King Charles Ii. And Nell Gwyn
One might classify the kings of England in many ways. John was
undoubtedly the most unpopular. The impetuous yet far-seeing Henry
II., with the other two great warriors, Edward I. and Edward III.,
and William of Orange, did most for the foundation and development
of England's constitutional law. Some monarchs, such as Edward II.
and the womanish Henry VI., have been contemptible. Hard-working,
useful kings have been Henry VII., the Georges, William IV., and
especially the last Edward.
If we consider those monarchs who have in some curious way touched
the popular fancy without reference to their virtues we must go
back to Richard of the Lion Heart, who saw but little of England,
yet was the best essentially English king, and to Henry V.,
gallant soldier and conqueror of France. Even Henry VIII. had a
warm place in the affection of his countrymen, few of whom saw him
near at hand, but most of whom made him a sort of regal
incarnation of John Bull--wrestling and tilting and boxing, eating
great joints of beef, and staying his thirst with flagons of ale--
a big, healthy, masterful animal, in fact, who gratified the
national love of splendor and stood up manfully in his struggle
with the Pope.
But if you look for something more than ordinary popularity--
something that belongs to sentiment and makes men willing to
become martyrs for a royal cause--we must find these among the
Stuart kings. It is odd, indeed, that even at this day there are
Englishmen and Englishwomen who believe their lawful sovereign to
be a minor Bavarian princess in whose veins there runs the Stuart
blood. Prayers are said for her at English shrines, and toasts are
drunk to her in rare old wine.
Of course, to-day this cult of the Stuarts is nothing but a fad.
No one ever expects to see a Stuart on the English throne. But it
is significant of the deep strain of romance which the six Stuarts
who reigned in England have implanted in the English heart. The
old Jacobite ballads still have power to thrill. Queen Victoria
herself used to have the pipers file out before her at Balmoral to
the "skirling" of "Bonnie Dundee," "Over the Water to Charlie,"
and "Wha'll Be King but Charlie!" It is a sentiment that has never
died. Her late majesty used to say that when she heard these tunes
she became for the moment a Jacobite; just as the Empress Eugenie
at the height of her power used pertly to remark that she herself
was the only Legitimist left in France.
It may be suggested that the Stuarts are still loved by many
Englishmen because they were unfortunate; yet this is hardly true,
after all. Many of them were fortunate enough. The first of them,
King James, an absurd creature, speaking broad Scotch, timid,
foolishly fond of favorites, and having none of the dignity of a
monarch, lived out a lengthy reign. The two royal women of the
family--Anne and Mary--had no misfortunes of a public nature.
Charles II. reigned for more than a quarter of a century, lapped
in every kind of luxury, and died a king.
The first Charles was beheaded and afterward styled a "saint"; yet
the majority of the English people were against his arrogance, or
else he would have won his great struggle against Parliament. The
second James was not popular at all. Nevertheless, no sooner had
he been expelled, and been succeeded by a Dutchman gnawing
asparagus and reeking of cheeses, than there was already a Stuart
legend. Even had there been no pretenders to carry on the cult,
the Stuarts would still have passed into history as much loved by
It only shows how very little in former days the people expected
of a regnant king. Many monarchs have had just a few popular
traits, and these have stood out brilliantly against the darkness
of the background.
No one could have cared greatly for the first James, but Charles
I. was indeed a kingly personage when viewed afar. He was
handsome, as a man, fully equaling the French princess who became
his wife. He had no personal vices. He was brave, and good to look
upon, and had a kingly mien. Hence, although he sought to make his
rule over England a tyranny, there were many fine old cavaliers to
ride afield for him when he raised his standard, and who, when he
died, mourned for him as a "martyr."
Many hardships they underwent while Cromwell ruled with his iron
hand; and when that iron hand was relaxed in death, and poor,
feeble Richard Cromwell slunk away to his country-seat, what
wonder is it that young Charles came back to England and caracoled
through the streets of London with a smile for every one and a
happy laugh upon his lips? What wonder is it that the cannon in
the Tower thundered a loud welcome, and that all over England, at
one season or another, maypoles rose and Christmas fires blazed?
For Englishmen at heart are not only monarchists, but they are
lovers of good cheer and merrymaking and all sorts of mirth.
Charles II. might well at first have seemed a worthier and wiser
successor to his splendid father. As a child, even, he had shown
himself to be no faint-hearted creature. When the great Civil War
broke out he had joined his father's army. It met with disaster at
Edgehill, and was finally shattered by the crushing defeat of
Naseby, which afterward inspired Macaulay's most stirring ballad.
Charles was then only a child of twelve, and so his followers did
wisely in hurrying him out of England, through the Scilly isles
and Jersey to his mother's place of exile. Of course, a child so
very young could be of no value as a leader, though his presence
might prove an inspiration.
In 1648, however, when he was eighteen years of age, he gathered a
fleet of eighteen ships and cruised along the English coast,
taking prizes, which he carried to the Dutch ports. When he was at
Holland's capital, during his father's trial, he wrote many
messages to the Parliamentarians, and even sent them a blank
charter, which they might fill in with any stipulations they
desired if only they would save and restore their king.
