the good things connected with the Episcopalian Church, and later on you die, like Grotius, in the odour of Catholicity, with the glory of having a mass said for you by le Père Petau.
Although plump and healthy, Josiana was, we repeat, a perfect prude. At times, her sleepy and voluptuous way of dragging out the end of her phrases was like the creeping of a tiger's paws in the jungle. When one has not got Olympus, one must be content with the Hotel de Rambouillet. Juno resolves herself into Araminta. A pretension to divinity not admitted, creates affectation. Instead of thunder-claps there is impertinence. The temple shrivels into the boudoir. Unable to be a goddess, one becomes a graven image. Besides, there is in prudery a certain pedantry which is pleasing to women. The coquette and the pedant are near neighbours. Their kinship is visible in the fop. The subtile is derived from the sensual. Gluttony affects delicacy; a grimace of disgust conceals cupidity. And then woman feels her weak point guarded by all that casuistry of gallantry which takes the place of scruples in prudes. It is a line of circumvallation with a ditch. Every prude puts on an air of repugnance; it is a protection. She will consent eventually, but she disdains—for the present.
Josiana had an uneasy conscience. She felt such a leaning towards immodesty that she was a prude. The very pride which causes us to shrink from certain vices leads us into others of an entirely different character. It was the excessive effort to be chaste which made Josiana a prude. To be too much on the defensive evinces a secret desire for attack; the truly modest woman is not strait-laced. Josiana shut herself up in the arrogance of the exceptional circumstances of her rank, meditating, perhaps, all the while some sudden lapse from it.
It was the dawn of the eighteenth century. England was a sketch of what France was during the regency. Walpole and Dubois were not unlike. Marlborough was fighting against his former king, James II., to whom it was said he had sold his sister, Miss Churchill. Bolingbroke was in the height and Richelieu in the dawn of his glory. Gallantry found a certain medley of ranks convenient. Men were made equal by their vices as they were later on, perhaps, by their ideas. Degradation of rank, an aristocratic prelude, began what the revolution was to complete. It was not very far from the time when Jélyotte was seen sitting publicly in broad daylight, on the bed of the Marquise d'Epinay. It is true (for manners re-echo each other) that in the sixteenth century Smeton's nightcap had been found under Anne Boleyn's pillow.
If the word woman signifies frailty, never was woman so womanly as then. Never, covering her frailty by her charms, and her weakness by her omnipotence, has she claimed absolution more imperiously. In making the forbidden the permitted fruit. Eve fell; in making the permitted the forbidden fruit, she triumphs. That is the climax. In the eighteenth century the wife bolts out her husband. She shuts herself up in Eden with Satan. Adam is left outside.
All Josiana's instincts impelled her to yield herself wantonly rather than to give herself legally. To surrender one's self thus, is considered a sure indication of genius, recalls Menalcas and Amaryllis, and is almost a literary act. Mademoiselle de Scudéry, aside from the charm of ugliness (for ugliness has its charm), could have had no other motive for yielding to Pélisson.
The maiden a sovereign, the wife a subject,—such was the old English notion. Josiana was deferring the hour of subjection as long as she could. She must eventually marry Lord David, since such was the royal pleasure. It was a necessity, doubtless; but what a pity! Josiana appreciated Lord David, and showed him off. There was between them a tacit agreement neither to conclude nor to break off the engagement. They eluded each other. This method of making love—one step in advance, and two back—is expressed in the dances of the period, the minuet and the gavotte.
It is unbecoming to be married; it fades one's ribbons, and makes one look old. An espousal is a dreary absorption of brilliancy. A woman handed over to you by a notary, how commonplace! The brutality of marriage creates definite situations, suppresses the will, kills choice; has a syntax, like grammar; replaces inspiration by orthography; makes love a dictation; disperses all Life's mysteries; diminishes the rights both of sovereign and subject; by a turn of the scale destroys the charming equilibrium of the sexes: the one robust in bodily strength, the other all-powerful in feminine weakness,—strength on one side, beauty on the other; makes one a master, and the other a servant. While before marriage man is the slave, woman the queen. To make Love prosaically decent, how gross! to deprive it of all impropriety, how dull!
Lord David was no longer young. Forty is an age that tells upon a man. He was not conscious of the fact, however, and really looked only a little over thirty. He considered it more amusing to desire Josiana than to possess her. He possessed others; he had mistresses. On the other hand, Josiana had dreams.
The Duchess Josiana had a peculiarity which is less rare than is generally supposed. One of her eyes was blue and the other black. Her pupils were made for love and hate, for happiness and misery. Night and day were mingled in her look. Her ambition was this: to show herself capable of impossibilities. One day she said to Swift: "You people fancy that you know what scorn is." "You people," meant the human race. She was a skin-deep Papist; her Catholicism did not exceed the amount necessary for fashion. She would have been a Puseyite at the present day. She wore great dresses of velvet, satin, or moire, some composed of fifteen or sixteen yards of material, with embroideries of gold and silver, and round her waist many knots of pearls, alternating with other precious stones. She was extravagant in gold lace. Sometimes she wore an embroidered cloth jacket, like a bachelor. She rode on a man's saddle, notwithstanding the invention of side-saddles introduced into England in the fourteenth century by Anne, wife of Richard II. She washed her face, arms, shoulders, and neck in sugar dissolved in white of egg, after the Castilian fashion. There came over her face when any one talked cleverly in her presence an appreciative smile of singular grace. She was free from malice, and rather good-natured than otherwise.
- Regina Saba coram rege crura denudavit.—Schicklardus in Proœmio Tarich Jersici, f. 65.