by Wilkie Collins
A QUEEN'S REVENGE.
THE name of Gustavus Adolphus, the faithful Protestant, the great general, and the good King of Sweden, has been long since rendered familiar to English readers of history. We all know how this renowned warrior and monarch was beloved by his soldiers and subjects, how successfully he fought through a long and terrible war, and how nobly he died on the field of battle. With his death, however, the interest of the English reader in Swedish affairs seems to terminate. Those who have followed the narrative of his life carefully to the end may remember that he left behind him an only child--a daughter named Christina. But of the character of this child, and of her extraordinary adventures after she grew to womanhood, the public in England is, for the most part, entirely ignorant. In the popular historical and romantic literature of France, Queen Christina is a notorious character. In the literature of this country, she has hitherto been allowed but little chance of making her way to the notice of the world at large.
And yet the life of Christina is in itself a romance. At six years old she was Queen of Sweden, with the famous Oxenstiern for guardian. This great and good man governed the kingdom in her name until she had lived through her minority. Four years after her coronation she, of her own accord, abdicated her rights in favor of her cousin, Charles Gustavus. Young and beautiful, the most learned and most accomplished woman of her time, she resolutely turned her back on the throne of her inheritance, and set forth to wander through civilized Europe in the character of an independent traveler, who was resolved to see all varieties of men and manners, to collect all the knowledge which the widest experience could give her, and to measure her mind boldly against the greatest minds of the age.
So far, the interest excited by her character and her adventures is of the most picturesquely attractive kind. There is something strikingly new in the spectacle of a young queen who prefers the pursuit of knowledge to the possession of a throne, and who barters a royal birthright for the privilege of being free. Unhappily, the portrait of Christina cannot be painted throughout in bright colors only. It must be recorded to her disgrace that, when her travels brought her to Rome, she abandoned the religion for which her father fought and died. And it must be admitted in the interests of truth that she freed herself from other restraints besides the restraint of royalty. Mentally distinguished by her capacities, she was morally degraded by her vices and her crimes.
The events in the strange life of Christina-- especially those connected with her actions in the character of a Queen-Errant--present ample materials for a biography, which might be regarded in England as a new contribution to our historical literature. One among the many extraordinary adventures which marked the Queen's wandering career may be related in these pages as an episode in the history of her life which is complete in itself. The events of which the narrative is composed throw light, in many ways, on the manners, habits, and opinions of a past age; and they can, moreover, be presented in the remarkable words of an eye-witness who beheld them two centuries ago.
The scene is the Palace of Fontainebleau, the time is the close of the year sixteen hundred and fifty-seven, the persons are the wandering Queen Christina; her grand equerry, the Marquis Monaldeschi; and Father Le Bel, of the Convent of Fontainebleau, the witness whose testimony we are shortly about to cite.
Monaldeschi, as his name implies, was an Italian by birth. He was a handsome, accomplished man, refined in his manners, supple in his disposition, and possessed of the art of making himself eminently agreeable in the society of women. With these personal recommendations, he soon won his way to the favor of Queen Christina. Out of the long list of her lovers, not one of the many whom she encouraged caught so long and firm a hold of her capricious fancy as Monaldeschi. The intimacy between them probably took its rise, on her side at least, in as deep a sincerity of affection as it was in Christina's nature to feel. On the side of the Italian, the connection was prompted solely by ambition. As soon as he had reaped all the advantages of the position of chief favorite in the Queen's court, he wearied of his royal mistress, and addressed his attentions secretly to a young Roman lady, whose youth and beauty powerfully attracted him, and whose fatal influence over his actions ultimately led to his ruin and his death.
