The Princess of Cleves (1 of 62)
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by Madame de Lafayette
Grandeur and gallantry never appeared with more lustre in France, than in the last years of Henry the Second's reign. This Prince was amorous and handsome, and though his passion for Diana of Poitiers Duchess of Valentinois, was of above twenty years standing, it was not the less violent, nor did he give less distinguishing proofs of it.
As he was happily turned to excel in bodily exercises, he took a particular delight in them, such as hunting, tennis, running at the ring, and the like diversions. Madam de Valentinois gave spirit to all entertainments of this sort, and appeared at them with grace and beauty equal to that of her grand-daughter, Madam de la Marke, who was then unmarried; the Queen's presence seemed to authorise hers.
The Queen was handsome, though not young; she loved grandeur, magnificence and pleasure; she was married to the King while he was Duke of Orleans, during the life of his elder brother the Dauphin, a prince whose great qualities promised in him a worthy successor of his father Francis the First.
The Queen's ambitious temper made her taste the sweets of reigning, and she seemed to bear with perfect ease the King's passion for the Duchess of Valentinois, nor did she express the least jealousy of it; but she was so skilful a dissembler, that it was hard to judge of her real sentiments, and policy obliged her to keep the duchess about her person, that she might draw the King to her at the same time. This Prince took great delight in the conversation of women, even of such as he had no passion for; for he was every day at the Queen's court, when she held her assembly, which was a concourse of all that was beautiful and excellent in either sex.
Never were finer women or more accomplished men seen in any Court, and Nature seemed to have taken pleasure in lavishing her greatest graces on the greatest persons. The Princess Elizabeth, since Queen of Spain, began now to manifest an uncommon wit, and to display those beauties, which proved afterwards so fatal to her. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, who had just married the Dauphin, and was called the Queen-Dauphin, had all the perfections of mind and body; she had been educated in the Court of France, and had imbibed all the politeness of it; she was by nature so well formed to shine in everything that was polite, that notwithstanding her youth, none surpassed her in the most refined accomplishments.
The Queen, her mother-in-law, and the King's sister, were also extreme lovers of music, plays and poetry; for the taste which Francis the First had for the Belles Lettres was not yet extinguished in France; and as his son was addicted to exercises, no kind of pleasure was wanting at Court. But what rendered this Court so splendid, was the presence of so many great Princes, and persons of the highest quality and merit: those I shall name, in their different characters, were the admiration and ornament of their age.
The King of Navarre drew to himself the respect of all the world both by the greatness of his birth, and by the dignity that appeared in his person; he was remarkable for his skill and courage in war. The Duke of Guise had also given proofs of extraordinary valour, and had, been so successful, that there was not a general who did not look upon him with envy; to his valour he added a most exquisite genius and understanding, grandeur of mind, and a capacity equally turned for military or civil affairs. His brother, the Cardinal of Loraine, was a man of boundless ambition, and of extraordinary wit and eloquence, and had besides acquired a vast variety of learning, which enabled him to make himself very considerable by defending the Catholic religion, which began to be attacked at that time. The Chevalier de Guise, afterwards called Grand Prior, was a prince beloved by all the world, of a comely person, full of wit and address, and distinguished through all Europe for his valour.
The Prince of Conde, though little indebted to Nature in his person, had a noble soul, and the liveliness of his wit made him amiable even in the eyes of the finest women. The Duke of Nevers, distinguished by the high employments he had possessed, and by the glory he had gained in war, though in an advanced age, was yet the delight of the Court: he had three sons very accomplished; the second, called the Prince of Cleves, was worthy to support the honour of his house; he was brave and generous, and showed a prudence above his years. The Viscount de Chartres, descended of the illustrious family of Vendome, whose name the Princes of the blood have thought it no dishonour to wear, was equally distinguished for gallantry; he was genteel, of a fine mien, valiant, generous, and all these qualities he possessed in a very uncommon degree; in short, if anyone could be compared to the Duke de Nemours, it was he.
The Duke de Nemours was a masterpiece of Nature; the beauty of his person, inimitable as it was, was his least perfection; what placed him above other men, was a certain agreeableness in his discourse, his actions, his looks, which was observable in none beside himself: he had in his behaviour a gaiety that was equally pleasing to men and women; in his exercises he was very expert; and in dress he had a peculiar manner, which was followed by all the world, but could never be imitated: in fine, such was the air of his whole person, that it was impossible to fix one's eye on anything else, wherever he was.
There was not a lady at Court, whose vanity would not have been gratified by his address; few of those whom he addressed, could boast of having resisted him; and even those for whom he expressed no passion, could not forbear expressing one for him: his natural gaiety and disposition to gallantry was so great, that he could not refuse some part of his cares and attention to those who made it their endeavour to please him; and accordingly he had several mistresses, but it was hard to guess which of them was in possession of his heart: he made frequent visits to the Queen-Dauphin; the beauty of this princess, the sweetness of her temper, the care she took to oblige everybody, and the particular esteem she expressed for the Duke de Nemours, gave ground to believe that he had raised his views even to her.
Messieurs de Guise, whose niece she was, had so far increased their authority and reputation by this match, that their ambition prompted them to aspire at an equality with the Princes of the blood, and to share in power with the Constable Montmorency. The King entrusted the Constable with the chief share in the administration of the Government, and treated the Duke of Guise and the Mareschal de St. Andre as his favourites; but whether favour or business admitted men to his presence, they could not preserve that privilege without the good-liking of the Duchess of Valentinois; for though she was no longer in possession of either of youth or beauty, she yet reigned so absolutely in his heart, that his person and state seemed entirely at her disposal.