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FAMOUS AFFINITIES OF HISTORY
THE ROMANCE OF DEVOTION
BY LYNDON ORR
VOLUME II of IV.
THE EMPRESS CATHARINE AND PRINCE POTEMKIN MARIE ANTOINETTE AND COUNT FERSEN
THE STORY OF AARON BURR
GEORGE IV. AND MRS. FITZHERBERT
CHARLOTTE CORDAY AND ADAM LUX
NAPOLEON AND MARIE WALEWSKA
THE STORY OF PAULINE BONAPARTE
THE STORY OF THE EMPRESS MARIE LOUISE AND COUNT NEIPPERG
THE EMPRESS CATHARINE AND PRINCE POTEMKIN
It has often been said that the greatest Frenchman who ever lived was in reality an Italian. It might with equal truth be asserted that the greatest Russian woman who ever lived was in reality a German. But the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Catharine II. resemble each other in something else. Napoleon, though Italian in blood and lineage, made himself so French in sympathy and understanding as to be able to play upon the imagination of all France as a great musician plays upon a splendid instrument, with absolute sureness of touch and an ability to extract from it every one of its varied harmonies. So the Empress Catharine of Russia– perhaps the greatest woman who ever ruled a nation–though born of German parents, became Russian to the core and made herself the embodiment of Russian feeling and Russian aspiration.
At the middle of the eighteenth century Russia was governed by the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. In her own time, and for a long while afterward, her real capacity was obscured by her apparent indolence, her fondness for display, and her seeming vacillation; but now a very high place is accorded her in the history of Russian rulers. She softened the brutality that had reigned supreme in Russia. She patronized the arts. Her armies twice defeated Frederick the Great and raided his capital, Berlin. Had Elizabeth lived, she would probably have crushed him.
In her early years this imperial woman had been betrothed to Louis XV. of France, but the match was broken off. Subsequently she entered into a morganatic marriage and bore a son who, of course, could not be her heir. In 1742, therefore, she looked about for a suitable successor, and chose her nephew, Prince Peter of Holstein-Gottorp.
Peter, then a mere youth of seventeen, was delighted with so splendid a future, and came at once to St. Petersburg. The empress next sought for a girl who might marry the young prince and thus become the future Czarina. She thought first of Frederick the Great’s sister; but Frederick shrank from this alliance, though it would have been of much advantage to him. He loved his sister– indeed, she was one of the few persons for whom he ever really cared. So he declined the offer and suggested instead the young Princess Sophia of the tiny duchy of Anhalt-Zerbst.
The reason for Frederick’s refusal was his knowledge of the semi- barbarous conditions that prevailed at the Russian court.
The Russian capital, at that time, was a bizarre, half-civilized, half-oriental place, where, among the very highest-born, a thin veneer of French elegance covered every form of brutality and savagery and lust. It is not surprising, therefore, that Frederick the Great was unwilling to have his sister plunged into such a life.
But when the Empress Elizabeth asked the Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst to marry the heir to the Russian throne the young girl willingly accepted, the more so as her mother practically commanded it. This mother of hers was a grim, harsh German woman who had reared her daughter in the strictest fashion, depriving her of all pleasure with a truly puritanical severity. In the case of a different sort of girl this training would have crushed her spirit; but the Princess Sophia, though gentle and refined in manner, had a power of endurance which was toughened and strengthened by the discipline she underwent.
And so in 1744, when she was but sixteen years of age, she was taken by her mother to St. Petersburg. There she renounced the Lutheran faith and was received into the Greek Church, changing her name to Catharine. Soon after, with great magnificence, she was married to Prince Peter, and from that moment began a career which was to make her the most powerful woman in the world.
At this time a lady of the Russian court wrote down a description of Catharine’s appearance. She was fair-haired, with dark-blue eyes; and her face, though never beautiful, was made piquant and striking by the fact that her brows were very dark in contrast with her golden hair. Her complexion was not clear, yet her look was a very pleasing one. She had a certain diffidence of manner at first; but later she bore herself with such instinctive dignity as to make her seem majestic, though in fact she was beneath the middle size. At the time of her marriage her figure was slight and graceful; only in after years did she become stout. Altogether, she came to St. Petersburg an attractive, pure-minded German maiden, with a character well disciplined, and possessing reserves of power which had not yet been drawn upon.