After endeavoring to ingratiate himself with the Roman lady in various ways, Monaldeschi found that the surest means of winning her favor lay in satisfying her malicious curiosity on the subject of the secret frailties of Queen Christina. He was not a man to be troubled by any scrupulous feelings of honor when the interests of his own intrigues happened to be concerned, and he shamelessly took advantage of the position that he held toward Christina, to commit breaches of confidence of the most meanly infamous kind. Not contented with placing in the possession of the Roman lady the series of the Queen's letters to himself, containing secrets that she had revealed to him in the fullest confidence of his worthiness to be trusted, he wrote letters of his own to the new object of his addresses, in which he ridiculed Christina's fondness for him, and sarcastically described her smallest personal defects with a heartless effrontery which the most patient of women would have found it impossible to forgive. While he was thus privately betraying the confidence that had been reposed in him, he was publicly affecting the most unalterable attachment and the most sincere respect for the Queen.
For some time this disgraceful deception proceeded successfully. But the hour of discovery was at hand, and the instrument of effecting it was a certain cardinal who was desirous of supplanting Monaldeschi in the Queen's favor. The priest contrived to get possession of the whole correspondence, which had been privately confided to the Roman lady, including, besides Christina's letters, the letters which Monaldeschi had written in ridicule of his royal mistress. The whole collection of documents was inclosed by the cardinal in one packet, and was presented by him, at a private audience, to the Queen.
It is at this critical point of the story that the testimony of the eye-witness whom we propose to quote begins. Father Le Bel was present at the terrible execution of the Queen's vengeance on Monaldeschi, and was furnished with copies of the whole correspondence, which had been abstracted from the possession of the Roman lady. Having been trusted with the secret, he is wisely and honorably silent throughout his narrative on the subject of Monaldeschi's offense. Such particulars of the Italian's baseness and ingratitude as have been presented here have been gathered from the contradictory reports which were current at the time, and which have been preserved by the old French collectors of historical anecdotes. The details of the extraordinary punishment of Monaldeschi's offense, which are now to follow, may be given in the words of Father Le Bel himself. The reader will understand that his narrative begins immediately after Christina's discovery of the perfidy of her favorite.
The sixth of November, sixteen hundred and fifty-seven (writes Father Le Bel), at a quarter past nine in the morning, Queen Christina of Sweden, being at that time lodged in the Royal Palace of Fontainebleau, sent one of her men-servants to my convent, to obtain an interview with me. The messenger, on being admitted to my presence, inquired if I was the superior of the convent, and, when I replied in the affirmative, informed me that I was expected to present myself immediately before the Queen of Sweden.
Fearful of keeping her Majesty waiting, I followed the man at once to the palace, without waiting to take any of my brethren from the convent with me.
After a little delay in the antechamber, I was shown into the Queen's room. She was alone; and I saw, by the expression of her face, as I respectfully begged to be favored with her commands, that something was wrong. She hesitated for a moment; then told me, rather sharply, to follow her to a place where she might speak with the certainty of not being overheard. She led me into the Galerie des Cerfs, and, turning round on me suddenly, asked if we had ever met before. I informed her Majesty that I had once had the honor of presenting my respects to her; that she had received me graciously, and that there the interview had ended. She nodded her head and looked about her a little; then said, very abruptly, that I wore a dress (referring to my convent costume) which encouraged her to put perfect faith in my honor; and she desired me to promise beforehand that I would keep the secret with which she was about to intrust me as strictly as if I had heard it in the confessional. I answered respectfully that it was part of my sacred profession to be trusted with secrets; that I had never betrayed the private affairs of any one; and that I could answer for myself as worthy to be honored by the confidence of a queen.
Upon this, her Majesty handed me a packet of papers sealed in three places, but having no superscription of any sort. She ordered me to keep it under lock and key, and to be prepared to give it her back again before any person in whose presence she might see fit to ask me for it. She further charged me to remember the day, the hour, and the place in which she had given me the packet; and with that last piece of advice she dismissed me. I left her alone in the gallery, walking slowly away from me, with her head drooping on her bosom, and her mind, as well as I could presume to judge, perturbed by anxious thoughts.*
*Although Father Le Bel discreetly abstains from mentioning the fact, it seems clear, from the context, that he was permitted to read, and that he did read, the papers contained in the packet.
