F Heritage History | Josephine by John S. C. Abbott

Josephine - John S. C. Abbott




Developments of Character


1800-1801


During Napoleon's absence in Egypt the Austrians had again invaded Italy. The French troops had been beaten in many battles, and driven from vast extents of territory, over which Napoleon had caused the flag of the Republic to float in triumph. The first consul having, with almost superhuman energy, arranged the internal affairs of his government, now turned his thoughts toward the defeated armies of France, which had been driven back into the fastnesses of the Alps. "I must go," said he, "my dear Josephine. But I will not forget you, and I will not be absent long." He bade adieu to his wife at the Tuilleries on the 7th of May, 1800. At midnight of the 2d of July he returned, having been absent less than two months. In that brief period he drove the Austrians from all their strongholds, regained Italy, and by a campaign more brilliant than any other which history has ever recorded, added immeasurably to his own moral power. These astonishing victories excited the Parisians to a delirium of joy. Night after night the streets were illuminated, and whenever Napoleon appeared, crowds thronged him, filling the air with their acclamations. These triumphs, however, instead of satisfying Napoleon, did but add fuel to his all-absorbing ambition. "A few more great events," said he, "like those of this campaign, and I may really descend to posterity. But still it is little enough. I have conquered, it is true, in less than two years, Cairo, Paris, Milan. But, were I to die to-morrow, half a page of general history would, after ten centuries, be all that would be devoted to my exploits."

During his absence Josephine passed her time at Malmaison. And it surely is indicative not only of the depth of Napoleon's love for Josephine, but also of his appreciation of those delicate attentions which could touch the heart of a loving wife, that in this busiest of campaigns, in which, by day and by night, he was upon the horse's back, with hardly one moment allowed for refreshment or repose, rarely did a single day pass in which he did not transmit some token of affection to Malmaison. Josephine daily watched, with the most intense interest the arrival of the courier with the brief and almost illegible note from her husband. Sometimes the blurred and blotted lines were hastily written upon horseback, with the pommel of his saddle for his writing-desk. Sometimes they were written, at his dictation, by his secretary, upon a drum-head, on the field of carnage, when the mangled bodies of the dying and the dead were strewed all around him, and the thunders of the retreating battle were still echoing over the plains. These delicate attentions to his wife exhibit a noble trait in the character of Napoleon. And she must have been indeed a noble woman who could have inspired such a mind with esteem and tenderness so profound.

Josephine employed much of her time in superintending those improvements which she thought would please her husband on his return; creating for him pleasant little surprises, as she should guide his steps to the picturesque walk newly opened, to the rustic bridge spanning the stream, to the rural pavilion, where, in the evening twilight, they could commune. She often rode on horseback with Hortense, who was peculiarly fond of all those pleasures which had the concomitants of graceful display.

After Napoleon's triumphant return from Italy, the visits to Malmaison were more frequent than ever before. Napoleon and Josephine often spent several days there; and in after years they frequently spoke of these hours as the pleasantest they had passed in life. The agreeable retirement of Malmaison was, however, changed into enjoyment more public and social by the crowds of visitors with which its saloons and parks were filled. Josephine received her guests with republican simplicity, united with the utmost elegance. Her reception-room was continually thronged with the most distinguished officers of the government, renowned generals, and all the men most illustrious for birth and talent the metropolis contained.

The circle assembled here was, indeed, a happy one. A peculiar bond of union existed throughout the whole household, for Napoleon, as well as Josephine, secured the most devoted attachment of all the servants. One of their favorite amusements was family theatricals. Eugene and Hortense took an active part in these performances, in which both had talents to excel.

But the favorite and most characteristic amusement at Malmaison was the game of "Prisoners," a common game among the school-boys of France, though comparatively little known in this country. The company is divided into two parties. Those who are appointed leaders choose each their respective sides. Bounds are assigned to each party, and a particular point as a fortress. If any one is caught away from the fortress by one who left his own station after the captive left the hostile fort, he is a prisoner, and must remain at the appointed prison until rescued. For instance, Hortense leaves her fortress, and cautiously invades the territory of the enemy. Josephine darts after her, and eagerly pursues her over the greensward. Eugene, who remains at his fortress until after Josephine left hers, bounds after his mother. It is now her turn to flee. But others of her party, who have remained under the protection of their fortress, rush to her rescue. Eugene, however, succeeds in touching his mother before they reach him, and leads her off in triumph a prisoner. A tree, perhaps, at a little distance, is her prison. Here she must remain until rescued by a touch from one of her own party. But if the one who is rushing to her rescue is touched by one of the other party who left his fortress an instant later, another captive is taken to stand by her side.

