From Tales of Humour, Anonymous, London: Burns and Oates; New York: Benzigers; undated (c. 1890); pp. 27-38.
Or, the Statesman’s Blow
LIGHT in luggage and light in purse, but richly endowed with the desire of pushing his fortune, and with the hope of succeeding in it, the Chevalier de Versac set out, in the year 1650, from the banks of the Garonne, for the court of Louis XIV. — as poorly equipped for it as were the three brothers, Luynes, Cadenet, and Branes, when they took their departure for the court of Henry IV. with only one cloak between them, which they used in turn; and who, in the succeeding reign, astonished the most elegant connoisseurs by their luxury, and the most prodigal of the nobility by their expenditure; the first-mentioned of the brothers becoming Constable of France, the second Duke de Chambres, the third Duke de Luxembourg, and all of them founding families of almost a princely character.
In spite of his poverty, or rather in consequence of it, the Chevalier de Versac reckoned on a brilliant and rapid fortune, having started in its pursuit with everything to gain and nothing to lose. Gay, thoughtless, a great talker and braggart, his mental resources never suffered him to be at a loss in any scrape. 30 Having travelled to Paris on foot, our hero hired a coach in order to arrive in decent time at St. Germain-en-Laye, where the young king, the queen-mother, and Mazarin, the prime minister, then were. He put up at one of the city inns, and hired a lacquey who undertook to provide for his maintenance, on condition of being protected against any punishment he might incur for his tricks upon citizens and trades-people.
Having now the means of living, and possessing a clever servant, the Chevalier was lucky enough, or rather clever enough, to gain over an adventurous tailor, who furnished the master with a proper suit of clothes, and his valet with a suit of livery, solely on the strength of De Versac’s magnificent accounts of his illustrious descent and splendid family seat, and of his father’s extensive domains on the banks of the Garonne.
This accomplished, the Chevalier stole secretly to court, took his stand in the ante-chamber of the prime minister, and set himself quietly to wait the result.
The appearance of a new comer, whose only object could be to obtain an appointment, excited the curiosity of all the persons who formed the suite and household of the minister. The first day nothing was said to him — he was merely observed: the next day people went up to him and spoke; and no sooner was his Gascon accent heard, than he was assailed by a shower of witticisms and epigrams, which were discharged at him without ceasing, and without remorse. He received the attack with so much gaiety, and replied with such presence of mind, archness and wit, that he put the jesters to flight, gained over the laughers to his side, and became, after this first encounter, respected and feared by all.
This was one step, though it did not lead far, and 31 to win another he often placed himself in the minister’s way, and saluted him with a smiling and almost familiar air, as he went to the young king or to the queen-mother. By dint of frequently repeating this stratagem, he at length attracted the notice of Mazarin, who could not help smiling to see the joyous air diffused over the Gascon’s visage; and thought that a man who seemed so satisfied with the world and with himself had nothing to ask from any one. Versac was delighted with his good luck; forgetting that he owed his clothes to his tailor, and that he was indebted for his dinner to-day and every day to what his valet could procure from the baker, the cook’s shop, and the publican, he went home quite elated, and saying to himself, “Chevalier de Versac, my friend, you are getting on well at court; the prime minister smiled at you, and some good ought to come of that.”
Next day Mazarin noticed him, and smiled as before; and the third day looked about for him, as for one whom he was glad to see. This lasted for a week, after which Versac ceased to appear at court and shut himself up in his room.
The minister, according to custom, having looked for him, but in vain, one morning, and this absence continuing for some time, he was greatly surprised, and inquired, on returning from the council one day, who the gentleman was, and why he no longer appeared among the courtiers; describing him as a person of the most distinguished and good-humoured mien. The cardinal received for answer, that the gentleman in question was a wild fellow from the banks of the Garonne, endowed with great volubility of tongue, and exciting universal mirth by the vivacity of his retorts, and who had quitted the noble mansion of his titled father, in order to push his fortune at court.32
Versac, whose absence from the crowd of hangers-on in the antechambers of the cardinal was only a trick to excite his attention, was too clever to absent himself long from court, and to run the risk of being forgotten. He returned, and took his post as usual, and was delighted to perceive an air of satisfaction on the countenance of the minister at beholding him again, from which he augured favourably. In fact, the minister stopped and addressed him, in his broken jargon, half French, half Italian: —
“It is then you, Monsieur le Chevalier, who makes these gentlemen laugh so! that is right, — I like to see people laugh. Go on.”
“And also to hear them sing, my Lord,” replied the Gascon boldly.
“Because, when people sing ——”
“Enough — I know the rest.”
And the minister went away, looking at his interlocutor with a smile, which excited much jealousy among the crowd in the antechamber. Versac entered his hotel still more delighted with the first words addressed to him by the minister than he had been by his first smile.
“Chevalier,” he said to himself, “the prime minister has spoken to you this time; if you are not a fool, your fortune is made; but as you are not a fool, then ——”
We leave to the reader the conclusion to be deduced from this reasoning.