On Saturday, the tenth of November, at one o'clock in the afternoon, I was sent for to the palace again. I took the packet out of my private cabinet, feeling that I might be asked for it, and then followed the messenger as before. This time he led me at once to the Galerie des Cerfs. The moment I entered it, he shut the door behind me with such extraordinary haste and violence that I felt a little startled. As soon as I recovered myself, I saw her Majesty standing in the middle of the gallery, talking to one of the gentlemen of her court, who was generally known by the name of The Marquis, and whom I soon ascertained to be the Marquis Monaldeschi, Grand Equerry of the Queen of Sweden. I approached her Majesty and made my bow, then stood before her, waiting until she should think proper to address me.
With a stern look on her face, and with a loud, clear, steady voice, she asked me, before the Marquis, and before three other men who were also in the gallery, for the packet which she had confided to my care.
As she made that demand, two of the three men moved back a few paces, while the third, the captain of her guard, advanced rather nearer to her. I handed her back the packet. She looked at it thoughtfully for a little while, then opened it and took out the letters and written papers which it contained, handed them to the Marquis Monaldeschi, and insisted on his reading them. When he had obeyed, she asked him, with the same stern look and the same steady voice, whether he had any knowledge of the documents which he had just been reading. The Marquis turned deadly pale, and answered that he had now read the papers referred to for the first time.
"Do you deny all knowledge of them?" said the Queen. "Answer me plainly, sir. Yes or No?"
The Marquis turned paler still. "I deny all knowledge of them," he said, in faint tones, with his eyes on the ground.
"Do you deny all knowledge of these, too?" said the Queen, suddenly producing a second packet of manuscript from under her dress, and thrusting it in the Marquis's face.
He started, drew back a little, and answered not a word. The packet which the Queen had given to me contained copies only. The original papers were those which she had just thrust in the Marquis's face.
"Do you deny your own seal and your own handwriting?" she asked.
He murmured a few words, acknowledging both the seal and the handwriting to be his own, and added some phrases of excuse, in which he endeavored to cast the blame that attached to the writing of the letters on the shoulders of other persons. While he was speaking, the three men in attendance on the Queen silently closed round him.
Her Majesty heard him to the end. "You are a traitor," she said, and turned her back on him.
The three men, as she spoke those words, drew their swords.
The Marquis heard the clash of the blades against the scabbards, and, looking quickly round, saw the drawn swords behind him. He caught the Queen by the arm immediately, and drew her away with him, first into one corner of the gallery, then into another, entreating her in the most moving terms to listen to him, and to believe in the sincerity of his repentance. The Queen let him go on talking without showing the least sign of anger or impatience. Her color never changed; the stern look never left her countenance. There was something awful in the clear, cold, deadly resolution which her eyes expressed while they rested on the Marquis's face.
At last she shook herself free from his grasp, still without betraying the slightest irritation. The three men with the drawn swords, who had followed the Marquis silently as he led the Queen from corner to corner of the gallery, now closed round him again, as soon as he was left standing alone. There was perfect silence for a minute or more. Then the Queen addressed herself to me.
"Father Le Bel," she said, "I charge you to bear witness that I treat this man with the strictest impartiality." She pointed, while she spoke, to the Marquis Monaldeschi with a little ebony riding-whip that she carried in her hand. "I offer that worthless traitor all the time he requires--more time than he has any right to ask for--to justify himself if he can."
The Marquis, hearing these words, took some letters from a place of concealment in his dress, and gave them to the Queen, along with a small bunch of keys. He snatched these last from his pocket so quickly, that he drew out with them a few small silver coins which fell to the floor. As he addressed himself to the Queen again, she made a sign with her ebony riding-whip to the men with the drawn swords, and they retired toward one of the windows of the gallery. I, on my side, withdrew out of hearing. The conference which ensued between the Queen and the Marquis lasted nearly an hour. When it was over, her Majesty beckoned the men back again with the whip, and then approached the place where I was standing.
"Father Le Bel," she said, in her clear, ringing, resolute tones, "there is no need for me to remain here any longer. I leave that man," she pointed to the Marquis again, "to your care. Do all that you can for the good of his soul. He has failed to justify himself, and I doom him to die."
