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

Josephine - John S. C. Abbott




Josephine at Malmaison


1796-1799


The Directory in Paris became daily more and more alarmed, in view of the vast and ever-increasing popularity of the conqueror of Italy. A plan had been formed for the invasion of England, and this was deemed a good opportunity for sending from France their dangerous rival. Napoleon was appointed commander-in-chief of the army of England. He visited the coast, and devoted ten days and nights, with his extraordinary rapidity of apprehension, in investigating the prospects of success. He returned to Paris, saying, "It is too doubtful a chance. I will not hazard on such a throw the fate of France." All his energies were then turned to his Egyptian expedition. He hoped to gain reputation and power in Egypt, pass through into India, raise an army of natives, headed by European officers and energized by an infusion of European soldiers, and thus drive the English out of India. It was a bold plan. The very grandeur of the enterprise roused the enthusiasm of France. The Directory, secretly rejoicing at the prospect of sending Napoleon so far away, and hoping that he would perish on the sands of Africa, without much reluctance agreed to his proposal.

Napoleon never loved the Revolution, and he most thoroughly detested the infamous and sanguinary despotism which had risen upon the ruins of the altar and the throne. He chanced to be in Paris when the drunken and ragged mob, like an inundation, broke into the Tuilleries, and heaped upon the humiliated Louis XVI. and Maria Antoinette the most infamous outrages. He saw the monarch standing at the window of his palace, with the dirty red cap of Jacobinism thrust upon that brow which had worn the crown of Charlemagne. At the sight, the blood boiled in the veins of the youthful Napoleon. He could not endure the spectacle. Turning upon his heel, he indignantly exclaimed, "The wretches! had they mown down four or five hundred with grape-shot, the rest would speedily have taken to flight."

He often expressed his dislike of the violent revolutionary course which the Directory were pursuing, and stated freely to his friends, "For my part, I declare, that if I had only the option between royalty and the system of these gentlemen, I would not hesitate for one moment to declare for a king." Just before Napoleon embarked for the East, Bourrienne asked him if he was really determined to risk his fate on the perilous expedition to Egypt. "Yes!" he replied. "If I should remain here, it would be necessary to overturn this miserable government, and make myself king. But we must not think of that yet. The nobles will not consent to it. I have sounded, but I find the time for that has not yet arrived. I must first dazzle these gentlemen by my exploits."

On the morning of the 19th of May, 1798, the fleet set sail from the harbor of Toulon. It was a morning of surpassing loveliness, and seldom, if ever, has the unclouded sun shone upon a more brilliant scene. The magnificent armament extended over a semicircle of not less than eighteen miles. The fleet consisted of thirteen ships of the line, fourteen frigates, and four hundred transports. They carried forty thousand picked soldiers, and officers of the highest celebrity. For the first time in the world, a corps of scientific gentlemen was attached to a military expedition. One hundred eminent artists and connoisseurs Napoleon had collected to gather the antiquarian treasures of Egypt, and to extend the boundaries of science by the observation of the phenomena of nature. They formed a part of the staff of the invading army.

Josephine accompanied her husband to Toulon, and remained with him until his embarkation. She was extremely anxious to go with him to Egypt, and with tears plead that he would allow her to share his hardships and his perils. Napoleon, however, deemed the hazards to which they would be exposed, and the fatigues and sufferings they must necessarily endure, as quite too formidable for Josephine to encounter. But in the anguish of their parting, which is described as most tender, she wrung from him a promise to allow her to follow as soon as affairs in the East should render it prudent for her to do so. It can hardly be possible, however, that Napoleon ever expected to see her in Egypt. He himself has thus described the objects he had in view in this vast enterprise: "1. To establish on the banks of the Nile a French colony, which could exist without slaves, and supply the place of Saint Domingo. 2. To open a market for the manufactures of France in Africa, Arabia, and Syria, and to obtain for the productions of his countrymen the productions of those countries. 3. To set out from Egypt, with an army of sixty thousand men, for the Indus, rouse the Mahrattas to a revolt, and excite against the English the population of those vast countries. Sixty thousand men, half Europeans, half natives, transported on fifty thousand camels and ten thousand horses, carrying with them provisions for fifty days, water for six, with one hundred and fifty pieces of cannon and double ammunition, would arrive in four months in India. The ocean ceased to be an obstacle when vessels were constructed. The desert becomes passable the moment you have camels and dromedaries in abundance."

