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an air of familiarity and contempt for the house of a woman of quality."

That Carlos' suspicions were not without reason was proved when one day
his Queen, after, it is said, drinking a glass of milk handed to her by
the Comtesse, was taken suddenly ill and expired after three days of
terrible suffering. That she died of poison, like her mother, the
ill-fated sister of our second Charles, seems probable; but that the
poison was administered by the Comtesse, whose friend and protectress
she was and who had every reason to wish her well, is less to be
believed, in spite of Saint-Simon's unequivocal accusation. Certainly
the crime was not proved against her; for we find her still in Spain in
the following spring, when Carlos, his patience exhausted, ordered her
to leave the country.

After a short stay in Portugal and Germany, Madame de Soissons was back
in Brussels, where she spent the brief remainder of her days - "all the
French of distinction who visited the City" (to quote Saint-Simon)
"being strictly forbidden to visit her." Here, on the 9th October, 1690,
her beauty but a memory, bankrupt in reputation, friendless and poor,
the curtain fell on the life so full of mis-used gifts and baffled
ambitions.




CHAPTER XXVIII

AN ILL-FATED MARRIAGE


Few Kings have come to their thrones under such brilliant auspices as
Milan I. of Servia; few have abandoned their crowns to the greater
relief of their subjects, or have been followed to their exile by so
much hatred. But a fortnight before Milan's accession, his cousin and
predecessor, Prince Michael, had been foully done to death by hired
assassins as he was walking in the park of Topfschider, with three
ladies of his Court; and the murdered man had been placed in a carriage,
sitting upright as in life, and had been driven back to his palace
through the respectful greetings of his subjects, who little knew that
they were saluting a corpse.

There was good reason for this mockery of death, for Prince Alexander
Karageorgevitch had long set ambitious eyes on the crown of Servia, and
resolved to wrest it by fair means or foul from the boy-heir to the
throne; and it was of the highest importance that Michael's death, which
he had so brutally planned, should be concealed from him until the
succession had been secured to his young rival, Milan. And thus it was
that, before Karageorgevitch could bring his plotting to the head of
achievement, Milan was hailed with acclamation as Servia's new Prince,
and, on the 23rd June, 1868, made his triumphal entry into Belgrade to
the jubilant ringing of bells and the thunderous cheers of the people.

Twelve days later, Belgrade was _en fête_ for his crowning, her streets
ablaze with bunting and floral decorations, as the handsome boy made his
way through the tumults of cheers and avenues of fluttering
handkerchiefs to the Metropolitan Church. The men, we are told, "took
off their cloaks and placed them under his feet, that he might walk on
them; they clustered round him, kissing his garments, and blessing him
as their very own; they worshipped his handsome face and loved his
boyish smile." And when his young voice rang clearly out in the words,
"I promise you that I shall, to my dying day, preserve faithfully the
honour and integrity of Servia, and shall be ready to shed the last drop
of my blood to defend its rights," there was scarcely one of the
enthusiastic thousands that heard him who would not have been willing to
lay down his life for the idolised Prince.

It was by strange paths that the fourteen-year-old Milan had thus come
to his Principality. The son of Jefrenn Obrenovitch, uncle of the
reigning Michael, he was cradled one August day in 1854, his mother
being Marie Catargo, of the powerful race of Roumanian "Hospodars," a
woman of strong passions and dissolute life. When her temper and
infidelities had driven her husband to the drinking that put a premature
end to his days, Marie transferred her affection, without the sanction
of a wedding-ring, to Prince Kusa, a man of as evil repute as herself.
In such a home and with such guardians her only child, Milan, the future
ruler of Servia, spent the early years of his life - ill-fed, neglected,
and supremely wretched.

Thus it was that, when Prince Michael summoned the boy to Belgrade, in
order to make the acquaintance of his successor, he was horrified to see
an uncouth lad, as devoid of manners and of education as any in the
slums of his capital. The heir to the throne could neither read nor
write; the only language he spoke was a debased Roumanian, picked up
from the servants who had been his only associates, while of the land
over which he was to rule one day he knew absolutely nothing. The only
hope for him was his extreme youth - he was at the time only twelve years
old - and Michael lost no time in having him trained for the high station
he was destined to fill.

