Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Vignettes of Leopold II

In Chapter VIII of his memoirs, Their Majesties As I Knew Them (1911), Xavier Paoli provides a fascinating portrayal of the controversial and paradoxical King Leopold II of the Belgians and his last mistress, Baroness Vaughan. A Corsican by birth, Paoli was employed for years in the French political police; his task was to guard foreign Sovereigns visiting France. Here are some excerpts from his account of Leopold II. (Interestingly, although I had always heard the King married Madame Vaughan in his last illness, Paoli suggests the secret wedding might have occurred earlier).
Of all the sovereigns with whom I have been connected in the course of my career, Leopold II is perhaps the one whom I knew best... and whose thoughts and soul I was nevertheless least able to fathom, for the simple reason that his thoughts were impenetrable and his soul remained closed. Was this due to excessive egotism or supreme indifference? To both, perhaps. He was as baffling as a puzzle, carried banter occasionally to the verge of insolence and cynicism to that of cruelty; and, if, at times, he yielded to fits of noisy gaiety, if, from behind the rough exterior, there sometimes shot an impulse of unexpected kindness, these were but passing gleams. He promptly recovered his wonderful self-control; and those about him were too greatly fascinated by his intelligence to seek to understand his habit of mind or heart. And yet, though fascinating, he was as uncommunicative as it is possible to be; he possessed none of the external attractions of the intellect which captivate and charm; but, whenever he deigned to grant you the honour of an interview, however brief, you at once discovered in him a prodigious brain, a luminous perspicacity and critical powers of amazing subtlety and keenness...

His habit of icy chaff made one feel perpetually ill at ease when he happened to be in a conversational vein. One never knew if he was serious or joking. This tall, rough-hewn old man had a trick of stinging repartee under an outward appearance of innocent good-nature and, better than anyone that I have ever met, understood the delicate art of teaching a lesson to those who ventured upon an improper remark or an unseemly familiarity in his presence.

One evening, at a reception which he was giving to the authorities in his chalet at Ostende, the venerable rector of the parish came up to him with an air of concern and drawing him respectfully aside, said:

"Sir, I feel profoundly grieved. There is a rumour, I am sorry to say, that your Majesty's private life is not marked by the austerity suited to the lofty and difficult task which the Lord has laid upon the monarchs of this earth. Remember, Sir, that it behooves kings to set an example to their subjects."

And the worthy rector, taking courage from the fact that he had known Leopold II for thirty years, preached him a long sermon. The penitent, adopting an air of contrition, listened to the homily without moving a muscle. When, at last, the priest had exhausted his eloquence:

"What a funny thing, monsieur le cure!" murmured the King, fixing him with that cold glance of his, from under his wrinkled eye-lids. "Do you know, people have told me exactly the same thing about you! Only I refused to believe it, you know!"

That was a delicious sally, too, in which he indulged at the expense of a certain Brazilian minister, who was paying his first visit to court, and who appeared to be under the impression that the King was hard of hearing. At any rate, he made the most extraordinary efforts to speak loud and to pronounce his words distinctly. The King maintained an impassive countenance, but ended by interrupting him:

"Excuse me, monsieur le ministre," he said, with an exquisite smile. "I'm not deaf, you know: it's my brother!"

Picture the diplomatist's face!

Lastly, let me recall his caustic reply to one of our most uncompromising radical deputies, who was being received in audience and who, falling under the spell of King Leopold's obvious intelligence, said to him, point-blank:

"Sir, I am a republican. I do not hold with monarchies and kings. Nevertheless, I recognise your great superiority and I confess that you would make an admirable president of a republic!"

"Really?" replied the King, with his most ingenuous air. "Really? Do you know, I think I shall pay a compliment in your style to my physician, Dr. Thirier, who is coming to see me presently. I shall say, 'Thirier, you are a great doctor and I think you would make an excellent veterinary surgeon!'"...

The fact is that Leopold II looked at everything from two points of view: that of practical reality and that of his own selfishness. The King had in his veins the blood of the Coburgs mixed with that of the d'Orleans, two highly intelligent families, but utterly devoid of sentiment or sensibility; and he treated life as an equation which it was his business to solve by any methods, no matter which, so long as the result corresponded with that which he had assigned to it beforehand.

He had an extraordinarily observant mind, was marvellously familiar with the character of his people, its weaknesses and its vanities and played upon these with the firm, yet delicate touch of a pianist who feels himself to be a perfect master of his instrument and of its effects. His cleverness as a constitutional sovereign consisted in appearing to follow the movements of public opinion, whereas, in reality, he directed and sometimes even provoked them...