As the fleet got under way, Josephine stood upon a balcony, with tearful eyes, gazing upon the scene, so imposing, and yet so sorrowful to her. The Orient, a ship of enormous magnitude, contained her husband and her son. They were going into the midst of dangers from whence it was doubtful whether they would ever return. She fixed her eyes upon the ship as its lessening sails grew fainter and fainter in the distance, until the hardly discernible speck disappeared beneath the horizon, which the blue waves of the Mediterranean outlined. She retired to her room with those feelings of loneliness and desolation which the circumstances were so peculiarly calculated to inspire.

It was arranged that Josephine should take up her residence, until Napoleon should send for her, at Plombieres, a celebrated watering-place, whose medicinal springs were supposed to be very efficacious in restoring maternity. She sent for Hortense, at that time fifteen years of age, and who was then in the boarding-school of the distinguished Madame Campan. Josephine wished for her daughter to be her companion during the weary hours of her absence from her husband. She was expecting that, as soon as a landing should be effected in Egypt, a frigate would be dispatched to convey her to the banks of the Nile. She found solace during the lingering weeks of expectation in devoting herself to the instruction of her daughter. Her comprehensive and excellent views on the subject of education are developed in a letter which she at this time wrote to Madame Campan, to accompany a niece who was to return to her school:

"MY DEAR MADAME CAMPAN,—With my niece, whom I return to your charge, receive also my thanks and my reproof. The former are due for the great care and brilliant education which you have bestowed upon the child; the latter, for the faults which your sagacity must have discovered, but which your indulgence has tolerated. The girl is gentle, but shy; well informed, but haughty; talented, but thoughtless. She does not please, and takes no pains to render herself agreeable. She conceives that the reputation of her uncle and the bravery of her father are every thing. Teach her, and that by the most effectual means, how absolutely unavailing are those qualities which are not personal. We live in an age where each is the author of his own fortunes; and if those who serve the state in the first ranks ought to have some advantages and enjoy some privileges, they should, on that account, strive only to render themselves more beloved and more useful. It is solely by acting thus that they can have some chance of excusing their good fortune in the eyes of envy. Of these things, my dear Madame Campan, you must not allow my niece to remain ignorant; and such are the instructions which, in my name, you should repeat to her constantly. It is my pleasure that she treat as equals every one of her companions, most of whom are better or as good as herself, their only inferiority consisting in not having relations so able or so fortunate."

Notwithstanding Napoleon's strong disinclination to have Josephine join him in Egypt, and though in every letter he strongly urged her to relinquish the plan, she was so importunate in her solicitations that he sent the Pomona frigate to convey her across the Mediterranean. She was prevented from embarking by an accident, which she must have deemed a very serious calamity, but which probably saved her from years of captivity. She was one morning sitting in her saloon, busy with her needle, and conversing with several ladies who were her companions and intimate friends, when a lady who was standing in the balcony called the attention of the party to a very beautiful dog which was passing in the street. All the ladies rushed upon the balcony, when, with a fearful crash, it broke down, and precipitated them upon the pavement. Though no lives were lost, several of the party were dreadfully injured. Josephine was so severely bruised as to be utterly helpless, and for some time she was fed like an infant. It was several months before she was sufficiently recovered to be able to leave her house. This grievous disappointment, however, probably saved her from another, which would have been far more severely felt. The frigate in which she was to have embarked, had it not been for this accident, was captured by one of the English cruisers and taken to London.

Napoleon went to Egypt because he thought it the shortest route to the vacant throne of the Bourbons. He despised the rulers who were degrading France, and placing a stigma upon popular liberty by their ignorance and their violence, and he resolved upon their overthrow. Consequently, while guiding the movements of his army upon the banks of the Nile, his attention was continually directed to Paris. He wrote to Josephine that he intended ere long to return, and directed her to purchase a pleasant country seat somewhere in the vicinity of Paris.

About ten miles from the metropolis and five miles from Versailles there was a beautiful chateau, most charmingly situated, called Malmaison. This estate Josephine purchased, greatly enlarging the grounds, at an expense of about one hundred thousand dollars. This lovely retreat possessed unfailing rural attraction for a mind formed, like that of Josephine, for the rich appreciation of all that is lovely in the aspects of nature. Napoleon was delighted with the purchase, and expended subsequently incredible sums in repairs and enlargements, and in embellishments of statues, paintings, and furniture. This was ever the favorite residence of Napoleon and Josephine.

