Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
A Modern Harpy
By Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (1675–1755)
From the ‘Memoirs’

THE PRINCESSE D’HARCOURT was a sort of personage whom it is good to make known, in order better to lay bare a court which did not scruple to receive such as she. She had once been beautiful and gay; but though not old, all her grace and beauty had vanished. The rose had become an ugly thorn. At the time I speak of she was a tall, fat creature, mightily brisk in her movements, with a complexion like milk-porridge; great, ugly, thick lips, and hair like tow, always sticking out and hanging down in disorder, like all the rest of her fittings-out. Dirty, slatternly, always intriguing, pretending, enterprising, quarreling,—always low as the grass or high as the rainbow, according to the person with whom she had to deal,—she was a blonde Fury, nay more, a Harpy: she had all the effrontery of one, and the deceit and violence; all the avarice and the audacity: moreover, all the gluttony, and all the promptitude to relieve herself from the effects thereof; so that she drove out of their wits those at whose house she dined; was often a victim of her confidence; and was many a time sent to the Devil by the servants of M. du Maine and M. le Grand. She was never in the least embarrassed, however, tucked up her petticoats and went her way; then returned, saying she had been unwell. People were accustomed to it.  1
  Whenever money was to be made by scheming and bribery, she was there to make it. At play she always cheated, and if found out stormed and raged; but pocketed what she had won. People looked upon her as they would have looked upon a fish-fag, and did not like to commit themselves by quarreling with her. At the end of every game she used to say that she gave whatever might have been unfairly gained to those who had gained it, and hoped that others would do likewise. For she was very devout by profession, and thought by so doing to put her conscience in safety; because, she used to add, in play there is always some mistake. She went to church always, and constantly took the sacrament, very often after having played until four o’clock in the morning.  2
  One day when there was a grand fête at Fontainebleau, Madame la Maréchale de Villeroy persuaded her out of malice to sit down and play, instead of going to evening prayers. She resisted some time, saying that Madame de Maintenon was going: but the Maréchale laughed at her for believing that her patron could see who was and who was not at the chapel; so down they sat to play. When the prayers were over, Madame de Maintenon, by the merest accident—for she scarcely ever visited any one—went to the apartments of the Maréchale de Villeroy. The door was flung back, and she was announced. This was a thunderbolt for the Princesse d’Harcourt. “I am ruined,” cried she, unable to restrain herself: “she will see me playing, and I ought to have been at chapel!” Down fell the cards from her hands, and down fell she all abroad in her chair. The Maréchale laughed most heartily at so complete an adventure. Madame de Maintenon entered slowly, and found the princess in this state, with five or six persons. The Maréchale de Villeroy, who was full of wit, began to say that whilst doing her a great honor, Madame was the cause of great disorder; and showed her the Princesse d’Harcourt in her state of discomfiture. Madame de Maintenon smiled with majestic kindness, and addressing the Princesse d’Harcourt, “Is this the way,” said she, “that you go to prayers?” Thereupon the princess flew out of her half-faint into a sort of fury: said that this was the kind of trick that was played off upon her; that no doubt the Maréchale knew that Madame de Maintenon was coming, and for that reason had persecuted her to play. “Persecuted!” exclaimed the Maréchale: “I thought I could not receive you better than by proposing a game; it is true you were for a moment troubled at missing the chapel, but your tastes carried the day.—This, madame, is my whole crime,” continued she, addressing Madame de Maintenon. Upon this, everybody laughed louder than before. Madame de Maintenon, in order to stop the quarrel, commanded them both to continue their game; and they continued accordingly, the Princesse d’Harcourt, still grumbling, quite beside herself, blinded with fury, so as to commit fresh mistakes every minute. So ridiculous an adventure diverted the court for several days; for this beautiful princess was equally feared, hated, and despised.  3
  Monseigneur le Duc and Madame la Duchesse de Bourgogne continually played off pranks upon her. They put, one day, crackers all along the avenue of the château at Marly, that led to the Perspective where she lodged. She was horribly afraid of everything. The duke and duchess bribed two porters to be ready to take her into the mischief. When she was right in the middle of the avenue the crackers began to go off, and she to cry aloud for mercy; the chairmen set her down and ran for it. There she was, then, struggling in her chair furiously enough to upset it, and yelling like a demon. At this the company, which had gathered at the door of the château to see the fun, ran to her assistance, in order to have the pleasure of enjoying the scene more fully. Thereupon she set to abusing everybody right and left, commencing with Monseigneur and Madame la Duchesse de Bourgogne. At another time M. de Bourgogne put a cracker under her chair in the salon, where she was playing at piquet. As he was about to set fire to this cracker, some charitable soul warned him that it would maim her, and he desisted.  4