In this mimicry of war Napoleon always delighted to engage. After dinner, upon the lawn at Malmaison, the most distinguished gentlemen and ladies, not of France only, but of all Europe, were often actively and most mirthfully engaged in this sport. Kings, and queens, and princes of the blood royal were often seen upon the lawn at Malmaison pursuing and pursued. Napoleon and Josephine, and most of the friends who surrounded them, were in the vigor of athletic youth, and, in entire abandonment to the frolic of the hour, the air resounded with their shouts. It was observed that Napoleon was ever anxious to choose Josephine as the first on his side, and he seemed nervously excited, if she was taken prisoner, until she was rescued. He was a poor runner, and often fell, rolling over headlong upon the grass, while he and all his associates were convulsed with laughter. When there was no special engagement demanding attention, this sport often continued for hours. Napoleon was often taken captive. But when Josephine was imprisoned, he was incessantly clapping his hands, and shouting, "A rescue! a rescue!" till she was released. A gloomy misanthrope, wrapped in self, could not have enjoyed these scenes of innocent hilarity.

But the life of Josephine was not devoted to amusement. While she entered with warmth into these sports, being the soul of every festive party, her heart was consecrated to the promotion of happiness in every way in her power. When a child, playing with the little negresses of Martinique, she was adored as their queen. When in penury, crossing the Atlantic, by kind sympathy manifested for the sick and the sorrowful, she won the hearts of the seamen. When a prisoner, under sentence of death, by her cheerfulness, her forgetfulness of self, and her hourly deeds of delicate attention to others, she became an object of universal love in those cells of despair. When prosperity again dawned upon her, and she was in the enjoyment of an ample competence, every cottage in the vicinity of Malmaison testified to her benevolence. And now, when placed in a position of power, all her influence was exerted to relieve the misfortunes of those illustrious men whom the storms of revolution had driven from their homes and from France. She never forgot the unfortunate, but devoted a considerable portion of her income to the relief of the emigrants. She was at times accused of extravagance. Her nature was generous in the extreme, and the profusion of her expenditures was an index of her expansive benevolence.

Napoleon, soon after he became first consul, published a decree, inviting the emigrants to return, and did what he could to restore to them their confiscated estates. There were, however, necessarily exceptions from the general act of amnesty. Cases were continually arising of peculiar perplexity and hardship, where widows and orphans, reduced from opulence to penury, sought lost property, which, during the tumult of the times, had become involved in inextricable embarrassments. All such persons made application to Josephine. She ever found time to listen to their tales of sorrow, to speak words of sympathy, and, with great soundness of judgment, to render them all the aid in her power. "Josephine," said Napoleon, in reference to these her applications for the unfortunate, "will not take a refusal. But, it must be confessed, she rarely undertakes a case which has not propriety, at least, on its side." The Jacobin laws had fallen with fearful severity upon all the members of the ancient aristocracy and all the friends of royalty. The cause of these victims of anarchy Josephine was ever ready to espouse.

A noble family by the name of Decrest had been indebted to the interposition of the wife of the first consul for their permission to return to France. As nearly all their property had disappeared during their exile, Josephine continued to befriend them with her influence and her purse. On the evening of a festival day, a grand display of fire-works was exhibited on the banks of the Seine. A rocket, misdirected, struck a son of the marquis on the breast, and instantly killed him. The young man, who was on the eve of his marriage to the daughter of an ancient friend, was an officer of great promise, and the hope of the declining family. His death was a terrible calamity, as well as a most afflictive bereavement. The father abandoned himself to all the delirium of inconsolable grief, and was so utterly lost in the depths of despair, that it was feared his mind would never again recover its tone. The Duke of Orleans was grand-uncle of the young man who was killed, and Madame Montesson, the mother of Louis Philippe, sent for her distressed relatives that she might administer to their consolation. All her endeavors, however, were entirely unavailing.

