Eugenie - Empress of the French - George Upton

The Youth of Eugenie

At the beginning of the last century there dwelt in the city of Malaga in Spain a merchant named Kirkpatrick. Although descended from a Scotch family of distinction that had been forced by the fall of the Stuarts to flee their native land, this later scion of the race earned his livelihood by the sale of wines which he dispensed with his own hand in a room at the rear of his shop. The business prospered and he became a rich man, exporting large quantities of Spanish wines to foreign countries; but he still kept his wine-room in Malaga, assisted by his four daughters, who did much to attract custom.

The lofty family traditions of the Kirkpatricks of Closeburn could scarcely have been expected to be remembered amid the practical duties of the merchant's busy life, but his beautiful daughters were by no means unaware of their high descent nor without hope of elevating themselves once more to the rank of their ancestors. Of the four sisters, Manuela, the third, was the most aspiring as well as the most beautiful. Even when busy serving wine and chatting gayly with the gentlemen who frequented her father's wine-room, her mind was constantly dwelling on the traditions of her house, and in the glories of the past she forgot the sordid surroundings of the present. Although a true daughter of the soil from which she sprang, Manuela was very different from the ordinary Spanish girl, who is often indolent and ignorant; for with her Scotch blood she inherited the energy without which her dreams and ambitions could never have been realized. Determined to rise in the world, and with nothing but herself and her beauty to depend upon, she decided that only a brilliant marriage could accomplish her ends; and to achieve this she was ready to use any means or make any sacrifice.

Among the officers stationed at that time in Malaga, most of whom were frequent patrons of Kirkpatrick's wine-room, was a colonel of artillery in the Spanish army, Count Manuel Fernandez de Teba. No longer young, and far from attractive in person, having lost an eye, and being very short-sighted besides, he was little fitted to awaken tender sentiments in the fair sex; but Manuela was not to be daunted by this. His heart seemed a citadel not too difficult of conquest, and without regard to his appearance she devoted herself to the study of his antecedents. The result of these genealogical researches exceeded her fondest hopes, for they proved that the bluest blood of Spain flowed in Count Teba's veins. He was descended from the noble Genoese family of Porto-Carrero, which, emigrating to Estremadura in the fourteenth century, had secured by marriage the right to bear some of the most illustrious names of Spain as well as the heirship to the joint estates of Teba, Banos, and Mora. He was the second son, it is true, but his elder brother was unmarried; and if she united her future with his, the ambitious maiden could reckon with some security on attaining in time the rank and position to which she aspired.

Her father's increasing prosperity, no less than her own remarkable beauty, caused many younger and handsomer suitors to lay their homage at Manuela's feet, but however favored any one of these may have believed himself, he was now cast remorselessly aside. Her course once decided on, she lost not a moment in setting her hand to the work. She showed Count Teba the most delicate attentions, the most flattering deference; for him were reserved her sweetest smiles, her tenderest glances, until at last the credulous nobleman's admiration kindled into passion, and without even consulting his family, Manuel Fernandez, afterwards Count de Montijo and Duke de Peneranda, married Maria Manuela, daughter of the wine-merchant Kirkpatrick. The young Countess at once set up an establishment on the grandest scale. Her salons became the resort of the richest and most distinguished officers, and she charmed every one with her hospitality, her beauty, and her wit.

While she was enjoying her triumph to the full, however, evil tongues were soon busy over the free and easy tone said to prevail in the home of the worthy pair—a rumor that quickly found its way to the Count de Montijo. From the first he had strongly disapproved of his brother's unsuitable marriage, and, indignant at the gossip caused by his sister-in-law's behavior,' he determined to prevent their becoming his heirs, by making a marriage himself in his old age. Manuela was seized with fury at this news; but prudence soon gained the upper hand, and instead of sulkily avoiding her new relatives she made every effort to win their approval, a course that was the less difficult for her to pursue, as, to her secret joy, the marriage remained childless. Tired of living in her native place where she was constantly reminded of her humble origin, she finally persuaded her husband to leave Malaga; and with their little daughter Francisca Theresa they moved to Granada, where the Count's brother had his residence. There, on the fifth of May, 18z6, the future Empress of the French, Maria Eugenie, was born—the same day of the same month on which Napoleon the Great had died.