The progress the boy made was amazing. Within two years he was
unrecognisable as the half-savage who had so shocked the Court of
Belgrade. He could speak the Servian tongue with fluency and grace; he
had acquired elegance of manners and speech, and a winning courtesy of
manner which to his last day was his most marked characteristic; he had
mastered many accomplishments, and he excelled in most manly exercises,
from riding to swimming. And to all this remarkable promise the
finishing touches were put by a visit to Paris under the tutorship of a
courtly and learned professor.

Thus when, within two years of his emancipation, he came to his crown,
the uncouth lad from Roumania had blossomed into a Prince as goodly to
look on as any Europe could show - a handsome boy of courtly graces and
accomplishments, able to converse in several languages, and singularly
equipped in all ways to win the homage of the simple people over whom he
had been so early called to rule. As Mrs Gerard says, "They idolised
their boy-Prince. Every day they stood in long, closely packed lines
watching to see him come out of the castle to ride or drive; as he
passed along, smiling affectionately on his people, blessings were
showered on him. There was, however, another side to this picture of
devotion. There were those who hated the boy because he had thwarted
their plans." And this hatred, as persistent as it was malignant, was to
follow him throughout his reign, and through his years of unhappy exile,
to his grave.

But these days were happily still remote. After four years of minority
and Regency, when he was able to take the reins of government into his
own hands, his empire over the hearts of his subjects was more firmly
based than ever. His youth, his modesty, and his compelling charm of
manner made friends for him wherever his wanderings took him, from Paris
to Constantinople. He was the "Prince Charming" of Europe, as popular
abroad as he was idolised at home; and when the time arrived to find a
consort for him he might, one would have thought, have been able to pick
and choose among the fairest Princesses of the Continent.

But handsome and gallant and popular as he was, the overtures of his
ministers were coldly received by one Royal house after another. Milan
might be a reigning Prince and a charming one to boot, but it was not
forgotten that the first of his line had been a common herdsman, and the
blood of Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns could not be allowed to mingle with
so base a strain. Even a mere Hungarian Count, whose fair daughter had
caught Milan's fancy, frowned on the suit of the swineherd's successor.
But fate had already chosen a bride for the young Prince, who was more
than equal in birth to any Count's daughter; who would bring beauty and
riches as her portion; and who, after many unhappy years, was to crown
her dower with tragedy.

It was at Nice, where Prince Milan was spending the winter months of
1875, that he first set eyes on the woman whose life was to be so
tragically linked with his own. Among the visitors there was the family
of a Russian colonel, Nathaniel Ketschko, a man of high lineage and
great wealth. He claimed, in fact, descent from the Royal race of
Comnenus, which had given many a King to the thrones of Europe, and
whose sons for long centuries had won fame as generals, statesmen, and
ambassadors. And to this exalted strain was allied enormous wealth, of
which the Colonel's share was represented by a regal revenue of four
hundred thousand roubles a year.

But proud as he was of his birth and his riches, Colonel Nathaniel was
still prouder of his two lovely daughters, each of whom had inherited in
liberal measure the beauty of their mother, a daughter of the princely
house of Stourza; and of the two the more beautiful, by common consent,
was Natalie, whose charms won this spontaneous tribute from Tsar
Nicholas, when first he saw her, "I would I were a beggar that I might
every day ask your alms, and have the happiness of kissing your hand."
She had, says one who knew her in her radiant youth, "an irresistible
charm that permeated her whole being with such a harmony of grace,
sweetness, and overpowering attraction that one felt drawn to her with
magnetic force; and to adore her seemed the most natural and indeed the
only position."

Such was the high tribute paid to Servia's future Queen at the first
dawning of that beauty which was to make her also Queen of all the fair
women of Europe, and which at its zenith was thus described by one who
saw her at Wiesbaden ten years or so later: "She walked along the
promenade with a light, graceful movement; her feet hardly seemed to
touch the ground, her figure was elegant, her finely cut face was lit up
by those wonderful eyes, once seen never forgotten - brilliant, tender,
loving; her luxuriant hair of raven black was loosely coiled round the
well-set head, or fell in curls on the beautifully arched neck. For each
one she had a pleasant smile, a gracious bow, or a few words, spoken in
a musical voice." No wonder the Germans, who looked at this apparition
of grace and beauty, "simply fell down and adored her."