  Sometimes they used to send about twenty Swiss guards, with drums, into her chamber, who roused her from her first sleep by their horrid din. Another time—and these scenes were always at Marly—they waited until very late for her to go to bed and sleep. She lodged not far from the post of the Captain of the Guards, who was at that time the Maréchal de Lorges. It had snowed very hard, and had frozen. Madame la Duchesse de Bourgogne and her suite gathered snow from the terrace which is on a level with their lodgings; and in order to be better supplied, waked up to assist them the Maréchal’s people, who did not let them want for ammunition. Then with a false key and lights, they gently slipped into the chamber of the Princesse d’Harcourt; and suddenly drawing the curtains of her bed, pelted her amain with snowballs. The filthy creature, waking up with a start, bruised and stifled in snow, with which even her ears were filled, with disheveled hair, yelling at the top of her voice, and wriggling like an eel, without knowing where to hide, formed a spectacle that diverted people more than half an hour; so that at last the nymph swam in her bed, from which the water flowed everywhere, slushing all the chamber. It was enough to make one die of laughter. On the morrow she sulked, and was more than ever laughed at for her pains.  5
  Her fits of sulkiness came over her either when the tricks played were too violent, or when M. le Grand abused her. He thought, very properly, that a person who bore the name of Lorraine should not put herself so much on the footing of a buffoon: and as he was a rough speaker, he sometimes said the most abominable things to her at table; upon which the princess would burst out crying, and then, being enraged, would sulk. The Duchesse de Bourgogne used then to pretend to sulk too; but the other did not hold out long, and came crawling back to her, crying, begging pardon for having sulked, and praying that she might not cease to be a source of amusement! After some time the duchess would allow herself to be melted, and the princess was more villainously treated than ever; for the Duchesse de Bourgogne had her own way in everything: neither the King nor Madame de Maintenon found fault with what she did, so that the Princesse d’Harcourt had no resource; she did not even dare to complain of those who aided in tormenting her: yet it would not have been prudent in any one to make her an enemy.  6
  The Princesse d’Harcourt paid her servants so badly that they concocted a return. One fine day they drew up on the Pont Neuf; the coachmen and footmen got down, and came and spoke to her at the door in language she was not used to hear. Her ladies and chambermaid got down and went away, leaving her to shift as she might. Upon this she set herself to harangue the blackguards who collected, and was only too happy to find a man who mounted upon the seat and drove her home. Another time, Madame de Saint-Simon, returning from Versailles, overtook her walking in full dress in the street, and with her train under her arms. Madame de Saint-Simon stopped, offered her assistance, and found she had been again left by her servants on the Pont Neuf. It was volume second of that story; and even when she came back she found her house deserted, every one having gone away at once by agreement. She was very violent with her servants, beat them, and changed them every day.  7
  Upon one occasion, she took into her service a strong and robust chambermaid, to whom, from the first day of her arrival, she gave many slaps and boxes on the ear. The chambermaid said nothing, but after submitting to this treatment for five or six days, conferred with the other servants; and one morning, while in her mistress’s room, locked the door without being perceived, said something to bring down punishment upon her, and at the first box on the ear she received, flew upon the Princesse d’Harcourt, gave her no end of thumps and slaps, knocked her down, kicked her, mauled her from her head to her feet, and when she was tired of this exercise, left her on the ground, all torn and disheveled, howling like a devil. The chambermaid then quitted the room, double-locked the door on the outside, gained the staircase, and fled the house.  8
  Every day the princess was fighting, or mixed up in some adventures. Her neighbors at Marly said they could not sleep for the riot she made at night; and I remember that after one of these scenes, everybody went to see the room of the Duchesse de Villeroy and that of Madame d’Espinoy, who had put their beds in the middle of their room, and who related their night vigils to every one.  9
  Such was this favorite of Madame de Maintenon; so insolent and so insupportable to every one, but who had favors and preferences for those who brought her over, and who had raised so many young men, amassed wealth for them, and made herself feared even by the prince and minister.  10

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.