If I had heard sentence pronounced against myself, I could hardly have been more terrified than I was when the Queen uttered those last words. The Marquis heard them where he was standing, and flung himself at her feet. I dropped on my knees by his side, and entreated her to pardon him, or at least to visit his offense with some milder punishment than the punishment of death.
"I have said the words," she answered, addressing herself only to me; "and no power under heaven shall make me unsay them. Many a man has been broken alive on the wheel for offenses which were innocence itself, compared with the offense which this perjured traitor has committed against me. I have trusted him as I might have trusted a brother; he has infamously betrayed that trust, and I exercise my royal rights over the life of a traitor. Say no more to me. I tell you again, he is doomed to die."
With those words the Queen quitted the gallery, and left me alone with Monaldeschi and the three executioners who were waiting to kill him.
The unhappy man dropped on his knees at my feet, imploring me to follow the Queen and make one more effort to obtain his pardon. Before I could answer a word, the three men surrounded him, held the points of their swords to his sides--without, however, actually touching him--and angrily recommended him to make his confession to me without wasting any more time. I entreated them, with the tears in my eyes, to wait as long as they could, so as to give the Queen time to reflect, and perhaps to falter in her deadly intentions toward the Marquis. I succeeded in producing such an impression on the chief of the three men that he left us to obtain an interview with the Queen, and to ascertain if there was any change in her purpose. After a very short absence he came back, shaking his head.
"There is no hope for you," he said, addressing Monaldeschi. "Make your peace with Heaven. Prepare yourself to die!"
"Go to the Queen!" cried the Marquis, kneeling before me with clasped hands. "Go to the Queen yourself; make one more effort to save me! Oh, Father Le Bel, run one more risk-- venture one last entreaty--before you leave me to die!"
"Will you wait till I come back?" I said to the three men.
"We will wait," they answered, and lowered their swordpoints to the ground.
I found the Queen alone in her room, without the slightest appearance of agitation in her face or her manner. Nothing that I could say had the slightest effect on her. I adjured her by all that religion holds most sacred to remember that the noblest privilege of any sovereign is the privilege of granting mercy; that the first of Christian duties is the duty of forgiving. She heard me unmoved. Seeing that entreaties were thrown away, I ventured, at my own proper hazard, on reminding her that she was not living now in her own kingdom of Sweden, but that she was the guest of the King of France, and lodged in one of his own palaces; and I boldly asked her if she had calculated the possible consequences of authorizing the killing of one of her attendants inside the walls of Fontainebleau, without any preliminary form of trial, or any official notification of the offense that he had committed. She answered me coldly, that it was enough that she knew the unpardonable nature of the offense of which Monaldeschi had been guilty; that she stood in a perfectly independent position toward the King of France; that she was absolute mistress of her own actions, at all times and in all places; and that she was accountable to nobody under Heaven for her conduct toward her subjects and servants, over whose lives and liberties she possessed sovereign rights, which no consideration whatever should induce her to resign.
Fearful as I was of irritating her, I still ventured on reiterating my remonstrances. She cut them short by hastily signing to me to leave her.
As she dismissed me, I thought I saw a slight change pass over her face; and it occurred to me that she might not have been indisposed at that moment to grant some respite, if she could have done so without appearing to falter in her resolution, and without running the risk of letting Monaldeschi escape her. Before I passed the door, I attempted to take advantage of the disposition to relent which I fancied I had perceived in her; but she angrily reiterated the gesture of dismissal before I had spoken half a dozen words. With a heavy heart, I yielded to necessity, and left her.
On returning to the gallery, I found the three men standing round the Marquis, with their swordpoints on the floor, exactly as I had left them.
"Is he to live or to die?" they asked when I came in.
There was no need for me to reply in words; my face answered the question. The Marquis groaned heavily, but said nothing. I sat myself down on a stool, and beckoned to him to come to me, and begged him, as well as my terror and wretchedness would let me, to think of repentance, and to prepare for another world. He began his confession kneeling at my feet, with his head on my knees. After continuing it for some time, he suddenly started to his feet with a scream of terror. I contrived to quiet him, and to fix his thoughts again on heavenly things. He completed his confession, speaking sometimes in Latin, sometimes in French, sometimes in Italian, according as he could best explain himself in the agitation which now possessed him.
