At this unexpected announcement Talleyrand and Berthier looked at each othe_n silence, and for once the trained features of the great diplomatist, wh_ived behind a mask, betrayed the fact that he was still capable of emotion.
The spasm which passed over them was caused, however, rather by mischievou_musement than by consternation, while Berthier—who had an honest affectio_or both Napoleon and Josephine— ran frantically to the door as if to bar th_mpress from entering. Constant rushed towards the curtains which screened th_mperor's room, and then, losing courage, although he was known to be a stout- hearted man, he came running back to Talleyrand for advice. It was too lat_ow, however, for Roustem the Mameluke had opened the door, and two ladies ha_ntered the room. The first was tall and graceful, with a smiling face, and a_ffable though dignified manner. She was dressed in a black velvet cloak wit_hite lace at the neck and sleeves, and she wore a black hat with a curlin_hite feather. Her companion was shorter, with a countenance which would hav_een plain had it not been for the alert expression and large dark eyes, whic_ave it charm and character. A small black terrier dog had followed them in, but the first lady turned and handed the thin steel chain with which she le_t to the Mameluke attendant.
'You had better keep Fortune outside, Roustem,' said she, in a peculiarl_weet musical voice. 'The Emperor is not very fond of dogs, and if we intrud_pon his quarters we cannot do less than consult his tastes. Good evening, Monsieur de Talleyrand! Madame de Remusat and I have driven all along th_liffs, and we have stopped as we passed to know if the Emperor is coming t_ont de Briques. But perhaps he has already started. I had expected to fin_im here.'
'His Imperial Majesty was here a short time ago,' said Talleyrand, bowing an_ubbing his hands.
'I hold my _salon_—such a _salon_ as Pont de Briques is capable of— thi_vening, and the Emperor promised me that he would set his work aside fo_nce, and favour us with his presence. I wish we could persuade him to wor_ess, Monsieur de Talleyrand. He has a frame of iron, but he cannot continu_n this way. These nervous attacks come more frequently upon him. He wil_nsist upon doing everything, everything himself. It is noble, but it is to b_ martyr. I have no doubt that at the present moment—but you have not yet tol_e where he is, Monsieur de Talleyrand.'
'We expect him every instant, your Majesty.'
'In that case we shall sit down and await his return. Ah, Monsieur de Meneval, how I pity you when I see you among all those papers! I was desolate whe_onsieur de Bourrienne deserted the Emperor, but you have more than taken hi_lace. Come up to the fire, Madame de Remusat! Yes, yes, I insist upon it, fo_ know that you must be cold. Constant, come and put the rug under Madame d_emusat's feet.'
It was by little acts of thoughtfulness and kindness like this that th_mpress so endeared herself that she had really no enemies in France, eve_mong those who were most bitterly opposed to her husband. Whether as th_onsort of the first man in Europe, or as the lonely divorced woman eating he_eart out at Malmaison, she was always praised and beloved by those who kne_er. Of all the sacrifices which the Emperor ever made to his ambition that o_is wife was the one which cost him the greatest struggle and the keenes_egret.
Now as she sat before the fire in the same chair which had so recently bee_ccupied by the Emperor; I had an opportunity of studying this person, whos_trange fate had raised her from being the daughter of a lieutenant o_rtillery to the first position among the women of Europe. She was six year_lder than Napoleon, and on this occasion, when I saw her first, she was i_er forty-second year; but at a little distance or in a discreet light, it wa_o courtier's flattery to say that she might very well have passed for thirty.
Her tall, elegant figure was girlish in its supple slimness, and she had a_asy and natural grace in every movement, which she inherited with he_ropical West Indian blood. Her features were delicate, and I have heard tha_n her youth she was strikingly beautiful; but, like most Creole women, sh_ad become _passee_ in early middle age. She had made a brave fight, however—with art as her ally—against the attacks of time, and her success ha_een such that when she sat aloof upon a dais or drove past in a procession, she might still pass as a lovely woman. In a small room, however, or in a goo_ight, the crude pinks and whites with which she had concealed her sallo_heeks became painfully harsh and artificial. Her own natural beauty, however, still lingered in that last refuge of beauty— the eyes, which were large, dark, and sympathetic. Her mouth, too, was small and amiable, and her mos_requent expression was a smile, which seldom broadened into a laugh, as sh_ad her own reasons for preferring that her teeth should not be seen. As t_er bearing, it was so dignified, that if this little West Indian had com_traight from the loins of Charlemagne, it could not have been improved upon.
Her walk, her glance, the sweep of her dress, the wave of her hand—they ha_ll the happiest mixture of the sweetness of a woman and the condescension o_ queen. I watched her with admiration as she leaned forward, picking littl_ieces of aromatic aloes wood out of the basket and throwing them on to th_ire.
'Napoleon likes the smell of burning aloes,' said she. 'There was never anyon_ho had such a nose as he, for he can detect things which are quite hidde_rom me.'
'The Emperor has an excellent nose for many things,' said Talleyrand. 'Th_tate contractors have found that out to their cost.'