When the head of Charles rolled from the velvet-covered block his
son showed himself to be no loiterer or lover of an easy life. He
hastened to Scotland, skilfully escaping an English force, and was
proclaimed as king and crowned at Scone, in 1651. With ten
thousand men he dashed into England, where he knew there were many
who would rally at his call. But it was then that Cromwell put
forth his supreme military genius and with his Ironsides crushed
the royal troops at Worcester.
Charles knew that for the present all was lost. He showed courage
and address in covering the flight of his beaten soldiers; but he
soon afterward went to France, remaining there and in the
Netherlands for eight years as a pensioner of Louis XIV. He knew
that time would fight for him far more surely than infantry and
horse. England had not been called "Merry England" for nothing;
and Cromwell's tyranny was likely to be far more resented than the
heavy hand of one who was born a king. So Charles at Paris and
Liege, though he had little money at the time, managed to maintain
a royal court, such as it was.
Here there came out another side of his nature. As a child he had
borne hardship and privation and had seen the red blood flow upon
the battlefield. Now, as it were, he allowed a certain sensuous,
pleasure-loving ease to envelop him. The red blood should become
the rich red burgundy; the sound of trumpets and kettledrums
should give way to the melody of lutes and viols. He would be a
king of pleasure if he were to be king at all. And therefore his
court, even in exile, was a court of gallantry and ease. The Pope
refused to lend him money, and the King of France would not
increase his pension, but there were many who foresaw that Charles
would not long remain in exile; and so they gave him what he
wanted and waited until he could give them what they would ask for
in their turn.
Charles at this time was not handsome, like his father. His
complexion was swarthy, his figure by no means imposing, though
always graceful. When he chose he could bear himself with all the
dignity of a monarch. He had a singularly pleasant manner, and a
word from him could win over the harshest opponent.
The old cavaliers who accompanied their master in exile were like
Napoleon's veterans in Elba. With their tall, powerful forms they
stalked about the courtyards, sniffing their disapproval at these
foreign ways and longing grimly for the time when they could once
more smell the pungent powder of the battle-field. But, as Charles
had hoped, the change was coming. Not merely were his own subjects
beginning to long for him and to pray in secret for the king, but
continental monarchs who maintained spies in England began to know
of this. To them Charles was no longer a penniless exile. He was a
king who before long would take possession of his kingdom.
A very wise woman--the Queen Regent of Portugal--was the first to
act on this information. Portugal was then very far from being a
petty state. It had wealth at home and rich colonies abroad, while
its flag was seen on every sea. The queen regent, being at odds
with Spain, and wishing to secure an ally against that power, made
overtures to Charles, asking him whether a match might not be made
between him and the Princess Catharine of Braganza. It was not
merely her daughter's hand that she offered, but a splendid dowry.
She would pay Charles a million pounds in gold and cede to England
two valuable ports.
The match was not yet made, but by 1659 it had been arranged. The
Spaniards were furious, for Charles's cause began to appear
She was a quaint and rather piteous little figure, she who was
destined to be the wife of the Merry Monarch. Catharine was dark,
petite, and by no means beautiful; yet she had a very sweet
expression and a heart of utter innocence. She had been wholly
convent-bred. She knew nothing of the world. She was told that in
marriage she must obey in all things, and that the chief duty of a
wife was to make her husband happy.
Poor child! It was a too gracious preparation for a very graceless
husband. Charles, in exile, had already made more than one
discreditable connection and he was already the father of more
than one growing son.
First of all, he had been smitten by the bold ways of one Lucy
Walters. Her impudence amused the exiled monarch. She was not
particularly beautiful, and when she spoke as others did she was
rather tiresome; but her pertness and the inexperience of the king
when he went into exile made her seem attractive. She bore him a
son, in the person of that brilliant adventurer whom Charles
afterward created Duke of Monmouth. Many persons believe that
Charles had married Lucy Walters, just as George IV. may have
married Mrs. Fitzherbert; yet there is not the slightest proof of
it, and it must be classed with popular legends.
There was also one Catherine Peg, or Kep, whose son was afterward
made Earl of Plymouth. It must be confessed that in his
attachments to English women Charles showed little care for rank
or station. Lucy Walters and Catherine Peg were very illiterate
In a way it was precisely this sort of preference that made
Charles so popular among the people. He seemed to make rank of no
account, but would chat in the most familiar and friendly way with
any one whom he happened to meet. His easy, democratic manner,
coupled with the grace and prestige of royalty, made friends for
him all over England. The treasury might be nearly bankrupt; the
navy might be routed by the Dutch; the king himself might be too
much given to dissipation; but his people forgave him all, because
everybody knew that Charles would clap an honest citizen on the
back and joke with all who came to see him feed the swans in
The popular name for him was "Rowley," or "Old Rowley"--a nickname
of mysterious origin, though it is said to have been given him
from a fancied resemblance to a famous hunter in his stables.
Perhaps it is the very final test of popularity that a ruler
should have a nickname known to every one.
Cromwell's death roused all England to a frenzy of king-worship.
The Roundhead, General Monk, and his soldiers proclaimed Charles
King of England and escorted him to London in splendid state. That
was a day when national feeling reached a point such as never has
been before or since. Oughtred, the famous mathematician, died of
joy when the royal emblems were restored. Urquhart, the translator
of Rabelais, died, it is said, of laughter at the people's wild
delight--a truly Rabelaisian end.