Frederick the Great’s forebodings, which had led him to withhold his sister’s hand, were almost immediately justified in the case of Catharine. Her Russian husband revealed to her a mode of life which must have tried her very soul. This youth was only seventeen–a mere boy in age, and yet a full-grown man in the rank luxuriance of his vices. Moreover, he had eccentricities which sometimes verged upon insanity. Too young to be admitted to the councils of his imperial aunt, he occupied his time in ways that were either ridiculous or vile.
Next to the sleeping-room of his wife he kept a set of kennels, with a number of dogs, which he spent hours in drilling as if they had been soldiers. He had a troop of rats which he also drilled. It was his delight to summon a court martial of his dogs to try the rats for various military offenses, and then to have the culprits executed, leaving their bleeding carcasses upon the floor. At any hour of the day or night Catharine, hidden in her chamber, could hear the yapping of the curs, the squeak of rats, and the word of command given by her half-idiot husband.
When wearied of this diversion Peter would summon a troop of favorites, both men and women, and with them he would drink deep of beer and vodka, since from his early childhood he had been both a drunkard and a debauchee. The whoops and howls and vile songs of his creatures could be heard by Catharine; and sometimes he would stagger into her rooms, accompanied by his drunken minions. With a sort of psychopathic perversity he would insist on giving Catharine the most minute and repulsive narratives of his amours, until she shrank from him with horror at his depravity and came to loathe the sight of his bloated face, with its little, twinkling, porcine eyes, his upturned nose and distended nostrils, and his loose-hung, lascivious mouth. She was scarcely less repelled when a wholly different mood would seize upon him and he would declare himself her slave, attending her at court functions in the garb of a servant and professing an unbounded devotion for his bride.
Catharine’s early training and her womanly nature led her for a long time to submit to the caprices of her husband. In his saner moments she would plead with him and strive to interest him in something better than his dogs and rats and venal mistresses; but Peter was incorrigible. Though he had moments of sense and even of good feeling, these never lasted, and after them he would plunge headlong into the most frantic excesses that his half-crazed imagination could devise.
It is not strange that in course of time Catharine’s strong good sense showed her that she could do nothing with this creature. She therefore gradually became estranged from him and set herself to the task of doing those things which Peter was incapable of carrying out.
She saw that ever since the first awakening of Russia under Peter the Great none of its rulers had been genuinely Russian, but had tried to force upon the Russian people various forms of western civilization which were alien to the national spirit. Peter the Great had striven to make his people Dutch. Elizabeth had tried to make them French. Catharine, with a sure instinct, resolved that they should remain Russian, borrowing what they needed from other peoples, but stirred always by the Slavic spirit and swayed by a patriotism that was their own. To this end she set herself to become Russian. She acquired the Russian language patiently and accurately. She adopted the Russian costume, appearing, except on state occasions, in a simple gown of green, covering her fair hair, however, with a cap powdered with diamonds. Furthermore, she made friends of such native Russians as were gifted with talent, winning their favor, and, through them, the favor of the common people.
It would have been strange, however, had Catharine, the woman, escaped the tainting influences that surrounded her on every side. The infidelities of Peter gradually made her feel that she owed him nothing as his wife. Among the nobles there were men whose force of character and of mind attracted her inevitably. Chastity was a thing of which the average Russian had no conception; and therefore it is not strange that Catharine, with her intense and sensitive nature, should have turned to some of these for the love which she had sought in vain from the half imbecile to whom she had been married.
Much has been written of this side of her earlier and later life; yet, though it is impossible to deny that she had favorites, one should judge very gently the conduct of a girl so young and thrust into a life whence all the virtues seemed to be excluded. She bore several children before her thirtieth year, and it is very certain that a grave doubt exists as to their paternity. Among the nobles of the court were two whose courage and virility specially attracted her. The one with whom her name has been most often coupled was Gregory Orloff. He and his brother, Alexis Orloff, were Russians of the older type–powerful in frame, suave in manner except when roused, yet with a tigerish ferocity slumbering underneath. Their power fascinated Catharine, and it was currently declared that Gregory Orloff was her lover.