Eugenie's mother was a perfect woman of the world. Brilliant and clever and mistress of the art of conversation, she far surpassed the ordinary Spanish woman in intellect as well as wit. It was not strange, therefore, that with all these charms at her command she had succeeded in winning over her brother-in-law and sister-in-law, and establishing herself in their favor; so that Count Teba's family soon became welcome guests at all the Montijo entertainments, where they were received with the utmost courtesy and respect. But even this did not satisfy Manuela. She longed for a life of more freedom and unrestraint, and to climb yet higher in the ranks of society. Her ambition was destined to be fulfilled, for before many years had passed Count Teba stood beside the bier of his childless brother; and his wife now persuaded him to take up his residence in Madrid.

The domestic life of Eugenie's parents had never been a harmonious one. Her mother's extravagance and coquetry, together with the jealous and violent temper of her father, soon banished the genius of peace from the household; and their quarrels were the more frequent and bitter from the Countess's lack of any real affection for her husband. Matters grew even worse after their arrival in the capital, for Manuela gave herself up entirely to intrigues and made her husband's life miserable. Here, too, she was prompted less by passion than by ambition, since it was through her connection with influential persons that she hoped to obtain a position at court. Among the many she attracted to her house was General Narvaez, at that time the most powerful man in Spain. At his intercession, the wine-merchant's daughter was made first lady-in-waiting to the youthful Queen Isabella. This coveted post she could no doubt have easily retained had she not allowed her passions for once to gain the upper hand. A young Italian for whom she had a fondness disappeared one fine day with all her jewels; and on this occasion she so far overstepped the bounds permissible even at the Spanish court that it was intimated to her she would do well to leave Madrid.

While their mother was thus coquetting and intriguing at court, Eugenie and her sister, two years older than herself, had been left at the Sacred Heart Convent in Paris. The Countess now took the two girls away with her, and, leaving her husband in Madrid, began a pleasant life of travel, dividing her time between London, Paris, and the fashionable watering-places, everywhere gathering about her a circle of friends and adorers, many of them men distinguished in the world of art and learning,—although the greater part of her admirers belonged to that class which lives in enjoyment of the present, preferring the pleasures of the senses to those of the mind. Over her young daughters' acquaintances and associates, however, she kept a close watch; whatever her own indiscretions may have been during this period, she carefully guarded their innocence from all evil influences. She neglected no opportunities for improving their minds, and it was then that the foundations were laid of that excellent education which no one ever ventured to deny the Empress Eugenie.

It was impossible for the careful mother not to perceive the attention excited wherever they went by her younger daughter's beauty, her regular features, exquisite coloring, large clear eyes, and wonderful golden hair; and while she little dreamed that Eugenie was destined to become the sovereign of a great European nation, with justifiable maternal pride she began to hope that her child might rise to even greater rank than she herself had attained. To pave the way to this good fortune, the Countess Montijo made another attempt to regain her position at court, but met with a prompt refusal. Narvaez, however, who was still in power, took her under his protection without more ado; and on the death of her husband, in 1839, she determined to return to Madrid, where, at the expiration of her period of mourning, the handsome widow accordingly appeared, accompanied by her still more lovely daughters, Francisca, at that time seventeen years old, and Eugenie, fifteen. The sisters were a complete contrast to each other though equally beautiful. The elder was darker and more slender, and her features were softer than Eugenie's, though her face had less character.

Through the zeal and influence of Narvaez and their mother's prudence and perseverance, the Queen was finally induced to take the young girls into her court, but their position there was by no means an enviable one. As daughters of a woman who in spite of her personal attractions was well known to have led an irregular life, they were looked upon with general suspicion; and as they constantly appeared with this mother in society, it was only natural that members of their own sex should hold aloof from them, while the men redoubled their attentions in consequence. The Countess Montijo was shrewd enough to see that she must proceed with caution if she wished her plans realized; therefore, to protect her daughters from the reefs on which her own reputation had been wrecked, she kept all undesirable cavaliers at a respectful distance. Among all those who sought the young Countesses' favor there was only one she considered worthy to occupy the position of her son-in-law, the Duke of Berwick and Alva; him she encouraged in every way, permitting him to ride and drive with her daughters and accompany them to the theatre, giving him an intimate footing in the family. His companionship was a source of delight to both sisters, and he soon became the centre of their thoughts, possessing as he did the art of making himself so agreeable to both that each one fancied herself the object of his preference.

