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Love affairs of the courts of Europe by Thornton Hall - HTML preview

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CHAPTER II

THE "BONNIE PRINCE'S" BRIDE

In the pageant of our history there are few more attractive figures than that of "Bonnie Prince Charlie," the "yellow-haired laddie" whose blue eyes made a slave of every woman who came under their magic, and whose genial, unaffected manners turned the veriest coward into a hero, ready to follow him to the death in that year of ill-fated romance, "the forty-five."

The very name of the "Bonnie Prince," the hope of the fallen Stuarts, the idol of Scotland--leading a forlorn hope with laughter on his lips, now riding proudly at the head of his rabble army, now a fugitive Ishmael among the hills and caves of the Highlands, but ever the last to lose heart--has a magic still to quicken the pulses. That later years proved the idol's feet to be of clay, that he fel from his pedestal to end his days an object of contempt and derision, only served to those who knew him in the pride of his youth to mingle pity with the glamour of romance that still surrounds his name.

In the year 1772, when this story opens, Charles Edward, Count of Albany, had already travel ed far on the downward road that led from the glory of Prestonpans to his drunkard's grave. A pitiful pensioner of France, who had known the ignominy of wearing fetters in a French prison, a social outcast whose Royal pretensions were at best the subject of an amused tolerance, the "laddie of the yel ow hair" had fal en so low that the brandy bottle, which was his constant companion night and day, was his only solace.

Picture him at this period, and mark the pathetic change which less than thirty years had wrought in the Stuart "darling" of "the forty-five,"

when many a proud lady of Scotland would have given her life for a smile from his bonnie face. A middle-aged man with dropsy in his limbs, and with the bloated face of the drunkard; "dul , thick, silent-looking lips, of purplish red scarce redder than the skin; pale blue eyes tending to a watery greyness, leaden, vague, sad, but with angry streakings of red; something inexpressibly sad, gloomy, helpless, vacant, and debased in the whole face."

Such was this "Young Chevalier" when France took it into her head to make a pawn of him in the political chess-game with England. As a man he was beneath contempt; as a "King"--well, he was a _Roi pour rire_; but at least the Royal House he represented might be made a useful weapon against the arrogant Hanoverian who sat on his father's throne. That rival stock must not be allowed to die out; his claims might weigh heavily some day in the scale between France and England. Charles Edward must marry, and provide a worthier successor to his empty honours.

And thus it was that France came to the exiled Prince with the seductive offer of a pretty bride and a pension of forty thousand crowns a year. The besotted Charles jumped at the offer; left his brandy bottle, and, with the alacrity of a youthful lover, rushed away to woo and win the bride who had been chosen for him.

And never surely was there such a grotesque wooing. Charles was a physical wreck of fifty-two; his bride-elect had only seen nineteen summers. The daughter of Prince Gustav Adolf of Stolberg and the Countess of Horn, Princess Louise was kin to many of the greatest houses in Europe, from the Colonnas and Orsinis to the Hohenzollerns and Bruces. In blood she was thus at least a match for her Stuart bridegroom.

She had spent some years in the seclusion of a monastery, and had emerged for her undesired trip to the altar a young woman of rare beauty and charm, with glorious brown eyes, the delicate tint of the wild rose in her dimpled cheeks, a wealth of golden hair, and a figure every line and movement of which was instinct with beauty and grace. She was a fresh, unspoilt child, bubbling with gaiety and the joy of life, and her dainty little head was ful of the romance of sweet nineteen.

Such then was the singularly contrasted couple--"Beauty and the Beast"

they were dubbed by many--who stood together at the altar at Macerata on Good Friday of the year 1772--the bridegroom, "looking hideous in his wedding suit of crimson silk," in flaming contrast to the virginal white of his pretty victim. It needed no such day of ill-omen as a Friday to inaugurate a union which could not have been otherwise than disastrous--the union of a beautiful, romantic girl eager to exploit the world of freedom and of pleasure, and a drink-sodden man old enough to be her father, for whom life had long lost all its illusions.

