Eugenie - Empress of the French - George Upton

Death of Prince Imperial

Eugenie's grief at her husband's death was deep and sincere. Over his bier she wept far bitterer tears than those she had shed during those dreadful days following her flight from the capital. Indeed she was so prostrated as to be unable to appear at the funeral. Human nature is elastic, however, and it was never the Empress's way to fold her hands and brood over her troubles. She found one source of consolation, moreover, in the constant proofs of attachment that reached her, not only from the friends that had remained faithful to her through all the changes of fortune, but also from many others who had long seemed to have forgotten their vows of allegiance.

As death had removed all possibility of the restoration of Napoleon the Third to the throne, his old adherents rallied to the support of his son; and as there was still a large Bonapartist party in France, it seemed not improbable that with the exercise of courage and patience the Empire might one day be revived. In 1873, by uniting with the Legitimists and Orleanists, they succeeded in deposing Tiers, who had been President of the Republic since 1871, and electing Marshal MacMahon in his place, a change greatly to the advantage of the Bonapartists, who now entered the political arena once more as a regular party.

In the Autumn of 1872 the Prince Imperial entered the military academy at Woolwich, where he studied hard and made gratifying progress; and on the death of his father he was generally recognized as heir to the imperial throne, in spite of all the efforts made by his cousin Napoleon to prevent it. Eugenie now lived only in this son and his future; no stone was left unturned to smooth his pathway to the throne. As yet he had a hard struggle before him; but her faith in his ultimate victory was supreme; and supported by ex-Minister Rouher, the leader of the Bonapartists, then as ever one of Eugenie's stanchest friends, she carefully but firmly gathered up the threads by which she hoped to guide the course of events.

On the seventh of February, 1875, the Prince passed the required examinations and left Woolwich with an officer's commission. He had developed greatly in every respect, to his mother's joy and the pride of his party, whose hopes were now fixed on him. His amiability and charm of manner won him friends wherever he went. Unlike his father, he objected strongly to any radical measures or political agitation of any sort, and hoped to recover what he considered his rightful crown by the natural allegiance of France. Besides her political ambitions for her son, Eugenie was anxious also to arrange a suitable marriage for him; but in this she was disappointed. The wooing of Napoleon the Fourth met with the same fate as that of his father. There were repeated rumors of a betrothal between him and Queen Victoria's youngest daughter, Beatrice, who is said to have cherished a warmer feeling than friendship for the exiled Prince; but, deep as was the sympathy felt for him by the English royal house, and true a friend as Victoria had proved herself, to entrust her daughter's fate to young Napoleon seemed to her a trifle too uncertain. When this plan failed, Eugenie fixed her hopes on the Princess Thyra of Denmark; and in 1878 the Prince made a visit to that country to try his fortune with the Danish court; but here, too, he was rejected as a suitor.

The Bonapartists now felt that to have any serious hope of gaining the French crown the Prince must" first win his laurels as a soldier; they urged him, therefore, to join the English army, which was about to go to war with the Kaffirs of Zulu. Much as she desired to see her son seated on the throne, Eugenie shrank from this method of achieving i t; but the Prince fell in at once with the suggestion, and unmoved by his mother's attempts to dissuade him, sailed for Africa with the English troops, leaving a message of farewell to his followers.

On the ninth of April, 1879, he arrived at the headquarters of the commander-in-chief, Lord Chelmsford, and took part in several actions with great spirit and courage. In May, while he was on a reconnoitring expedition in the neighborhood of Itelezi with a fellow officer and several men, the party was suddenly surprised by a band of Zulus who sprang out from behind an ambuscade. Abandoned by his companions, who fled to save themselves, the Prince held out bravely as long as he could, but at length one of the savages dealt him a fatal blow, and he fell, his body pierced with seventeen spears. The Military Gazette, in which the young Prince received honorable mention, says:

"Thus did an inscrutable fate grant to him what it cruelly denied both his father and the great founder of their race—to fall in battle, bravely fighting against the foe."

The death of the Prince Imperial created the profoundest sensation. As soon as the news reached England, Colonel Sidney, an old friend of the family, was sent to break it to the Empress, but before he could get to Chiselhurst she had already heard of it. That morning all newspapers and telegrams had been carefully withheld from her, but her letters were overlooked. One of these was doubly addressed, to her and to Secretary Pietri, and contained an allusion to "the dreadful news" without mentioning what it was. She sent at once for the Duke of Bassano to ask for an explanation; and when he arrived speechless with emotion, she suspected that it concerned the Prince. Chilled with fear at what she read in his countenance, she stood as if turned to stone. That son, for whom she longed day and night, her only joy in life! The thought was so terrible, Eugenie could not pursue it to the end.

"Something has happened to my son," she groaned; "I must start at once for the Cape."

Unable to reply, the Duke went out into the hall, where he met Colonel Sidney, who brought confirmation of the sad tidings. The Empress sent again for the Duke and insisted upon hearing all, repeating that she should go to Africa at once.

"Alas! madame," said the Duke, "it is too late." "Oh, my son—my poor son!" shrieked the mother, and fell senseless to the floor.

After the first paroxysm of grief was over, she neither wept nor spoke, but listened with feverish despair while the Duke related all the circumstances of her son's death, not withholding a single painful detail. Madame Lebreton then led her gently into her bedchamber where the Abbe Goddard tried to comfort her. But the religion that had been such a source of support to her through all her troubles now proved of little consolation. Her whole life had been bound up in her child, and now that this last earthly support had crumbled, all hope and joy lay buried in the dust. For several days and nights she neither ate nor slept, but remained sunk in a sort of torpor from which she roused only to ask in tones of agonized pleading if it might not be that her son was only ill or wounded, and she could go out to nurse him back to health. Fortunately for her life or reason, she at last found relief in tears, and now she wept unceasingly.