There was the king once more; and England, breaking through its
long period of Puritanism, laughed and danced with more vivacity
than ever the French had shown. All the pipers and the players and
panderers to vice, the mountebanks, the sensual men, and the
lawless women poured into the presence of the king, who had been
too long deprived of the pleasure that his nature craved.
Parliament voted seventy thousand pounds for a memorial to
Charles's father, but the irresponsible king spent the whole sum
on the women who surrounded him. His severest counselor, Lord
Clarendon, sent him a remonstrance.
"How can I build such a memorial," asked Charles, "when I don't
know where my father's remains are buried!"
He took money from the King of France to make war against the
Dutch, who had befriended him. It was the French king, too, who
sent him that insidious, subtle daughter of Brittany, Louise de
Keroualle--Duchess of Portsmouth--a diplomat in petticoats, who
won the king's wayward affections, and spied on what he did and
said, and faithfully reported all of it to Paris. She became the
mother of the Duke of Lenox, and she was feared and hated by the
English more than any other of his mistresses. They called her
"Madam Carwell," and they seemed to have an instinct that she was
no mere plaything of his idle hours, but was like some strange
exotic serpent, whose poison might in the end sting the honor of
There is a pitiful little episode in the marriage of Charles with
his Portuguese bride, Catharine of Braganza. The royal girl came
to him fresh from the cloisters of her convent. There was
something about her grace and innocence that touched the dissolute
monarch, who was by no means without a heart. For a time he
treated her with great respect, and she was happy. At last she
began to notice about her strange faces--faces that were evil,
wanton, or overbold. The court became more and more a seat of
Finally Catharine was told that the Duchess of Cleveland--that
splendid termagant, Barbara Villiers--had been appointed lady of
the bedchamber. She was told at the same time who this vixen was--
that she was no fit attendant for a virtuous woman, and that her
three sons, the Dukes of Southampton, Grafton, and Northumberland,
were also the sons of Charles.
Fluttered and frightened and dismayed, the queen hastened to her
husband and begged him not to put this slight upon her. A year or
two before, she had never dreamed that life contained such things
as these; but now it seemed to contain nothing else. Charles spoke
sternly to her until she burst into tears, and then he petted her
and told her that her duty as a queen compelled her to submit to
many things which a lady in private life need not endure.
After a long and poignant struggle with her own emotions the
little Portuguese yielded to the wishes of her lord. She never
again reproached him. She even spoke with kindness to his
favorites and made him feel that she studied his happiness alone.
Her gentleness affected him so that he always spoke to her with
courtesy and real friendship. When the Protestant mobs sought to
drive her out of England he showed his courage and manliness by
standing by her and refusing to allow her to be molested.
Indeed, had Charles been always at his best he would have had a
very different name in history. He could be in every sense a king.
He had a keen knowledge of human nature. Though he governed
England very badly, he never governed it so badly as to lose his
The epigram of Rochester, written at the king's own request, was
singularly true of Charles. No man relied upon his word, yet men
loved him. He never said anything that was foolish, and he very
seldom did anything that was wise; yet his easy manners and
gracious ways endeared him to those who met him.
One can find no better picture of his court than that which Sir
Walter Scott has drawn so vividly in Peveril of the Peak; or, if
one wishes first-hand evidence, it can be found in the diaries of
Evelyn and of Samuel Pepys. In them we find the rakes and dicers,
full of strange oaths, deep drunkards, vile women and still viler
men, all striving for the royal favor and offering the filthiest
lures, amid routs and balls and noisy entertainments, of which it
is recorded that more than once some woman gave birth to a child
among the crowd of dancers.
No wonder that the little Portuguese queen kept to herself and did
not let herself be drawn into this swirling, roaring, roistering
saturnalia. She had less influence even than Moll Davis, whom
Charles picked out of a coffee-house, and far less than "Madam
Carwell," to whom it is reported that a great English nobleman
once presented pearls to the value of eight thousand pounds in
order to secure her influence in a single stroke of political
Of all the women who surrounded Charles there was only one who
cared anything for him or for England. The rest were all either
selfish or treacherous or base. This one exception has been so
greatly written of, both in fiction and in history, as to make it
seem almost unnecessary to add another word; yet it may well be
worth while to separate the fiction from the fact and to see how
much of the legend of Eleanor Gwyn is true.
The fanciful story of her birthplace is most surely quite
unfounded. She was not the daughter of a Welsh officer, but of two
petty hucksters who had their booth in the lowest precincts of
London. In those days the Strand was partly open country, and as
it neared the city it showed the mansions of the gentry set in
their green-walled parks. At one end of the Strand, however, was
Drury Lane, then the haunt of criminals and every kind of wretch,
while nearer still was the notorious Coal Yard, where no citizen
dared go unarmed.
Within this dreadful place children were kidnapped and trained to
various forms of vice. It was a school for murderers and robbers
and prostitutes; and every night when the torches flared it
vomited forth its deadly spawn. Here was the earliest home of
Eleanor Gwyn, and out of this den of iniquity she came at night to
sell oranges at the entrance to the theaters. She was stage-
struck, and endeavored to get even a minor part in a play; but
Betterton, the famous actor, thrust her aside when she ventured to
apply to him.