Our adventurer, however, did not rely so entirely on the favours of the court, as to neglect soliciting others at the same time; for in a family residing in a part of Paris where he made frequent journeys, there was a young and rich heiress whom her parents wished to marry to a person of noble extraction, in order to 33 free themselves, somehow, from the stain of plebeian extraction; their wealth having been acquired as traders in the city. Versac laid close siege to this young heiress, but her family, in spite of their vanity, were not wholly indifferent to the money side of the question, and were desirous that the husband they were in quest of, for their blooming prize, should at least be able to tell down a few thousand francs towards maintaining the establishment.
The chevalier had indeed told them of the magnificent castle and immense domains of his noble father, of whom he was the only son, but in vain; Gascony was at a discount; and no more faith was placed in his castles and broad acres, then we now-a-days put in castles in Spain, or in American uncles. His suite, therefore, was in a languishing condition.
On the day when he received from Mazarin so striking and public a mark of goodwill, Versac borrowed a crown from his lacquey, went to Paris, and paid a visit to the young lady’s father, to whom he said, after the usual complimentary phrases had passed between them —
“You are not disposed, then, to look upon my father’s magnificent castle and vast domains in the extensive village of Versac — of which he is now, and I shall be, in my turn, the lord and proprietor — as real property, and perhaps you are right. In troublous times, those who envy our illustrious house may be able, by means of a coalition formed against it, to besiege the castle, to take and demolish it, n spite of its thick ramparts, its seven formidable towers, and the deep ditches that defend it. A great inundation of the Garonne may submerge the meadows and fields, and render them barren for many years, by covering them with sand. We will say no more, therefore, about meadows or castles, but answer me this — Do you think that a young and 34 handsome gentleman, expert in all manly exercises, witty, talented, and brave, and who enjoys the favour of the second person in the kingdom, may reasonably look forward to some advancement?”
“He may, and certainly ought to attain the highest distinction,” replied the citizen.
“Very well; do not forget what you have just said. You see in my person the most intimate favourite of His Excellency Cardinal Mazarin, the Prime Minister of His Majesty the reigning kind of France, Louis XIII. ——”
“Of the Prime Minister?”
“Yes — of Mazarin himself.”
“Give me a proof of what you say; let the minister bestow upon you in my presence a special mark of favour, and I will hesitate no longer; my daughter is yours.”
“With the hundred thousand crowns of portion?”
“Yes, with the hundred thousand crowns of portion.”
“And the certainty of your property after your decease?”
“With all the certainties and pretensions that my daughter possesses at the present moment.”
“Very well; very well. Nothing is easier than to satisfy you. Come to Saint Germain to-morrow, exactly at noon. I will take you to His Eminence, and if you are not convinced in a moment that I enjoy his highest favour, I shall despair of convincing you that two and two make four.”
The citizen promised to attend; Versac left him, and went to partake of a wretched meal at a low eating-house; after which he returned on foot to Saint Germain, in order to save what remained of the crown which his valet had lent him. Having left Paris at a late hour, and having, moreover, lost his way in the wood of Vesinet, he was very late in 35 arriving at his lodging; and as the landlord refused to open the door to him he was compelled, having no other resource, to pass the rest of the night in the open air in a pit. Fortunately it was the summer time, and the weather was fine.
When it was day he was admitted into the house; and the first thing he did was to throw himself on his bed, dressed as he was, where he speedily fell fast asleep.
Just at noon, as the citizen had promised, he arrived in his best costume at the moment when Versac’s valet was out foraging for dinner — for breakfast was a meal unknown to his master.
Finding the door open, our citizen entered the bed-room without meeting any obstacle, and was astonished to find the Chevalier asleep at this time of the day, and quite dressed. Awaking suddenly and rubbing his eyes, Versac exclaimed, —
“Who is there? Who is it that thus enters my bed-room without first sending up his name and business? For such a piece of carelessness, I shall dismiss all my six servants — from the youngest to the oldest, idle rascals as they are.”
Then, waking up thoroughly, he said, —
“Oh, it is you, is it, dear father-in-law? for that you are such, you may be quite sure. You see in me the most luckless gentleman in the whole kingdom of France and Navarre. What a heavy burden the favour of the great is, at times! Only judge for yourself. Scarcely arrived in Paris yesterday, as quickly as my chariot and four could whirl me, there was no help for it but to attend the orders of His Eminence the Cardinal, who needed my advice on a diplomatic question of the utmost importance. I remained in the Minister’s cabinet till five o’clock this morning; but nevertheless, dear father-in-law, affairs are just as I represented them to you yesterday. 36 We shall now pay a visit to His Eminence. I shall go just as I am, for there is no time now to put on my court-dress; and besides, the Cardinal would be displeased, for he has given me strict orders to wait upon him without any ceremony, quite as a friend. Only wait a moment while I change my boots, and I shall be with you instantly.