It is true that for a time Charles Edward was drawn from his bottle by the lure of a pretty and winsome wife, who should, if any power on earth could, have made a man again of him. She laughed, indeed, at his maudlin tales of past heroism and adventure in love and battle; to her he was a plaster hero, and she let him know it. She was "mated to a clown," and a drunken clown to boot--and, well, she would make the best of a bad bargain. If her husband was the sorriest lover who ever poured thick-voiced flatteries into a girl-wife's ears, there were others, plenty of them, who were eager to pay more acceptable homage to her; and these men--poets, courtiers, great men in art and letters--flocked to her _salon_ to bask in her beauty and to be charmed by her wit.

After all, she was a Queen, although she wore no crown. She had a Court, although no Royalties graced it. From the Pope to the King of France, no monarch in Europe would recognise her husband's kingship. But at such neglect, the offspring of jealousy, of course, she only smiled. She could indeed have been moderately happy in her girlish, light-hearted way, if her husband had not been such an impossible person.

As for Charles Edward, he soon wearied of a bride who did nothing but laugh at him, and who was so ready to escape from his obnoxious presence to the company of more congenial admirers. He returned to his brandy bottle, and alternated between a fuddled brain and moods of wild jealousy. He would not al ow his wife to leave the door without his escort; if she refused to accompany him, he turned the key in her bedroom door, to which the only access was through his own room.

He took her occasional y to the theatre or opera, his brandy bottle always making a third for company. Before the performance was half through he was snoring stertorously on the couch which he insisted on having in his box; and, more often than not, was borne to his carriage for the journey home helplessly drunk. And this within the first year of his wedded life.

If any woman had excuse for seeking elsewhere the love she could not find in her husband it was Louise of Albany. There were dames in plenty in Rome (where they were now living) who, not content with devoted husbands, had their _cisibeos_ to play the lover to them; but Louise sought no such questionable escape from her unhappiness. Her books and the clever men who thronged her _salon_ were all the solace she asked; and under temptation such as few women of that country and day would have resisted, she carried the shield of a blameless life.

From Rome the Countess and her husband fared to Florence in 1774; and here matters went from bad to worse. Charles was now seldom sober day or night; and his jealousy often found expression in filthy abuse and cowardly assaults. Hitherto he had been simply disgusting; now he was a constant menace, even to her life. She lived in hourly fear of his brutality; but in her darkest hour sunshine came again into her life with the coming of Vittorio Alfieri, whose name was to be linked with hers for so many years.

At this time Alfieri was in the very prime of his splendid manhood, one of the handsomest and most fascinating men in all Europe. Some four years older than herself, he was a tal , stalwart, soldierly man, blue-eyed and auburn-haired, an aristocrat to his finger-tips, a daring horseman, a poet, and a man of rare culture--just the man to set any woman's heart a-flutter, as he had already done in most of the capitals of the Continent.

He was a spoilt child of fortune, this Italian poet and soldier, a man who had drunk deep of the cup of life, and to whom all conquests came with such fatal ease that already he had drained life dry of its pleasures.

Such was the man who one autumn day in the year 1777 came into the unhappy life of the Countess of Albany, still full of the passions and yearnings of youth. It was surely fate that thus brought together these two young people of kindred tastes and kindred disillusions; and we cannot wonder that, of that first meeting, Alfieri should write, "At last I had met the one woman whom I had sought so long, the woman who could inspire my ambition and my work. Recognising this, and prizing so rare a treasure, I gave myself up wholly to her."

Those were happy days for the Countess that fol owed this fateful meeting--days of sweet communion of twin souls, hours of stolen bliss, when they could dwel apart in a region of high and ennobling thoughts, while the besotted husband was sleeping off the effects of his drunken orgies in the next room. To Alfieri, Louise was indeed "the anchor of his life," giving stability to his vacillating nature, and inspiring all that was best and noblest in him; while to her the association with this

"splendid creature," who so thoroughly understood and sympathised with her, was the revelation of a new world.

