Josephine - John S. C. Abbott

Josephine the Wife of the First Consul


The winter of 1799 opened upon France in the deepest gloom. The French were weary of the horrors of the Revolution. All business was at a stand. The poor had neither employment nor bread. Starvation reigned in the capital. The Austrians had again entered Italy, and beaten the French at almost every point. No tidings were received from Bonaparte and the army in Egypt. Rumors of the death of Napoleon and of a disastrous state of the enterprise filled the city. The government at Paris, composed of men who had emerged from obscurity in the storms of revolution, was imbecile and tyrannical in the extreme. The nation was weary beyond endurance of the strife of contending factions, and ardently desired some strong arm to be extended for the restoration of order, and for the establishment of an efficient and reputable government. "The pear was ripe."

On the evening of the 9th of November, a large and very brilliant party was assembled in Paris at the house of M. Gohier, president of the Directory. The company included all the most distinguished persons then resident in the metropolis. Josephine, being in Paris at that time, was one of the guests. About midnight, the gentlemen and ladies were gathering around a supper table very sumptuously spread, when they were startled by a telegraphic announcement, communicated to their host, that Bonaparte had landed that morning at Frejus, a small town upon the Mediterranean shore. The announcement created the most profound sensation. All knew that Napoleon had not returned at that critical moment without an object. Many were pale with apprehension, conscious that his popularity with the army would enable him to wrest from them their ill-gotten power. Others were elated with hope. Yet universal embarrassment prevailed. None dared to express their thoughts. No efforts could revive the conviviality of the evening, and the party soon dispersed.

Josephine, with the deepest emotion, hastened home, immediately summoned her carriage, and, taking with her Hortense and Louis Bonaparte, set out, without allowing an hour for repose, to meet her husband. She was very anxious to have an interview with him before her enemies should have an opportunity to fill his mind with new accusations against her. The most direct route from Paris to Frejus passes through the city of Lyons. There is another and more retired route, not frequently traveled, but which Napoleon, for some unknown reason, took. It was a long journey of weary, weary leagues, over hills and plains. Josephine alighted not for refreshment or slumber, but with fresh relays of horses, night and day, pressed on to meet her spouse. When she arrived at Lyons, to her utter consternation, she heard that Napoleon had taken the other route, and, some forty-eight hours before, had passed her on the way to Paris. No words can describe the anguish which these tidings caused her. Her husband would arrive in Paris and find her absent. He would immediately be surrounded by those who would try to feed his jealousy. Two or three days must elapse ere she could possibly retrace her steps. Napoleon arrived in Paris the 10th of November. It was not until nearly midnight of the 13th that Josephine returned. Worn out with the fatigues of traveling, of anxiety, and of watching, she drove with a heavy heart to their house in the Rue Chantereine.

The enemies whom Josephine had most to fear were the brothers and the sisters-in-law of Napoleon. They were entirely dependent upon their illustrious brother for their own advancement in life, and were exceedingly jealous of the influence which Josephine had exerted over his mind. They feared that she would gain an exclusive empire where they wished also to reign. Taking advantage of Josephine's absence, they had succeeded in rousing Napoleon's indignation to the highest pitch. They accused her of levity, of extravagance, of forgetfulness of him, and of ever playing the coquette with all the debauchees of Paris. Napoleon, stimulated by that pride which led the Roman emperor to say, "Caesar's wife must not be suspected," threatened loudly "divorce—open and public divorce." Said one maliciously to him, "She will appear before you with all her fascinations, explain matters; you will forgive all, and tranquillity will be restored." "Never! never!" exclaimed the irritated general, striding to and fro through the room. "I forgive! never! You know me. Were I not sure of my resolution, I would pluck out this heart and cast it into the fire."

Such was the mood of mind in which Napoleon was prepared to receive Josephine, after an absence of eighteen months. Josephine and Hortense alighted in the court-yard, and were immediately enfolded in the embraces of Eugene, who was anxiously awaiting their arrival. With trembling steps and a throbbing heart, Josephine, accompanied by her son and daughter, ascended the stairs to a small circular family room where they expected to find Napoleon. He was there with his brother Joseph. As his wife and her children entered the room, Napoleon glanced sternly at them, and instantly said to Josephine, in a severe and commanding tone, almost before she had crossed the threshold,

"Madame! it is my wish that you retire immediately to Malmaison."

Josephine came near falling lifeless upon the floor. She was caught in the arms of Eugene, who, in the most profound grief, had kept near the side of his revered and beloved mother. He supported her fainting steps, as, sobbing with anguish, she silently retired to her apartment. Napoleon, greatly agitated, traversed the room with hasty strides. The sight of Josephine had rekindled all his love, and he was struggling with desperate efforts to cherish his sense of wrong, and to fortify himself against any return of clemency.

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


In a few moments, Josephine and Hortense, with Eugene, were heard descending the stairs to leave the house. It was midnight. For a week Josephine had lived in her carriage almost without food or sleep. Nothing but intensity of excitement had prevented her from sinking down in utter weariness and exhaustion. It was a drive of thirty miles to Malmaison. Napoleon was not prepared for such prompt obedience. Even his stern heart could not resist its instinctive pleadings for his wife and her daughter. He hastened from his room, and, though his pride would not allow him directly to urge Josephine to remain, he insisted upon Eugene's returning, and urged it in such a way that he came back, leading with him his mother and his sister. Napoleon, however, addressed not a word to either of them. Josephine threw herself upon a couch in her apartment, and Napoleon, in gloomy silence, entered his cabinet. Two days of wretchedness passed away, during which no intercourse took place between the estranged parties. But the anger of the husband was gradually subsiding. Love for Josephine was slowly gaining strength in his heart. On the third day, his pride and passion were sufficiently subdued to allow him to enter the apartment where Josephine and Hortense had kept themselves secluded, awaiting his pleasure. Josephine was seated at a toilet table, with her face buried in her hands, and absorbed in the profoundest grief. On the table were exposed the letters which she had received from Napoleon during his absence, and which she had evidently been reading. Hortense was standing silently and pensively in an alcove by the window, half concealed by the curtain. Napoleon advanced with an irresolute step, hesitated for a moment, and then said, "Josephine!" She started up at the sound of that well-known voice, and, her beautiful countenance all suffused with tears, mournfully exclaimed, "Mon ami," in that peculiar tone, so pathetic, so musical, which ever thrilled upon the heart of Napoleon. "My friend" was the term of endearment with which she invariably addressed her husband. Napoleon was vanquished. He extended his hand to his deeply-wronged wife. She threw herself into his arms, pillowed her aching head upon his bosom, and in the fullness of blended joy and anguish wept convulsively. An explanation of several hours ensued. Every shade of suspicion was obliterated from his mind. He received Josephine again to his entire confidence, and this confidence was never again interrupted.

When Napoleon landed at Frejus, he was received with the most enthusiastic demonstration of delight. There was a universal impression that the hero of Italy, the conqueror of Egypt, had returned thus unexpectedly to France for the accomplishment of some magnificent enterprise; yet no one knew what to anticipate. The moment the frigate dropped anchor in the bay, and it was announced that Napoleon was on board, thousands surrounded the vessel in boats, and the air was filled with enthusiastic acclamations. His journey to Paris was one continued scene of triumph. Crowds gathered around him at every stopping-place, intoxicated with joy. The bells rang their merriest peals; the booming of cannon echoed along the hill sides, and brilliant bonfires by night blazed upon every eminence. Upon his arrival in Paris, the soldiers, recognizing their leader in so many brilliant victories, greeted him with indescribable enthusiasm, and cries of "Vive Bonaparte!" resounded through the metropolis. His saloon, ever thronged with generals and statesmen, and all who were most illustrious in intellect and rank, resembled the court of a monarch. Even the most prominent men in the Directory, disgusted with the progress of measures which they could not control, urged him to grasp the reins of power, assuring him that there was no hope for France but in his strong arm. In less than four weeks from his arrival in Paris, the execrated government was overturned. Napoleon, Sieyes, and Ducos were appointed consuls, and twenty-five members were appointed from each of the councils to unite with the consuls in forming a new Constitution. One unanimous voice of approval rose from all parts of France in view of this change. No political movement could take place more strongly confirmed by the popular will. Napoleon hastened from the scenes of peril and agitation through which he had passed in the accomplishment of this change, that he might be the first to announce to Josephine the political victory he had achieved.

During the perilous day, when, in the midst of outcries, daggers, and drawn swords, he had been contending with the Council of the Five Hundred, he could find not even one moment to dispatch a note from St. Cloud to his wife. The previous day he had kept her constantly informed of the progress of events. Josephine remained throughout the whole of the 19th of November, from morning until evening, without sight or tidings of her husband. She knew that, in the fierce strife of parties in France, there was no safety for life; and when the darkness of night settled down around her, and still no word from her Napoleon, her anxiety amounted almost to distraction. The rumbling of every carriage upon the pavement—every noise in the streets aroused her hopes or her fears. Worn out with anxiety, at midnight she threw herself upon her bed, but not to sleep. Several weary hours of suspense lingered slowly along, when, at four o'clock in the morning, she heard the well-known footsteps of her husband upon the stairs.

She sprang to meet him. He fondly clasped her in his arms, and assured her that he had not spoken to a single individual since he had taken the oaths of office, that the voice of his Josephine might be the first to congratulate him upon his virtual accession to the empire of France. An animated conversation ensued, and then Napoleon, throwing himself upon his couch for a few moments' repose, gayly said, "Good night, my Josephine! to-morrow we sleep in the Luxembourg."

The next day the three consuls met in Paris. His colleagues, however, immediately perceived that the towering ambition of Napoleon would brook no rival. He showed them the absurdity of their plans, and compelled them to assent to the superior wisdom of his own. The untiring vigor of his mind, the boldness and energy of his thoughts, and his intuitive and almost miraculous familiarity with every branch of political science, overawed his associates, and the whole power passed, with hardly the slightest resistance, into his own hands. Immediately after their first interview, the Abbe Sieyes, who combined great weakness with extensive knowledge, remarked to Talleyrand and others, "Gentlemen, I perceive that we have got a master. Bonaparte can do and will do every thing himself. But," he continued, after a pause, "it is better to submit than to protract dissensions forever."

In this most astonishing revolution, thus suddenly accomplished, and without the shedding of a drop of blood, Napoleon was much indebted to the influence which his wife had exerted in his behalf during his absence in Egypt. The dinners she had given, the guests she had entertained in her saloons evening after evening, consisting of the most distinguished scholars, and statesmen, and generals in the metropolis, had contributed greatly to the popularity of her husband, and had surrounded him with devoted friends. Napoleon ever acknowledged his obligations to Josephine for the essential service she had thus rendered him.

The next morning Napoleon and Josephine removed from their elegant yet comparatively plebeian residence in the Rue Chantereine to the palace of the Luxembourg. This, however, was but the stepping-stone to the Tuilleries, the world-renowned abode of the monarchs of France. They remained for two months at the Luxembourg. The energies of Napoleon were employed every moment in promoting changes in the internal affairs of France, which even his bitterest enemies admit were marked with the most eminent wisdom and benevolence. During the two months of their residence at the Luxembourg, no domestic event of importance occurred, except the marriage of Murat with Caroline, the sister of Napoleon. Caroline was exceedingly beautiful. Murat was one of the favorite aids of Bonaparte. Their nuptials were celebrated with great splendor, and the gay Parisians began again to be amused with something like the glitter of royalty.

Each day Napoleon became more popular and his power more firmly established. Soon all France was prepared to see the first consul take up his residence in the ancient apartments of the kings of France. The Tuilleries had been sacked again and again by the mob. The gorgeous furniture, the rich paintings, and all the voluptuous elegance which the wealth of Louis XIV. could create, had been thrown into the court-yard and consumed by the infuriated populace. Royalty itself had been pursued and insulted in its most sacred retreats.

By slow and cautious advances, Napoleon refurnished these magnificent saloons. The emblems of Jacobin misrule were silently effaced. Statues of Brutus and Washington, of Demosthenes, and of others renowned for illustrious deeds, were placed in the vacant niches, and the Tuilleries again appeared resplendent as in the days of pristine pride and power.

On the morning of the 19th of February, 1800, all Paris was in commotion to witness the transfer of the embryo court of the first consul and his colleagues from the Luxembourg to the Tuilleries. Already the colleagues of Napoleon had become so entirely eclipsed by the superior brilliance of their imperious associate that their names were almost forgotten. The royal apartments were prepared for Napoleon, while those in the Pavilion of Flora were assigned to the two other consuls. The three consuls entered a magnificent carriage, drawn by six white horses. A gorgeous train of officers, with six thousand picked troops in the richest uniform, surrounded the cortege. Many of the long-abolished usages of royalty were renewed upon that day. Twenty thousand soldiers, in most imposing military array, were drawn up before the palace. The moment the carriage appeared, the very heavens seemed rent with their cries, "Vive le premier consul!" The two associate consuls were ciphers. They sat at his side as pages to embellish his triumph. This day placed Napoleon in reality upon the throne of France, and Josephine that evening moved, a queen, in the apartments hallowed by the beauty and the sufferings of Maria Antoinette.

The suite of rooms appropriated to the wife of the first consul consisted of two magnificent saloons, with private apartments adjoining. No French monarch ever sauntered through a more dazzling scene than that which graced the drawing-rooms of Josephine on this occasion. Embassadors from nearly all the courts of Europe were present. The army contributed its utmost display of rank and military pomp to embellish the triumph of its most successful general. And the metropolis contributed all that it still retained of brilliance in ancestral renown or in intellectual achievement.

When Josephine entered the gorgeously-illuminated apartments of the palace, leaning upon the arm of Talleyrand, and dressed in the elegance of the most perfect simplicity, a murmur of admiration arose from the whole assembly. She was attired in a robe of white muslin. Her hair fell in graceful ringlets upon her neck and shoulders. A necklace of pearls of great value completed her costume. The queenly elegance of her figure, the inimitable grace of her movements, the peculiar conversational tact she possessed, and the melody of a voice which, once heard, never was forgotten, gave to Josephine, on this eventful evening, a social triumph corresponding with that which Napoleon had received during the day. She entered the rooms to welcome her guests before her husband. As she made the tour of the apartments, supported by the minister, whose commanding figure towered above all the rest, she was first introduced to the foreign embassadors, and then to others of distinguished name and note. "Napoleon wins battles, but Josephine wins hearts." This was the all-appropriate theater for the triumph of Josephine. Here she was entirely at home. Instinct taught her every thing that was graceful and pleasing. Etiquette, that stern tyrant so necessary for the control of common minds, was compelled to bow in subjection to Josephine, for her actions became a higher law. In the exuberance of benevolent joy, she floated through this brilliant scene, wherever she appeared exciting admiration, though she sought only to diffuse enjoyment.

Josephine was now about thirty-three years of age, and while in personal charms she retained all the fascination of more youthful years, her mind, elevated and ennobled by reverses and sufferings most magnanimously borne, and cultivated by the daily exercise of its rich endowments, enabled her to pass from the circles of fashion to the circles of science, from those who thought only of the accomplishments of the person to those who dwelt in the loftiest regions of the intellect, and to be equally admired by both.

Her figure appears to have been molded into the absolute perfection of the female frame, neither too large for the utmost delicacy of feminine beauty, nor too small for queenly dignity. The exquisite symmetry of her form and the elasticity of her step gave an etherial aspect to her movements. Her features, of Grecian outline, were finely modeled, and through them all the varying emotions of the soul were unceasingly beaming. No one probably ever possessed in a higher degree this resistless charm of feminine loveliness. Her eyes were of a deep blue, and possessed a winning tenderness of expression when reposing upon those she loved which could not be resisted. Napoleon, even when most agitated by the conflicts of his stormy life, was speedily subdued by the tranquilizing power of her looks of love. But the tone and modulations of her voice in conversation constituted the most remarkable attraction of this most attractive woman. No one could listen to her sparkling, flowing, musical words without feeling the fascination of their strange melody. "The first applauses of the French people," says Napoleon, "fell upon my ear sweet as the voice of Josephine."

The rural charms of Malmaison, however, exerted a more powerful sway over both the first consul and his companion than the more splendid attractions of the Tuilleries. The Revolutionary government had abolished the Sabbath, and appointed every tenth day for rest and recreation. Napoleon and Josephine habitually spent this day at Malmaison. There, in the retirement of green fields and luxuriant groves, surrounded by those scenes of nature which had peculiar charms for them both, they found that quiet happiness which is in vain sought amid the turmoil of the camp or the splendor of the court. Josephine, in particular, here found her most serene and joyous hours. She regretted the high ambition of her husband, while, at the same time, she felt a wife's pride and gratification in view of the honors which were so profusely heaped upon him. It delighted her to see him here lay aside the cares of state, and enjoy with her the unostentatious pleasures of the flower-garden and the farm-yard. And when the hour came for them to return from their rural villa to their city palace, Napoleon often said, with a sigh, "Now it is necessary for us to go and put on again the yoke of misery."

The dangers of greatness soon began to hover around the path of the first consul. Josephine was continually alarmed with rumors of conspiracies and plots of assassination. The utter indifference of Napoleon to all such perils, and his entire disregard of all precautionary measures, only increased the anxiety of his wife. The road leading from Paris to Malmaison wound through a wild district, then but thinly inhabited, and which presented many facilities for deeds of violence. Whenever Napoleon was about to traverse this road, Josephine sent the servants of their private establishment to scrutinize all its lurking-places where any foes might be concealed. Napoleon, though gratified by this kind care, often amused and good-naturedly teased Josephine with most ludicrous accounts of the perils and hair-breadth escapes which he had encountered. She also had large and powerful dogs trained to guard the grounds of Malmaison from any intrusion by night.

On the evening of the day when Napoleon made his entry into the Tuilleries, he remarked to Bourrienne, "It is not enough to be in the Tuilleries, we must take measures to remain there. Who has not inhabited this palace? It has been the abode of robbers—of the Convention. There is your brother's house, from which, eight years ago, we saw the good Louis XVI. besieged in the Tuilleries and carried off into captivity. But you need not fear a repetition of the scene. Let them attempt it with me if they dare." To all the cautions of his anxious wife respecting assassination, he ever quietly replied, "My dear Josephine, they dare not do it."