As the leaves of autumn began to fall, Josephine, who had been slowly recovering from the effects of the accident, left Plombieres and took up her residence at Malmaison. Napoleon was absent in Egypt about eighteen months. During the winter and the ensuing summer, Josephine remained with Hortense, and several other ladies, who composed her most agreeable household, in this beautiful retreat. The celebrity of Napoleon surrounded them with friends, and that elegant mansion was the resort of the most illustrious in rank and intellect. Napoleon, who had ever a spice of jealousy in his nature, had every thing reported to him which occurred at Malmaison. He was informed respecting all the guests who visited the chateau, and of the conversation which passed in every interview.

Hortense was a lively girl of fifteen, and the time hung rather heavily upon her hands. She amused herself in playing all manner of pranks upon a very singular valet de chambre, by the name of Carrat, whom her mother had brought from Italy. This man was very timid and eccentric, but, with most enthusiastic devotion, attached to the service of Josephine.

One evening Carrat received orders to attend Madame Bonaparte and several ladies who were with her in their twilight walk through the magnificent park belonging to the estate. Carrat, ever delighted with an opportunity to display his attachment to his kind mistress, obeyed with great alacrity. No ladies in peril could desire a more valiant knight-errant than the vaunting little Italian assumed to be. They had not advanced far into the somber shadows of the grove when they saw, solemnly emerging from the obscurity, a tall specter in its winding-sheet. The fearful apparition approached the party, when the valet, terrified beyond all power of self-control, and uttering the most fearful shrieks, abandoned the ladies to the tender mercies of the ghost, and fled. The phantom, with its white drapery fluttering in the wind, pursued him. Soon the steps of the affrighted valet began to falter, and he dropped upon the ground, insensible, in a fit. Hortense, who had been perfectly convulsed with laughter in view of the triumphant success of her experiment, was now correspondingly alarmed. The ghost was a fellow-servant of Carrat, who had been dressed out under the superintendence of the mischievous Hortense.

As the poor man recovered without any serious injury and without the slightest diminution of his excessive vanity, the fun-loving Hortense could not repress her propensity still to make him the butt of her practical jokes. It was a defect in her character that she could find pleasure in this mischievous kind of torment. It is not improbable that this trait of character, which appears so excusable in a mirthful girl of fifteen, was the cause of that incessant train of sorrows which subsequently embittered her whole life. Carrat was perfectly devoted to Josephine; Hortense was his torment.

The unlucky valet occupied a sleeping-room separated from another only by a thin deal partition. A hole was made through this, and a pail of water so suspended in equilibrium over the pillow of the victim, that by drawing a cord the whole contents would be emptied upon his head. The supports of the bedstead had also been removed, so that the whole fabric would fall as soon as any weight was placed upon it. Carrat, among his other eccentricities, was ever in the habit of going to bed without a light. Matters being thus prepared, Hortense, who had employed an attendant to aid her in her plans, stood in an adjoining room to enjoy the catastrophe.

The poor man entered his room, and threw himself upon his pallet. Down it came with a crash, and his shriek of fright was for a moment drowned in the inundation of water. Hortense, knowing the almost delirious fear which the puerile valet had of reptiles, cried, "Poor man! poor man! what will he do. The water was full of toads." Carrat, in utter darkness, drenched with cold water, and overwhelmed in the ruins of his bed and bedding, shrieked, "Murder! help! fire! drowning!" while Hortense and her accomplices enjoyed his ludicrous terror. She afterward made him a handsome present as a compensation. Hortense was not a malicious girl, but, like many others who are mirthful and thoughtless, she found a strange pleasure in teasing. Josephine's only happiness was in making others happy. "It is a necessity of my heart," she said, "to love those around me, and to be loved by them in return." How much more noble such a spirit!

Though Josephine was not fully informed respecting the ultimate designs of Napoleon, and though Napoleon at this time probably had no very definite plans respecting his future actions, his interests manifestly required that she should exert all her powers to strengthen the ties of those who were already his friends, and to gain others to his rising name. Josephine acquired great influence over many members of the Directory, and this influence she was continually exerting for the relief of those who were in distress. Many of the proscribed emigrants were indebted to her for liberty and the restoration of their forfeited estates. The following letter from Josephine to an emigrant, whose fortune, and perhaps life, she had saved, exhibits her intellectual elevation as well as the amiability of her heart.

