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The Empress Eugenie by Lucy H. Hooper

 

When the bloody business of the coup d'état was definitely finished, the murder-stains washed from the streets, the victims interred, and a few thousand of the best and boldest hearts of France had taken the sorrowful road of exile, the new emperor bethought him of how best to gild his freshly-gained throne.

A court was to be constructed, and that right speedily. After the gloomy tragedy of the overthrow of the Republic, France was to be treated to the grand spectacular piece of the Second Empire. And for that a corps de ballet and trained supernumeraries were needed. The rôle of leading lady, too, was vacant. An empress was to be sought for without delay. Negotiations were opened with several princely houses for the hands of damsels of royal birth, but speedily came to naught. As yet, the new-made emperor was a parvenu amid his royal contemporaries. The negotiations for the hand of the Swedish princess Vasa did indeed promise at one time to be crowned with success. But the emperor sent his physician to take a look at the lady, and to judge if her physique promised healthful and numerous offspring; and this fact, coming to the ears of her family, caused a sudden stop to be put to the whole affair. Meantime, at the reunions of Compiègne, the personality of a young and lovely foreign countess was coming prominently into notice, owing to the evident impression that her charms had made upon the susceptible heart of Napoleon III. This lady, Eugénie Montijo, countess de Teba, was no longer in the first bloom of girlhood, having been born in 1826. But she was in the full meridian of a beauty which, had the crown matrimonial of France, like the apple of Até, been dedicated to the fairest, would have ensured her the throne by sheer right divine. It is indeed said that as a young girl her charms were in no wise remarkable: on her first appearance in society at the court of Madrid she created no sensation whatever. She was too pale and quiet-looking to attract attention. But one day, the court being at Aranjuez, during a fête champêtre, Mademoiselle de Montijo had the good or ill fortune to fall into one of the ornamental fishponds in the garden. She was taken out insensible, and her wet and clinging garments revealed a form of such statuesque perfection that all Madrid went raving about her beauty. She plunged a commonplace girl—she rose a Venus. And when she first attracted the notice of Napoleon she was indisputably one of the loveliest women in Europe. She was tall, slender, exquisitely proportioned, and her walk was that of a goddess. Her features were delicate and regular; her eyes long, almond-shaped, and full of a tender and dreamy sweetness: her small and faultlessly-shaped head was set upon a long, slender neck with the swaying grace of a lily upon its stalk; her shoulders were sloping and beautifully moulded, notwithstanding her lack of embonpoint, for in those days she was as slight as a reed. A profusion of fair hair—which she wore turned back from the face in the graceful style known as "à la Pompadour," but speedily to be rechristened "à l'Impératrice"—and a hand and foot of truly royal beauty completed an ensemble of charms that were well calculated to drive poor masculine humanity out of its seven senses.

Cold and calculating as was Napoleon III., it drove him out of his, for in every respect such a marriage was an unwise and an impolitic one. It lent to his new-founded throne neither the lustre of an alliance with royalty nor the popularity that might have been gained by the selection of a Frenchwoman as the partner of his fortunes. The Spanish blood of the countess de Teba made her obnoxious in the eyes of many of her future subjects. Moreover, the antecedents of the lady were not altogether without reproach. Not that any actual stigma had ever clung to her character, but she had always been looked upon in European circles as that anomalous character in such society, a fast girl. Stories, some true and some false, were circulated respecting her follies and her escapades. Evidently, if Cæsar's wife should be above suspicion, she was not the person who should have been selected to become the wife of Cæsar.

The fact of the emperor's interest in the fair foreigner was revealed by an incident, slight in itself and only important by the emotions which it called forth. At one of the small intimate reunions at Compiègne, Mademoiselle de Montijo happened, while dancing, to entangle her feet in the long folds of her train, and she fell with some violence to the floor. The extreme anxiety and distress manifested by the emperor acted as a revelation to all present. A stormy opposition to the projected alliance was at once organized among the familiars of the emperor—the men who had aided in his elevation, and to whom it was too recent for them to stand in awe of him. MM. de Morny and de Persigny in particular were violent in their opposition. In fact, the latter went so far as to tell the emperor at the close of a long and stormy interview on the subject that it was hardly worth while to have made a coup d'êtat to end it in such a manner. M. de Morny argued and reasoned with his imperial brother, but neither the violence of Persigny nor the arguments of De Morny made any impression on the cold and inflexible will of Napoleon III., and a few days later the countess made her appearance at one of the court-balls in a dress looped and wreathed with the imperial emblem-flower, the violet. The emperor, advancing toward her, presented her with a superb bouquet of the same significant blossoms. The meaning of that little scene was fully understood by the spectators. The marriage was irrevocably decided upon, and all that they had to do was to submit to the imperial will and make ready to offer their homage to the new empress. With the solitary exception of Prince Napoleon, the imperial family submitted with a good grace to the matrimonial projects of their chief. The Princess Mathilde in particular, although the marriage would depose her from the place that she then occupied as the first lady of the court, declared her willingness to bear the train of the new empress in public if such a duty should be required of her, as it had been of the sisters of the First Napoleon.

