Famous Affinities of History: The Romance of Devotion


It is an old saying that to every womanly woman self-sacrifice is almost a necessity of her nature. To make herself of small account as compared with the one she loves; to give freely of herself, even though she may receive nothing in return; to suffer, and yet to feel an inner poignant joy in all this suffering—here is a most wonderful trait of womanhood. Perhaps it is akin to the maternal instinct; for to the mother, after she has felt the throb of a new life within her, there is no sacrifice so great and no anguish so keen that she will not welcome it as the outward sign and evidence of her illimitable love.

In most women this spirit of self-sacrifice is checked and kept within ordinary bounds by the circumstances of their lives. In many small things they do yield and they do suffer; yet it is not in yielding and in suffering that they find their deepest joy.

There are some, however, who seem to have been born with an abnormal capacity for enduring hardship and mental anguish; so that by a sort of contradiction they find their happiness in sorrow. Such women are endowed with a remarkable degree of sensibility. They feel intensely. In moments of grief and disappointment, and even of despair, there steals over them a sort of melancholy pleasure. It is as if they loved dim lights and mournful music and scenes full of sad suggestion.

If everything goes well with them, they are unwilling to believe that such good fortune will last. If anything goes wrong with them, they are sure that this is only the beginning of something even worse. The music of their lives is written in a minor key.

Now, for such women as these, the world at large has very little charity. It speaks slightingly of them as "agonizers." It believes that they are "fond of making scenes." It regards as an affectation something that is really instinctive and inevitable. Unless such women are beautiful and young and charming they are treated badly; and this is often true in spite of all their natural attractiveness, for they seem to court ill usage as if they were saying frankly:

"Come, take us! We will give you everything and ask for nothing. We do not expect true and enduring love. Do not be constant or generous or even kind. We know that we shall suffer. But, none the less, in our sorrow there will be sweetness, and even in our abasement we shall feel a sort of triumph."

In history there is one woman who stands out conspicuously as a type of her melancholy sisterhood, one whose life was full of disappointment even when she was most successful, and of indignity even when she was most sought after and admired. This woman was Adrienne Lecouvreur, famous in the annals of the stage, and still more famous in the annals of unrequited—or, at any rate, unhappy—love.

Her story is linked with that of a man no less remarkable than herself, a hero of chivalry, a marvel of courage, of fascination, and of irresponsibility.

Adrienne Lecouvreur—her name was originally Couvreur—was born toward the end of the seventeenth century in the little French village of Damery, not far from Rheims, where her aunt was a laundress and her father a hatter in a small way. Of her mother, who died in childbirth, we know nothing; but her father was a man of gloomy and ungovernable temper, breaking out into violent fits of passion, in one of which, long afterward, he died, raving and yelling like a maniac.

Adrienne was brought up at the wash-tub, and became accustomed to a wandering life, in which she went from one town to another. What she had inherited from her mother is, of course, not known; but she had all her father's strangely pessimistic temper, softened only by the fact that she was a girl. From her earliest years she was unhappy; yet her unhappiness was largely of her own choosing. Other girls of her own station met life cheerfully, worked away from dawn till dusk, and then had their moments of amusement, and even jollity, with their companions, after the fashion of all children. But Adrienne Lecouvreur was unhappy because she chose to be. It was not the wash-tub that made her so, for she had been born to it; nor was it the half-mad outbreaks of her father, because to her, at least, he was not unkind. Her discontent sprang from her excessive sensibility.

Indeed, for a peasant child she had reason to think herself far more fortunate than her associates. Her intelligence was great. Ambition was awakened in her before she was ten years of age, when she began to learn and to recite poems—learning them, as has been said, "between the wash-tub and the ironing-board," and reciting them to the admiration of older and wiser people than she. Even at ten she was a very beautiful child, with great lambent eyes, an exquisite complexion, and a lovely form, while she had the further gift of a voice that thrilled the listener and, when she chose, brought tears to every eye. She was, indeed, a natural elocutionist, knowing by instinct all those modulations of tone and varied cadences which go to the hearer's heart.

It was very like Adrienne Lecouvreur to memorize only such poems as were mournful, just as in after life she could win success upon the stage only in tragic parts. She would repeat with a sort of ecstasy the pathetic poems that were then admired; and she was soon able to give up her menial work, because many people asked her to their houses so that they could listen to the divinely beautiful voice charged with the emotion which was always at her command.