Just as he had concluded, the Queen's chaplain entered the gallery. "Without waiting to receive absolution, the unhappy Marquis rushed away from me to the chaplain, and, still clinging desperately to the hope of life, besought him to intercede with the Queen. The two talked together in low tones, holding each other by the hand. When their conference was over, the chaplain left the gallery again, taking with him the chief of the three executioners who were appointed to carry out the Queen's deadly purpose. After a short absence, this man returned without the chaplain. "Get your absolution," he said briefly to the Marquis, "and make up your mind to die."
Saying these words, he seized Monaldeschi, pressed him back against the wall at the end of the gallery, just under the picture of Saint Germain, and, before I could interfere, or even turn aside from the sight, struck at the Marquis's right side with his sword. Monaldeschi caught the blade with his hand, cutting three of his fingers in the act. At the same moment the point touched his side and glanced off. Upon this, the man who had struck at him exclaimed, "He has armor under his clothes!" and at the same moment stabbed Monaldeschi in the face. As he received the wound, he turned round toward me, and cried out loudly, "Father Le Bel! Father Le Bel!"
I advanced toward him immediately. As I did so, the man who had wounded him retired a little, and signed to his two companions to withdraw also. The Marquis, with one knee on the ground, asked pardon of God, and said certain last words in my ear. I immediately gave him absolution, telling him that he must atone for his sins by suffering death, and that he must pardon those who were about to kill him. Having heard my words, he flung himself forward on the floor. While he was falling, one of the three executioners, who had not assailed him as yet, struck at his head, and wounded him on the surface of the skull.
The Marquis sank on his face; then raised himself a little, and signed to the men to kill him outright by striking him on the neck. The same man who had last wounded him obeyed by cutting two or three times at his neck, without, however, doing him any great injury. For it was indeed true that he wore armor under his clothes, which armor consisted of a shirt of mail weighing nine or ten pounds, and rising so high round his neck, inside his collar, as to defend it successfully from any chance blow with a sword.
Seeing this, I came forward to exhort the Marquis to bear his sufferings with patience, for the remission of his sins. While I was speaking, the chief of the three executioners advanced, and asked me if I did not think it was time to give Monaldeschi the finishing stroke. I pushed the man violently away from me, saying that I had no advice to offer on the matter, and telling him that, if I had any orders to give, they would be for the sparing of the Marquis's life, and not for the hastening of his death. Hearing me speak in those terms, the man asked my pardon, and confessed that he had done wrong in addressing me on the subject at all.
He had hardly finished making his excuse to me, when the door of the gallery opened. The unhappy Marquis hearing the sound, raised himself from the floor, and, seeing that the person who entered was the Queen's chaplain, dragged himself along the gallery, holding on by the tapestry that hung from the walls, until he reached the feet of the holy man. There he whispered a few words (as if he was confessing) to the chaplain, who, after first asking my permission, gave him absolution, and then returned to the Queen.
As the chaplain closed the door, the man who had struck the Marqius on the neck stabbed him adroitly with a long, narrow sword in the throat just above the edge of the shirt of mail. Monaldeschi sank on his right side, and spoke no more. For a quarter of an hour longer he still breathed, during which time I prayed by him, and exhorted him as I best could. When the bleeding from this last wound ceased, his life ceased with it. It was then a quarter to four o'clock. The death-agony of the miserable man had lasted, from the time of the Queen's first pronouncing sentence on him, for nearly three hours.
I said the De Profundis over his body. While I was praying, the three executioners sheathed their swords, and the chief of them rifled the Marquis's pockets. Finding nothing on him but a prayer-book and a small knife, the chief beckoned to his companions, and they all three marched to the door in silence, went out, and left me alone with the corpse.
A few minutes afterward I followed them, to go and report what had happened to the Queen.