There remained, however, an arrangement to be completed which, though awkward and painful, was yet positively necessary. No one better than Napoleon III. was aware of the truth of the old adage which declares that a man must be off with the old love before he is on with the new. In an hôtel on the Rue du Cirque dwelt a lady who had been the partner of his days of exile and ill-fortune, who had impoverished herself in his service, and who had devoted herself to furthering his aims with a persistency worthy of a better cause. This lady, the well-known Mrs. Howard, was now to be got rid of. A frank and open rupture was not in the style or the ideas of her royal and sphinx-like lover. A pretended secret mission to England lured her from Paris. She learned the truth at Boulogne, and hastened back to her home. There she found that her hôtel had been visited by the police, and that a cabinet wherein she kept the letters of Louis Napoleon had been broken open and rifled of its contents. Deeply wounded by the treatment she had received, she withdrew, not without dignity, from all attempt at contesting the position with her rival. "I go," she wrote to Napoleon, "a second Josephine, bearing with me your star." To do justice to the emperor, it must be confessed that he treated her in other respects with royal liberality. The title of countess of Beauregard and a fortune of a million of dollars were allotted to her. She withdrew to England, where she afterward married. In 1865 a great longing to behold Paris once more came upon her. Her youth and beauty gone, a worn, disappointed  and unhappy woman (for her marriage had turned out most wretchedly), she returned to Paris only to die. Her eldest son succeeded to the title of count de Beauregard, and was made consul at Zanzibar. Since the downfall of the Empire he has lived a sort of Bohemian existence in Paris, where his striking resemblance to Louis Napoleon has won for him the nickname of "the ghost" (le revenant).

Meanwhile, the preparations for the marriage were proceeding vigorously. The future empress and her mother had been installed in apartments at the Élysée. The household of the royal bride was already formed, including the princess of Essling as chief lady-in-waiting, and the Count (afterward Duke) Tascher de la Pagerie as head-chamberlain. The nuptial ceremony took place on the 30th of January. The bride's dress was composed of white velvet, with a veil of point d'Angleterre, the time being too short to have one of point d'Alençon manufactured. The details of the ceremony were closely copied from those of the wedding of Napoleon I. and Marie Louise, and the state-coach was the same that had been used at the coronation of the great emperor. It was a magnificent vehicle, covered with gilding and ornaments, and so heavy that the eight fine horses that drew it were less for show than for actual service. The ceremony took place in the cathedral of Notre Dame, which was illuminated for the occasion with fifteen thousand wax-lights. The bride was visibly agitated. She was as pale as death, and her voice in making the responses was scarcely audible. No wonder if in that hour a premonition of evil weighed upon her soul. The civil register of the imperial family—which, preserved by the devotion of some of the adherents of the Bonapartes, had been brought forth to be used at the civil ceremony which had taken place the day before—might well have thrilled her with forebodings. The last record inscribed on those pages had been the birth of the king of Rome. How had it fared with that scion of a mighty father? how might it fare with her own possible offspring?

It speedily became evident that the marriage, unpopular as it had been among the counsellors of the emperor, was still more so among the people at large. No cries of "Long live the empress!" save from the throats of paid agents of the government, rose to greet the beautiful Eugénie when she appeared in public. People stared sullenly at her as at a passing pageant, but were moved neither by her charms nor her gentle and gracious courtesy to any outburst of enthusiasm. To the masses she was "L'Espagnole," the heiress to the bitter hate inspired by the Austrian, Marie Antoinette. Epigrams on the marriage, seasoned with the cruel and ferocious wit for which the Parisians are so famous, circulated on all sides. Some bold hand affixed to the walls of the Tuileries a series of doggerel verses wherein the empress was first called by the nickname of "Badinguette," which was universally applied to her after the fall of the Empire. The author of these lines was discovered and banished to Cayenne, but his verses, set to a popular tune, were long sung in secret in the taverns and workshops of the suburbs.