In the midst of this afflictive scene, Josephine entered the saloon of Madame Montesson. Her own heart taught her that in such a grief as this words were valueless. Silently she took by the hand the eldest daughter, a beautiful girl, whose loveliness plead loudly for a father's care, and in the other arm she took their infant child of fifteen months, and, with her own cheeks bathed in tears, she kneeled before the stricken mourner. He raised his eyes and saw Josephine, the wife of the first consul, kneeling before him, and imploringly presenting his two children. He was at first astonished at the sight. Then, bursting into tears, he exclaimed, "Yes! I have much for which I am yet bound to live. These children have claims upon me, and I must no longer yield to despair." A lady who was present on this occasion says, "I witnessed this scene, and shall never forget it. The wife of the first consul expressed, in language which I will not attempt to imitate, all that tenderness which the maternal bosom alone knows. She was the very image of a ministering angel, for the touching charm of her voice and look pertained more to heaven than to earth." Josephine had herself seen days as dark as could lower over a mortal's path. Love for her children was then the only tie which bound her to life. In those days of anguish she learned the only appeal which, under these circumstances, could touch a despairing father's heart.

Several conspiracies were formed about this time against the life of the first consul. That of the Infernal Machine was one of the most desperate, reckless, and atrocious which history has recorded. On the evening of December 24, 1800, Napoleon was going to the opera. Three gentlemen were with him in his carriage. Josephine, with Hortense and one or two others, followed in another carriage. In passing from the Tuilleries to the theater, it was necessary to pass through the narrow street St. Nicaire. A cart, apparently by accident overturned, obstructed the passage. The coachman, however, who was driving his horses very rapidly, crowded his way by. He had barely passed the cart when a terrific explosion took place, which was heard all over Paris. Eight persons were instantly killed and more than sixty wounded. Some of the houses in the vicinity were nearly blown down. The windows of both the carriages were shattered, and Hortense was slightly wounded by the broken glass. Napoleon drove on to the opera, where he found the audience in the utmost consternation, for the explosion had shaken the whole city. He entered with a countenance as perfectly calm and untroubled as if nothing unusual had occurred. Every eye was fixed upon him. As soon as it was perceived that his person was safe, thunders of applause shook the walls of the theater. On every side Napoleon was greeted with the most devoted expressions of attachment. Soon Josephine came in, pale and trembling, and, after remaining half an hour, they both retired to the Tuilleries. Napoleon found the palace crowded with all the public functionaries of Paris, who had assembled to congratulate him upon his escape.

The life of Josephine was saved on this occasion by apparently the merest accident. She had recently received a magnificent shawl, a present from Constantinople, and was preparing to wear it that evening for the first time. Napoleon, however, in playful criticism, condemned the shawl, remarking upon its pattern and its color, and commending one which he deemed far more beautiful. "You are a bold man," said Josephine, smiling, "in venturing to criticise my toilette. I shall take my revenge in giving you a lesson how to attack a redoubt. However," she continued, turning to one of her attendants, "bring me the general's favorite. I will wear that." A delay of a few moments was caused in exchanging the shawls. In the mean time, Napoleon, with his friends, entered his carriage and drove on. Josephine soon followed. She had but just entered the street when the explosion took place. Had she followed, as usual, directly behind Napoleon, her death would have been almost inevitable.

It was subsequently ascertained, greatly to the surprise of Napoleon and of all Europe, that the Royalists were the agents in this conspiracy. Napoleon had been their benefactor, and while he knew it to be impossible to replace the Bourbons upon the throne of France, he did every thing in his power to mitigate the misfortunes which Jacobin violence had inflicted upon their friends. The first consul made no disguise of his utter detestation of the Jacobins, and of their reign of merciless tyranny. He consequently supposed that they were the authors of the atrocious crime. The real authors of the conspiracy were however, soon discovered. Fouche, whom Bonaparte disliked exceedingly for his inhuman deeds during the Revolution, was the Minister of Police. Upon him mainly devolved the trial and the punishment of the accused. Josephine immediately wrote a letter to Fouche, most strikingly indicative of the benevolence of her noble heart, and of that strength of mind which could understand that the claims of justice must not pass unheeded.