Thus three happy years passed; and then the crisis came. One night the Prince, in a mood of drunken madness, inflamed by jealousy, attacked his wife, and, after severely beating her, flung her down on her bed and attempted to strangle her. This was the crowning outrage of years of brutality. She could not, dared not, spend another day with such a madman. At any cost she must leave him--and for ever.

When morning came, with Alfieri's assistance, the plan of escape was arranged. In the company of a lady friend--and also of her husband, now scared and penitent, but fearing to let her out of his sight--she drove to a neighbouring convent, ostensibly to inspect the nuns' needlework.

On reaching her destination she ran up the convent steps, entered the building, and the door was slammed and bolted behind her in the very face of Charles Edward, who had fol owed as fast as his dropsical legs would carry him up the steps. The Prince, blazing at such an outrage, hammered fiercely at the door until at last the Lady Abbess herself showed her face at the grating, and told him in no ambiguous words that he would not be al owed to enter! His wife had come to her for protection; and if he had any grievance he had better appeal to the Duke of Tuscany.

Thus ended the tragic union of the "Bonnie Prince" and his Countess.

Emancipation had come at last; and, while Louise was now free to devote her life to her beloved Alfieri, her brutal husband was left for eight years to the company of his bottle and the ministrations of his natural daughter, until a drunkard's grave at Frascati closed over his mis-spent life. The pity and the tragedy of it!

Louise of Albany and her poet-lover were now free to link their lives at the altar--but no such thought seems to have entered the head of either.

They were perfectly happy without the bond of the wedding-ring, of which the Countess had such terrible memories; and together they walked through life, happy in each other and indifferent to the world's opinion.

Now in Florence, now in Rome; living together in Alsace, drifting to Paris; and, when the Revolution drove them from the French capital, seeking refuge in London, where we find the uncrowned Queen of England chatting amicably with the "usurper" George in the Royal box at the opera--always inseparable, and Louise always clinging to the shreds of her Royal dignity, with a throne in her ante-room, and "Your Majesty"

on her servants' lips. Thus passed the careless, happy years for Countess and poet until, in 1803, Alfieri fol owed the "Bonnie Prince"

behind the veil, and left a desolate Louise to moan amid her tears,

"There is no more happiness for me."

But Louise was not left even now without the solace of a man's love, which seemed as indispensable to her nature as the air she breathed.

Before Alfieri had been many months in his Florence tomb his place by the Countess's side had been taken by Francois Xavier Fabre, a good-looking painter of only moderate gifts, whose handsome face, plausible tongue, and sunny disposition soon made a captive of her middle-aged heart. At the time when Fabre came thus into her life Madame la Comtesse had passed her fiftieth birthday--youth and beauty had taken wings; and passion (if ever she had any--for her relations with Alfieri seem to have been quite platonic) had died down to its embers.

But a man's companionship and homage were always necessary to her, and in Fabre she found her ideal cavalier. Her _salon_ now became more popular even than in the days of her young wifehood. It drew to it al the greatest men in Europe, men of world-wide fame in statesmanship, letters, and art, al anxious to do homage to a woman of such culture and with such rare gifts of conversation.

That she was now middle-aged, stout and dowdy--"like a cook with pretty hands," as Stendhal said of her--mattered nothing to her admirers, many of whom remembered her in the days of her lovely youth. She was, in their eyes, as much a Queen as if she wore a crown; and, moreover, she was a woman of magnetic charm and clever brain.

And thus, with her books and her _salon_ and her cavalier, she spent the rest of her chequered life until the end came one day in 1824; and her last resting-place was, as she wished it to be, by the side of her beloved Alfieri. In the Church of Santa Croce, in Florence, midway between the tombs of Michael Angelo and Machiavelli, the two lovers sleep together their last sleep, beneath a beautiful monument fashioned by Canova's hands--Louise, wife of the "Bonnie Prince" (as we still choose to remember him) and Vittorio Alfieri, to whom, to quote his own words, "she was beyond al things beloved."