'Oh, it is dreadful when he comes to examine accounts-dreadful, Monsieur d_alleyrand! Nothing escapes him. He will make no allowances. Everything mus_e exact. But who is this young gentleman, Monsieur de Talleyrand? I do no_hink that he has been presented to me.'
The minister explained in a few words that I had been received into th_mperor's personal service, and Josephine congratulated me upon it with th_ost kindly sympathy.
'It eases my mind so to know that he has brave and loyal men round him. Eve_ince that dreadful affair of the infernal machine I have always been uneas_f he is away from me. He is really safest in time of war, for it is only the_hat he is away from the assassins who hate him. And now I understand that _ew Jacobin plot has only just been discovered.'
'This is the same Monsieur de Laval who was there when the conspirator wa_aken,' said Talleyrand.
The Empress overwhelmed me with questions, hardly waiting for the answers i_er anxiety.
'But this dreadful man Toussac has not been taken yet,' she cried. 'Have I no_eard that a young lady is endeavouring to do what has baffled the secre_olice, and that the freedom of her lover is to be the reward of her success?'
'She is my cousin, your Imperial Majesty. Mademoiselle Sibylle Bernac is he_ame.'
'You have only been in France a few days, Monsieur de Laval,' said Josephine, smiling, 'but it seems to me that all the affairs of the Empire are alread_evolving round you. You must bring this pretty cousin of yours—the Empero_aid that she is pretty—to Court with you, and present her to me. Madame d_emusat, you will take a note of the name.'
The Empress had stooped again to the basket of aloes wood which stood besid_he fireplace. Suddenly I saw her stare hard at something, and then, with _ittle cry of surprise, she stooped and lifted an object from the carpet. I_as the Emperor's soft flat beaver with the little tricolour cockade.
Josephine sprang up, and looked from the hat in her hand to the imperturbabl_ace of the minister.
'How is this, Monsieur de Talleyrand,' she cried, and the dark eyes began t_hine with anger and suspicion. 'You said to me that the Emperor was out, an_ere is his hat!'
'Pardon me, your Imperial Majesty, I did not say that he was out.'
'What did you say then?'
'I said that he left the room a short time before.'
'You are endeavouring to conceal something from me,' she cried, with the quic_nstinct of a woman.
'I assure you that I tell you all I know.'
The Empress's eyes darted from face to face.
'Marshal Berthier,' she cried, 'I insist upon your telling me this instan_here the Emperor is, and what he is doing.'
The slow-witted soldier stammered and twisted his cocked hat about.
'I know no more than Monsieur de Talleyrand does,' said he; 'the Emperor lef_s some time ago.'
'By which door?'
Poor Berthier was more confused than ever.
'Really, your Imperial Majesty, I cannot undertake to say by which door it wa_hat the Emperor quitted the apartment.'
Josephine's eyes flashed round at me, and my heart shrunk within me as _hought that she was about to ask me that same dreadful question. But I ha_ust time to breathe one prayer to the good Saint Ignatius, who has alway_een gracious to our family, and the danger passed.
'Come, Madame de Remusat,' said she. 'If these gentlemen will not tell us w_hall very soon find out for ourselves.'
She swept with great dignity towards the curtained door, followed at th_istance of a few yards by her waiting lady, whose frightened face an_agging, unwilling steps showed that she perfectly appreciated the situation.
Indeed, the Emperor's open infidelities, and the public scenes to which the_ave rise, were so notorious, that even in Ashford they had reached our ears.
Napoleon's self-confidence and his contempt of the world had the effect o_aking him careless as to what was thought or said of him, while Josephine, when she was carried away by jealousy, lost all the dignity and restrain_hich usually marked her conduct; so between them they gave some embarrassin_oments to those who were about them. Talleyrand turned away with his finger_ver his lips, while Berthier, in an agony of apprehension, continued t_ouble up and to twist the cocked hat which he held between his hands. Onl_onstant, the faithful valet, ventured to intervene between his mistress an_he fatal door.
'If your Majesty will resume your seat I shall inform the Emperor that you ar_ere,' said he, with two deprecating hands outstretched.
'Ah, then he _is_ there!' she cried furiously. 'I see it all! I understand i_ll! But I will expose him—I will reproach him with his perfidy! Let me pass, Constant! How dare you stand in my way?'
'Allow me to announce you, your Majesty.'
'I shall announce myself.' With swift undulations of her beautiful figure sh_arted past the protesting valet, parted the curtains, threw open the door, and vanished into the next room.
She had seemed a creature full of fire and of spirit as, with a flush whic_roke through the paint upon her cheeks, and with eyes which gleamed with th_ust anger of an outraged wife, she forced her way into her husband'_resence. But she was a woman of change and impulse, full of little squirts o_ourage and corresponding reactions into cowardice. She had hardly vanishe_rom our sight when there was a harsh roar, like an angry beast, and nex_nstant Josephine came flying into the room again, with the Emperor, inarticulate with passion, raving at her heels. So frightened was she, tha_he began to run towards the fireplace, upon which Madame de Remusat, who ha_o wish to form a rearguard upon such an occasion, began running also, and th_wo of them, like a pair of startled hens, came rustling and fluttering bac_o the seats which they had left. There they cowered whilst the Emperor, wit_ convulsed face and a torrent of camp-fire oaths, stamped and raged about th_oom.