When she was in her thirty-second year her husband was proclaimed Czar, after the death of the Empress Elizabeth. At first in some ways his elevation seemed to sober him; but this period of sanity, like those which had come to him before, lasted only a few weeks. Historians have given him much credit for two great reforms that are connected with his name; and yet the manner in which they were actually brought about is rather ludicrous. He had shut himself up with his favorite revelers, and had remained for several days drinking and carousing until he scarcely knew enough to speak. At this moment a young officer named Gudovitch, who was really loyal to the newly created Czar, burst into the banquet-hall, booted and spurred and his eyes aflame with indignation. Standing before Peter, his voice rang out with the tone of a battle trumpet, so that the sounds of revelry were hushed.
“Peter Feodorovitch,” he cried, “do you prefer these swine to those who really wish to serve you? Is it in this way that you imitate the glories of your ancestor, that illustrious Peter whom you have sworn to take as your model? It will not be long before your people’s love will be changed to hatred. Rise up, my Czar! Shake off this lethargy and sloth. Prove that you are worthy of the faith which I and others have given you so loyally!”
With these words Gudovitch thrust into Peter’s trembling hand two proclamations, one abolishing the secret bureau of police, which had become an instrument of tyrannous oppression, and the other restoring to the nobility many rights of which they had been deprived.
The earnestness and intensity of Gudovitch temporarily cleared the brain of the drunken Czar. He seized the papers, and, without reading them, hastened at once to his great council, where he declared that they expressed his wishes. Great was the rejoicing in St. Petersburg, and great was the praise bestowed on Peter; yet, in fact, he had acted only as any drunkard might act under the compulsion of a stronger will than his.
As before, his brief period of good sense was succeeded by another of the wildest folly. It was not merely that he reversed the wise policy of his aunt, but that he reverted to his early fondness for everything that was German. His bodyguard was made up of German troops–thus exciting the jealousy of the Russian soldiers. He introduced German fashions. He boasted that his father had been an officer in the Prussian army. His crazy admiration for Frederick the Great reached the utmost verge of sycophancy.
As to Catharine, he turned on her with something like ferocity. He declared in public that his eldest son, the Czarevitch Paul, was really fathered by Catharine’s lovers. At a state banquet he turned to Catharine and hurled at her a name which no woman could possibly forgive–and least of all a woman such as Catharine, with her high spirit and imperial pride. He thrust his mistresses upon her; and at last he ordered her, with her own hand, to decorate the Countess Vorontzoff, who was known to be his maitresse en titre.
It was not these gross insults, however, so much as a concern for her personal safety that led Catharine to take measures for her own defense. She was accustomed to Peter’s ordinary eccentricities. On the ground of his unfaithfulness to her she now had hardly any right to make complaint. But she might reasonably fear lest he was becoming mad. If he questioned the paternity of their eldest son he might take measures to imprison Catharine or even to destroy her. Therefore she conferred with the Orloffs and other gentlemen, and their conference rapidly developed into a conspiracy.
The soldiery, as a whole, was loyal to the empress. It hated Peter’s Holstein guards. What she planned was probably the deposition of Peter. She would have liked to place him under guard in some distant palace. But while the matter was still under discussion she was awakened early one morning by Alexis Orloff. He grasped her arm with scant ceremony.
“We must act at once,” said he. “We have been betrayed!”
Catharine was not a woman to waste time. She went immediately to the barracks in St. Petersburg, mounted upon a charger, and, calling out the Russian guards, appealed to them for their support. To a man they clashed their weapons and roared forth a thunderous cheer. Immediately afterward the priests anointed her as regent in the name of her son; but as she left the church she was saluted by the people, as well as by the soldiers, as empress in her own right.
It was a bold stroke, and it succeeded down to the last detail. The wretched Peter, who was drilling his German guards at a distance from the capital, heard of the revolt, found that his sailors at Kronstadt would not acknowledge him, and then finally submitted. He was taken to Ropsha and confined within a single room. To him came the Orloffs, quite of their own accord. Gregory Orloff endeavored to force a corrosive poison into Peter’s mouth. Peter, who was powerful of build and now quite desperate, hurled himself upon his enemies. Alexis Orloff seized him by the throat with a tremendous clutch and strangled him till the blood gushed from his ears. In a few moments the unfortunate man was dead.
