WebNovel Joseph II. and His Court Part 117

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“Do so, if you please, madame.”

Madame de Noailles was absent for some time. At last she returned.

“Pardon me, your majesty, that I have been away so long. But no one in the palace could give me the information I sought. Luckily, in pa.s.sing one of the corridors, I met a gardener coming in with fresh flowers for your majesty’s cabinet, and he was able to tell me. The sun rises at present at three o’clock.”

“Thank you. Be so good as to make your arrangements accordingly. I shall get up at three o’clock to-morrow morning and go out upon the hillock in the garden to see the dawn of day.”

“Your majesty would go out into the garden at three o’clock in the morning?” said madame, almost fainting with horror.

“Yes, madame,” said Marie Antoinette, with decision. “Is there any law in France to forbid me a sight of the sun at that hour?”

“No, your majesty, for such an extraordinary demand could never have been presupposed. Since France was a kingdom, no Queen of France has ever been known to indulge a wish to see the sun rise.”

“Unhappy queens! I suppose they were so profoundly engaged in the study of your favorite code, that they had no time to admire the works of G.o.d.

But you see that I am an eccentric queen, and I would go in all humility to adore Him through one of His glorious works. And as, luckily for me, etiquette has never legislated on the subject, you have no grounds for objection, and I shall commit the astounding indiscretion of going out to see the sun rise.”

“Still, your majesty must allow me to say that for all extraordinary cases not provided for in the code of etiquette, the queen must have the consent of the king.”

“Do not concern yourself about that; I shall express my desire to the king, and that will suffice. My ladies in waiting who keep diaries can then note, with quiet conscience, that on this day the Queen of France, with the consent of her husband, went into the garden to see the sun rise.”

Marie Antoinette slightly inclined her head, and pa.s.sed into her dressing-room, there to put herself in the hands of Monsieur Leonard.

The skilful hair-dresser was in his happiest vein; and when he had achieved the great labor of his day, the queen was inexpressibly charming.

Conformably to her wishes, many irksome court-customs had been laid aside at Marly. The strict lines of demarcation between royalty and n.o.bility no longer hampered the daily intercourse of the sovereigns and their subjects. The lords and ladies in waiting were at liberty to join the queen’s circle in the drawing-rooms, or to group themselves together as inclination prompted. Some talked over the events of the day, some discussed the new books which lay in heaps upon a table in one of the saloons; others, again, played billiards with the king.

To-day the court was a.s.sembled in an apartment opening into the garden; and the queen, who had just made her appearance in all the splendor of her regal beauty, was the cynosure of attraction and of admiration. She stood in the centre of the room, her eyes fixed wistfully upon the setting sun, whose dying rays were flooding park, terrace, and even the spot on which she stood, with a red and golden light. By her side stood the king, his mild countenance illumined with joy and admiration of his young wife’s surpa.s.sing loveliness. On the other side of the queen were the princes and princesses of the blood; and around the royal group an a.s.semblage of the youngest, prettiest, and sprightliest women of the aristocracy, escorted by their cavaliers, young n.o.bles whose rank, worth, and culture ent.i.tled them to all the favor which they enjoyed at court. At the head of the wits were the Count de Provence, the Count d’Artois, and their kinsman, the Duke de Chartres, known years afterward as “Philippe Egalite.” De Chartres and the witty Duke de Lauzun were among the most enthusiastic admirers of the queen.

The French court was in the zenith of its splendor. Youth and beauty were the rule, age was the exception; and in the saloons of Marie Antoinette, its solitary representatives frowned through the deep and angry furrows that dented the wrinkled visage of Madame de Noailles.

To-day the high-priestess of etiquette had taken advantage of the liberty allowed to all, and had absented herself. Her absence was a sensible relief to a court where no man was older than the king, and many a woman was as young as the queen.

For a time Marie Antoinette’s glance lingered caressingly upon the garden, through whose perfumed alleys the evening wind was rustling with a sweet, low song. The court, following the mood of the queen, kept perfectly silent. Of what were they thinking? that crowd of youthful triflers, so many of whom were hurrying to the b.l.o.o.d.y destiny which made heroes of c.o.xcombs and heroines of coquettes

Suddenly the expression of the queen’s face, which had been thoughtful and solemn, changed to its usual frankness and gayety. “Ladies and gentlemen,” said she, in that clear, rich voice of hers, which always reminded one of little silver bells, “I have a riddle to propose.”