When she was thirteen her father moved to Paris, where she was placed at school—a very humble school in a very humble quarter of the city. Yet even there her genius showed itself at that early age. A number of children and young people, probably influenced by Adrienne, formed themselves into a theatrical company from the pure love of acting. A friendly grocer let them have an empty store-room for their performances, and in this store-room Adrienne Lecouvreur first acted in a tragedy by Corneille, assuming the part of leading woman.

Her genius for the stage was like the genius of Napoleon for war. She had had no teaching. She had never been inside of any theater; and yet she delivered the magnificent lines with all the power and fire and effectiveness of a most accomplished actress. People thronged to see her and to feel the tempest of emotion which shook her as she sustained her part, which for the moment was as real to her as life itself.

At first only the people of the neighborhood knew anything about these amateur performances; but presently a lady of rank, one Mme. du Gue, came out of curiosity and was fascinated by the little actress. Mme. du Gue offered the spacious courtyard of her own house, and fitted it with some of the appurtenances of a theater. From that moment the fame of Adrienne spread throughout all Paris. The courtyard was crowded by gentlemen and ladies, by people of distinction from the court, and at last even by actors and actresses from the Comedie Franchise.

It is, in fact, a remarkable tribute to Adrienne that in her thirteenth year she excited so much jealousy among the actors of the Comedie that they evoked the law against her. Theaters required a royal license, and of course poor little Adrienne's company had none. Hence legal proceedings were begun, and the most famous actresses in Paris talked of having these clever children imprisoned! Upon this the company sought the precincts of the Temple, where no legal warrant could be served without the express order of the king himself.

There for a time the performances still went on. Finally, as the other children were not geniuses, but merely boys and girls in search of fun, the little company broke up. Its success, however, had determined for ever the career of Adrienne. With her beautiful face, her lithe and exquisite figure, her golden voice, and her instinctive art, it was plain enough that her future lay upon the stage; and so at fourteen or fifteen she began where most actresses leave off—accomplished and attractive, and having had a practical training in her profession.

Diderot, in that same century, observed that the truest actor is one who does not feel his part at all, but produces his effects by intellectual effort and intelligent observation. Behind the figure on the stage, torn with passion or rollicking with mirth, there must always be the cool and unemotional mind which directs and governs and controls. This same theory was both held and practised by the late Benoit Constant Coquelin. To some extent it was the theory of Garrick and Fechter and Edwin Booth; though it was rejected by the two Keans, and by Edwin Forrest, who entered so throughly into the character which he assumed, and who let loose such tremendous bursts of passion that other actors dreaded to support him on the stage in such parts as Spartacus and Metamora.

It is needless to say that a girl like Adrienne Lecouvreur flung herself with all the intensity of her nature into every role she played. This was the greatest secret of her success; for, with her, nature rose superior to art. On the other hand, it fixed her dramatic limitations, for it barred her out of comedy. Her melancholy, morbid disposition was in the fullest sympathy with tragic heroines; but she failed when she tried to represent the lighter moods and the merry moments of those who welcome mirth. She could counterfeit despair, and unforced tears would fill her eyes; but she could not laugh and romp and simulate a gaiety that was never hers.

Adrienne would have been delighted to act at one of the theaters in Paris; but they were closed to her through jealousy. She went into the provinces, in the eastern part of France, and for ten years she was a leading lady there in many companies and in many towns. As she blossomed into womanhood there came into her life the love which was to be at once a source of the most profound interest and of the most intense agony.

It is odd that all her professional success never gave her any happiness. The life of the actress who traveled from town to town, the crude and coarse experiences which she had to undergo, the disorder and the unsettled mode of living, all produced in her a profound disgust. She was of too exquisite a fiber to live in such a way, especially in a century when the refinements of existence were for the very few.

She speaks herself of "obligatory amusements, the insistence of men, and of love affairs." Yet how could such a woman as Adrienne Lecouvreur keep herself from love affairs? The motion of the stage and its mimic griefs satisfied her only while she was actually upon the boards. Love offered her an emotional excitement that endured and that was always changing. It was "the profoundest instinct of her being"; and she once wrote: "What could one do in the world without loving?"