It must be said that in everything that was external, except her
beauty, she fell short of a fastidious taste. She was intensely
ignorant even for that time. She spoke in a broad Cockney dialect.
She had lived the life of the Coal Yard, and, like Zola's Nana,
she could never remember the time when she had known the meaning
Nell Gwyn was, in fact, a product of the vilest slums of London;
and precisely because she was this we must set her down as
intrinsically a good woman--one of the truest, frankest, and most
right-minded of whom the history of such women has anything to
tell. All that external circumstances could do to push her down
into the mire was done; yet she was not pushed down, but emerged
as one of those rare souls who have in their natures an
uncontaminated spring of goodness and honesty. Unlike Barbara
Villiers or Lucy Walters or Louise de Keroualle, she was neither a
harpy nor a foe to England.
Charles is said first to have met her when he, incognito, with
another friend, was making the rounds of the theaters at night.
The king spied her glowing, nut-brown face in one of the boxes,
and, forgetting his incognito, went up and joined her. She was
with her protector of the time, Lord Buckhurst, who, of course,
recognized his majesty.
Presently the whole party went out to a neighboring coffee-house,
where they drank and ate together. When it came time to pay the
reckoning the king found that he had no money, nor had his friend.
Lord Buckhurst, therefore, paid the bill, while Mistress Nell
jeered at the other two, saying that this was the most poverty-
stricken party that she had ever met.
Charles did not lose sight of her. Her frankness and honest manner
pleased him. There came a time when she was known to be a mistress
of the king, and she bore a son, who was ennobled as the Duke of
St. Albans, but who did not live to middle age. Nell Gwyn was much
with Charles; and after his tempestuous scenes with Barbara
Villiers, and the feeling of dishonor which the Duchess of
Portsmouth made him experience, the girl's good English bluntness
was a pleasure far more rare than sentiment.
Somehow, just as the people had come to mistrust "Madam Carwell,"
so they came to like Nell Gwyn. She saw enough of Charles, and she
liked him well enough, to wish that he might do his duty by his
people; and she alone had the boldness to speak out what she
thought. One day she found him lolling in an arm-chair and
complaining that the people were not satisfied.
"You can very easily satisfy them," said Nell Gwyn. "Dismiss your
women and attend to the proper business of a king."
Again, her heart was touched at the misfortunes of the old
soldiers who had fought for Charles and for his father during the
Civil War, and who were now neglected, while the treasury was
emptied for French favorites, and while the policy of England
itself was bought and sold in France. Many and many a time, when
other women of her kind used their lures to get jewels or titles
or estates or actual heaps of money, Nell Gwyn besought the king
to aid these needy veterans. Because of her efforts Chelsea
Hospital was founded. Such money as she had she shared with the
poor and with those who had fought for her royal lover.
As I have said, she is a historical type of the woman who loses
her physical purity, yet who retains a sense of honor and of
honesty which nothing can take from her. There are not many such
examples, and therefore this one is worth remembering.
Of anecdotes concerning her there are many, but not often has
their real import been detected. If she could twine her arms about
the monarch's neck and transport him in a delirium of passion,
this was only part of what she did. She tried to keep him right
and true and worthy of his rank; and after he had ceased to care
much for her as a lover he remembered that she had been faithful
in many other things.
Then there came the death-bed scene, when Charles, in his
inimitable manner, apologized to those about him because he was so
long in dying. A far sincerer sentence was that which came from
his heart, as he cried out, in the very pangs of death:
"Do not let poor Nelly starve!"
MAURICE OF SAXONY AND ADRIENNE LECOUVREUR
It is an old saying that to every womanly woman self-sacrifice is
almost a necessity of her nature. To make herself of small account
as compared with the one she loves; to give freely of herself,
even though she may receive nothing in return; to suffer, and yet
to feel an inner poignant joy in all this suffering--here is a
most wonderful trait of womanhood. Perhaps it is akin to the
maternal instinct; for to the mother, after she has felt the throb
of a new life within her, there is no sacrifice so great and no
anguish so keen that she will not welcome it as the outward sign
and evidence of her illimitable love.
In most women this spirit of self-sacrifice is checked and kept
within ordinary bounds by the circumstances of their lives. In
many small things they do yield and they do suffer; yet it is not
in yielding and in suffering that they find their deepest joy.
There are some, however, who seem to have been born with an
abnormal capacity for enduring hardship and mental anguish; so
that by a sort of contradiction they find their happiness in
sorrow. Such women are endowed with a remarkable degree of
sensibility. They feel intensely. In moments of grief and
disappointment, and even of despair, there steals over them a sort
of melancholy pleasure. It is as if they loved dim lights and
mournful music and scenes full of sad suggestion.
If everything goes well with them, they are unwilling to believe
that such good fortune will last. If anything goes wrong with
them, they are sure that this is only the beginning of something
even worse. The music of their lives is written in a minor key.
Now, for such women as these, the world at large has very little
charity. It speaks slightingly of them as "agonizers." It believes
that they are "fond of making scenes." It regards as an
affectation something that is really instinctive and inevitable.
Unless such women are beautiful and young and charming they are
treated badly; and this is often true in spite of all their
natural attractiveness, for they seem to court ill usage as if
they were saying frankly:
"Come, take us! We will give you everything and ask for nothing.