"CITIZEN-MINISTER,—While I yet tremble at the frightful event which has just occurred, I am disquieted and distressed through fear of the punishment necessarily to be inflicted on the guilty, who belong, it is said, to families with whom I once lived in habits of intercourse. I shall be solicited by mothers, sisters, and disconsolate wives; and my heart will be broken through my inability to obtain all the mercy for which I would plead.

"I know that the clemency of the first consul is great, his attachment to me extreme; but the crime is too dreadful that terrible examples should not be necessary. The chief of the government has not been alone exposed; and it is that which will render him severe—inflexible. I conjure you, therefore, to do all in your power to prevent inquiries being pushed too far. Do not detect all those persons who may have been accomplices in these odious transactions. Let not France, so long overwhelmed in consternation by public executions, groan anew beneath such inflictions. It is even better to endeavor to soothe the public mind than to exasperate men by fresh terrors. In short, when the ring-leaders of this nefarious attempt shall have been secured, let severity give place to pity for inferior agents, seduced as they may have been by dangerous falsehoods or exaggerated opinions.

"When just invested with supreme power, the first consul, as seems to me, ought rather to gain hearts than to be exhibited as ruling slaves. Soften by your counsels whatever may be too violent in his just resentment. Punish—alas! that you must certainly do—but pardon still more. Be also the support of those unfortunate men who, by frank avowal or repentance, shall expiate a portion of their crime.

"Having myself narrowly escaped perishing in the Revolution, you must regard as quite natural my interference on behalf of those who can be saved without involving in new danger the life of my husband, precious to me and to France. On this account, do, I entreat you, make a wide distinction between the authors of the crime and those who, through weakness or fear, have consented to take a part therein. As a woman, a wife, and a mother, I must feel the heart-rendings of those who will apply to me. Act, citizen minister, in such a manner that the number of these may be lessened. This will spare me much grief. Never will I turn away from the supplications of misfortune. But in the present instance you can do infinitely more than I, and you will, on this account, excuse my importunity. Rely on my gratitude and esteem."

Hortense was now eighteen years of age. Louis Napoleon, brother of the first consul, was twenty-four. The plan was formed by Napoleon and Josephine of uniting them in marriage. Louis was a studious, imaginative, pensive man, with no taste for the glitter and pomp of fashion, and with a decided aversion to earth's noisy ambition. He loved communing with his own thoughts, the falling leaf, the sighing wind—the fireside with its books, its solitude, its sacred society of one or two congenial friends. He belonged to that class of men, always imbued with deep feeling, whose happiness is only found in those hallowed affections which bind kindred hearts in congenial pursuits and joys. As Napoleon was riding triumphantly upon his war-horse over the Austrian squadrons in Italy, achieving those brilliant victories which paved his way to the throne of France, Louis, then a young man but nineteen years of age, met in Paris a young lady, the daughter of an emigrant noble, for whom he formed a strong attachment, and his whole soul became absorbed in the passion of love. Napoleon was informed of this attachment, and, apprehensive that the alliance of his brother with one of the old Royalist families might endanger his own ambitious projects, he sent him away on a military commission, and with his inflexible will and strong arm broke off the connection. The young lady was soon afterward married to another gentleman, and poor Louis was plunged into depths of disappointment and melancholy, from whence he never emerged. Life was ever after to him but a cloudy day, till, with a grief-worn spirit, he sank into the grave.

Napoleon, conscious of the wound he had inflicted upon his sensitive brother, endeavored, in various ways, to make amends. There was very much in his gentle, affectionate, and fervent spirit to attract the tender regard of Napoleon, and he ever after manifested toward him a disposition of peculiar kindness. It was long before Louis would listen to the proposition of his marriage with Hortense. His affections still clung, though hopelessly, yet so tenaciously to the lost object of his idolatry, that he could not think, without pain, of his union with another. More uncongenial nuptials could hardly have been imagined. Hortense was a beautiful, merry, thoughtless girl—amiable, but very fond of excitement and display. In the ball-room, the theater, and other places of brilliant entertainment, she found her chief pleasures. In addition to this incongruity, she was already in love with the handsome Duroc, the favorite aid of Napoleon. It is not strange that such a young lady should have seen as little to fancy in the disappointed and melancholy Louis as he could see attractive in one who lived but for the pageantry of the passing hour. Thus both parties were equally averse to the match. The tact of Josephine, however, and the power of Napoleon combined, soon overcame all obstacles, and the mirth-loving maiden and the pensive scholar were led to their untoward nuptials. Hortense became more easily reconciled to the match, as her powerful father promised, in consequence of this alliance, to introduce her to seats of grandeur where all her desires should be gratified. Louis, resigning himself to any lot in a world which had no further joy in store for him, suffered himself to be conducted submissively to the altar.