To a certain extent, popular opinion respecting the young and lovely Eugénie was correct. She was indeed emphatically not the wife that Louis Napoleon should have chosen. A woman of intelligence and force of character might have done much to aid in founding his throne on a more stable basis. The downfall of the Empire, though probably inevitable, might have been delayed for at least a generation. But his choice had fallen upon a lady who had but one qualification for the position in which he had placed her—namely, extreme personal beauty. She was indeed kind-hearted and amiable, and among the temptations of a court as dissolute as was that of Louis XV. she preserved her reputation unspotted. But she was narrow-minded and unintellectual, a bigoted Catholic, and so blinded by national and religious prejudices that many of the most fatal mistakes of the Empire are directly traceable to her influence. An alliance with a royal princess would have strengthened the throne of Louis Napoleon: an alliance with a French lady would have drawn toward him the hearts of the nation. But Eugénie was neither a princess nor a Frenchwoman, nor yet a woman of vigorous and commanding intellect; and his union with her was undoubtedly a serious political error.

But for some time all went well. She ruled gracefully over her allotted realm, which was that of Fashion. The influence of a crowned Parisian beauty over the social doings of the world can hardly be over-estimated. Eugénie invented toilettes that were copied by all the women in the civilized world: she invented crinoline, and added a new product to the manufactures of the earth. No woman better understood the art of dress than she. Certain of her toilettes have retained their celebrity to this day. Never did the art of costly dress reach so high a pinnacle. She fringed her ball-dresses with diamonds, and covered them with lace worth two thousand dollars a yard. Then, like many wise and economical ladies, she undertook to have her dresses made at home, and installed a dressmaker's establishment in the Tuileries, where these splendid garments were prepared under her immediate supervision. The workroom was directly over her private apartments. By means of a trapdoor, whose mechanism was skilfully dissimulated among the ornaments of the cornice and ceiling, a mannikin, arrayed in the garb that was in progress, could be lowered for the empress's inspection. This singular branch of the royal household was under the charge of a functionary whose business it was to purchase silks, velvets and laces at wholesale prices and to superintend the workwomen. The knowledge of its existence was soon spread abroad, and did the empress infinite harm. The petty economy of the proceeding horrified and disgusted the Parisians, who, economical themselves, have ever scorned that virtue in their sovereigns. Many of the partisans of the court denied the existence of such an establishment, but during the period that elapsed between the downfall of the Empire and the outbreak of the Commune the curious throngs that visited the Tuileries might trace amid the mouldings of the ceiling in the empress's boudoir the outline of the famous trapdoor.

It would have been well had she never turned her attention to any less feminine or more dangerous pursuits. But in an evil hour for France and for the nation she undertook to dabble in politics. Left regent during the Austro-Italian campaign, she acquired a taste for reigning, which was increased by the flatteries of her husband's ministers and the counsels of her confessor. It was currently said at court that the Mexican expedition "came ready-made from her boudoir." She hated the United States, as a true daughter of Spain could not fail to detest the coveters of Cuba and the friends of progress and of enlightenment. Consequently, she did not fail to further a project whose real aim was to deal the great republic, then struggling in the throes of civil war, a decisive stab in the back. She approved of the war with China, and condescended to enrich her private apartments with the spoils of the Summer Palace. But her pet project, the one that she had most at heart, was the war with Prussia. The now historical phrase, "This is my war," was uttered by her to General Turr soon after the outbreak of hostilities. And when, an exile and discrowned, she first sought the presence of Queen Victoria, she sobbed out with tears of vain remorse, "It was all my fault. Louis did not want to go to war: 'twas I that forced him to it." Poor lady! bitterly indeed has she atoned for that unwise exercise of undue influence. The holy crusade of which she dreamed against the enemies of her Church and of her husband's throne ended in giving her son's inheritance to the winds.

Nor was her domestic life a happy one. She loved her husband; and indeed Napoleon III. seems to have possessed a rare power of attracting and securing the affections of those about him. Few that came within the influence of his kindly courtesy, his grave and gentle voice, but fell captive to the spell thus subtly exercised. He made many and warm personal friends, even among those who were hostile to his politics and his dynasty. And by three women at least he was loved with a fervor and a constancy that no trial could shake. One of these was the Princess Mathilde, his cousin and once his intended wife; another was Mrs. Howard; the third was his wife. But, like many men who are much loved, Louis Napoleon was incapable of anything like genuine and constant love for any woman. His passion for his lovely empress was as brief as it had been violent. He vexed her soul and tortured her heart by countless conjugal infidelities. She resented this state of affairs with all the vehemence of an outraged wife and a jealous Spaniard. It is said that she once soundly boxed the ears of the distinguished functionary who filled in her husband's household the post that the infamous Lebel held during the latter days of the life of Louis XV. Twice she fled abruptly from the court, unable to bear the presence of insolent and triumphant rivals, and the ingenuity of the fashionable chroniclers of the day was taxed to invent plausible pretexts for her sudden journeys to the Scottish or the Italian lakes. No wonder that the soft eyes grew sadder and the smiles more forced as the years passed on and brought only weariness, disenchantment and the shadow of the coming end.