Going into another room, Versac brushed and adjusted his attire, feather, and all, in the best way he could, twisted his moustaches into the proper shape, carefully dusted his buskins, and then, with the aid of a hair pencil and some ink, changed their hue from yellow to a deep black, he took his citizen friend by the arm, and set out for the castle.
Entering the ante-chamber of the minister with an air full of dignity, Versac bestowed his polite favours and recognitions to the right and the left, accompanied with patronising smiles, in the style of a recognised and acknowledged favourite.
Having placed his father-in-law in the foremost ranks, he caused himself to be announced to Cardinal Mazarin, entered the minister’s presence with still greater assurance, and when the door was shut, humbly addressed His Eminence as follows, —
“My Lord Cardinal, you have had the goodness to notice me among the nobles who hasten to wait on you, and you condescended yesterday to address a few words to me.”
“That is true, M. le Chevalier,” replied the Cardinal, in his usual broken French.
“And from such a mark of distinguished favour, I am induced to think that your Eminence may not be disinclined to grant me a kindness.”
“As I would to all the king’s good servants,” replied the Cardinal.
“Well, on this account, no person has a better 37 right to your favour than I have: at all times my illustrious house ——”
“Say nothing about it, if you please, but come to the point — What is it you want from me?”
“I wish to beg you, my Lord Cardinal, to make my fortune!”
“Your fortune!” exclaimed Mazarin in alarm, looking at the same time at the somewhat faded aspect of the dress of the petitioner.
“This fortune will not cost either his Majesty or your Eminence a farthing,” hastily added Versac.
“Oh, indeed!” exclaimed Mazarin, feeling relieved from a great burden: “but tell me how is this to be done?”
“By your having the great kindness to give me a blow.”
“Yes, my Lord Cardinal.”
“Are you serious?”
“I am, indeed, quite so.”
“This is very curious: and this blow, must it be a severe one?”
“No, my Lord, quite the reverse.”
The Cardinal raised his hand, but Versac arrested its descent, saying, “Not here, may it please your Eminence, but outside, in your ante-chamber, in the presence of all the nobles who crowd it.”
“Ah, very well! very well!” said the minister, who began to see the object aimed at by this novel sort of petitioner.
The minister’s door was now thrown open, and Versac was first seen, overwhelming Mazarin with thanks and assurances of eternal gratitude. The minister, following him, bestowed upon him, with a gracious air, when they were now both well in sight of all the company, two little blows on the cheek, with the tips of his fingers, saying at the same time, 38 “Enough, enough, M. le Chevalier! You know that I can refuse you nothing; I have given you even more than you asked for, — are you now satisfied?”
Versac without speaking bent himself down almost to the ground, with looks of the liveliest gratitude, and remained in that posture until the Cardinal entered his room again.
“Well,” said Versac to his future father-in-law the citizen, when he had rejoined him, “what do you think of this?”
“I am quite satisfied, M. le Chevalier.”
“Do you think that a gentleman whom the Prime Minister himself accompanies out all the way to the ante-chamber, and who behaves to that gentleman in the familiar manner you have seen, and to whom he speaks as you have heard him speak, is not in high favour with him?”
“Certainly he must be.”
“Do you require other proofs of this besides those that you have seen? Have you any doubts remaining, — any scruples?”
“In this case let us speedily conclude the affair of my marriage with your daughter, otherwise I shall go without any delay, and in your presence ask the daughter of the first duke and peer whom I may meet.”
“Well, we will conclude the affair whenever you please.”
A fortnight afterwards Versac married the young lady, and got possession of the hundred thousand crowns that formed the bridal portion. What were the consequences of the marriage? that we cannot tell. We only know that it actually took place, that Versac found the fortune which, with full confidence of obtaining, he had come to Court to seek; and that here our story ends.
I cannot find any French original for this story, as I could for the others in this book. A much shorter anecdote of the same type is in The diorama of life, or, The macrocosm and microcosm displayed: characteristic sketches and anecdotes of men and things, by Andrew Wilkie, Bath: E. Barrett, 1824; p. 133:
A gentleman who had been long attached to Cardinal Mazarin and much esteemed by that minister, but little assisted in his finances by court favour, one day told Mazarin of his many promises, and his dilatory performance. The cardinal, who had a great regard for the man, and was unwilling to lose his friendship, took his hand, and leading him into his library, explained to him the many demands made upon a person in his situation as minister, and which it would be politic to satisfy previously to other requests, as they were founded on services done to the state. Mazarin’s companion, not very confident in the minister’s veracity, replied, “My lord, all the favour I expect at your hands is this: that whenever we meet in public, you will do me the honour to tap me on the shoulder in the most unreserved manner.” In two or three years the friend of the cardinal became a wealthy man, on the credit of the minister’s attentions to him; and Mazarin used to laugh, together with his confidant, at the folly of the world, in granting their protection to persons on such slight security.