We do not expect true and enduring love. Do not be constant or
generous or even kind. We know that we shall suffer. But, none the
less, in our sorrow there will be sweetness, and even in our
abasement we shall feel a sort of triumph."
In history there is one woman who stands out conspicuously as a
type of her melancholy sisterhood, one whose life was full of
disappointment even when she was most successful, and of indignity
even when she was most sought after and admired. This woman was
Adrienne Lecouvreur, famous in the annals of the stage, and still
more famous in the annals of unrequited--or, at any rate, unhappy
Her story is linked with that of a man no less remarkable than
herself, a hero of chivalry, a marvel of courage, of fascination,
and of irresponsibility.
Adrienne Lecouvreur--her name was originally Couvreur--was born
toward the end of the seventeenth century in the little French
village of Damery, not far from Rheims, where her aunt was a
laundress and her father a hatter in a small way. Of her mother,
who died in childbirth, we know nothing; but her father was a man
of gloomy and ungovernable temper, breaking out into violent fits
of passion, in one of which, long afterward, he died, raving and
yelling like a maniac.
Adrienne was brought up at the wash-tub, and became accustomed to
a wandering life, in which she went from one town to another. What
she had inherited from her mother is, of course, not known; but
she had all her father's strangely pessimistic temper, softened
only by the fact that she was a girl. From her earliest years she
was unhappy; yet her unhappiness was largely of her own choosing.
Other girls of her own station met life cheerfully, worked away
from dawn till dusk, and then had their moments of amusement, and
even jollity, with their companions, after the fashion of all
children. But Adrienne Lecouvreur was unhappy because she chose to
be. It was not the wash-tub that made her so, for she had been
born to it; nor was it the half-mad outbreaks of her father,
because to her, at least, he was not unkind. Her discontent sprang
from her excessive sensibility.
Indeed, for a peasant child she had reason to think herself far
more fortunate than her associates. Her intelligence was great.
Ambition was awakened in her before she was ten years of age, when
she began to learn and to recite poems--learning them, as has been
said, "between the wash-tub and the ironing-board," and reciting
them to the admiration of older and wiser people than she. Even at
ten she was a very beautiful child, with great lambent eyes, an
exquisite complexion, and a lovely form, while she had the further
gift of a voice that thrilled the listener and, when she chose,
brought tears to every eye. She was, indeed, a natural
elocutionist, knowing by instinct all those modulations of tone
and varied cadences which go to the hearer's heart.
It was very like Adrienne Lecouvreur to memorize only such poems
as were mournful, just as in after life she could win success upon
the stage only in tragic parts. She would repeat with a sort of
ecstasy the pathetic poems that were then admired; and she was
soon able to give up her menial work, because many people asked
her to their houses so that they could listen to the divinely
beautiful voice charged with the emotion which was always at her
When she was thirteen her father moved to Paris, where she was
placed at school--a very humble school in a very humble quarter of
the city. Yet even there her genius showed itself at that early
age. A number of children and young people, probably influenced by
Adrienne, formed themselves into a theatrical company from the
pure love of acting. A friendly grocer let them have an empty
store-room for their performances, and in this store-room Adrienne
Lecouvreur first acted in a tragedy by Corneille, assuming the
part of leading woman.
Her genius for the stage was like the genius of Napoleon for war.
She had had no teaching. She had never been inside of any theater;
and yet she delivered the magnificent lines with all the power and
fire and effectiveness of a most accomplished actress. People
thronged to see her and to feel the tempest of emotion which shook
her as she sustained her part, which for the moment was as real to
her as life itself.
At first only the people of the neighborhood knew anything about
these amateur performances; but presently a lady of rank, one Mme.
du Gue, came out of curiosity and was fascinated by the little
actress. Mme. du Gue offered the spacious courtyard of her own
house, and fitted it with some of the appurtenances of a theater.
From that moment the fame of Adrienne spread throughout all Paris.
The courtyard was crowded by gentlemen and ladies, by people of
distinction from the court, and at last even by actors and
actresses from the Comedie Franchise.
It is, in fact, a remarkable tribute to Adrienne that in her
thirteenth year she excited so much jealousy among the actors of
the Comedie that they evoked the law against her. Theaters
required a royal license, and of course poor little Adrienne's
company had none. Hence legal proceedings were begun, and the most
famous actresses in Paris talked of having these clever children
imprisoned! Upon this the company sought the precincts of the
Temple, where no legal warrant could be served without the express
order of the king himself.
There for a time the performances still went on. Finally, as the
other children were not geniuses, but merely boys and girls in
search of fun, the little company broke up. Its success, however,
had determined for ever the career of Adrienne. With her beautiful
face, her lithe and exquisite figure, her golden voice, and her
instinctive art, it was plain enough that her future lay upon the
stage; and so at fourteen or fifteen she began where most
actresses leave off--accomplished and attractive, and having had a
practical training in her profession.