“A riddle!” echoed the company, crowding around to hear.

“Yes, a riddle, and woe to those who cannot guess it! They will be sentenced to sit up this whole night long. “

“A severe sentence,” said the king, with a sigh. “May I not be one of the condemned? Well, then, lovely sphinx, tell us your riddle.”

“Listen all!” said Marie Antoinette, “and strain your every faculty to its solution. Princes and princesses, lords and ladies, can you tell me at what hour the sun will rise to-morrow?”

The perplexed company looked at one another. Everybody seemed puzzled except the king. He alone smiled, and watched the countenances of the others.

“Come, gentlemen, you who are fed on the sciences–come, ladies you so expert to guess–will none of you solve my riddle?” tried the lively queen. “You, brother Philip, who know all things, have you never asked this question of the sun?”

“I interest myself, dear sister, in matters which concern myself, my family, and France,” replied the Count de Provence, not over-pleased at the appeal. “The sun, which belongs to another world, has no share in my studies or my meditations.”

“Condemned,” said the queen, with a merry laugh. “No sleep for you tonight. And you, brother d’Artois, who are such a devotee of beauty, have you never worshipped at the shrine of solar magnificence?”

“The sun rose in this room, your majesty, about a quarter of an hour ago,” said Count d’Artois, bowing. “I can, therefore, safely say that in the chateau of Marly it usually rises at eight o’clock.”

“Compliments will not save you, D’Artois; you shall not go to sleep this night. And what say you, my sisters-in-law, and our dear Elizabeth?”

“Oh, we dare not be wiser than our husbands!” said the Countess de Provence, quickly.

“Then you shall share their fate,” returned Marie Antoinette. “And now,”

continued she, “cousin de Chartres, it is said that your merry-making sometimes lasts until morning. You, then, must be intimately acquainted with the habits of the rising sun.”

“Ma foi,” said the duke, with a careless laugh, “your majesty is right.

My vigils are frequent; but if returning thence, I have ever met with the sun, I have mistaken it for a street-lantern, and have never given a second thought to the matter.”

“n.o.body, then, in this aristocratic a.s.semblage, knows aught about the rising of the sun,” said the queen.

A profound silence greeted the remark. The queen’s face grew pensive, and gradually deepened into sadness.

“All!” exclaimed she, with a sigh, “what egotists we are in high life!

We expect heaven to shield and sustain us in our grandeur, and never a thought do we return to heaven.”

“Am I not to be allowed the privilege of guessing, madame?” asked the king.

“You, sire!” said Marie Antoinette. “It does not become the king’s subjects to put questions to him, which he might not be able to answer.”

“Nevertheless, I request your majesty to give me a trial.”

“Very well, sire. Can you read my riddle, and tell me at what hour the sun will rise to-morrow?”

“Yes, your majesty. The sun will rise at three o’clock,” said Louis, with a triumphant smile.

Everybody wondered. Marie Antoinette laughed her silvery laugh, and clapped her little white hands with joy. “Bravo, bravo, my royal OEdipus!” cried she, gayly. “The sphinx is overcome; but she will not throw herself into the sea just yet. She is too happy to bend the knee before her husband’s erudition.”

With bewitching grace, the queen inclined her beautiful head and knelt before the king. But Louis, blushing with gratification, clasped her hands in his, and raised her tenderly to her feet.

“Madame,” said he, “if I had the tact and wit of my brother Charles, I would say that the sun, which so lately has risen, must not set so soon upon its worshippers. But answer me one question–what is the meaning of the riddle with which your majesty has been entertaining us?”

“May I answer with another question? Tell me, sire, have you ever seen the sun rise?”

“I? No, your majesty. I confess that I never have.”

“And you, ladies and gentlemen?”

“I can answer for all that they have not,” laughed D’Artois.

“Now, sire,” said the queen, again addressing her husband, “tell me one thing. Is it unseemly for a Queen of France to see the sun rise?”

“Certainly not,” answered the king, laughing heartily.

“Then will your majesty allow me to enjoy that privilege?”

———-

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