Still, through these ten years she seems to have loved only that she might be unhappy. There was a strange twist in her mind. Men who were honorable and who loved her with sincerity she treated very badly. Men who were indifferent or ungrateful or actually base she seemed to choose by a sort of perverse instinct. Perhaps the explanation of it is that during those ten years, though she had many lovers, she never really loved. She sought excitement, passion, and after that the mournfulness which comes when passion dies. Thus, one man after another came into her life—some of them promising marriage—and she bore two children, whose fathers were unknown, or at least uncertain. But, after all, one can scarcely pity her, since she had not yet in reality known that great passion which comes but once in life. So far she had learned only a sort of feeble cynicism, which she expressed in letters and in such sayings as these:

"There are sweet errors which I would not venture to commit again. My experiences, all too sad, have served to illumine my reason."

"I am utterly weary of love and prodigiously tempted to have no more of it for the rest of my life; because, after all, I don't wish either to die or to go mad."

Yet she also said: "I know too well that no one dies of grief."

She had had, indeed, some very unfortunate experiences. Men of rank had loved her and had then cast her off. An actor, one Clavel, would have married her, but she would not accept his offer. A magistrate in Strasburg promised marriage; and then, when she was about to accept him, he wrote to her that he was going to yield to the wishes of his family and make a more advantageous alliance. And so she was alternately caressed and repulsed—a mere plaything; and yet this was probably all that she really needed at the time—something to stir her, something to make her mournful or indignant or ashamed.

It was inevitable that at last Adrienne Lecouvreur should appear in Paris. She had won such renown throughout the provinces that even those who were intensely jealous of her were obliged to give her due consideration. In 1717, when she was in her twenty-fifth year, she became a member of the Comedie Franchise. There she made an immediate and most brilliant impression. She easily took the leading place. She was one of the glories of Paris, for she became the fashion outside the theater. For the first time the great classic plays were given, not in the monotonous singsong which had become a sort of theatrical convention, but with all the fire and naturalness of life.

Being the fashion, Mlle. Lecouvreur elevated the social rank of actors and of actresses. Her salon was thronged by men and women of rank. Voltaire wrote poems in her honor. To be invited to her dinners was almost like receiving a decoration from the king. She ought to have been happy, for she had reached the summit of her profession and something more.

Yet still she was unhappy. In all her letters one finds a plaintive tone, a little moaning sound that shows how slightly her nature had been changed. No longer, however, did she throw herself away upon dullards or brutes. An English peer—Lord Peterborough—not realizing that she was different from other actresses of that loose-lived age, said to her coarsely at his first introduction:

"Come now! Show me lots of wit and lots of love."

The remark was characteristic of the time. Yet Adrienne had learned at least one thing, and that was the discontent which came from light affairs. She had thrown herself away too often. If she could not love with her entire being, if she could not give all that was in her to be given, whether of her heart or mind or soul, then she would love no more at all.

At this time there came to Paris a man remarkable in his own century, and one who afterward became almost a hero of romance. This was Maurice, Comte de Saxe, as the French called him, his German name and title being Moritz, Graf von Sachsen, while we usually term him, in English, Marshal Saxe. Maurice de Saxe was now, in 1721, entering his twenty-fifth year. Already, though so young, his career had been a strange one; and it was destined to be still more remarkable. He was the natural son of Duke Augustus II. of Saxony, who later became King of Poland, and who is known in history as Augustus the Strong.

Augustus was a giant in stature and in strength, handsome, daring, unscrupulous, and yet extremely fascinating. His life was one of revelry and fighting and display. When in his cups he would often call for a horseshoe and twist it into a knot with his powerful fingers. Many were his mistresses; but the one for whom he cared the most was a beautiful and high-spirited Swedish girl of rank, Aurora von Konigsmarck. She was descended from a rough old field-marshal who in the Thirty Years' War had slashed and sacked and pillaged and plundered to his heart's content. From him Aurora von Konigsmarck seemed to have inherited a high spirit and a sort of lawlessness which charmed the stalwart Augustus of Poland.

Their son, Maurice de Saxe, inherited everything that was good in his parents, and a great deal that was less commendable. As a mere child of twelve he had insisted on joining the army of Prince Eugene, and had seen rough service in a very strenuous campaign. Two years later he showed such daring on the battle-field that Prince Eugene summoned him and paid him a compliment under the form of a rebuke.

"Young man," he said, "you must not mistake mere recklessness for valor."