Diderot, in that same century, observed that the truest actor is
one who does not feel his part at all, but produces his effects by
intellectual effort and intelligent observation. Behind the figure
on the stage, torn with passion or rollicking with mirth, there
must always be the cool and unemotional mind which directs and
governs and controls. This same theory was both held and practised
by the late Benoit Constant Coquelin. To some extent it was the
theory of Garrick and Fechter and Edwin Booth; though it was
rejected by the two Keans, and by Edwin Forrest, who entered so
throughly into the character which he assumed, and who let loose
such tremendous bursts of passion that other actors dreaded to
support him on the stage in such parts as Spartacus and Metamora.
It is needless to say that a girl like Adrienne Lecouvreur flung
herself with all the intensity of her nature into every role she
played. This was the greatest secret of her success; for, with
her, nature rose superior to art. On the other hand, it fixed her
dramatic limitations, for it barred her out of comedy. Her
melancholy, morbid disposition was in the fullest sympathy with
tragic heroines; but she failed when she tried to represent the
lighter moods and the merry moments of those who welcome mirth.
She could counterfeit despair, and unforced tears would fill her
eyes; but she could not laugh and romp and simulate a gaiety that
was never hers.
Adrienne would have been delighted to act at one of the theaters
in Paris; but they were closed to her through jealousy. She went
into the provinces, in the eastern part of France, and for ten
years she was a leading lady there in many companies and in many
towns. As she blossomed into womanhood there came into her life
the love which was to be at once a source of the most profound
interest and of the most intense agony.
It is odd that all her professional success never gave her any
happiness. The life of the actress who traveled from town to town,
the crude and coarse experiences which she had to undergo, the
disorder and the unsettled mode of living, all produced in her a
profound disgust. She was of too exquisite a fiber to live in such
a way, especially in a century when the refinements of existence
were for the very few.
She speaks herself of "obligatory amusements, the insistence of
men, and of love affairs." Yet how could such a woman as Adrienne
Lecouvreur keep herself from love affairs? The motion of the stage
and its mimic griefs satisfied her only while she was actually
upon the boards. Love offered her an emotional excitement that
endured and that was always changing. It was "the profoundest
instinct of her being"; and she once wrote: "What could one do in
the world without loving?"
Still, through these ten years she seems to have loved only that
she might be unhappy. There was a strange twist in her mind. Men
who were honorable and who loved her with sincerity she treated
very badly. Men who were indifferent or ungrateful or actually
base she seemed to choose by a sort of perverse instinct. Perhaps
the explanation of it is that during those ten years, though she
had many lovers, she never really loved. She sought excitement,
passion, and after that the mournfulness which comes when passion
dies. Thus, one man after another came into her life--some of them
promising marriage--and she bore two children, whose fathers were
unknown, or at least uncertain. But, after all, one can scarcely
pity her, since she had not yet in reality known that great
passion which comes but once in life. So far she had learned only
a sort of feeble cynicism, which she expressed in letters and in
such sayings as these:
"There are sweet errors which I would not venture to commit again.
My experiences, all too sad, have served to illumine my reason."
"I am utterly weary of love and prodigiously tempted to have no
more of it for the rest of my life; because, after all, I don't
wish either to die or to go mad."
Yet she also said: "I know too well that no one dies of grief."
She had had, indeed, some very unfortunate experiences. Men of
rank had loved her and had then cast her off. An actor, one
Clavel, would have married her, but she would not accept his
offer. A magistrate in Strasburg promised marriage; and then, when
she was about to accept him, he wrote to her that he was going to
yield to the wishes of his family and make a more advantageous
alliance. And so she was alternately caressed and repulsed--a
mere plaything; and yet this was probably all that she really
needed at the time--something to stir her, something to make her
mournful or indignant or ashamed.
It was inevitable that at last Adrienne Lecouvreur should appear
in Paris. She had won such renown throughout the provinces that
even those who were intensely jealous of her were obliged to give
her due consideration. In 1717, when she was in her twenty-fifth
year, she became a member of the Comedie Franchise. There she made
an immediate and most brilliant impression. She easily took the
leading place. She was one of the glories of Paris, for she became
the fashion outside the theater. For the first time the great
classic plays were given, not in the monotonous singsong which had
become a sort of theatrical convention, but with all the fire and
naturalness of life.
Being the fashion, Mlle. Lecouvreur elevated the social rank of
actors and of actresses. Her salon was thronged by men and women
of rank. Voltaire wrote poems in her honor. To be invited to her
dinners was almost like receiving a decoration from the king. She
ought to have been happy, for she had reached the summit of her
profession and something more.
Yet still she was unhappy. In all her letters one finds a
plaintive tone, a little moaning sound that shows how slightly her
nature had been changed. No longer, however, did she throw herself
away upon dullards or brutes. An English peer--Lord Peterborough--
not realizing that she was different from other actresses of that
loose-lived age, said to her coarsely at his first introduction:
"Come now! Show me lots of wit and lots of love."
The remark was characteristic of the time. Yet Adrienne had
learned at least one thing, and that was the discontent which came
from light affairs. She had thrown herself away too often. If she
could not love with her entire being, if she could not give all
that was in her to be given, whether of her heart or mind or soul,
then she would love no more at all.
At this time there came to Paris a man remarkable in his own
century, and one who afterward became almost a hero of romance.
