Louis XV, like Louis XIV, lacked the art of dying in due time. He knew that France was waiting for him to disappear, but he could not bear to think of death. The Austrian ambassador reported in 1773: “From time to time the King remarks concerning his age, health, and the frightful account that he must one day render to the Supreme Being.”108 Louis was transiently touched by the retirement of his daughter Louise-Marie to a Carmelite convent, allegedly to atone for her father’s sins; there, we are told, she scrubbed floors and washed laundry. When he came to see her she reproved him for his way of life, begged him to dismiss Du Barry, marry the Princesse de Lamballe, and make his peace with God.
Several of his friends died in the final years of the reign; two of them, their hearts failing, fell dead at his feet.109 Yet he seemed to take a macabre pleasure in reminding aged courtiers of their approaching demise. “Souvré,” he said to one of his generals, “you are growing old; where do you wish to be buried?” “Sire,” answered Souvré, “at the feet of your Majesty.” We are told that the reply “made the King gloomy and pensive.”110 Mme. du Hausset thought that “a more melancholy man was never born.”111
The King’s death was a long-delayed revenge unwittingly taken by the sex that he had adored and debased. When his lust found even Du Barry inadequate, he took into his bed a girl so young as to be barely nubile; she carried the germs of smallpox, and infected the King. On April 29, 1774, the disease began to mark him. His three daughters insisted on staying with him and nursing him, though they had acquired no immunity. (They all contracted the disease, but recovered.) At night they left, and Du Barry took their place. But on May 5 the King, wishing to receive the sacraments, gently dismissed her: “I realize now that I am seriously ill. The scandal of Metz must not be repeated. I owe myself to God and to my people. So we must part. Go to the Duc d’Aiguillon’s château at Rueil, and await further orders. Please believe that I shall always hold you in the most affectionate regard.”112
On May 7 the King, in a formal ceremony before the court, declared that he repented of having given scandal to his subjects; but he maintained that he “owed no accounting of his conduct to anyone but God.”113 At last he welcomed death. “Never in my life,” he told his daughter Adélaïde, “have I felt happier.”114 He passed away on May 10, 1774, aged sixty-four, having reigned fifty-nine years. His corpse, which infected the air, was hurried to the royal vaults at St.-Denis without pomp, and amid the sarcasms of the crowd that lined the route. Once more, as in 1715, France rejoiced at the death of her king.