Before he was twenty he had attained the stature and strength of his royal father; and, to prove it, he in his turn called for a horseshoe, which he twisted and broke in his fingers. He fought on the side of the Russians and Poles, and again against the Turks, everywhere displaying high courage and also genius as a commander; for he never lost his self-possession amid the very blackest danger, but possessed, as Carlyle says, "vigilance, foresight, and sagacious precaution."

Exceedingly handsome, Maurice was a master of all the arts that pleased, with just a touch of roughness, which seemed not unfitting in so gallant a soldier. His troops adored him and would follow wherever he might choose to lead them; for he exercised over these rude men a magnetic power resembling that of Napoleon in after years. In private life he was a hard drinker and fond of every form of pleasure. Having no fortune of his own, a marriage was arranged for him with the Countess von Loben, who was immensely wealthy; but in three years he had squandered all her money upon his pleasures, and had, moreover, got himself heavily in debt.

It was at this time that he first came to Paris to study military tactics. He had fought hard against the French in the wars that were now ended; but his chivalrous bearing, his handsome person, and his reckless joviality made him at once a universal favorite in Paris. To the perfumed courtiers, with their laces and lovelocks and mincing ways, Maurice de Saxe came as a sort of knight of old—jovial, daring, pleasure-loving. Even his broken French was held to be quite charming; and to see him break a horseshoe with his fingers threw every one into raptures.

No wonder, then, that he was welcomed in the very highest circles. Almost at once he attracted the notice of the Princesse de Conti, a beautiful woman of the blood royal. Of her it has been said that she was "the personification of a kiss, the incarnation of an embrace, the ideal of a dream of love." Her chestnut hair was tinted with little gleams of gold. Her eyes were violet black. Her complexion was dazzling. But by the king's orders she had been forced to marry a hunchback—a man whose very limbs were so weakened by disease and evil living that they would often fail to support him, and he would fall to the ground, a writhing, screaming mass of ill-looking flesh.

It is not surprising that his lovely wife should have shuddered much at his abuse of her and still more at his grotesque endearments. When her eyes fell on Maurice de Saxe she saw in him one who could free her from her bondage. By a skilful trick he led the Prince de Conti to invade the sleeping-room of the princess, with servants, declaring that she was not alone. The charge proved quite untrue, and so she left her husband, having won the sympathy of her own world, which held that she had been insulted. But it was not she who was destined to win and hold the love of Maurice de Saxe.

Not long after his appearance in the French capital he was invited to dine with the "Queen of Paris," Adrienne Lecouvreur. Saxe had seen her on the stage. He knew her previous history. He knew that she was very much of a soiled dove; but when he met her these two natures, so utterly dissimilar, leaped together, as it were, through the indescribable attraction of opposites. He was big and powerful; she was small and fragile. He was merry, and full of quips and jests; she was reserved and melancholy. Each felt in the other a need supplied.

At one of their earliest meetings the climax came. Saxe was not the man to hesitate; while she already, in her thoughts, had made a full surrender. In one great sweep he gathered her into his arms. It appeared to her as if no man had ever laid his hand upon her until that moment. She cried out:

"Now, for the first time in my life, I seem to live!"

It was, indeed, the very first love which in her checkered career was really worthy of the name. She had supposed that all such things were passed and gone, that her heart was closed for ever, that she was invulnerable; and yet here she found herself clinging about the neck of this impetuous soldier and showing him all the shy fondness and the unselfish devotion of a young girl. From this instant Adrienne Lecouvreur never loved another man and never even looked at any other man with the slightest interest. For nine long years the two were bound together, though there were strange events to ruffle the surface of their love.

Maurice de Saxe had been sired by a king. He had the lofty ambition to be a king himself, and he felt the stirrings of that genius which in after years was to make him a great soldier, and to win the brilliant victory of Fontenoy, which to this very day the French are never tired of recalling. Already Louis XV. had made him a marshal of France; and a certain restlessness came over him. He loved Adrienne; yet he felt that to remain in the enjoyment of her witcheries ought not to be the whole of a man's career.

Then the Grand Duchy of Courland—at that time a vassal state of Poland, now part of Russia—sought a ruler. Maurice de Saxe was eager to secure its throne, which would make him at least semi-royal and the chief of a principality. He hastened thither and found that money was needed to carry out his plans. The widow of the late duke—the Grand Duchess Anna, niece of Peter the Great, and later Empress of Russia—as soon as she had met this dazzling genius, offered to help him to acquire the duchy if he would only marry her. He did not utterly refuse. Still another woman of high rank, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Peter the Great's daughter, made him very much the same proposal.