This was Maurice, Comte de Saxe, as the French called him, his
German name and title being Moritz, Graf von Sachsen, while we
usually term him, in English, Marshal Saxe. Maurice de Saxe was
now, in 1721, entering his twenty-fifth year. Already, though so
young, his career had been a strange one; and it was destined to
be still more remarkable. He was the natural son of Duke Augustus
II. of Saxony, who later became King of Poland, and who is known
in history as Augustus the Strong.
Augustus was a giant in stature and in strength, handsome, daring,
unscrupulous, and yet extremely fascinating. His life was one of
revelry and fighting and display. When in his cups he would often
call for a horseshoe and twist it into a knot with his powerful
fingers. Many were his mistresses; but the one for whom he cared
the most was a beautiful and high-spirited Swedish girl of rank,
Aurora von Konigsmarck. She was descended from a rough old field-
marshal who in the Thirty Years' War had slashed and sacked and
pillaged and plundered to his heart's content. From him Aurora von
Konigsmarck seemed to have inherited a high spirit and a sort of
lawlessness which charmed the stalwart Augustus of Poland.
Their son, Maurice de Saxe, inherited everything that was good in
his parents, and a great deal that was less commendable. As a mere
child of twelve he had insisted on joining the army of Prince
Eugene, and had seen rough service in a very strenuous campaign.
Two years later he showed such daring on the battle-field that
Prince Eugene summoned him and paid him a compliment under the
form of a rebuke.
"Young man," he said, "you must not mistake mere recklessness for
Before he was twenty he had attained the stature and strength of
his royal father; and, to prove it, he in his turn called for a
horseshoe, which he twisted and broke in his fingers. He fought on
the side of the Russians and Poles, and again against the Turks,
everywhere displaying high courage and also genius as a commander;
for he never lost his self-possession amid the very blackest
danger, but possessed, as Carlyle says, "vigilance, foresight, and
Exceedingly handsome, Maurice was a master of all the arts that
pleased, with just a touch of roughness, which seemed not
unfitting in so gallant a soldier. His troops adored him and would
follow wherever he might choose to lead them; for he exercised
over these rude men a magnetic power resembling that of Napoleon
in after years. In private life he was a hard drinker and fond of
every form of pleasure. Having no fortune of his own, a marriage
was arranged for him with the Countess von Loben, who was
immensely wealthy; but in three years he had squandered all her
money upon his pleasures, and had, moreover, got himself heavily
It was at this time that he first came to Paris to study military
tactics. He had fought hard against the French in the wars that
were now ended; but his chivalrous bearing, his handsome person,
and his reckless joviality made him at once a universal favorite
in Paris. To the perfumed courtiers, with their laces and
lovelocks and mincing ways, Maurice de Saxe came as a sort of
knight of old--jovial, daring, pleasure-loving. Even his broken
French was held to be quite charming; and to see him break a
horseshoe with his fingers threw every one into raptures.
No wonder, then, that he was welcomed in the very highest circles.
Almost at once he attracted the notice of the Princesse de Conti,
a beautiful woman of the blood royal. Of her it has been said that
she was "the personification of a kiss, the incarnation of an
embrace, the ideal of a dream of love." Her chestnut hair was
tinted with little gleams of gold. Her eyes were violet black. Her
complexion was dazzling. But by the king's orders she had been
forced to marry a hunchback--a man whose very limbs were so
weakened by disease and evil living that they would often fail to
support him, and he would fall to the ground, a writhing,
screaming mass of ill-looking flesh.
It is not surprising that his lovely wife should have shuddered
much at his abuse of her and still more at his grotesque
endearments. When her eyes fell on Maurice de Saxe she saw in him
one who could free her from her bondage. By a skilful trick he led
the Prince de Conti to invade the sleeping-room of the princess,
with servants, declaring that she was not alone. The charge proved
quite untrue, and so she left her husband, having won the sympathy
of her own world, which held that she had been insulted. But it
was not she who was destined to win and hold the love of Maurice
Not long after his appearance in the French capital he was invited
to dine with the "Queen of Paris," Adrienne Lecouvreur. Saxe had
seen her on the stage. He knew her previous history. He knew that
she was very much of a soiled dove; but when he met her these two
natures, so utterly dissimilar, leaped together, as it were,
through the indescribable attraction of opposites. He was big and
powerful; she was small and fragile. He was merry, and full of
quips and jests; she was reserved and melancholy. Each felt in the
other a need supplied.
At one of their earliest meetings the climax came. Saxe was not
the man to hesitate; while she already, in her thoughts, had made
a full surrender. In one great sweep he gathered her into his
arms. It appeared to her as if no man had ever laid his hand upon
her until that moment. She cried out:
"Now, for the first time in my life, I seem to live!"
It was, indeed, the very first love which in her checkered career
was really worthy of the name. She had supposed that all such
things were passed and gone, that her heart was closed for ever,
that she was invulnerable; and yet here she found herself clinging
about the neck of this impetuous soldier and showing him all the
shy fondness and the unselfish devotion of a young girl. From this
instant Adrienne Lecouvreur never loved another man and never even
looked at any other man with the slightest interest. For nine long
years the two were bound together, though there were strange
events to ruffle the surface of their love.