Such was the vision of beauty of which Prince Milan caught his first
glimpse on the promenade at Nice in the winter of 1875, and which
haunted him, day and night, until chance brought their paths together
again, and he won her consent to share his throne. That such a high
destiny awaited her, Natalie had already been told by a gipsy whom she
met one day in the woods of her father's estate near Moscow - a meeting
of which the following story is told.

At sight of the beautiful young girl the gipsy stooped in homage and
kissed the hem of her dress. "Why do you do that?" asked Natalie, half
in alarm and half in pleasure. "Because," the woman answered, "I salute
you as the chosen bride of a great Prince. Over your head I see a crown
floating in the air. It descends lower and lower until it rests on your
head. A dazzling brilliance adorns the crown; it is a Royal diadem."

"What else?" asked Natalie eagerly, her face flushed with excitement and
delight. "Oh! do tell me more, please!" "What more shall I say,"
continued the gipsy, "except that you will be a Queen, and the mother of
a King; but then - "

"But then, what?" exclaimed the eager and impatient girl; "do go on,
please. What then?" and she held out a gold coin temptingly. "I see a
large house; you will be there, but - take care; you will be turned out
by force.... And now give me the coin and let me go. More I must not
tell you."

Such were the dazzling and mysterious words spoken by the gipsy woman in
the Russian forest, a year or more before Natalie first saw the Prince
who was destined to make them true. But it was not at Nice that
opportunity came to Milan. It was an accidental meeting in Paris, some
months later, that made his path clear. During a visit to the French
capital he met a young Servian officer, a distant kinsman, one Alexander
Konstantinovitch, who confided to him, over their wine and cigarettes,
the story of his infatuation for the daughter of a Russian colonel, who
at the time was staying with her aunt, the Princess Murussi. He raved of
her beauty and her charm, and concluded by asking the Prince to
accompany him that he might make the acquaintance of the Lieutenant's
bride-to-be.

Arrived at their destination, the Prince and his companion were
graciously received by the Princess Murussi, but Milan had no eyes for
the dignified lady who gave him such a flattering reception; they were
drawn as by a magnet to the girl by her side - "a child with a woman's
grace and an angel's soul smiling in her eyes"; the incarnation of his
dreams, the very girl whose beauty, though he had caught but one passing
glimpse of it, had so intoxicated his brain a few months earlier at
Nice.

"Allow me," said the Lieutenant, "to introduce to Your Highness Natalie
Ketschko, my affianced wife." Milan's face flushed with surprise and
anger at the words. What was this trick that had been played on him? Had
Konstantinovitch then brought him here only to humiliate him? But before
he could recover from his indignation and astonishment, the Princess
said chillingly, "Pardon me, Monsieur Konstantinovitch, you are not
speaking the truth. My niece, Colonel Ketschko's daughter, is not your
affianced wife. You are too premature."

Thus rebuffed, the Lieutenant was not encouraged to prolong his stay;
and Milan was left, reassured, to bask in the smiles of the Princess and
her lovely niece, and to pursue his wooing under the most favourable
auspices. This first visit was quickly followed by others; and before a
week had passed the Prince had won the prize on which his heart was set,
and with it a dower of five million roubles. Now followed halcyon days
for the young lovers - long hours of sweet communion, of anticipation of
the happy years that stretched in such a golden vista before them. It
was a love-idyll such as delighted the romantic heart of Paris; and
congratulations and presents poured on the young couple; "the very
beggars in the streets," we are told, "blessing them as they drove by."

"Happy is the wooing that is not long a-doing," and Milan's wooing was
as brief as it was blissful. He was all impatience to possess fully the
prize he had won; preparations for the nuptials were hastened, but,
before the crowning day dawned, once more the voice of warning spoke.

A few days before the wedding, as Milan was leaving the Murussi Palace,
he was accosted by a woman, who craved permission to speak to him, a
favour which was smilingly accorded. "I know you," said the woman, thus
permitted to speak, "although you do not know me. You are the Prince of
Servia; I am a servant in the household of the Princess Murussi. Your
Highness, listen! I love Natalie. I have known and loved her since she
was a child; and I beg of you not to marry her. Such a union is doomed
to unhappiness. You love to rule, to command. So does Natalie; and it is
_she_ who will be the ruler. You are utterly unsuited for each other,
and nothing but great unhappiness can possibly come from your union."