He had idiosyncrasies, like most mortals. For instance, he used to have four buckets of sea-water dashed over his body every morning, by way of a bath; he expected partridges to be served at his meals all the year round; and he had his newspapers ironed like pocket-handkerchiefs before reading them: he could not endure anything like a fold or crease in them. Lastly, when addressing the servants, he always spoke of himself in the third person. Thus he would say to his chauffeur, "Wait for him," instead of, "Wait for me." Those new to his service, who had not been warned, were puzzled to know what mysterious person he referred to.

A strange eccentric, you will say. No doubt, although these oddities are difficult to understand in the case of a man who displayed the most practical mind, the most lucid intelligence and the shrewdest head for business the moment he was brought face to face with the facts of daily life. But, I repeat, to those who knew him best, he appeared in the light of a constant and bewildering puzzle; and this was shown not only in the peculiarity of his manners, but in the incongruity of his sentiments. How are we to explain why this King should feel an infinite love for children, this stern King who was so hard and sometimes so cruel in his treatment of those to whom by rights he ought never to have closed his heart nor refused his indulgence? Yet the tall old man worshipped the little tots. They were almost the only creatures whose greetings he returned; and he would go carefully out of his way, when strolling along a beach, rather than spoil their sand-castles. How are we to explain the deep-seated, intense and jealous delight which he, so insensible to the softer emotions of mankind, felt at the sight of the fragile beauty of a rare flower? How are we to explain why he reserved the kindness and gentleness which he so harshly refused to his wife and daughters for his unfortunate sister, the Empress Charlotte, whose mysterious madness had kept her for forty-two years a lonely prisoner within the high walls of the Chateau de Bouchout? And yet, every morning of those forty-two years he never failed, when at Laeken, to go alone across the park to that silent dwelling and spend two hours in solitary converse with the tragic widow. Each day, with motherly solicitude, he personally supervised the smallest details of that shattered existence.

Lastly, what an astounding contrast was offered in Leopold II, who was considered insensible to the weaknesses of the heart, by the sudden blossoming of a sentimental idyll in the evening of his life....

...(A) single and decisive love, which he preserved until his death was soon to fill his thoughts exclusively and graft upon his... heart a belated bloom of disconcerting youth. When Leopold II made the acquaintance of Mlle. Blanche Caroline Delacroix, whom he afterwards raised to the dignity of Baroness Vaughan, he had just reached his sixty-fifth year....The humbleness of her birth prevented her from raising her eyes to a throne. She was the thirteenth child of a working mechanic and was born at Bucharest, where her father had gone to seek his fortune. She was brought up, therefore, in courts which were very different from royal courts; and I need not say that her education had hardly prepared her for the brilliant destiny which her chequered life held in store for her...

To what did Blanche Caroline Delacroix owe her success with Leopold II: to her vivid conversational powers, to the dazzling youthfulness of the fair-haired divinity that she was, or to her genuine intelligence? I cannot tell; but this much is certain, that, at her first audience, she succeeded in arousing in the old man's heart a love which was manifested at first in a polite flirtation and consecrated later in a union the mystery of which was never fully solved. Both the King and Mme. de Vaughan carefully refrained from making the smallest confidence on the subject of their marriage even to those in whom they confided most readily. Nevertheless, I have always believed that a secret religious ceremony did take place, so as to regularise their situation, if not with regard to Belgian law, at least in respect to the Church and their consciences. This conviction on my part was strengthened by the pastoral letter which Mgr. Mercier, Archbishop of Mechlin addressed to the Belgian Catholics after the King's death and in which the primate declared that the sovereign had died at peace with the Church of Rome. Allowing for the legitimate susceptibilities of the royal family, it was impossible to confirm the existence of a morganatic union in a more diplomatic manner. Some have said that the marriage was celebrated at San Remo, during the time when the King and Mme. de Vaughan were staying at Ville- franche, near Nice. I cannot certify this. When I consult my recollection, I merely remember that, on a certain morning, some years before Leopold II's death, I saw the King and Mme. de Vaughan drive off together in a motor-car—a thing which they had never done before—he looking very nervous and she greatly excited. They forbade anyone to accompany them and did not return until evening, when they made no attempt to tell us where they had been. Marcel, the chauffeur, said that he had taken them to San Remo, on Italian territory; but, apart from this, he also showed a memorable discretion and we got no more out of him.