Maurice de Saxe had been sired by a king. He had the lofty
ambition to be a king himself, and he felt the stirrings of that
genius which in after years was to make him a great soldier, and
to win the brilliant victory of Fontenoy, which to this very day
the French are never tired of recalling. Already Louis XV. had
made him a marshal of France; and a certain restlessness came over
him. He loved Adrienne; yet he felt that to remain in the
enjoyment of her witcheries ought not to be the whole of a man's
Then the Grand Duchy of Courland--at that time a vassal state of
Poland, now part of Russia--sought a ruler. Maurice de Saxe was
eager to secure its throne, which would make him at least semi-
royal and the chief of a principality. He hastened thither and
found that money was needed to carry out his plans. The widow of
the late duke--the Grand Duchess Anna, niece of Peter the Great,
and later Empress of Russia--as soon as she had met this dazzling
genius, offered to help him to acquire the duchy if he would only
marry her. He did not utterly refuse. Still another woman of high
rank, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Peter the Great's
daughter, made him very much the same proposal.
Both of these imperial women might well have attracted a man like
Maurice de Saxe, had he been wholly fancy-free, for the second of
them inherited the high spirit and the genius of the great Peter,
while the first was a pleasure-seeking princess, resembling some
of those Roman empresses who loved to stoop that they might
conquer. She is described as indolent and sensual, and she once
declared that the chief good in the world was love. Yet, though
she neglected affairs of state and gave them over to favorites,
she won and kept the affections of her people. She was
unquestionably endowed with the magnetic gift of winning hearts.
Adrienne, who was left behind in Paris, knew very little of what
was going on. Only two things were absolutely clear to her. One
was that if her lover secured the duchy he must be parted from
her. The other was that without money his ambition must be
thwarted, and that he would then return to her. Here was a test to
try the soul of any woman. It proved the height and the depth of
her devotion. Come what might, Maurice should be Duke of Courland,
even though she lost him. She gathered together her whole fortune,
sold every jewel that she possessed, and sent her lover the sum of
nearly a million francs.
This incident shows how absolutely she was his. But in fact,
because of various intrigues, he failed of election to the ducal
throne of Courland, and he returned to Adrienne with all her money
spent, and without even the grace, at first, to show his
gratitude. He stormed and raged over his ill luck. She merely
soothed and petted him, though she had heard that he had thought
of marrying another woman to secure the dukedom. In one of her
letters she bursts out with the pitiful exclamation:
I am distracted with rage and anguish. Is it not natural to cry
out against such treachery? This man surely ought to know me--he
ought to love me. Oh, my God! What are we--what ARE we?
But still she could not give him up, nor could he give her up,
though there were frightful scenes between them--times when he
cruelly reproached her and when her native melancholy deepened
into outbursts of despair. Finally there occurred an incident
which is more or less obscure in parts. The Duchesse de Bouillon,
a great lady of the court--facile, feline, licentious, and eager
for delights--resolved that she would win the love of Maurice de
Saxe. She set herself to win it openly and without any sense of
shame. Maurice himself at times, when the tears of Adrienne proved
wearisome, flirted with the duchess.
Yet, even so, Adrienne held the first place in his heart, and her
rival knew it. Therefore she resolved to humiliate Adrienne, and
to do so in the place where the actress had always reigned
supreme. There was to be a gala performance of Racine's great
tragedy, "Phedre," with Adrienne, of course, in the title-role.
The Duchesse de Bouillon sent a large number of her lackeys with
orders to hiss and jeer, and, if possible, to break off the play.
Malignantly delighted with her plan, the duchess arrayed herself
in jewels and took her seat in a conspicuous stage-box, where she
could watch the coming storm and gloat over the discomfiture of
When the curtain rose, and when Adrienne appeared as Phedre, an
uproar began. It was clear to the great actress that a plot had
been devised against her. In an instant her whole soul was afire.
The queen-like majesty of her bearing compelled silence throughout
the house. Even the hired lackeys were overawed by it. Then
Adrienne moved swiftly across the stage and fronted her enemy,
speaking into her very face the three insulting lines which came
to her at that moment of the play:
I am not of those women void of shame,
Who, savoring in crime the joys of peace,
Harden their faces till they cannot blush!
The whole house rose and burst forth into tremendous applause.
Adrienne had won, for the woman who had tried to shame her rose in
trepidation and hurried from the theater.
But the end was not yet. Those were evil times, when dark deeds
were committed by the great almost with impunity. Secret poisoning
was a common trade. To remove a rival was as usual a thing in the
eighteenth century as to snub a rival is usual in the twentieth.
Not long afterward, on the night of March 15, 1730, Adrienne
Lecouvreur was acting in one of Voltaire's plays with all her
power and instinctive art when suddenly she was seized with the
most frightful pains. Her anguish was obvious to every one who saw
her, and yet she had the courage to go through her part. Then she
fainted and was carried home.
Four days later she died, and her death was no less dramatic than
her life had been. Her lover and two friends of his were with her,
and also a Jesuit priest. He declined to administer extreme
unction unless she would declare that she repented of her
theatrical career. She stubbornly refused, since she believed that
to be the greatest actress of her time was not a sin. Yet still
the priest insisted.
Then came the final moment.
"Weary and revolting against this death, this destiny, she
stretched her arms with one of the old lovely gestures toward a
bust which stood near by and cried--her last cry of passion:
"'There is my world, my hope--yes, and my God!'"
The bust was one of Maurice de Saxe.