"SIR,—Your petition, which reached Malmaison on the 12th, was presented the same evening, and by myself, to Citizen Barras. I have the pleasure to announce to you that the decision is favorable, and that now, erased from the fatal list, you are restored to all the rights of a French citizen. But in transmitting a communication not less agreeable to me than to yourself, permit me to enhance its value by repeating to you the exact words with which it was accompanied by the Director. 'I have usually little to deny you, madame,' said he, presenting me with a sealed inclosure containing the act of restoration, 'and certainly, when humanity is concerned, I can have far less objection. But pity for misfortune does not exclude justice, and justice is inseparable from the love of truth. As unfortunate, M. de Sansal merits commiseration. As an emigrant, he has right to none. I will say more; had I been disposed to be severe, there existed a cause for stern reprisals on the part of a government to whose kindness he replies by insults. Although I despise those of such a man, I appreciate them. They prove an ungrateful heart and a narrow mind. Let him be careful about expressing his hatred. All my colleagues are not equally indulgent.'

"Blame only yourself, sir, for the small share of amenity in these counsels. They are harsh, perhaps, but useful; and you will do well to render them effective. Regard, also, the faithfulness with which I transcribe them as a proof of the deep interest I take in your welfare, and of my anxiety that the interference of your friends may be justified by your future conduct."

For some time a very constant correspondence was kept up between Napoleon and Josephine, but after the destruction of the French fleet by Lord Nelson in the Bay of Aboukir, and when the Mediterranean had become completely blocked up by English cruisers, almost every letter was intercepted.

For political purposes, there were many who wished to destroy the influence which Josephine had acquired over the mind of her illustrious husband. In the accomplishment of this plan, they endeavored, in every way in their power, to excite the jealousy of Napoleon. The very efforts which Josephine was making to attract the most influential men in Paris to her saloon were represented to him as indications of levity of character, and of a spirit of unpardonable coquetry. The enemies of Josephine had their influential agents in the camp of Napoleon, and with malice, never weary, they whispered these suspicions into his ear. The jealousy of his impassioned nature was strongly aroused. In his indignation, he wrote to Josephine in terms of great severity, accusing her of "playing the coquette with all the world." She was very deeply wounded by these unjust suspicions, and wrote to him a letter in reply, which, for tenderness and delicacy of sentiment, and the expression of conscious innocence, is hardly surpassed by any thing which has ever been written. Her letter was intercepted, and Napoleon never saw it. For many months nearly all communication with the army of Egypt was cut off by the vigilance of the English. There were flying reports ever reaching the ear of Josephine of disaster to the army, and even of the death of Napoleon. Josephine was at times in great distress. She knew not the fate of her husband or her son. She knew that, by the grossest deception, her husband's confidence in her had been greatly impaired, and she feared that, should he return, she might never be able to regain his affections. Still, she devoted herself with unwearied diligence in watching over all his interests, and though her heart was often oppressed with anguish, she did every thing in her power to retain the aspect of cheerfulness and of sanguine hope. One of her favorite amusements—the favorite amusement of almost every refined mind—was found in the cultivation of flowers. She passed a portion of every pleasant day with Hortense among the flower-beds, with the hoe, and the watering-pot, and the pruning-knife. Hortense, though she loved the society of her mother, was not fond of these employments, and in subsequent life she never turned to them for a solace. With Josephine, however, this taste remained unchanged through life. She was also very fond of leaving the aristocratic walks of Malmaison, and sauntering through the lanes and the rural roads, where she could enter the cottages of the peasants, and listen to their simple tales of joy and grief. To many of these dwellings her visit was as the mission of an angel. Her purse was never closed against the wants of penury. But that which rendered her still more a ministering spirit to the poor was that her heart was ever open, with its full flood of sympathy, to share the grief of their bereavements, and to rejoice in their joy. When she sat upon the throne of France, and even long after she sank into the repose of the grave, the region around Malmaison was full of recitals of her benevolence. Aristocratic pride at times affected to look down with contempt upon the elevated enjoyments of a noble heart.

Thus occupied in pleading with those in power for those of illustrious birth who had, by emigration, forfeited both property and life; in visiting the sick and the sorrowing in the humble cottages around her; in presiding with queenly dignity over the brilliant soirees in her own saloons, where talent and rank were ever assembled, and in diffusing the sunlight of her own cheerful heart throughout the whole household at Malmaison, Josephine, through weary months, awaited tidings from her absent husband.