It is frequently a misfortune to have very brilliant men in charge of affairs. They expect too much of ordinary men. — Thucydides

Josephine - John S. C. Abbott




Arrest of M. Beauharnais and Josephine


1786-1793


Josephine remained in Martinique three years. She passed her time in tranquil sadness, engaged in reading, in educating Hortense, and in unwearied acts of kindness to those around her. Like all noble minds, she had a great fondness for the beauties of nature. The luxuriant groves of the tropics, the serene skies which overarched her head, the gentle zephyrs which breathed through orange groves, all were congenial with her pensive spirit. The thought of Eugene, her beautiful boy, so far from her, preyed deeply upon her heart. Often she retired alone to some of those lonely walks which she loved so well, and wept over her alienated husband and her lost child.

M. Beauharnais surrendered himself for a time, without restraint, to every indulgence. He tried, in the society of sin and shame, to forget his wife and his absent daughter. He, however, soon found that no friend can take the place of a virtuous and an affectionate wife. The memory of Josephine's gentleness, and tenderness, and love came flooding back upon his heart. He became fully convinced of his injustice to her, and earnestly desired to have her restored again to him and to his home. He sent communications to Josephine, expressive of his deep regret for the past, promising amendment for the future, assuring her of his high appreciation of her elevated and honorable character, and imploring her to return with Hortense, thus to reunite the divided and sorrow-stricken household. It was indeed a gratification to Josephine to receive from her husband the acknowledgment that she had never ceased to deserve his confidence. The thought of again pressing Eugene to her bosom filled a mother's heart with rapture. Still, the griefs which had weighed upon her were so heavy, that she confessed to her friends that, were it not for the love which she bore Eugene, she would greatly prefer to spend the remnant of her days upon her favorite island. Her friends did every thing in their power to dissuade her from leaving Martinique. But a mother's undying love triumphed, and again she embarked for France.

In subsequent years, when surrounded by all the splendors of royalty, she related to some of the ladies of her court, with that unaffected simplicity which ever marked her character, the following incident, which occurred during this voyage. The ladies were admiring some brilliant jewels which were spread out before them. Josephine said to them, "My young friends, believe me, splendor does not constitute happiness. I at one time received greater enjoyment from the gift of a pair of old shoes than all these diamonds have ever afforded me." The curiosity of her auditors was, of course, greatly excited, and they entreated her to explain her meaning.

"Yes, young ladies," Josephine continued, "of all the presents I ever received, the one which gave me the greatest pleasure was a pair of old shoes, and those, too, of coarse leather. When I last returned to France from Martinique, having separated from my first husband, I was far from rich. The passage-money exhausted my resources, and it was not without difficulty that I obtained the indispensable requisites for our voyage. Hortense, obliging and lively, performing with much agility the dances of the negroes, and singing their songs with surprising correctness, greatly amused the sailors, who, from being her constant play-fellows, had become her favorite society. An old sailor became particularly attached to the child, and she doted upon the old man. What with running, leaping, and walking, my daughter's slight shoes were fairly worn out. Knowing that she had not another pair, and fearing I would forbid her going upon deck, should this defect in her attire be discovered, Hortense carefully concealed the disaster. One day I experienced the distress of seeing her return from the deck leaving every foot-mark in blood. When examining how matters stood, I found her shoes literally in tatters, and her feet dreadfully torn by a nail. We were as yet not more than half way across the ocean, and it seemed impossible to procure another pair of shoes. I felt quite overcome at the idea of the sorrow my poor Hortense would suffer, as also at the danger to which her health might be exposed by confinement in my miserable little cabin. At this moment our good friend, the old sailor, entered and inquired the cause of our distress. Hortense, sobbing all the while, eagerly informed him that she could no more go upon deck, for her shoes were worn out, and mamma had no others to give her. 'Nonsense,' said the worthy seaman, 'is that all? I have an old pair somewhere in my chest; I will go and seek them. You, madam, can cut them to shape, and I will splice them up as well as need be.' Without waiting for a reply, away hastened the kind sailor in search of his old shoes; these he soon after brought to us with a triumphant air, and they were received by Hortense with demonstrations of the most lively joy. We set to work with all zeal, and before the day closed my daughter could resume her delightful duties of supplying their evening's diversion to the crew. I again repeat, never was present received with greater thankfulness. It has since often been matter of self-reproach that I did not particularly inquire into the name and history of our benefactor. It would have been gratifying for me to have done something for him when afterward means were in my power."