To this warning Milan turned a smiling face and a deaf ear, as Natalie
had done to the voice of the gipsy. A fig for such gloomy prophecy! They
were ideally happy in the present, and the future should be equally
bright, however ravens might croak. Thus, one October day in 1875,
Vienna held high holiday for the nuptials of the handsome Prince and his
beautiful bride; and it was through avenues densely packed with cheering
onlookers that Natalie made her triumphal progress to the altar, in her
flower-garlanded dress of white satin, a tiara of diamonds flashing from
the blackness of her hair, no brighter than the brilliance of her eyes,
her face irradiated with happiness.

That no Royalty graced their wedding was a matter of no moment to Milan
and Natalie, whose happiness was thus crowned; and when at the
subsequent banquet Milan said, "I wish from my very heart that every one
of my subjects, as well as everybody I know, could be always as happy as
I am this moment," none who heard him could doubt the sincerity of his
words, or see any but a golden future for so ideal a union of hearts.

By Servia her young Princess was received with open arms of welcome.
"Her reception," we are told, "was beyond description. The festivities
lasted three days, and during that time the love of the people for
their Prince, and their admiration of the beauty and charm of his bride,
were beyond words to describe." Never did Royal wedded life open more
full of bright promise, and never did consort make more immediate
conquest of the affections of her husband's subjects. "No one could have
believed that this marriage, which was contracted from love and love
alone, would have ended in so tragic a manner, or that hate could so
quickly have taken the place of love."

But the serpent was quick to show his head in Natalie's new paradise.
Before she had been many weeks a wife, stories came to her ears of her
husband's many infidelities. Now the story was of one lady of her Court,
now of another, until the horrified Princess knew not whom to trust or
to respect. Strange tales, too, came to her (mostly anonymously) of
Milan's amours in Paris, in Vienna, and half a dozen of his other haunts
of pleasure, until her love, poisoned at its very springing, turned to
suspicion and distrust of the man to whom she had given her heart.

Other disillusions were quick to follow. She discovered that her husband
was a hopeless gambler and spendthrift, spending long hours daily at the
card-tables, watching with pale face and trembling lips his pile of gold
dwindle (as it usually did) to its last coin; and often losing at a
single sitting a month's revenue from the Civil List. Her own dowry of
five million roubles, she knew, was safe from his clutches. Her father
had taken care to make that secure, but Milan's private fortune, large
as it had been, had already been squandered in this and other forms of
dissipation; and even the expenses of his wedding, she learned, had been
met by a loan raised at ruinous interest.

Such discoveries as these were well calculated to shatter the dreams of
the most infatuated of brides, and less was sufficient to rouse
Natalie's proud spirit to rebellion. When affectionate pleadings proved
useless, reproaches took their place. Heated words were exchanged, and
the records tell of many violent scenes before Natalie had been six
months Princess of Servia. "You love to rule," the warning voice had
told Milan - "to command. So does Natalie"; and already the clashing of
strong wills and imperious tempers, which must end in the yielding of
one or the other, had begun to be heard.

If more fuel had been needed to feed the flames of dissension, it was
quickly supplied by two unfortunate incidents. The first was Milan's
open dallying with Fräulein S - - , one of Natalie's maids-of-honour, a
girl almost as beautiful as herself, but with the _beauté de diable_.
The second was the appearance in Belgrade of Dimitri Wasseljevitchca,
who was suspected of plotting to assassinate the Tsar. Russia demanded
that the fugitive should be given up to justice, and enlisted Natalie's
co-operation with this object. Milan, however, was resolute not to
surrender the plotter, and turned a deaf ear to all the Princess's
pleadings and cajoleries. "The most exciting scene followed. Natalie,
abandoning entreaties, threatened and even commanded her husband to obey
her"; and when threats and commands equally failed, she gave way to a
paroxysm of rage in which she heaped the most unbridled scorn and
contempt on her husband.