Alphonse Daudet has said in Le Nabab that there exists in the life of every human being a golden moment, a luminous peak, where all of glory or success that destiny reserves is granted; after which comes the decadence and the descent. This golden moment in the life of the empress Eugénie was the occasion of the first French international exhibition in 1855. She was then in the full pride of her womanhood and her loveliness. The greatest lady in Europe, Queen Victoria, had been her guest, had embraced her as an equal and had given her proofs of real and sincere friendship. Enveloped in clouds of priceless lace and blazing with diamonds of more than regal splendor, she had presided, la belle des belles, over the opening of the exhibition in the Champs Elysées. And, above all, the event so anxiously desired by her husband and by the supporters of his cause was near at hand. She was soon to become the mother of the heir to the imperial throne. With every aspiration gratified, every wish accomplished, she did indeed seem in that year of grace the most enviable of human beings. The later splendors of the exhibition of 1867 were more apparent than real, and the gorgeous assemblage of reigning sovereigns brought with it for Eugénie a subtle and premeditated insult. The kings and emperors who responded to the imperial invitation and came to visit the court of Napoleon III., with one exception, that of the king of the Belgians, left their wives at home. They acted as men do in private life when they receive invitations to a ball given by a family of doubtful standing with whom they are unwilling to quarrel.

I have spoken of the birth of the prince imperial. It may perhaps interest the reader to know how much this auspicious event cost the French nation. Not less than nine hundred thousand francs (one hundred and eighty thousand dollars), of which twenty thousand dollars were paid for the young gentleman's first wardrobe. The whole amount expended at the birth of the Comte de Paris did not exceed this latter sum.

The details of the scenes at the Tuileries after the downfall of the Empire, and those of the flight of the empress, are well known. It is now generally conceded that after Sédan the fate of the imperial dynasty was in the hands of Eugénie. Had she withdrawn to Tours or to Bourges, summoned the Assembly to meet there, and called around her the partisans of the Empire, she might have saved the heritage of her son. But her essentially feminine and frivolous nature was not fitted for deeds of high resolve or for heroic determinations. A morbid dread of following in the footsteps of Marie Antoinette had pursued her in the later years of her prosperity. She knew that she was unpopular, and visions of the fate of the Austrian queen or of the still more horrible one of the Princesse de Lamballe must have risen before her as the shouts of the Parisian mob, exulting in the downfall of her husband, met her ear. In that hour of disaster and of woe no Frenchman, for all the boasted chivalry of the race, was at hand to aid or protect the fair lady who had so long queened it at the Tuileries. The Austrian ambassador, the Italian minister, the Corsican Pietrio planned and managed her escape from the palace. She took refuge in the house of an American, her dentist, Dr. Thomas W. Evans. He it was who got her out of Paris and accompanied her to the seacoast, placing his own carriage at her disposal. She crossed the Channel in the yacht of an English gentleman. Thus guarded by aliens, she passed from the land of her queenship to that of exile.

To-day, in her abode at Chiselhurst, the widow of Napoleon III. attracts scarcely less of the world's interest and attention than she did as throned empress and queen of Fashion. Unfortunately, the supreme tact that once was her distinguishing quality seems to have deserted her in the days of her decadence. She, the most graceful of women, has not learned the art of growing old gracefully. She had played the part of a beauty and the leader of fashion for years. Now that she is past fifty that character is no longer possible to her. But she might have assumed another—less showy, perhaps, but surely far more touching. With her whitening hairs she might have worthily worn the triple dignity of her widowhood, her maternity and her misfortune. She has chosen instead, with a weakness unworthy of the part that she has played on the wide stage of contemporary history, to clutch vainly after the fleeting shadow of her vanished charms. A head loaded with false yellow hair, a face covered with paint and powder, a mincing gait and the airs and graces of an antiquated coquette,—such to-day is she who was once the world's wonder for her loveliness and grace, a bewigged Mrs. Skewton succeeding to the dazzling vision that swerved the calculating policy of Napoleon III. and won his callous heart, and that still smiles upon us from the canvas of Winterhalter.

LUCY H. HOOPER.