Poor Hortense! most wonderful were the vicissitudes of her checkered and joyless life. We here meet her, almost an infant, in poverty and obscurity. The mother and child arrive in Paris on the morning of that Reign of Terror, the story of which has made the ear of humanity to tingle. Hortense is deprived of both her parents, and is left in friendlessness and beggary in the streets of Paris. A charitable neighbor cherished and fed her. Her mother is liberated, and married to Napoleon; and Hortense, as daughter of the emperor, is surrounded with dazzling splendor, such as earth has seldom witnessed. We now meet Hortense, radiant in youthful beauty, one of the most admired and courted in the midst of the glittering throng, which, like a fairy vision, dazzles all eyes in the gorgeous apartments of Versailles and St. Cloud. Her person is adorned with the most costly fabrics and the most brilliant gems which Europe can afford. The nobles and princes of the proudest courts vie with each other for the honor of her hand. She is led to her sumptuous bridals by Louis Bonaparte, brother of the emperor; becomes the spouse of a king, and takes her seat upon the throne of Holland. But in the midst of all this external splendor she is wretched at heart. Not one congenial feeling unites her with the companion to whom she is bound. Louis, weary of regal pomp and constraint, abdicates the throne, and Hortense becomes unendurably weary of her pensive and unambitious spouse. They agree to separate; each to journey along, unattended by the other, the remainder of life's pilgrimage. Hortense seeks a joyless refuge in a secluded castle, in one of the most retired valleys of Switzerland. The tornado of counter-revolution sweeps over Europe, and all her exalted friends and towering hopes are prostrated in the dust. Lingering years of disappointment and sadness pass over her, and old age, with its infirmities, places her upon a dying bed. One only child, Louis Napoleon, since President of the French Republic, the victim of corroding ambition and ceaselessly-gnawing discontent, stands at her bed-side to close her eyes, and to follow her, a solitary and lonely mourner, to the grave. The dream of life has passed. The shadow has vanished away. Who can fathom the mystery of the creation of such a drama?

Josephine arrived in France. She was received most cordially by her husband. Sorrowful experience had taught him the value of a home, and the worth of a pure and a sanctified love. Josephine again folded her idolized Eugene in her arms, and the anguish of past years was forgotten in the blissful enjoyments of a reunited family. These bright and happy days were, however, soon again clouded. The French Revolution was now in full career. The king and queen were in prison. All law was prostrate. M. Beauharnais, at the commencement of the Revolution, had most cordially espoused the cause of popular liberty. He stood by the side of La Fayette a companion and a supporter. His commanding character gave him great influence. He was elected a deputy to the Constituent Assembly, and took an active part in its proceedings. Upon the dissolution of this Assembly, or States-General, as it was also called, as by vote none of its members were immediately re-eligible, he retired again to the army; but when the second or Legislative Assembly was dissolved and the National Convention was formed, he was returned as a member, and at two successive sessions was elected its president.

The people, having obtained an entire victory over monarchy and aristocracy, beheaded the king and queen, and drove the nobles from the realm. France was now divided into two great parties. The Jacobins were so called from an old cloister in which they at first held their meetings. All of the lowest, most vicious, and the reckless of the nation belonged to this party. They seemed disposed to overthrow all law, human and divine. Marat, Danton, and Robespierre were the blood-stained leaders of this wild and furious faction. The Girondists, their opponents, were so called from the department of the Gironde, from which most of the leaders of this party came. They wished for a republic like that of the United States, where there should be the protection of life, and property, and liberty, with healthy laws sacredly enforced.

The conflict between the two parties was long and terrible. The Jacobins gained the victory, and the Girondists were led to the guillotine. M. Beauharnais was an active member of the Girondist party, of which Madame Roland was the soul, and he perished with them. Many of the Girondists sought safety in concealment and retreat. M. Beauharnais, conscious of his political integrity, proudly refused to save his life by turning his back upon his foes.