Catharine was shocked by the intelligence, but she had no choice save to accept the result of excessive zeal. She issued a note to the foreign ambassadors informing them that Peter had died of a violent colic. When his body was laid out for burial the extravasated blood is said to have oozed out even through his hands, staining the gloves that had been placed upon them. No one believed the story of the colic; and some six years later Alexis Orloff told the truth with the utmost composure. The whole incident was characteristically Russian.
It is not within the limits of our space to describe the reign of Catharine the Great–the exploits of her armies, the acuteness of her statecraft, the vast additions which she made to the Russian Empire, and the impulse which she gave to science and art and literature. Yet these things ought to be remembered first of all when one thinks of the woman whom Voltaire once styled “the Semiramis of the North.” Because she was so powerful, because no one could gainsay her, she led in private a life which has been almost more exploited than her great imperial achievements. And yet, though she had lovers whose names have been carefully recorded, even she fulfilled the law of womanhood–which is to love deeply and intensely only once,
One should not place all her lovers in the same category. As a girl, and when repelled by the imbecility of Peter, she gave herself to Gregory Orloff. She admired his strength, his daring, and his unscrupulousness. But to a woman of her fine intelligence he came to seem almost more brute than man. She could not turn to him for any of those delicate attentions which a woman loves so much, nor for that larger sympathy which wins the heart as well as captivates the senses. A writer of the time has said that Orloff would hasten with equal readiness from the arms of Catharine to the embraces of any flat-nosed Finn or filthy Calmuck or to the lowest creature whom he might encounter in the streets.
It happened that at the time of Catharine’s appeal to the imperial guards there came to her notice another man who–as he proved in a trifling and yet most significant manner–had those traits which Orloff lacked. Catharine had mounted, man–fashion, a cavalry horse, and, with a helmet on her head, had reined up her steed before the barracks. At that moment One of the minor nobles, who was also favorable to her, observed that her helmet had no plume. In a moment his horse was at her side. Bowing low over his saddle, he took his own plume from his helmet and fastened it to hers. This man was Prince Gregory Potemkin, and this slight act gives a clue to the influence which he afterward exercised over his imperial mistress!
When Catharine grew weary of the Orloffs, and when she had enriched them with lands and treasures, she turned to Potemkin; and from then until the day of his death he was more to her than any other man had ever been. With others she might flirt and might go even further than flirtation; but she allowed no other favorite to share her confidence, to give advice, or to direct her policies.
To other men she made munificent gifts, either because they pleased her for the moment or because they served her on one occasion or another; but to Potemkin she opened wide the whole treasury of her vast realm. There was no limit to what she would do for him. When he first knew her he was a man of very moderate fortune. Within two years after their intimate acquaintance had begun she had given him nine million rubles, while afterward he accepted almost limitless estates in Poland and in every province of Greater Russia.
He was a man of sumptuous tastes, and yet he cared but little for mere wealth. What he had, he used to please or gratify or surprise the woman whom he loved. He built himself a great palace in St. Petersburg, usually known as the Taurian Palace, and there he gave the most sumptuous entertainments, reversing the story of Antony and Cleopatra.
In a superb library there stood one case containing volumes bound with unusual richness. When the empress, attracted by the bindings, drew forth a book she found to her surprise that its pages were English bank-notes. The pages of another proved to be Dutch bank-notes, and, of another, notes on the Bank of Venice. Of the remaining volumes some were of solid gold, while others had pages of fine leather in which were set emeralds and rubies and diamonds and other gems. The story reads like a bit of fiction from the Arabian Nights. Yet, after all, this was only a small affair compared with other undertakings with which Potemkin sought to please her.
Thus, after Taurida and the Crimea had been added to the empire by Potemkin’s agency, Catharine set out with him to view her new possessions. A great fleet of magnificently decorated galleys bore her down the river Dnieper. The country through which she passed had been a year before an unoccupied waste. Now, by Potemkin’s extraordinary efforts, the empress found it dotted thick with towns and cities which had been erected for the occasion, filled with a busy population which swarmed along the riverside to greet the sovereign with applause. It was only a chain of fantom towns and cities, made of painted wood and canvas; but while Catharine was there they were very real, seeming to have solid buildings, magnificent arches, bustling industries, and beautiful stretches of fertile country. No human being ever wrought on so great a scale so marvelous a miracle of stage-management.