'You, Constant, you!' he shouted; 'is this the way in which you serve me? Hav_ou no sense then—no discretion? Am I never to have any privacy? Must _ternally submit to be spied upon by women? Is everyone else to have liberty, and I only to have none? As to you, Josephine, this finishes it all. I ha_esitations before, but now I have none. This brings everything to an en_etween us.'
We would all, I am sure, have given a good deal to slip from the room— a_east, my own embarrassment far exceeded my interest—but the Emperor from hi_ofty standpoint cared as little about our presence as if we had been so man_rticles of furniture. In fact, it was one of this strange man's peculiaritie_hat it was just those delicate and personal scenes with which privacy i_sually associated that he preferred to have in public, for he knew that hi_eproaches had an additional sting when they fell upon other ears beside_hose of his victim. From his wife to his groom there was not one of those wh_ere about him who did not live in dread of being held up to ridicule an_nfamy before a smiling crowd, whose amusement was only tempered by th_eflection that each of them might be the next to endure the same exposure.
As to Josephine, she had taken refuge in a woman's last resource, and wa_rying bitterly, with her graceful neck stooping towards her knees and her tw_ands over her face. Madame de Remusat was weeping also, and in every pause o_is hoarse scolding—for his voice was very hoarse and raucous when he wa_ngry—there came the soft hissing and clicking of their sobs. Sometimes hi_ierce taunts would bring some reply from the Empress, some gentle reproof t_im for his gallantries, but each remonstrance only excited him to a fres_ush of vituperation. In one of his outbursts he threw his snuff-box with _rash upon the floor as a spoiled child would hurl down its toys.
'Morality!' he cried, 'morality was not made for me, and I was not made fo_orality. I am a man apart, and I accept nobody's conditions. I tell yo_lways, Josephine, that these are the foolish phrases of mediocre people wh_ish to fetter the great. They do not apply to me. I will never consent t_rame my conduct by the puerile arrangements of society.'
'Have you no feeling then?' sobbed the Empress.
'A great man is not made for feeling. It is for him to decide what he shal_o, and then to do it without interference from anyone. It is your place, Josephine, to submit to all my fancies, and you should think it quite natura_hat I should allow myself some latitude.'
It was a favourite device of the Emperor's, when he was in the wrong upon on_oint, to turn the conversation round so as to get upon some other one o_hich he was in the right. Having worked off the first explosion of hi_assion he now assumed the offensive, for in argument, as in war, his instinc_as always to attack.
'I have been looking over Lenormand's accounts, Josephine,' said he. 'Are yo_ware how many dresses you have had last year? You have had a hundred an_orty—no less—and many of them cost as much as twenty-five thousand livres. _m told that you have six hundred dresses in your wardrobes, many of whic_ave hardly ever been used. Madame de Remusat knows that what I say is true.
She cannot deny it.'
'You like me to dress well, Napoleon.'
'I will not have such monstrous extravagance. I could have two regiments o_uirassiers, or a fleet of frigates, with the money which you squander upo_oolish silks and furs. It might turn the fortunes of a campaign. Then again, Josephine, who gave you permission to order that parure of diamonds an_apphires from Lefebvre? The bill has been sent to me and I have refused t_ay for it. If he applies again, I shall have him marched to prison between _ile of grenadiers, and your milliner shall accompany him there.'
The Emperor's fits of anger, although tempestuous, were never very prolonged.
The curious convulsive wriggle of one of his arms, which always showed when h_as excited, gradually died away, and after looking for some time at th_apers of de Meneval—who had written away like an automaton during all thi_proar—he came across to the fire with a smile upon his lips, and a brow fro_hich the shadow had departed.
'You have no excuse for extravagance, Josephine,' said he, laying his han_pon her shoulder. 'Diamonds and fine dresses are very necessary to an ugl_oman in order to make her attractive, but _you_ cannot need them for such _urpose. You had no fine dresses when first I saw you in the Rue Chautereine, and yet there was no woman in the world who ever attracted me so. Why will yo_ex me, Josephine, and make me say things which seem unkind? Drive back, little one, to Pont de Briques, and see that you do not catch cold.'
'You will come to the salon, Napoleon?' asked the Empress, whose bitteres_esentment seemed to vanish in an instant at the first kindly touch from hi_and. She still held her handkerchief before her eyes, but it was chiefly, _hink, to conceal the effect which her tears had had upon her cheeks.
'Yes, yes, I will come. Our carriages will follow yours. See the ladies int_he berline, Constant. Have you ordered the embarkation of the troops, Berthier? Come here, Talleyrand, for I wish to describe my views about th_uture of Spain and Portugal. Monsieur de Laval, you may escort the Empress t_ont de Briques, where I shall see you at the reception.'