XLIII

Riza Bey, the Persian envoy to Louis XIV.

The most gorgeous, and with one sole exception the most glorious reign that France has known, so far as military success is concerned, was that of Louis XIV, the Grand Monarque. His was the age of lavish expenditure, of magnificent structures, grand festivals, superb dress and equipage, aristocratic arrogance, brilliant campaigns, and great victories. It was, moreover, particularly distinguished for the number and high character of the various special embassies sent to the court of France by foreign powers. Among these, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Venice rivaled each other in extravagant display and pomp. The singular and really tangible imposture I am about to describe, practiced at such a period and on such a man as Louis of France, was indeed a bold and dashing affair.

L’etat c’est moi⁠—“I am the State,” was Louis’ celebrated and very significant motto; for in his own hands he had really concentrated all the powers of the realm, and woe to him who trifled with a majesty so real and so imperial!

However, notwithstanding all this imposing strength, this mighty domineering will, and this keen intelligence, a man was found bold enough to brave them all in the arena of pure humbug. It was toward the close of the year 1667, when Louis, in the plenitude of military success, returned from his campaign in Flanders, where his invincible troops had proven too much for the broad breeched but gallant Dutchmen. In the short space of three months he had added whole provinces, including some forty or fifty cities and towns, to his dominions; and his fame was ringing throughout Christendom. It had even penetrated to the farthest East; and the King of Siam sent a costly embassy from his remote kingdom, to offer his congratulations and fraternal greeting to the most eminent potentate of Europe.

Louis had already removed the pageantries of his royal household to his magnificent new palace of Versailles, on which the wealth of conquered kingdoms had been lavished, and there, in the Great Hall of Mirrors, received the homage of his own nobles and the ambassadors of foreign powers. The utmost splendor of which human life was susceptible seemed so common and familiar in those days, that the train was dazzling indeed that could excite any very particular attention. What would have seemed stupendous elsewhere was only in conformity with all the rest of the scene at Versailles. But, at length, there came something that made even the pampered courtiers of the new Babylon stare⁠—a Persian embassy. Yes, a genuine, actual, living envoy from that wonderful Empire in the East, which in her time had ruled the whole Oriental world, and still retained almost fabulous wealth and splendor.

It was announced formally, one morning, to Louis, that His Most Serene Excellency, Riza Bey, with an interminable tail of titles, hangers-on and equipages, had reached the port of Marseilles, having journeyed by way of Trebizond and Constantinople, to lay before the great “King of the Franks” brotherly congratulations and gorgeous presents from his own illustrious master, the Shah of Persia. This was something entirely to the taste of the vain French ruler, whom unlimited good fortune had inflated beyond all reasonable proportions. He firmly believed that he was by far the greatest man who had ever lived; and had an embassy from the moon or the planet Jupiter been announced to him, would have deemed it not only natural enough, but absolutely due to his preeminence above all other human beings. Nevertheless, he was, secretly, immensely pleased with the Persian demonstration, and gave orders that no expense should be spared in giving the strangers a reception worthy of himself and France.

It would be needless for me to detail the events of the progress of Riza Bey from Marseilles to Paris, by way of Avignon and Lyons. It was certainly in keeping with the pretensions of the Ambassador. From town to town the progress was a continued ovation. Triumphal arches, bonfires, chimes of bells, and hurrahing crowds in their best bibs and tuckers, military parades and civic ceremonies, everywhere awaited the children of the farthest East, who were stared at, shouted at⁠—and by some wretched cynics sneered and laughed at⁠—to their hearts’ content. All modern glory very largely consists in being nearly stunned with every species of noise, choked with dust, and dragged about through the streets, until you are well nigh dead. Witness the Japanese Embassy and their visit to this country, where, in some cases, the poor creatures, after hours of unmitigated boring with all sorts of mummery, actually had their pigtails pulled by Young America in the rear, and⁠—as at the windows of Willard’s Hotel in Washington⁠—were stirred up with long canes, like the Polar Bear or the Learned Seal.

Still Riza Bey and his dozen or two of dusky companions did not, by any means, cut so splendid a figure as had been expected. They had with them some camels, antelopes, bulbuls, and monkeys⁠—like any travelling caravan, and were dressed in the most outrageous and outlandish attire. They jabbered, too, a gibberish utterly incomprehensible to the crowd, and did everything that had never been seen or done before. All this, however, delighted the populace. Had they been similarly transmogrified, or played such queer pranks themselves, it would only have been food for mockery; but the foreign air and fame of the thing made it all wonderful, and, as the chief rogue in the plot had foreseen, blinded the popular eye and made his “embassy” a complete success.

At length, after some four weeks of slow progress, the “Persians” arrived at Paris, where they were received, as had been expected, with tremendous éclat. They entered by Barriére du Trône, so styled because it was there that Louis Quatorze himself had been received upon a temporary throne, set up, with splendid decorations and triumphal arches, in the open air, when he returned from his Flanders campaign. Riza Bey was upon this occasion a little more splendid than he had been on his way from the seacoast, and really loomed up in startling style in his tall, black, rimless hat of wool, shaped precisely like an elongated flowerpot, and his silk robes dangling to his heels and covered with huge painted figures and bright metal decorations of every shape and size unknown, to European man-millinery. A circlet or collar, apparently of gold, set with precious stones (California diamonds!) surrounded his neck, and monstrous glittering rings covered all the fingers, and even the thumbs of both his hands. His train, consisting of sword, cup, and pipe bearers, doctors, chief cooks, and bottle-washers, cork extractors and chiropodists (literally so, for it seems that sharing the common lot of humanity, great men have corns even in Persia,) were similarly arrayed as to fashion, but less stupendously in jewelry.