Eugenie adored Alva with all the intensity of a first love, endowing him with all the loftiest and most noble qualities; and, worshipping this image created by her fancy, believed herself loved in return. The mother, however, more experienced in the faithlessness of man, began to suspect that he had no intention of choosing either daughter as a companion for life; accordingly she set before him, when he came one day to call, the serious alternative of declaring himself or severing all intercourse with the family; to which ultimatum the Duke replied by requesting the hand of the elder. When Francisca, radiant with joy, hastened to her sister's room to announce the great news she found her in bed. At first she thought her asleep, but on coming closer discovered to her horror that Eugenie's eyes were fixed and staring, her forehead covered with beads of moisture, her features drawn and convulsed—she had taken poison! Francisca's screams of distress quickly brought her mother and the maid to the scene. A physician was summoned, and Eugenie was restored to consciousness. A long and serious illness followed. In her delirious ravings she betrayed the fact that, hidden behind a door, she had overheard the Duke's avowal and in despair had tried to end her life. Her recovery was slow and tedious. Even after she had been pronounced out of danger, her nervous system showed traces of the shock in a slight trembling, a nervous quiver of the eyelids, that never entirely left her. The sudden attacks of depression, the fits of weeping that sometimes seized her in after years, even in the midst of some festivity, may also be ascribed to the effects of the poison taken in her youth.

Still deeper were the traces left on the young girl's character by this unhappy experience. Though taught by pride to conquer her love for the husband of her sister, she was forced to be a daily witness of that sister's happiness and to endure the pity with which she was universally regarded, added to which was the galling conviction that the Duke himself suspected her secret. The once shy and modest maiden became a bold, forward coquette, striving to forget her sufferings in a whirl of pleasure and amusement, craving admiration, ambitious and frivolous. As a child she had always preferred boys' sports to the usual occupations of girls, and excelled in riding, swimming, and fencing. Now she might be seen any afternoon galloping bareback through the streets of Madrid, smoking a cigar or a cigarette. She devised all sorts of fanciful costumes that only she could wear, often appearing in the Andalusian national dress. She was a frequent visitor at the theatre and all public places of amusement, and had a passion for bull-fights. One of the toreadors, for whom she embroidered a splendid cloak, was her declared lover. She rarely missed one of these gory festivals; and, seated on the lowest tier among the most enthusiastic spectators, in her Andalusian costume, she was always the centre of attraction. The womanly modesty that had made Eugenie so charming in her early girlhood had vanished, but she was even more beautiful and fascinating. She was surrounded by admirers, and encouraged the addresses of dukes and princes till her coquetries aroused the jealousy of the Queen. But no one paid court to her seriously. Suitors were naturally shy of choosing a wife who often appeared in masculine attire, who wore the most startling and conspicuous bathing costumes to excite admiration while in the water, and whose hand was as familiar with riding-whip and stiletto as with fan or bouquet.

In spite of her many extravagances, however, Eugenie's youth was marked by a gay thoughtlessness and daring that were most attractive. Her self-reliant nature could brook no restraint. She scorned prudence and yielded rashly to every impulse. The attention she attracted could not fail to furnish food for gossip, and malicious tongues were soon busy with her reputation—a fact which did not deter her in the least from pursuing her fondness for adventure. This indifference to public opinion also led her, unfortunately, to defy custom and snap her fingers at the strict etiquette prescribed at court. At last she went out alone one evening with one of the young pages for a long walk. Whispers of this romantic promenade soon reached the cars of Queen Isabella, who, though setting the worst possible example herself in regard to morals, insisted on the strictest propriety in the behavior of her ladies; and both culprits were summarily dismissed from her service.

Like all Spanish girls, Eugenie had been brought up from her earliest years a devout Catholic, with the deepest reverence for the Pope and the Roman religion, a devotion that in time became almost fanaticism and furnished her enemies with a weapon of attack against which she was powerless to defend herself. After her dismissal from court she began to reflect on the difference between a religious life and one of idle pleasure. While at the convent, the contrast between the unselfish devotion of the nuns and the atmosphere of her parents' disordered household made a deep impression on the young girl's mind, and the Church seemed a blissful refuge from the storms of life. Now—feeling more and more conscious of the void within her—a passion for religion seized her, a longing to escape from the world of lies and slander in which she lived, into a purer atmosphere, a new field of activity. The Church held out its arms to her, and in them she determined to seek relief and to find strength to devote her life to the poor and suffering. It is said that when Eugenie went to the convent prepared to take the vows, an old half-witted nun approached, gazed at her with dull, vacant eyes, and suddenly exclaimed, "My daughter, do not seek shelter behind our walls. You are destined to adorn a throne!"

In her state of religious ecstasy these words could not fail to impress Eugenie deeply. It seemed a voice from heaven, speaking to her through the nun and consecrating her to the world. The Countess Montijo, too, did all she could to strengthen her daughter in this conviction, and persuaded her at length, instead of burying herself in a cloister, to travel abroad with her again.