Potemkin was, in fact, the one man who could appeal with unfailing success to so versatile and powerful a spirit as Catharine’s. He was handsome of person, graceful of manner, and with an intellect which matched her own. He never tried to force her inclination, and, on the other hand, he never strove to thwart it. To him, as to no other man, she could turn at any moment and feel that, no matter what her mood, he could understand her fully. And this, according to Balzac, is the thing that woman yearns for most–a kindred spirit that can understand without the slightest need of explanation.
Thus it was that Gregory Potemkin held a place in the soul of this great woman such as no one else attained. He might be absent, heading armies or ruling provinces, and on his return he would be greeted with even greater fondness than before. And it was this rather than his victories over Turk and other oriental enemies that made Catharine trust him absolutely.
When he died, he died as the supreme master of her foreign policy and at a time when her word was powerful throughout all Europe. Death came upon him after he had fought against it with singular tenacity of purpose. Catharine had given him a magnificent triumph, and he had entertained her in his Taurian Palace with a splendor such as even Russia had never known before. Then he fell ill, though with high spirit he would not yield to illness. He ate rich meats and drank rich wines and bore himself as gallantly as ever. Yet all at once death came upon him while he was traveling in the south of Russia. His carriage was stopped, a rug was spread beneath a tree by the roadside, and there he died, in the country which he had added to the realms of Russia,
The great empress who loved him mourned him deeply during the five years of life that still remained to her. The names of other men for whom she had imagined that she cared were nothing to her. But this one man lived in her heart in death as he had done in life.
Many have written of Catharine as a great ruler, a wise diplomat, a creature of heroic mold. Others have depicted her as a royal wanton and have gathered together a mass of vicious tales, the gossip of the palace kitchens, of the clubs, and of the barrack- rooms. But perhaps one finds the chief interest of her story to lie in this–that besides being empress and diplomat and a lover of pleasure she was, beyond all else, at heart a woman.
MARIE ANTOINETTE AND COUNT FERSEN
The English-speaking world long ago accepted a conventional view of Marie Antoinette. The eloquence of Edmund Burke in one brilliant passage has fixed, probably for all time, an enduring picture of this unhappy queen.
When we speak or think of her we speak and think first of all of a dazzling and beautiful woman surrounded by the chivalry of France and gleaming like a star in the most splendid court of Europe. And then there comes to us the reverse of the picture. We see her despised, insulted, and made the butt of brutal men and still more fiendish women; until at last the hideous tumbrel conveys her to the guillotine, where her head is severed from her body and her corpse is cast down into a bloody pool.
In these two pictures our emotions are played upon in turn– admiration, reverence, devotion, and then pity, indignation, and the shudderings of horror.
Probably in our own country and in England this will remain the historic Marie Antoinette. Whatever the impartial historian may write, he can never induce the people at large to understand that this queen was far from queenly, that the popular idea of her is almost wholly false, and that both in her domestic life and as the greatest lady in France she did much to bring on the terrors of that revolution which swept her to the guillotine.
In the first place, it is mere fiction that represents Maria Antoinette as having been physically beautiful. The painters and engravers have so idealized her face as in most cases to have produced a purely imaginary portrait.
She was born in Vienna, in 1755, the daughter of the Emperor Francis and of that warrior-queen, Maria Theresa. She was a very German-looking child. Lady Jackson describes her as having a long, thin face, small, pig-like eyes, a pinched-up mouth, with the heavy Hapsburg lip, and with a somewhat misshapen form, so that for years she had to be bandaged tightly to give her a more natural figure.
At fourteen, when she was betrothed to the heir to the French throne, she was a dumpy, mean-looking little creature, with no distinction whatever, and with only her bright golden hair to make amends for her many blemishes. At fifteen she was married and joined the Dauphin in French territory.