Well, after the throng had scampered, crowded, and shouted themselves hoarse, and had straggled to their homes, sufficiently tired and pocket-picked, the Ambassador and his suite were lodged in sumptuous apartments in the old royal residence of the Tuileries, under the care and charge of King Louis’ own assistant Majordomo and a guard of courtiers and regiments of Royal Swiss. Banqueting and music filled up the first evening; and upon the ensuing day His Majesty, who thus did his visitors especial honor, sent the Duc de Richelieu, the most polished courtier and diplomatist in France, to announce that he would graciously receive them on the third evening at Versailles.

Meanwhile the most extensive preparations were made for the grand audience thus accorded; and when the appointed occasion had arrived, the entire Gallery of Mirrors with all the adjacent spaces and corridors, were crowded with the beauty, the chivalry, the wit, taste, and intellect of France at that dazzling period. The gallery, which is three hundred and eighty feet in length by fifty in height, derives its name from the priceless mirrors which adorn its walls, reaching from floor to ceiling, opposite the long row of equally tall and richly mullioned windows that look into the great court and gardens. These windows, hung with the costliest silk curtains and adorned with superb historical statuary, give to the hall a light and aerial appearance indescribably enchanting; while the mirrors reflect in ten thousand variations the hall itself and its moving pageantry, rendering both apparently interminable. Huge marble vases filled with odorous exotics lined the stairways, and twelve thousand wax lights in gilded brackets, and chandeliers of the richest workmanship, shone upon three thousand titled heads.

Louis the Great himself never appeared to finer advantage. His truly royal countenance was lighted up with pride and satisfaction as the Envoy of the haughty Oriental king approached the splendid throne on which he sat, and as he descended a step to meet him and stood there in his magnificent robes of state, the Persian envoy bent the knee, and with uncovered head presented the credentials of his mission. Of the crowd that immediately surrounded the throne, it is something to say that the Grand Colbert, the famous Minister, and the Admiral Duquesne were by no means the most eminent, nor the lovely Duchess of Orleans and her companion, the bewitching Mademoiselle de Kerouaille, who afterward changed the policy of Charles II, of England, by no means the most beautiful personages in the galaxy.

A grand ball and supper concluded this night of splendor, and Riza Bey was fairly launched at the French court; every member of which, to please the King, tried to outvie his compeers in the assiduity of his attentions, and the value of the books, pictures, gems, equipages, arms, etc., which they heaped upon the illustrious Persian. The latter gentleman very quietly smoked his pipe and lounged on his divan before company, and diligently packed up the goods when he and his “jolly companions” were left alone. The presents of the Shah had not yet arrived, but were daily expected via Marseilles, and from time to time the olive-colored suite was diminished by the departure of one of the number with his chest on a special mission (so stated) to England, Austria, Portugal, Spain, and other European powers.

In the meantime, the Bey was fêted in all directions, with every species of entertainment, and it was whispered that the fair ones of that dissolute court were, from the first, eager in the bestowal of their smiles. The King favored his Persian pet with numerous personal interviews, at which, in broken French, the Envoy unfolded the most imposing schemes of Oriental conquest and commerce that his master was cordially willing to share with his great brother of France. At one of these chatty tête-á-têtes, the munificent Riza Bey, upon whom the King had already conferred his own portrait set in diamonds, and other gifts worth several millions of francs, placed in the Royal hand several superb fragments of opal and turquoise said to have been found in a district of country bordering on the Caspian sea, which teemed with limitless treasures of the same kind, and which the Shah of Persia proposed to divide with France for the honor of her alliance. The king was enchanted; for these mere specimens, as they were deemed, must, if genuine, be worth in themselves a mint of money; and a province full of such⁠—why, the thought was charming!

Thus the great Kingfish was fairly hooked, and Riza Bey could take his time. The golden tide that flowed in to him did not slacken, and his own expenses were all provided for at the Tuileries. The only thing remaining to be done was a grand foray on the tradesmen of Paris, and this was splendidly executed. The most exquisite wares of all descriptions were gathered in, without mention of payment; and one by one the Persian phalanx distributed itself through Europe until only two or three were left with the Ambassador.

At length, word was sent to Versailles that the gifts from the Shah had come, and a day was appointed for their presentation. The day arrived, and the Hall of Audience was again thrown open. All was jubilee; the King and the court waited, but no Persian⁠—no Riza Bey⁠—no presents from the Shah!

That morning three men, without either caftans or robes, but very much resembling the blacklegs of the day in their attire and deportment, had left the Tuileries at daylight with a bag and a bundle, and returned no more. They were Riza Bey and his last bodyguard; the bag and the bundle were the smallest in bulk but the most precious in value of a month’s successful plunder. The turquoises and opals left with the King turned out, upon close inspection, to be a new and very ingenious variety of colored glass, now common enough, and then worth, if anything, about thirty cents in cash.

Of course, a hue and cry was raised in all directions, but totally in vain. Riza Bey, the Persian Shah, and the gentlemen in flowerpots, had “gone glimmering through the dream of things that were.” L’etat c’est moi had been sold for thirty cents! It was afterward believed that a noted barber and suspected bandit at Leghorn, who had once really traveled in Persia, and there picked up the knowledge and the ready money that served his turn, was the perpetrator of this pretty joke and speculation, as he disappeared from his native city about the time of the embassy in France, and did not return.

All Europe laughed heartily at the Grand Monarque and his fair court-dames, and “An Embassy from Persia” was for many years thereafter an expression similar to “Walker!” in English, or “Buncombe!” in American conversation, when the party using it seeks to intimate that the color of his optics is not a distinct pea-green!