At the fete given in honor of this marriage, the splendors of ancient royalty seemed to be revived. But every eye could see the sadness of the newly-married bride beneath the profusion of diamonds and flowers with which she was adorned. Louis Napoleon, the present President of the French Republic, is the only surviving offspring of this uncongenial union.

The gay and handsome Duroc, who had been the accepted lover of Hortense, was soon after married to an heiress, who brought him, with an immense fortune, a haughty spirit and an irritable temper, which embittered all his days. The subsequent life of Hortense presents one of the most memorable illustrations of the insufficiency of human grandeur to promote happiness. Josephine witnessed with intense solicitude the utter want of congeniality existing between them, and her heart often bled as she saw alienation growing stronger and stronger, until it resulted in an entire separation. Hortense might easily have won and retained the affections of the pensive but warm-hearted Louis, had she followed the counsels of her noble mother. Josephine, herself the almost perfect model of a wife, was well qualified to give advice in such a case. The following letter, written to Hortense some time before her separation from Louis, exhibits in a most amiable light the character of Josephine.

To Queen Hortense.

"What I learned eight days ago gave me the greatest pain. What I observe to-day confirms and augments my sorrow. Why show to Louis this repugnance? Instead of rendering him more ungracious still by caprice, by inequality of character, why do you not rather make efforts to surmount your indifference? But you will say, he is not amiable! All that is relative. If not in your eyes amiable, he may appear so to others, and all women do not view him through the medium of dislike. As for myself, who am here altogether disinterested, I imagine that I behold him as he is, more loving, doubtless, than lovable, but this is a great and rare quality. He is generous, beneficent, feeling, and, above all, an excellent father. If you so willed, he would prove a good husband. His melancholy, his love of study and retirement, injure him in your estimation. For these, I ask you, is he to blame? Is he obliged to conform his nature to circumstances? Who could have predicted to him his fortune? But, according to you, he has not even the courage to bear that fortune. This, I believe, is an error; but he certainly wants the strength. With his ascetic inclinations, his invincible desire of retirement and study, he finds himself misplaced in the elevated rank to which he has attained. You desire that he should imitate his brother. Give him, first of all, the same temperament. You have not failed to remark that almost our entire existence depends upon our health, and that upon our digestion. Let poor Louis digest better, and you would find him more amiable. But, such as he is, there can be no reason for abandoning him, or making him feel the unbecoming sentiments with which he inspires you. Do you, whom I have seen so kind, continue to be so at the moment when it is precisely more than ever necessary. Take pity on a man who has to lament that he possesses what would constitute another's happiness; and, before condemning him, think of others who, like him, have groaned beneath the burden of their greatness, and bathed with their tears that diadem which they believed had never been destined for their brow."