Thus jealousy, a thwarted will, and Milan's low pleasures combined to
widen the breach between the Royal couple, so recently plighted to each
other in the sacred name of love, and to prepare the way for the
troubled and tragic years to come.




CHAPTER XXIX

AN ILL-FATED MARRIAGE - _continued_


If anything could have restored happiness to Milan of Servia and his
Princess, Natalie, it should surely have been the birth of the
baby-Prince, Alexander, whom both equally adored and equally spoiled.
But, instead of linking his parents in a new bond of affection "Sacha"
was from his cradle the innocent cause of widening the breach that
severed them.

For a time, fortunately, Milan had little opportunity of continuing the
feud of recrimination with his high-spirited and hot-tempered spouse.
More serious matters claimed him. Servia was plunged into war with
Turkey, and his days were spent in camp and on the battlefield, until
the intervention of Russia put an end to the long and hopeless struggle,
and Milan found himself one February day in 1882, thanks to the Berlin
Conference, hailed the first King of his country, under the title of
Milan I.

Then followed a disastrous war with Bulgaria into which the headstrong
King rushed in spite of Natalie's warning - "Draw back, Milan, and have
no share in what will prove a bloody drama. You have no chance of
conquering, for Alexander is made of the stuff of the Hohenzollerns."
And indeed the struggle was doomed to failure from the first; for Milan
was no man to lead an army to victory. Read his method of conducting a
campaign, as described by one of his aides-de-camp -

"Our troops continue to retreat - I never imagined a campaign could be so
jolly. We do nothing but dance and sing and fiddle. Yesterday the King
had some guests and the champagne literally flowed. We had the Belgrade
singers, who used to delight us in the theatre-café. They sang and
danced delightfully. The last two days we have had plenty of fun, and
yesterday a lot of jolly girls came to enliven us." Such was Milan's
method of conducting a great war, on which the very existence of his
kingdom hung. Wine and women and song were more to his taste than forced
marches, strategy, and hard-fought battles. But once again foreign
intervention came to his rescue; and his armies were saved from
annihilation.

When his sword was finally sheathed, if not with honour, he returned to
Belgrade to resume his gambling, his dallyings with fair women - and his
daily quarrels with his Queen, whose bitterness absence had done nothing
to assuage. So far from Natalie's spirit being crushed, it was higher
and prouder than ever. She would die before she would yield; but she was
in no mood to die, this autocratic, fiery-tempered, strong-willed
daughter of Russia. She gave literally a "striking" proof of the spirit
that was in her at the Easter reception of 1886, when the wife of a
Greek diplomat - a beautiful woman, to whom her husband had been more
than kind - presented herself smilingly to receive the "salute courteous"
from Her Majesty. With a look of scorn Natalie coolly surveyed her rival
from head to foot; and then, in the presence of the Court, gave her a
resounding slap on the cheek.

But the Grecian lady was only one of many fair women who basked
successively (or together) in Milan's favour. A much more formidable
rival was Artemesia Christich, a woman as designing as she was lovely,
who was quick to envelop the weak King in the toils of her witchery. Not
content with his smiles and favours she aspired to take Natalie's place
as Queen of Servia; and, it is said, had extorted from him a promise
that he would make her his Queen as soon as his existing marriage tie
could be dissolved. And to this infamous compact Artemesia's husband, a
man as crafty and unscrupulous as herself, consented, in return for his
promotion to certain high and profitable offices in the State.

In vain did the Emperor and the Crown Prince of Austria, with many
another high-placed friend, plead with Milan not to commit such a folly.
He was driven to distraction between such powerful appeals and the
allurement of the siren who had him so effectually under her spell,
until in his despair he entertained serious thoughts of suicide as
escape from his dilemma. Meanwhile, we are told, "a perfect hell" raged
in the castle; each day brought its scandalous scene between his
outraged Queen and himself. His unpopularity with his subjects became so
acute that he was hissed whenever he made his appearance in the streets
of his capital; and Artemesia was obliged to have police protection to
shield her from the vengeance of the mob.

As for Natalie, this crowning injury decided her to bear her purgatory
no longer. She would force her husband to abdicate and secure her own
appointment as Regent for her son; or, failing that, she would leave her
husband and seek an asylum out of Servia. And with the object of still
further embittering his subjects against the King she made the full


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