The grounds of the Château de Chantilly, that charming retreat of the Prince de Condé, shone with all the splendor which artistic adornments, gleaming lanterns of varied form and color, splendidly-costumed dames and richly-attired cavaliers could give them, the whole scene having a fairy-like beauty and richness wonderfully pleasing to the eye. For more than a mile from the entrance to the grounds men holding lighted torches bordered the road, while in all the villages leading thither the peasants were out in their gala attire, and triumphal arches of verdure were erected in honor of the king, Louis XIV., who was on his way thither to visit Monsieur le Prince.
He was coming, the great Louis, the Grand Monarque of France, and noble and peasant alike were out to bid him welcome, while the artistic skill of the day had exhausted itself in efforts to provide him a splendid reception. And now there could be heard on the road the trampling of horses, the clanking of swords, the voices of approaching men, and a gallant cavalcade wheeled at length into the grounds, announcing that the king was close at hand. A few minutes of anxious expectation passed, and then the king, attended by a large group of courtiers, came sweeping grandly forward, while at the same moment a gleaming display of fireworks, at the end of the avenue, blazed off in fiery greeting. As the coruscating lights faded out Condé met the king in his coach, which he invited him to enter, and off they drove to the château, followed by a shining swarm of grand dames and great lords who had gathered to this fête from all parts of France.
Within the château as much had been done as without to render honor to the occasion. Hundreds of retainers lined chamber and hall in splendid attire, their only duty being to add life and richness to the scene. The rooms were luxuriously furnished, the banqueting hall was a scene for a painter, and the banquet a triumph of the art of the cuisine, for was it not prepared by the genius of Vatel, the great Vatel, the most famous of cooks ministering to the most showy of monarchs!
All went well; the king feasted on delicacies which were a triumph of art; Louis was satisfied; Vatel triumphed; so far the fête was a success. In the evening the king played at piquet, the cavaliers and ladies promenaded through the splendidly-furnished and richly-lighted saloons, some cracked jokes on sofas, some made love in alcoves, still all went well.
For the next day the programme included a grand promenade à la mode de Versailles, a collation in the park, under great trees laden with the freshest verdure of spring, a stag-hunt by moonlight, a brilliant display of fireworks, then a supper in the banqueting hall of the château. And still all went well. At least all thought so but Vatel; but as for that prince of cooks, he was in despair. A frightful disaster had occurred. After the days and nights of anxiety and care in preparing for this grand occasion, for a failure now to take place, it was to him unpardonable, unsupportable.
Tidings of his distress were brought to Condé. The generous prince sought his room to console him.
"Vatel," said he, "what is this I hear? The king's supper was superb."
"Monseigneur," said Vatel, tears in his eyes. "The rôti was wanting at two tables."
"Not at all," replied the prince. "You surpassed yourself; nothing could have been better; everything was perfect."
Vatel, somewhat relieved by this praise, sought his couch, and a morsel of sleep visited his eyelids. But the shadow of doom still hung over his career. By break of day he was up again. Others might lie late abed, but there could be no such indulgence for him; for was not he the power behind the throne? What would this grand fête be should his genius fail, his powers prove unequal to the strain? King and prince, lord and lady might slumber, but Vatel must be up and alert.
Fresh fish formed an essential part of the menu which he had laid out for the dining-tables of the third day. He had ordered them from every part of the coast. Would they come? Could the fates fail him now, at this critical moment of his life? The anxious chief went abroad to view the situation. His eyes lighted. A fisher-boy had just arrived with two loads of fish, fresh brought from the coast. Vatel looked at them, and then gazed around with newly disturbed eyes.
"Is that all?" he asked, his voice faltering.
"That is all, sir," answered the boy, who knew nothing about the numerous orders.
Vatel turned pale. All? These few fish all he had to offer his multitude of guests? Only a miracle could divide these so as to give a portion to each. He waited, despair slowly descending upon his heart. In vain his anxious wait; no more fish appeared. Vatel's anxiety was fast becoming despair. The disaster of the night before, to be followed by this terrible stroke—it was more than his artistic soul could bear; disgrace had come upon him in its direst form; his reputation was at stake.
He met Gourville, a wit and factotum of the court, and told him of his misfortune.
"It is disgrace, ruin," he cried; "I cannot survive it."
Gourville heard him with merry laughter. To his light mind the affair seemed only a good joke. It was not so to Vatel. He sought his room and locked himself in.
He was too soon, alas, too soon; for now fish are coming; here, there, everywhere; the orders have been strictly obeyed, there is abundance for all purposes. The cooks receive them, and look for Vatel to give orders for their disposal. He is not to be seen. "He went to his room," says Gourville. They repair thither, knock persistently, but in vain, and finding that no answer can be obtained, they break open the door and enter.
A frightful spectacle meets their eyes. On the floor before them lies poor Vatel, in a pool of his own blood, pierced through the heart. In his ecstasy of despair at the non-arrival of the fish, he had fastened his sword in the door, and thrown himself upon its deadly point. Thrice he had done so, twice wounding himself slightly, the third time piercing himself through the heart. Poor fellow! he was dead, and the fish had arrived. It was a useless sacrifice of his life to his art.
The tidings of the tragedy filled the château with alarm and dismay. The prince was in despair, the more so as the king blamed him for the fatal occurrence. He had long avoided Chantilly, he said, knowing that his coming would occasion inconvenience, since his host would insist on providing for the whole of his suite. There should have been but two tables, and there were more than twenty-five; the strain on poor Vatel was the cause of his death and the loss of one of the ornaments of the reign. He would never allow such extravagance again. Men like Vatel were not to be so lightly sacrificed.
While the king thus petulantly scolded his great subject in the time-honored "I told you so" fashion, the whole château buzzed with opinions about the tragic event. "Vatel has played the hero," said some; "He has played the idiot," said others. Some praised his courage and devotion to his art; others blamed his haste and folly. But praise prevailed over blame, for, as all conceded, "he had died for the honor of his profession," and no soldier or martyr could do more.
But Vatel was gone, and dinner was not served. The dead was dead, but appetite remained. What was to be done? Gourville sprang into the breach and undertook to replace Vatel. The fish were cooked, the company dined, then they promenaded, then they played piquet, losing and winning largely, then they supped, then they enjoyed a moonlight chase of the deer in the park of Chantilly. Mirth and gayety prevailed, and before bedtime came poor Vatel was forgotten. The cook who had died for his art was as far from their thoughts as the martyrs of centuries before.
Early the next day the king and his train departed, leaving Condé to count the cost of the entertainment, which had been so great as to make him agree with Louis, that hereafter two tables would be better than twenty-five. Doubtless among his chief losses he counted Vatel. Money could be found again, waste repaired, but a genius of the kitchen the equal of Vatel was not to be had to order. Men like him are the growth of centuries. He died that his name might live.