This, surely, was admirable counsel, and, had Hortense followed it, she would have saved herself many a long year of loneliness and anguish. But the impetuous and thoughtless bride could not repress the repugnance with which she regarded the cold exterior and the exacting love of her husband. Louis demanded from her a singleness and devotedness of affection which was unreasonable. He wished to engross all her faculties of loving. He desired that every passion of her soul should be centered in him, and was jealous of any happiness she found excepting that which he could give. He was even troubled by the tender regard with which she cherished her mother and her brother, considering all the love she gave to them as so much withheld from him. Hortense was passionately fond of music and of painting. Louis almost forbade her the enjoyment of those delightful accomplishments, thinking that she pursued them with a heartfelt devotion inconsistent with that supreme love with which she ought to regard her husband. Hortense, proud and high-spirited, would not submit to such tyranny. She resisted and retaliated. She became, consequently, wretched, and her husband wretched, and discord withered all the joys of home. At last, the union of such discordant spirits became utterly insupportable. They separated. The story of their domestic quarrels vibrated upon the ear of Europe. Louis wandered here and there, joyless and sad, till, weary of a miserable life, alone and friendless, he died. Hortense retired, with a restless and suffering heart, to the mountains of Switzerland, where, in a secluded castle, she lingered out the remaining years of her sorrowful pilgrimage. It was an unfortunate match. Having been made, the only possible remedy was in pursuing the course which Josephine so earnestly recommended. Had Josephine been married to Louis, she would have followed the course she counseled her daughter to pursue. She would have leaned fondly upon his arm in his morning and evening walks. She would have cultivated a lively interest in his reading, his studies, and all his quiet domestic pleasures. She would, as far as possible, have relinquished every pursuit which could by any possibility have caused him pain. Thus she would have won his love and his admiration. Every day her power over him would have been increasing. Gradually her influence would have molded his character to a better model. He would have become proud of his wife. He would have leaned upon her arm. He would have been supported by her affection and her intellectual strength. He would have become more cheerful in character and resolute in purpose. Days of tranquillity and happiness would have embellished their dwelling. The spirit of Josephine! It is noble as well as lovely. It accomplishes the most exalted achievements, and diffuses the most ennobling happiness. There are thousands of unions as uncongenial as that of Hortense and Louis. From the woes such unions would naturally engender there is but one refuge, and Josephine has most beautifully shown what that refuge is. Hortense, proud and high-spirited, resolved that she would not submit to the exacting demands of her husband. In her sad fate we read the warning not to imitate her example.

Hortense is invariably described as an unusually fascinating woman. She had great vivacity of mind, and displayed much brilliance of conversational powers. Her person was finely formed, and she inherited much of that graceful demeanor which so signally characterized her mother. She was naturally amiable, and was richly endowed with all those accomplishments which enable one to excel in the art of pleasing. Louis, more than any other of the brothers, most strongly resembled Napoleon. He was a very handsome man, and possessed far more than ordinary abilities. Under less untoward circumstances he might have been eminently happy. Few persons, however, have journeyed along the path of life under a darker cloud than that which ever shed its gloom upon the footsteps of Louis and Hortense.

Among the various attempts which had been made to produce alienation between Napoleon and Josephine, one of the most atrocious was the whispered insinuation that the strong affection which the first consul manifested for Hortense was a guilty passion. Napoleon exhibited in the most amiable manner his qualities as a father, in the frequent correspondence he carried on with the two children of Josephine, in the interest he took in their studies, and in the solicitude he manifested to promote their best welfare. He loved Hortense as if she had been his own child. Josephine was entirely impregnable against any jealousy to be introduced from that quarter, and a peaceful smile was her only reply to all such insinuations. Hortense had also heard, and had utterly disregarded, these rumors. The marriage of Hortense to a brother of Napoleon had entirely silenced the calumny, and it was soon forgotten.

Subsequently, when Hortense had become entirely alienated from her husband, and was resolved upon a separation, Josephine did every thing in her power to dissuade her from an act so rash, so disgraceful, so ruinous to her happiness. She wrote to her in terms of the most earnest entreaty. The self-willed queen, annoyed by these remonstrances, and unable to reply to them, ventured to intimate to her mother that perhaps she was not entirely disinterested in her opposition. In most guarded terms she suggested that her mother had heard the groundless accusation of Napoleon's undue fondness, and that it was possible that her strong opposition to the separation of Hortense from her husband might originate in the fear that Hortense might become, in some degree, her rival in the affections of Napoleon. Josephine very promptly and energetically replied,

"You have misunderstood me entirely, my child. There is nothing equivocal in my words, as there can not exist an uncandid sentiment in my heart. How could you imagine that I could participate in opinions so ridiculous and so malicious? No, Hortense, you do not think that I believe you to be my rival. We do, indeed, both reign in the same heart, though by very different, yet by equally sacred rights. And they who, in the affection which my husband manifests for you, have pretended to discover other sentiments than those of a parent and a friend, know not his soul. His mind is too elevated above that of the vulgar to be ever accessible to unworthy passions. The passion of glory, if you will, engrosses him too entirely for our repose; but glory, at least, inspires nothing which is vile. Such is my profession of faith respecting Napoleon. I make this confession to you in all sincerity, that I may allay your inquietudes. When I recommended you to love, or, at least, not to repulse Louis, I spoke to you in my character of an experienced wife, an attentive mother, and a tender friend, and in this threefold relation do I now embrace you."