I thought her color changed a little when I told her that Monaldeschi was dead; but those cold, clear eyes of hers never softened, and her voice was still as steady and firm as when I first heard its tones on entering the gallery that day. She spoke very little, only saying to herself, "He is dead, and he deserved to die!" Then, turning to me, she added, "Father, I leave the care of burying him to you; and, for my own part, I will charge myself with the expense of having masses enough said for the repose of his soul.'' I ordered the body to be placed in a coffin, which I instructed the bearers to remove to the churchyard on a tumbril, in consequence of the great weight of the corpse, of the misty rain that was falling, and of the bad state of the roads. On Monday, the twelfth of November, at a quarter to six in the evening, the Marquis was buried in the parish church of Avon, near the font of holy water. The next day the Queen sent one hundred livres, by two of her servants, for masses for the repose of his soul.
Thus ends the extraordinary narrative of Father Le Bel. It is satisfactory to record, as some evidence of the progress of humanity, that this barbarous murder, which would have passed unnoticed in the feudal times, as an ordinary and legitimate exercise of a sovereign's authority over a vassal, excited, in the middle of the seventeenth century, the utmost disgust and horror throughout Paris. The prime minister at that period, Cardinal Mazarin (by no means an overscrupulous man, as all readers of French history know), wrote officially to Christina, informing her that "a crime so atrocious as that which had just been committed under her sanction, in the Palace of Fontainebleau, must be considered as a sufficient cause for banishing the Queen of Sweden from the court and dominions of his sovereign, who, in common with every honest man in the kingdom, felt horrified at the lawless outrage which had just been committed on the soil of France."
To this letter Queen Christina sent the following answer, which, as a specimen of spiteful effrontery, has probably never been matched:
"MONSIEUR MAZARIN--Those who have communicated to you the details of the death of my equerry, Monaldeschi, knew nothing at all about it. I think it highly absurd that you should have compromised so many people for the sake of informing yourself about one simple fact. Such a proceeding on your part, ridiculous as it is, does not, however, much astonish me. What I am amazed at is, that you and the king your master should have dared to express disapproval of what I have done.
"Understand, all of you--servants and masters, little people and great--that it was my sovereign pleasure to act as I did. I neither owe nor render an account of my actions to any one--least of all, to a bully, like you.
"It may be well for you to know, and to report to any one whom you can get to listen to you, that Christina cares little for your court, and less still for you. When I want to revenge myself, I have no need of your formidable power to help me. My honor obliged me to act as I did; my will is my law, and you ought to know how to respect it. . . . Understand, if you please, that wherever I choose to live, there I am Queen; and that the men about me, rascals as they may be, are better than you and the ragamuffins whom you keep in your service.
"Take my advice, Mazarin, and behave yourself for the future so as to merit my favor; you cannot, for your own sake, be too anxious to deserve it. Heaven preserve you from venturing on any more disparaging remarks about my conduct! I shall hear of them, if I am at the other end of the world; for I have friends and followers in my service who are as unscrupulous and as vigilant as any in yours, though it is probable enough that they are not quite so heavily bribed."
After replying to the prime minister of France in those terms, Christina was wise enough to leave the kingdom immediately.
For three years more she pursued her travels. At the expiration of that time, her cousin, the King of Sweden, in whose favor she had abdicated, died. She returned at once to her own country, with the object of possessing herself once more of the royal power. Here the punishment of the merciless crime that she had sanctioned overtook her at last. The brave and honest people of Sweden refused to be governed by the woman who had ordered the murder of Monaldeschi, and who had forsaken the national religion for which her father died. Threatened with the loss of her revenues as well as the loss of her sovereignty, if she remained in Sweden, the proud and merciless Christina yielded for the first time in her life. She resigned once more all right and title to the royal dignity, and left her native country for the last time. The final place of her retirement was Rome. She died there in the year sixteen hundred and eighty-nine. Even in the epitaph which she ordered to be placed on her tomb, the strange and daring character of the woman breaks out. The whole record of that wild and wicked existence was summed up with stern brevity in this one line: