Josephine - John S. C. Abbott

The Release from Prison


The overthrow of Robespierre, and the consequent escape of Josephine from the doom impending over her, was in the following manner most strangely accomplished. The tyranny of Robespierre had become nearly insupportable. Conspiracies were beginning to be formed to attempt his overthrow. A lady of great beauty and celebrity, Madame de Fontenay, was imprisoned with Josephine. M. Tallien, a man of much influence with a new party then rising into power, had conceived a strong attachment for this lady, and, though he could not safely indulge himself in interviews with her in prison, he was in the habit of coming daily to the Convent of the Carmelites that he might have the satisfaction of catching a glimpse of the one he loved through her grated window.

Madame de Fontenay had received secret intelligence that she was soon to be led before the Convention for trial. This she knew to be but the prelude of her execution. That evening M. Tallien appeared as usual before the guarded casement of the Carmelites. Madame de Fontenay and Josephine, arm in arm, leaned against the bars of the window, as if to breathe the fresh evening air, and made a sign to arrest M. Tallien's particular attention. They then dropped from the window a piece of cabbage-leaf, in which Madame de Fontenay had inclosed the following note:

"My trial is decreed—the result is certain. If you love me as you say, urge every means to save France and me."

With intense interest, they watched the motions of M. Tallien until they saw him take the cabbage-leaf from the ground. Roused by the billet to the consciousness of the necessity of immediate action, he proceeded to the Convention, and, with the impassioned energy which love for Madame de Fontenay and hatred of Robespierre inspired, made an energetic and fearless assault upon the tyrant. Robespierre, pale and trembling, saw that his hour had come. A decree of accusation was preferred against him, and the head of the merciless despot fell upon that guillotine where he had already caused so many thousands to perish. The day before Josephine was to have been executed, he was led, mangled and bleeding, to the scaffold. He had attempted to commit suicide. The ball missed its aim, but shattered his jaw. The wretched man ascended the ladder, and stood upon the platform of the guillotine. The executioners tore the bandage from his mangled face, that the linen might not impede the blow of the ax. Their rude treatment of the inflamed wound extorted a cry of agony, which thrilled upon the ear of the assembled crowd, and produced a silence as of the grave. The next moment the slide fell, and the mutilated head was severed from the body. Then the very heavens seemed rent by one long, loud, exulting shout, which proclaimed that Robespierre was no more!

The death of Robespierre arrested the ax which was just about to fall upon the head of Josephine. The first intimation of his overthrow was communicated to her in the following singular manner. Madame d'Aiguillon was weeping bitterly, and sinking down with faintness in view of the bloody death to which her friend was to be led on the morrow. Josephine, whose fortitude had not forsaken her, drew her almost senseless companion to the window, that she might be revived by the fresh air. Her attention was arrested by a woman of the lower orders in the street, who was continually looking up to the window, beckoning to Josephine, and making many very singular gestures. She seemed to desire to call her attention particularly to the robe which she wore, holding it up, and pointing to it again and again. Josephine, through the iron grating, cried out Robe. The woman eagerly gave signs of assent, and immediately took up a stone, which in French is Pierre. Josephine again cried out pierre. The woman appeared overjoyed on perceiving that her pantomime began to be understood. She then put the two together, pointing alternately to the one and to the other. Josephine cried out Robespierre. The woman then began to dance and shout with delight, and made signs of cutting off a head.

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


This pantomime excited emotions in the bosom of Josephine which cannot be described. She hardly dared to believe that the tyrant had actually fallen, and yet she knew not how else to account for the singular conduct of the woman. But a few moments elapsed before a great noise was heard in the corridor of the prison. The turnkey, in loud and fearless tones, cried out to his dog, "Get out, you cursed brute of a Robespierre!" This emphatic phraseology convinced them that the sanguinary monster before whom all France had trembled was no longer to be feared. In a few moments the glad tidings were resounding through the prison, and many were in an instant raised from the abyss of despair to almost a delirium of bliss. Josephine's bed was restored to her, and she placed her head upon her pillow that night, and sank down to the most calm and delightful repose.

No language can describe the transports excited throughout all France by the tidings of the fall of Robespierre. Three hundred thousand captives were then lingering in the prisons of Paris awaiting death. As the glittering steel severed the head of the tyrant from his body, their prison doors burst open, and France was filled with hearts throbbing with ecstasy, and with eyes overflowing with tears of rapture. Five hundred thousand fugitives were trembling in their retreats, apprehensive of arrest. They issued from their hiding-places frantic with joy, and every village witnessed their tears and embraces.

The new party which now came into power with Tallien at its head, immediately liberated those who had been condemned by their opponents, and the prison doors of Josephine were thrown open to her. But from the gloom of her cell she returned to a world still dark and clouded. Her husband had been beheaded, and all his property confiscated. She found herself a widow and penniless. Nearly all of her friends had perished in the storms which had swept over France. The Reign of Terror had passed away, but gaunt famine was staring the nation in the face. They were moments of ecstasy when Josephine, again free, pressed Eugene and Hortense to her heart. But the most serious embarrassments immediately crowded upon her. Poverty, stern and apparently remediless, was her lot. She had no friends upon whom she had any right to call for aid. There was no employment open before her by which she could obtain her subsistence; and it appeared that she and her children were to be reduced to absolute beggary. These were among the darkest hours of her earthly career. It was from this abyss of obscurity and want that she was to be raised to a position of splendor and of power such as the wildest dreams of earthly ambition could hardly have conceived.

Though Robespierre was dead, the strife of rancorous parties raged with unabated violence, and blood flowed freely. The reign of the mob still continued, and it was a mark of patriotism demanded by the clamors of haggard want and degradation to persecute all of noble blood. Young girls from the boarding-schools, and boys just emerging from the period of childhood, were beheaded by the guillotine. "We must exterminate," said Marat, "all the whelps of aristocracy." Josephine trembled for her children. Poverty, and the desire of concealing Eugene among the mass of the people, induced her to apprentice her son to a house-carpenter. For several months Eugene cheerfully and laboriously toiled in this humble occupation. But the sentiments he had imbibed from both father and mother ennobled him, and every day produced new developments of a lofty character, which no circumstances could long depress.

Let such a woman as Josephine, with her cheerful, magnanimous, self-sacrificing, and generous spirit, be left destitute in any place where human beings are congregated, and she will soon inevitably meet with those who will feel honored in securing her friendship and in offering her a home. Every fireside has a welcome for a noble heart. Madame Dumoulin, a lady of great elevation of character, whose large fortune had by some chance escaped the general wreck, invited Josephine to her house, and freely supplied her wants. Madame Fontenay, also, who was a woman of great beauty and accomplishments, soon after her liberation was married to M. Tallien, to whom she had tossed the note, inclosed in a cabbage-leaf, from her prison window. It was this note which had so suddenly secured the overthrow of the tyrant, and had rescued so many from the guillotine. They both became the firm friends of Josephine. Others, also, soon became strongly attracted to her by the loveliness of her character, and were ambitious to supply all her wants.

Through M. Tallien, she urged her claim upon the National Convention for the restoration of her confiscated property. After a long and tedious process, she succeeded in regaining such a portion of her estate as to provide her amply with all the comforts of life. Again she had her own peaceful home, with Eugene and Hortense by her side. Her natural buoyancy of spirits rose superior to the storms which had swept so mercilessly over her, and in the love of her idolized children, and surrounded by the sympathies of appreciative friends, days of serenity, and even of joy, began to shine upon her.

A domestic scene occurred in the dwelling of Josephine on the anniversary of the death of M. Beauharnais peculiarly characteristic of the times and of the French people. Josephine called Eugene to her room, and presented to him a portrait of his father. "Carry it to your chamber, my son," she said, "and often let it be the object of your contemplations. Above all, let him whose image it presents be your constant model. He was the most amiable of men; he would have been the best of fathers."

Eugene was a young man of that enthusiastic genius which is the almost invariable accompaniment of a noble character. His emotions were deeply excited. With the characteristic ardor of his countrymen, he covered the portrait with kisses, and wept freely. Josephine folded her noble boy in her embrace, and they mingled their tears together.

In the evening, as Josephine was sitting alone in her parlor, her son entered, accompanied by six young men, his companions, each decorated with a copy of the portrait of M. Beauharnais suspended from the neck by a black and white ribbon. "You see," said Eugene to his mother, "the founders of a new order of knighthood. Behold our tutelary saint," pointing to the portrait of his father. "And these are the first members." He then introduced his youthful companions to his mother.

"Ours," he continued, "is named the Order of Filial Love; and, if you would witness the first inauguration, pass with these gentlemen into the small drawing-room."

Josephine entered the drawing-room with the youthful group, and found it very tastefully ornamented with garlands of ivy, roses, and laurels. Inscriptions, taken from the printed discourses or remarkable sayings of M. Beauharnais, were suspended upon the walls. Girandoles, with lighted tapers, brilliantly illuminated the room. An altar was erected, hung with festoons of flowers, and upon this altar was placed the full-length portrait of M. Beauharnais. Three crowns of white and red roses were suspended from the picture-frame, and in front were placed two vases with perfumes.

The young gentlemen ranged themselves about the altar in perfect silence, and, at a concerted signal, eagerly unsheathed the swords which they wore at their sides, and, clasping hands, solemnly took the oath, "To love their parents, succor each other, and to defend their country." At this moment, Eugene, unfurling and waving a small banner, with its folds shaded the head of his father. "We then embraced each other," says Josephine, "mingling tears with smiles, and the most amiable disorder succeeded to the ceremonial of inauguration."

The fascination of Josephine's person and address drew multitudes of friends around her, and her society was ever coveted. As time softened the poignancy of her past sorrows, she mingled more and more in the social circles of that metropolis where pleasure and gayety ever reign. The terrible convulsions of the times had thrown the whole fabric of society into confusion. Great efforts were now made to revive the festivities of former days. Two centers of society were naturally established. The first included that in which Josephine moved. It was composed of the remains of the ancient nobility, who had returned to Paris with the fragments of their families and their shattered fortunes. Rigid economy was necessary to keep up any appearance of elegance. But that polish of manners which almost invariably descends from an illustrious ancestry marked all their intercourse. The humiliations through which the nobles had passed had not diminished the exclusiveness of their tastes. The other circle was composed of merchants and bankers who had acquired opulence in the midst of the confiscations and storms of revolution. The passion for display was prominent in all their assemblies, as is necessarily the case with those whose passport to distinction is wealth.

At the theaters and all the places of public festivity, there were presented studied memorials of the scenes of horror through which all had recently passed. One of the most fashionable and brilliant assemblies then known in Paris was called The Ball of the Victims. No one was admitted to this assembly who had not lost some near relative by the guillotine. The most fashionable style of dressing the hair was jocosely called "a la guillotine." The hair was arranged in the manner in which it had been adjusted by the executioner for the unimpeded operation of the ax. And thus, with songs, and dances, and laughter-moving jokes, they commemorated the bloody death of their friends.

A new insurrection by the populace of Paris was at this time planned against the Convention. The exasperated people were again to march upon the Tuilleries. The members were in extreme consternation. The mob could bring tens of thousands against them, well armed with muskets and heavy artillery. There were but five hundred regular troops with which to resist the onset. Menou, the officer in command, acknowledged his inability to meet the crisis, and surrendered his power to Barras. This general immediately, as by a sudden thought, exclaimed, "I know the man who can defend us! He is a little Corsican, who dares do any thing, and is perfectly reckless of consequences!"

The little Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, the day-star of whose fame was just beginning to rise over the smouldering ruins of Toulon, was invited to meet the Convention. His fragile form was almost feminine in its proportions, but an eagle eye calmly reposed in his pallid and emaciate countenance. He had been severely sick, and the Convention looked with amazement and incredulity upon this feeble youth, as the one presented to rescue them from their impending peril.

The president fixed his eye upon him doubtingly, and said, "Are you willing to undertake our defense?"

"Yes!" was the calm, laconic, and almost indifferent reply.

"But are you aware of the magnitude of the undertaking?"

"Fully!" said Napoleon, fixing his piercing eye upon the president; "and I am in the habit of accomplishing that which I undertake."

From that moment his authority was established. Every member of the Convention felt the mysterious fascination of his master mind. Barras surrendered the whole command into his hands. He instantly called into the city all the national forces which were around Paris, and disposed fifty pieces of heavy artillery, under the command of Murat, so as to rake all the avenues to the Convention. His calm and almost superhuman energy sought no repose that night. The delay of but a few moments would have placed this very park of artillery, which secured his victory, in the hands of the insurgents. When the morning dawned, the Tuilleries, as if by magic, had assumed the aspect of a fortified camp. The little Corsican was silently and calmly awaiting the onset, as secure of triumph as if the victory were already achieved.

But in every quarter of Paris, during the night, the insurgents had been mustering their forces, and the mutterings of the approaching storm were dismally echoed through the streets of the metropolis. Above thirty thousand men, all well armed with musketry and artillery, in regular military array, and under experienced generals, came pouring down upon the feeble band which surrounded the Convention.

Will the little Corsican dare to fire upon the people? Will this pale and slender youth, who had hardly yet entered upon the period of manhood, dare to deluge the pavements of Paris with the blood of her own citizens? Will he venture upon a conflict so unequal, when failure is his certain death?

Napoleon, with his colorless cheek, his flashing eye, and his air of mysterious melancholy, stood in silence, as the gathering thousands crowded down upon him. He offered no parley; he uttered not a word of warning; he condescended to no threats. The insurgents, believing that he would not dare to fire upon them, advanced within fifty yards of his masked battery, when he opened his columns, and, in the roar of artillery shotted to the muzzle, the voice of Napoleon was for the first time heard in the streets of Paris. The thunder of his tones was preceded by the lightning's bolt. The merciless storm of grape-shot, sweeping the streets, covered the ground with the dead and the dying. No mortal could withstand such a conflict. The advancing foe wavered for an instant, and then, in the utmost consternation, took to flight. Napoleon commanded immediately the most rapid discharge of blank cartridges. Peal upon peal, their loud reverberations deafened the city, and added wings to the flight of the terror-stricken crowd. But a few moments elapsed ere not even a straggler could be seen in the deserted streets. The little Corsican, pale and calm, stood, with folded arms, as unperturbed as if no event of any moment had occurred. During the whole day, however, the conflict continued in different parts of the city, but before nightfall the insurgents were every where entirely discomfited.

Paris was now filled with the name of Napoleon. Some regarded him as a savior, protecting the Convention; others considered him a demon, deluging the capital with blood. One evening, Josephine was visiting at the house of a friend, and sitting by a window examining some beautiful violets, when Bonaparte was announced. Josephine had never yet met him, though, of course, she had heard much of one whose rising fame filled the metropolis.

She says that she trembled violently at the announcement of his name. His entrance seemed to excite general interest, and all eyes were turned toward him, though most of the company regarded him in silence. He approached Josephine, and the subject of the recent conflict in the streets of Paris was introduced.

"It seems to me," said Josephine, "that it is only with regret that we should think of the consternation you have spread through the capital. It is a frightful service you have performed."

"It is very possible," he replied. "The military are only automata, to which the government gives such motions as it pleases. They have no duty but to obey. Besides, I wished to teach the Parisians a little lesson. This is my seal which I have set upon France."

This he said in such calm, quiet, imperturbable tones, so expressive of his perfect confidence in himself, and of his indifference to the opinions of others, that Josephine was quite piqued, and replied politely, but yet in a manner which indicated her displeasure.

"These light skirmishes," the young general rejoined, "are but the first coruscations of my glory."

"If you are to acquire glory at such a price," Josephine answered, "I would much rather count you among the victims."

Such was the first interview between Josephine and Napoleon. It was merely a casual meeting in an evening party between a widow, graceful and beautiful, and a young man of boundless ambition. Though Josephine was not pleased with Napoleon, he produced a very profound impression upon her mind. Napoleon, being now in command of the troops in Paris, by order of the Convention, executed the very unpopular office of disarming the populace. In the performance of this order, the sword of M. Beauharnais was taken. The next day, Eugene, who was then a boy twelve years of age, of exceedingly prepossessing appearance, presented himself before Napoleon, and implored the return of the sword which had belonged to his father. Napoleon was deeply interested in the frankness and the fervor of emotion manifested by the lad, and immediately complied with his request. Josephine called upon him the next day to thank him for his kindness to her son. He was at this interview as deeply impressed by the fascinations of the mother as he had previously been struck by the noble bearing of the child. After this they frequently met, and Josephine could not be blind to the interest with which she was regarded by Napoleon. Situated as he then was, it was social elevation to him to be united with Madame de Beauharnais, and her rank, and influence, and troops of friends would greatly aid him in his ambitious plans. It is also unquestionably true that Napoleon formed a very strong attachment for Josephine. Indeed, she was the only person whom he ever truly loved. That he did love her at times most passionately there can be no doubt.

Josephine, however, had many misgivings respecting the expediency of the union. She stated to her friends that he was the most fascinating man that she had ever met; that she admired his courage, the quickness of his judgment, the extent of his information. She, however, confessed that she did not really love him—that she stood in awe of him. "His searching glance," she says, "mysterious and inexplicable, imposes even upon our Directors—judge if it may not intimidate a woman."

"Being now past the heyday of youth," she writes in a letter to a friend, "can I hope long to preserve that ardor of attachment which, in the general, resembles a fit of delirium? If, after our union, he should cease to love me, will he not reproach me with what he will have sacrificed for my sake? Will he not regret a more brilliant marriage which he might have contracted? What shall I then reply? What shall I do? I shall weep. Excellent resource! you will say. Alas! I know that all this can serve no end; but it has ever been thus; tears are the only resource left me when this poor heart, so easily chilled, has suffered. Write quickly, and do not fear to scold me, should you judge that I am wrong. You know that whatever comes from your pen will be taken in good part.

"Barras gives assurance that if I marry the general, he will so contrive as to have him appointed to the command of the army of Italy. Yesterday, Bonaparte, speaking of this favor, which already excites murmuring among his fellow-soldiers, though it be as yet only a promise, said to me, 'Think they, then, I have need of their protection to arrive at power? Egregious mistake! They will all be but too happy one day should I grant them mine. My sword is by my side, and with it I will go far.'

"What say you to this security of success? Is it not a proof of confidence springing from an excess of vanity? A general of brigade protect the heads of government! that, truly, is an event highly probable! I know not how it is, but sometimes this waywardness gains upon me to such a degree that almost I believe possible whatever this singular man may take it in his head to attempt; and, with his imagination, who can calculate what he will not undertake?"

It was now winter. The storm of Revolution had partially subsided. The times were, however, full of agitation and peril. Europe was in arms against France. There was no stable government and no respected laws. The ambitious young general consecrated his days with sleepless energy to his public duties, but each evening he devoted to Josephine. Napoleon never manifested any taste for those dissipating pleasures which attract and ruin so many young men. He had no moral principles which pronounced such indulgences wrong, but the grandeur of his ambition absorbed all his energies. He was, even at that time, a hard student. He was never more happy than when alone with Josephine, engaged in conversation or reading. His attachment for Josephine became very ardent and passionate. The female character at this time, in France, was far from high. Napoleon had but little respect for ladies in general. The circumstances of his life had led him to form a low estimate of the sex. He often said that all the rest of the sex were nothing compared with Josephine. He frequently gave public breakfasts to his friends, at which Josephine universally presided, though other ladies were invited.

In the pleasant mansion of Josephine, Napoleon was in the habit of meeting a small circle of select friends, who were strongly attached to Josephine, and who were able, and for her sake were willing to promote his interests. Napoleon was a man of strong affections, but of stronger ambition. Josephine was entirely satisfied with the singleness and the ardor of his love. She sometimes trembled in view of its violence. She often remarked to her friends that he was incomparably the most fascinating man she had ever met. All have equally attested Napoleon's unrivaled powers of pleasing, whenever it suited his purpose to make the effort. The winter thus rapidly and pleasantly passed away.