Both of these imperial women might well have attracted a man like Maurice de Saxe, had he been wholly fancy-free, for the second of them inherited the high spirit and the genius of the great Peter, while the first was a pleasure-seeking princess, resembling some of those Roman empresses who loved to stoop that they might conquer. She is described as indolent and sensual, and she once declared that the chief good in the world was love. Yet, though she neglected affairs of state and gave them over to favorites, she won and kept the affections of her people. She was unquestionably endowed with the magnetic gift of winning hearts.

Adrienne, who was left behind in Paris, knew very little of what was going on. Only two things were absolutely clear to her. One was that if her lover secured the duchy he must be parted from her. The other was that without money his ambition must be thwarted, and that he would then return to her. Here was a test to try the soul of any woman. It proved the height and the depth of her devotion. Come what might, Maurice should be Duke of Courland, even though she lost him. She gathered together her whole fortune, sold every jewel that she possessed, and sent her lover the sum of nearly a million francs.

This incident shows how absolutely she was his. But in fact, because of various intrigues, he failed of election to the ducal throne of Courland, and he returned to Adrienne with all her money spent, and without even the grace, at first, to show his gratitude. He stormed and raged over his ill luck. She merely soothed and petted him, though she had heard that he had thought of marrying another woman to secure the dukedom. In one of her letters she bursts out with the pitiful exclamation:

I am distracted with rage and anguish. Is it not natural to cry out against such treachery? This man surely ought to know me—he ought to love me. Oh, my God! What are we—what ARE we?

But still she could not give him up, nor could he give her up, though there were frightful scenes between them—times when he cruelly reproached her and when her native melancholy deepened into outbursts of despair. Finally there occurred an incident which is more or less obscure in parts. The Duchesse de Bouillon, a great lady of the court—facile, feline, licentious, and eager for delights—resolved that she would win the love of Maurice de Saxe. She set herself to win it openly and without any sense of shame. Maurice himself at times, when the tears of Adrienne proved wearisome, flirted with the duchess.

Yet, even so, Adrienne held the first place in his heart, and her rival knew it. Therefore she resolved to humiliate Adrienne, and to do so in the place where the actress had always reigned supreme. There was to be a gala performance of Racine's great tragedy, "Phedre," with Adrienne, of course, in the title-role. The Duchesse de Bouillon sent a large number of her lackeys with orders to hiss and jeer, and, if possible, to break off the play. Malignantly delighted with her plan, the duchess arrayed herself in jewels and took her seat in a conspicuous stage-box, where she could watch the coming storm and gloat over the discomfiture of her rival.

When the curtain rose, and when Adrienne appeared as Phedre, an uproar began. It was clear to the great actress that a plot had been devised against her. In an instant her whole soul was afire. The queen-like majesty of her bearing compelled silence throughout the house. Even the hired lackeys were overawed by it. Then Adrienne moved swiftly across the stage and fronted her enemy, speaking into her very face the three insulting lines which came to her at that moment of the play:

I am not of those women void of shame,
Who, savoring in crime the joys of peace,
Harden their faces till they cannot blush!

The whole house rose and burst forth into tremendous applause. Adrienne had won, for the woman who had tried to shame her rose in trepidation and hurried from the theater.

But the end was not yet. Those were evil times, when dark deeds were committed by the great almost with impunity. Secret poisoning was a common trade. To remove a rival was as usual a thing in the eighteenth century as to snub a rival is usual in the twentieth.

Not long afterward, on the night of March 15, 1730, Adrienne Lecouvreur was acting in one of Voltaire's plays with all her power and instinctive art when suddenly she was seized with the most frightful pains. Her anguish was obvious to every one who saw her, and yet she had the courage to go through her part. Then she fainted and was carried home.

Four days later she died, and her death was no less dramatic than her life had been. Her lover and two friends of his were with her, and also a Jesuit priest. He declined to administer extreme unction unless she would declare that she repented of her theatrical career. She stubbornly refused, since she believed that to be the greatest actress of her time was not a sin. Yet still the priest insisted.

Then came the final moment.

"Weary and revolting against this death, this destiny, she stretched her arms with one of the old lovely gestures toward a bust which stood near by and cried—her last cry of passion:

"'There is my world, my hope—yes, and my God!'"

The bust was one of Maurice de Saxe.

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