I noticed, however, that, from that day, the attitude of the couple changed: they showed themselves in public together, went openly to the theatre at Nice and to the carnival masquerade and abstained from taking the very childish and rather ridiculous precautions which the King had prescribed during the period of flirtation and "engagement" on the score of "saving appearances!"

Ridiculous and childish they were, as the reader can judge for himself. For instance, although the Baroness Vaughan shared all the King's journeys and accompanied him wherever he went, she was never to address a word to him in public or appear to know him. They took the same trains, got out at the same stations, put up at the same hotels in adjoining rooms, lunched and dined in the same dining-room, but ignored each other's existence, he with an imperturbable composure, she with a charming awkwardness...

The Baroness Vaughan was not a bad sort of woman on the whole. In the early days, she used to put up with the violent outbursts to which the King occasionally treated her: she would light a great, big cigar and think no more about it. Afterwards, when she grew accustomed to look upon herself as the King's morganatic wife, her ambition increased and she insisted on being treated with deference. She complained to me that the Princess Clementine, whom she had met on the road or in some path in a garden, had not condescended to return her bow; and she added, in a regretful tone:

"To think that, if I had lived in the days of Louis XIV, I should have had a stool at Court !"

In the absence of a stool, she managed to achieve a most luxurious existence. The King, who now never left her, had installed her, when he was in residence in Brussels, in a charming villa which communicated directly with the grounds of the Chateau de Laeken by means of a bridge that spanned the road and led into the Baroness Vaughan's garden. Every day, before paying her his visit, he sent her the choicest flowers from his hot-houses and the finest fruit in his orchard...

He was very thrifty in his personal expenditure and ended by imparting his habits of economy to his fair friend. Baroness Vaughan used to scrutinise the kitchen accounts as closely as any middle- class housewife. True, the housekeeping books sometimes took excessive liberties. I remember, one year at the Chateau de Lormois near Fontainebleau, which the King had hired for the season... there was a violent scene with the cook, who had had the temerity to charge for seventy-five eggs in six days. Mme. de Vaughan was justly annoyed, dismissed him on the spot and refused to pay him the usual wages instead of notice...

Great as was the influence which Mme. de Vaughan had gained over the King's mind, I am bound to confess that it was never exercised in political matters nor in any of Leopold's financial undertakings. The baroness knew nothing about those things and made no attempt to understand them. The King was grateful to her for this discretion, which in reality was only indifference, for he never allowed any outsider to interfere in his affairs, whether public or private. He discussed none of his schemes before they were completed or before he had drawn up his plan of execution down to the minutest details.

"It shall be so," he used to declare; and no one ever dreamt of opposing his will so plainly expressed.

It was in this way that he conducted his enormous Congo enterprise entirely by himself. The different phases of this business are too well known for me to recapitulate them here. One of them, however—the first phase—has been very seldom discussed and deserves to be recalled, for it throws a great light not only upon the king's conceptive genius, but also upon his diplomatic astuteness and his amazing cynicism.

In 1884, Leopold II, who had for years been obsessed by the longing to lay hands upon the Congo territory, promoted an international conference in order to frustrate the West African treaty which had lately been concluded between Great Britain and Portugal and which stood in the way of the realisation of his secret ambitions. The King of the Belgians now conceived the subtle and intelligent idea of inducing the congress to proclaim the Congo into an independent state, with himself as its recognised sovereign.

There was only one person in Europe possessed of sufficient authority to bring about the adoption of this daring plan; and that was Bismarck. Bismarck was the necessary instrument; but how was he to be persuaded? Faced with this difficulty, Leopold II hit upon the idea of sending to Berlin a mere journalist, whom he knew to be a clever and talented man, and instructed him to capture the Iron Chancellor's confidence. Leopold coached this journalist, a gentleman of the name of Gantier, to such good purpose that, as the result of a campaign directed from Brussels by the King himself, M. Gantier managed, within a few months, to insinuate himself into Bismarck's immediate surroundings, to interest him in the Congo question and to prove to him that Germany would derive incomparable benefits from proclaiming the independence of the Congo and entrusting its administration to a neutral sovereign like the King of the Belgians.

The stratagem was successful from start to finish. The Congress of Berlin, on the motion of the chancellor, proclaimed the Congo an independent territory with Leopold II, for its sovereign. We know the result: the Congo is at this day a Belgian colony. Leopold II, in a word, had "dished" Prince Bismarck...


Christina said...

I have so enjoyed this post - and seen Leopold in a completely different light! Thank you!

May said...

He is routinely portrayed as evil incarnate, but people are rarely so simple.

Anonymous said...

There was no excuse to treat his wife and daughters horribly. That's base and incredibly cruel.