The whole world shared the stricken mother's sorrow, and thousands of messages of sympathy were received at Chiselhurst. Telegrams of condolence came from all the courts of Europe, as well as from President Grevy of the French Republic, Marshal MacMahon, and many others. Requiem masses were held in every Roman Catholic church in London. Especial sympathy was felt for her in Spain, but the consolation of weeping out her grief on a mother's bosom was denied her, as the Countess Montijo was then so old and feeble it was thought best not to inform her of her grandson's death.

Republican, not to say radical, as the French capital was at that time, the death of the Prince Imperial caused general consternation. The Empire was still fresh in the minds of all. At the birth of the Emperor's son innumerable prayers had been offered for both mother and child. Step by step the affections of the gay Parisians followed the little Prince, and when at the age of three he rode with his mother to Notre Dame to the thanksgiving services for the victory of Solferino, the state coach was scarcely able to make its way through the admiring and enthusiastic throngs. Since that day the Napoleonic dynasty had suffered many reverses. The Empress, once the pride and glory of her subjects, was an exile, surrounded by only a few friends, and living in comparative poverty. Now she had suffered the last and heaviest blow of fate in the loss of her only child. Yet many more hearts went out to Eugenie in this hour of trial than in the days of her prosperity. Great and small, rich and poor, friend and foe, united in heart felt sympathy for the grief-stricken mother. But it was a grief that was beyond consolation. She had done with life. "All is finished," were the words she constantly repeated, and sobbing aloud would bury her face in her hands to shut out the awful vision that was always before her—the body of her son pierced with cruel spear-wounds.

When the remains of the Prince Imperial, which had been sent back to England under a military escort, were borne into the hall at Camden House by some of his former comrades at Woolwich, a single cry of anguish escaped the Empress, but she did not shed a tear. All night she remained on her knees in prayer beside the coffin; at dawn, when the flame of the wax tapers began to pale in the growing light, she heard mass, after which she shut herself closely in her own room and did not leave it again till after the funeral services were over.

The burial of Napoleon the Third had been only the usual drama enacted in every family when a beloved one is laid to his last rest, but that of the Prince Imperial was a scene that touched even the coldest and most indifferent, and excited world-wide interest. At the Emperor's death, despite their grief, the mourners had looked with hope and confidence toward his son; now this last hope had vanished, and tears were seen even on the cheeks of grizzled veterans. Where hundreds had accompanied the father's remains to their resting-place, the son's bier was followed by thousands of every rank and station.

Early in the morning of the day of the funeral, July 12, Queen Victoria arrived at Camden House with her daughters Alice and Beatrice, and with her own hands laid a laurel wreath of gold upon the coffin. Many other royal and distinguished personages followed, and the expression of genuine sorrow visible on every face lent an air of remarkable solemnity to the occasion. The Archbishop of Southwark performed the burial rites for which some of the most famous opera singers had proffered their services. Those of Madame Caters and Christine Nilsson were accepted; but the latter, some of whose happiest memories were associated with the palmy days of the Empire, and who had then considered it her highest honor to sing before the now broken-hearted Empress, was for the first time unequal to her task. Her voice failed, and she burst into tears.

Broken by mental and physical suffering, the ex-Empress Eugenie still lives on, awaiting the moment of release that shall reunite her with those dearest to her on earth. She made a pilgrimage to Zululand to see the spot where her son met his death. She has frequented various watering-places seeking relief from the physical infirmities from which she suffers. She visits many hospitals and charitable institutions to minister to the sick and wounded; yet these acts of mercy serve only to revive her sorrows, and emphasize the void in her lonely life.

From Chiselhurst, which held so many painful memories, she moved to Farnborough, whither she also had the bodies of the Emperor and the Prince Imperial conveyed. With the Queen of England Eugenie enjoyed the same close friendship as in earlier years, and until the time of Victoria's death she was a frequent visitor at Windsor, although she never appeared at any Court festivities. She still receives frequent proofs of loyalty from France, and every year on her birthday she is overwhelmed with flowers and good wishes. Yet nothing can rouse her from her melancholy. Whole days and nights she sits brooding over the past, haunted by faces and presentiments of death. At one time her attendants even found it necessary to remove all the portraits of her husband and son in order to preserve her reason.

A sad change has also taken place in her appearance. Portraits of her in the early days of her widowhood show a still attractive figure whose unhappy fate is suggested only by her mourning and the lines about the eyes. But years such as she has since experienced count heavily. Her hair is now snowy white. The slender figure is bowed with age and grief. Scarce a trace is left of her wonderful charm and fascination, and in the pale mourner with sunken eyes and faltering step there is no longer the faintest resemblance to the once beautiful and splendor-loving Empress.

What a contrast, alas! between her youth and her age! In the one, a triumphant goddess, soaring from victory to victory, a sovereign tried by many disappointments and disillusionments indeed, yet never disheartened, never harboring bitterness or resentment in her heart: in the other, a broken and grief-stricken woman, weighed down with sorrows for which time brings no consolation, and whose thoughts are ever with her beloved dead.

The historian of the future, undazzled by the glittering splendor of the Second Empire, and unbiased by sympathy for the unfortunate widow and mother, will scarcely judge the Empress Eugenie as leniently as the critic of to-day, yet more fairly than those of her own realm who have tried to blacken her reputation by calumny. He will find palliation for her faults, not so much because they were the result of her origin and training as because they were more than counterbalanced by her better qualities, especially her warm-heartedness and dauntless courage. He will also recognize that, as the wife of a usurper, she was beset with complications to which a born princess would not have been exposed, and that, taking all things into consideration, she filled that difficult position with credit to herself and France.