One morning Josephine was sitting in her parlor, in a state of great anxiety in reference to the fearful commotion of the times, when a servant announced that some one wished to speak to her. A young man of very gentle and prepossessing appearance was introduced, with a bag in his hand, in which were several pairs of shoes.

"Citizen," said the man to Josephine, "I understand that you want socks of plum gray."

[Illustration] from Josephine by John S. C. Abbott
THE WARNING.


Josephine looked up in surprise, hardly comprehending his meaning, when he approached nearer to her, and, in an under tone, whispered, "I have something to impart to you, madame."

"Explain yourself," she eagerly replied, much alarmed; "my servant is faithful."

"Ah!" he exclaimed, "my life is at stake in this matter."

"Go, Victorine," said Josephine to her servant, "and call my husband."

As soon as they were alone, the young man said, "There is not a moment to lose if you would save M. Beauharnais. The Revolutionary Committee last night passed a resolution to have him arrested, and at this very moment the warrant is making out."

"How know you this?" she demanded, trembling violently.

"I am one of the committee," was the reply, "and, being a shoemaker, I thought these shoes would afford me a reasonable pretext for advertising you, madame."

At this moment M. Beauharnais entered the room, and Josephine, weeping, threw herself into his arms. "You see my husband," she said to the shoemaker.

"I have the honor of knowing him," was the reply.

M. Beauharnais wished to reward the young man on the spot for his magnanimous and perilous deed of kindness. The offer was respectfully but decisively declined. To the earnest entreaties of Josephine and the young man that he should immediately secure his safety by his flight or concealment, he replied,

"I will never flee; with what can they charge me? I love liberty. I have borne arms for the Revolution."

"But you are a noble," the young man rejoined, "and that, in the eye of the Revolutionists, is a crime—an unpardonable crime. And, moreover, they accuse you of having been a member of the Constitutional Assembly."

"That," said M. Beauharnais, "is my most honorable title to glory. Who would not be proud of having proclaimed the rights of the nation, the fall of despotism, and the reign of laws?"

"What laws!" exclaimed Josephine. "It is in blood they are written."

"Madame," exclaimed the philanthropic young Jacobin, with a tone of severity, "when the tree of liberty is planted in an unfriendly soil, it must be watered with the blood of its enemies." Then, turning to M. Beauharnais, he said, "Within an hour it will no longer be possible to escape. I wished to save you, because I believe you innocent. Such was my duty to humanity. But if I am commanded to arrest you—pardon me—I shall do my duty; and you will acknowledge the patriot."

The young shoemaker withdrew, and Josephine in vain entreated her husband to attempt his escape. "Whither shall I flee?" he answered. "Is there a vault, a garret, a hiding-place into which the eye of the tyrant Robespierre does not penetrate? We must yield. If I am condemned, how can I escape? If I am not condemned, I have nothing to fear."

About two hours elapsed when three members of the Revolutionary Committee, accompanied by a band of armed men, broke into the house. The young shoemaker was one of this committee, and with firmness, but with much urbanity, he arrested M. Beauharnais. Josephine, as her husband was led to prison, was left in her desolated home. And she found herself indeed deserted and alone. No one could then manifest any sympathy with the proscribed without periling life. Josephine's friends, one by one, all abandoned her. The young shoemaker alone, who had arrested her husband, continued secretly to call with words of sympathy.

Josephine made great exertions to obtain the release of her husband, and was also unwearied in her benefactions to multitudes around her who, in those days of lawlessness and of anguish, were deprived of property, of friends, and of home. The only solace she found in her own grief was in ministering to the consolation of others. Josephine, from the kindest of motives, but very injudiciously, deceived her children in reference to their father's arrest, and led them to suppose that he was absent from home in consequence of ill health. When at last she obtained permission to visit, with her children, her husband in prison, they detected the deceit. After returning from the prison after their first interview, Hortense remarked to her mother that she thought her father's apartment very small, and the patients very numerous. She appeared for a time very thoughtful, and then inquired of Eugene, with an anxious expression of countenance,

"Do you believe that papa is ill? If he is, it certainly is not the sickness which the doctors cure."

