Sometimes called a carpenter’s daughter, sometimes a young cowherdess, sometimes the daughter of the Du Barry’s Intendant or of the gardener of her Louveciennes property, the mythical child infected by smallpox, who is supposed to have given the disease to the King while in his bed, was written about by multiple authors, who did not hesitate to heap blame onto the guilty King. He is supposed to have received the smallpox, transformed into a punishment from Heaven, from his innocent victim, at the same time, giving her the big pox [syphilis]. Louis XV is even suspected of purposely trying to give his own pox to young, healthy organisms with the aim, as ignoble as it is illusionary, of debarrassing himself of it. This is how Touchard-Lafosse, the author of the Chroniques de l’Oeil-de-Boeuf, explains very seriously that
“the gift of the King’s illness to young, robust persons, lively and in good health, appeared the only appropriate means for enticing His Majesty’s morbifical [“morbifique” (sic)] humours out of him, and rejuvenating his person”.
For all those who are seeking to make him look dirty, it is therefore the King’s immoderate taste for debauchery that is supposed to be his downfall.
For two weeks, the King’s illness mobilises the Court’s complete attention, without anyone being careful about contagion. Around fifty cases will be declared at this time, and ten patients will die from it, some of whom had scarcely approached the King’s bed. No preventive measures were taken and the monarch’s sheets were left on the sill of the window which opens onto the Dauphin’s and the Dauphine’s garden, as well as onto the apartments of the Count de Provence, the future Louis XVIII. The risk is considerable, except for Marie-Antoinette who was innoculated in 1768, while she was still an Austrian Archduchess. On 29 April, when “the King’s smallpox has not yet declared itself”, the Dauphin and his young spouse go to their grandfather’s bedside, which will have dramatic consequences. The three daughters that still remain to the sovereign, Adelaide, Victoire and Sophie, even relay each other at his bedside and contract the illness, but without any serious consequences. Madame Adelaide does not even hesitate, on 2 May, to take her father’s hand, covered in terrible blisters, while he, himself, is ignorant of the exact nature of his illness.
Several high Court people, including the Prince de Conde and the Dukes d’Aiguillon, de Belle-Isle and de Croy, remain at the patient’s bedside, in spite of the risks. Political risks as much as sanitary risks: if Louis XV dies, they will not be able to approach the person of the new King for forty days. On the other hand, a cure would put them in a most favourable position with the sovereign. The Duke de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt does not even bother to hide his thoughts on the subject:
“I decided to watch beside him… I saw it as being in my interest to do so, for I would acquire the right to take up my ordinary way of life after his recovery, if I had an assiduous comportment during his malady, and after ten nights spent at his bedside.”
A lot of people gamble on the monarch’s survival and, in spite of the risks, they squabble over the places in the royal bedchamber. The Dukes d’Aumont and de Bouillon multiply their courtier words and actions, which is also reported to us by La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt:
“They both gave themselves up to tenderly loving the King. Their conversation was interrupted by tender and deep sighs, by sobs, by moans, and sometimes also by moments of sleep for, fortunately, their anxiety did not remove all faculty for sleep from them… “
In the same register, the Duke de Bouillon explains to the surgeon, La Martiniere, while sobbing, that he would be ready to sacrifice his two arms to save the monarch’s life…
Besides the courtiers, doctors and apothicaries occupied in force the royal bedchamber. For the Diafoirus [a doctor in one of Moliere’s plays] of the times, the aim was “to expulse the morbid humours”. In this sense, suppuration and sudation constitute favourable signs. The patient suffering from a strong fever must be “refreshed”. His sheets must be changed frequently while waiting for a fall in temperature, the sign that the organism has vanquished the terrible illness. If the suppuration and the perspiration slow down, while the temperature remains high, the prognosis is going to become fatal, for the illness “is turning inward” and the patient is engaging in the mortal phase of “redoubling”. The Court therefore lives in wait for about ten days, until 8 May which will see the beginning of “the secondary fever”, announcing the end.
On 3 May, the patient understands that he is suffering from smallpox. A third blood-letting is renounced and they content themselves with applying cataplasms which are supposed to facilitate suppuration. There is also recourse to vomitives and enemas whose therapeutic effects are, of course, very limited. In the night of 8 to 9 May, an English innoculator, Robert Sutton, is called. He is the inventor of a secret remedy susceptible of saving the dying man. Jealous of his authority, Lemonnier refuses that a medication, whose composition is unknown to him, be administered. Therefore, Sutton leaves, but he is called back again in the afternoon of 9 May. He is, however, unable to convince the doctors, which soon gives birth to a rumour, according to which, the official doctors have taken the risk of sacrificing the King’s life, rather than ceding to a rival.
To be continued.