"What do you mean, my dear child?" asked Josephine. "Can you suppose that papa and I would contrive between us to deceive you?"

"Pardon me, mamma, but I do think so."

"Why, sister," exclaimed Eugene, "how can you say so?"

"Good parents," she replied, "are unquestionably permitted to deceive their children when they wish to spare them uneasiness. Is it not so, mamma?"

Josephine was not a little embarrassed by this detection, and was compelled to acknowledge that which it was no longer possible to conceal.

In the interview which M. Beauharnais held with his wife and his children, he spoke with some freedom to his children of the injustice of his imprisonment. This sealed his doom. Listeners, who were placed in an adjoining room to note down his words, reported the conversation, and magnified it into a conspiracy for the overthrow of the republic. M. Beauharnais was immediately placed in close confinement. Josephine herself was arrested and plunged into prison, and even the terrified children were rigidly examined by a brutal committee, who, by promises and by threats, did what they could to extort from them some confession which would lead to the conviction of their parents.

Josephine, the morning of her arrest, received an anonymous letter, warning her of her danger. It was at an early hour, and her children were asleep in their beds. But how could she escape? Where could she go? Should she leave her children behind her—a mother abandon her children! Should she take them with her, and thus prevent the possibility of eluding arrest? Would not her attempt at flight be construed into a confession of guilt, and thus compromise the safety of her husband? While distracted with these thoughts, she heard a loud knocking and clamor at the outer door of the house. She understood too well the significance of those sounds. With a great effort to retain a tranquil spirit, she passed into the room where her children were sleeping. As she fixed her eyes upon them, so sweetly lost in slumber, and thought of the utter abandonment to which they were doomed, her heart throbbed with anguish, and tears, of such bitterness as are seldom shed upon earth, filled her eyes. She bent over her daughter, and imprinted a mother's farewell kiss upon her forehead. The affectionate child, though asleep, clasped her arms around her mother's neck, and, speaking the thoughts of the dream passing through her mind, said "Come to bed. Fear nothing. They shall not take you away this night. I have prayed to God for you."

The tumult in the outer hall continually increasing, Josephine, fearful of awaking Hortense and Eugene, cast a last lingering look of love upon them, and, withdrawing from the chamber, closed the door and entered her parlor. There she found a band of armed men, headed by the brutal wretch who had so unfeelingly examined her children. The soldiers were hardened against every appeal of humanity, and performed their unfeeling office without any emotion, save that of hatred for one whom they deemed to be an aristocrat. They seized Josephine rudely, and took possession of all the property in the house in the name of the Republic. They dragged their victim to the convent of the Carmelites, and she was immured in that prison, where, but a few months before, more than eight thousand had been massacred by the mob of Paris. Even the blackest annals of religious fanaticism can record no outrages more horrible than those which rampant infidelity perpetrated in these days of its temporary triumphs.

When Eugene and Hortense awoke, they found themselves indeed alone in the wide world. They were informed by a servant of the arrest and the imprisonment of their mother. The times had long been so troubled, and the children were so familiar with the recital of such scenes of violence, that they were prepared to meet these fearful perplexities with no little degree of discretion. After a few tears, they tried to summon resolution to act worthily of their father and mother. Hortense, with that energy of character which she manifested through her whole life, advised that they should go to the Luxembourg, where their father was confined, and demand admission to share his imprisonment. Eugene, with that caution which characterized him when one of the leaders in the army of Napoleon, and when viceroy of Italy, apprehensive lest thus they might in some way compromise the safety of their father, recalled to mind an aged great-aunt, who was residing in much retirement in the vicinity of Versailles, and suggested the propriety of seeking a refuge with her. An humble female friend conducted the children to Versailles, where they were most kindly received.

When the gloom of the ensuing night darkened the city, M. Beauharnais in his cheerless cell, and Josephine in her prison still stained with the blood of massacre, wept over the desolation of their home and their hopes. They knew not the fate of their children, and their minds were oppressed with the most gloomy forebodings. On the ensuing day, Josephine's heart was cheered with the tidings of their safety. Such was the second terrific storm which Josephine encountered on life's dark waters.