We must recall for a moment the conditions which prevailed in France. King Louis XV. was nearing his end. He was a man of the most shameless life; yet he had concealed or gilded his infamies by an external dignity and magnificence which, were very pleasing to his people. The French, liked to think that their king was the most splendid monarch and the greatest gentleman in Europe. The courtiers about him might be vile beneath the surface, yet they were compelled to deport themselves with the form and the etiquette that had become traditional in France. They might be panders, or stock-jobbers, or sellers of political offices; yet they must none the less have wit and grace and outward nobility of manner.
There was also a tradition regarding the French queen. However loose in character the other women of the court might be, she alone, like Caesar’s wife, must remain above suspicion. She must be purer than the pure. No breath, of scandal must reach her or be directed against her.
In this way the French court, even under so dissolute a monarch as Louis XV., maintained its hold upon the loyalty of the people. Crowds came every morning to view the king in his bed before he arose; the same crowds watched him as he was dressed by the gentlemen of the bedchamber, and as he breakfasted and went through all the functions which are usually private. The King of France must be a great actor. He must appear to his people as in reality a king-stately, dignified, and beyond all other human beings in his remarkable presence.
When the Dauphin and Marie Antoinette came to the French court King Louis XV. kept up in the case the same semblance of austerity. He forbade these children to have their sleeping- apartments together. He tried to teach them that if they were to govern as well as to reign they must conform to the rigid etiquette of Paris and Versailles.
It proved a difficult task, however. The little German princess had no natural dignity, though she came from a court where the very strictest imperial discipline prevailed. Marie Antoinette found that she could have her own way in many things, and she chose to enjoy life without regard to ceremony. Her escapades at first would have been thought mild enough had she not been a “daughter of France”; but they served to shock the old French king, and likewise, perhaps even more, her own imperial mother, Maria Theresa.
When a report of the young girl’s conduct was brought to her the empress was at first mute with indignation. Then she cried out:
“Can this girl be a child of mine? She surely must be a changeling!”
The Austrian ambassador to France was instructed to warn the Dauphiness to be more discreet.
“Tell her,” said Maria Theresa, “that she will lose her throne, and even her life, unless she shows more prudence.”
But advice and remonstrance were of no avail. Perhaps they might have been had her husband possessed a stronger character; but the young Louis was little more fitted to be a king than was his wife to be a queen. Dull of perception and indifferent to affairs of state, he had only two interests that absorbed him. One was the love of hunting, and the other was his desire to shut himself up in a sort of blacksmith shop, where he could hammer away at the anvil, blow the bellows, and manufacture small trifles of mechanical inventions. From this smudgy den he would emerge, sooty and greasy, an object of distaste to his frivolous princess, with her foamy laces and perfumes and pervasive daintiness.
It was hinted in many quarters, and it has been many times repeated, that Louis was lacking in virility. Certainly he had no interest in the society of women and was wholly continent. But this charge of physical incapacity seems to have had no real foundation. It had been made against some of his predecessors. It was afterward hurled at Napoleon the Great, and also Napoleon the Little. In France, unless a royal personage was openly licentious, he was almost sure to be jeered at by the people as a weakling.
And so poor Louis XVI., as he came to be, was treated with a mixture of pity and contempt because he loved to hammer and mend locks in his smithy or shoot game when he might have been caressing ladies who would have been proud to have him choose them out.
On the other hand, because of this opinion regarding Louis, people were the more suspicious of Marie Antoinette. Some of them, in coarse language, criticized her assumed infidelities; others, with a polite sneer, affected to defend her. But the result of it all was dangerous to both, especially as France was already verging toward the deluge which Louis XV. had cynically predicted would follow after him.
In fact, the end came sooner than any one had guessed. Louis XV., who had become hopelessly and helplessly infatuated with the low- born Jeanne du Barry, was stricken down with smallpox of the most virulent type. For many days he lay in his gorgeous bed. Courtiers crowded his sick-room and the adjacent hall, longing for the moment when the breath would leave his body. He had lived an evil life, and he was to die a loathsome death; yet he had borne himself before men as a stately monarch. Though his people had suffered in a thousand ways from his misgovernment, he was still Louis the Well Beloved, and they blamed his ministers of state for all the shocking wrongs that France had felt.
The abler men, and some of the leaders of the people, however, looked forward to the accession of Louis XVI. He at least was frugal in his habits and almost plebeian in his tastes, and seemed to be one who would reduce the enormous taxes that had been levied upon France.
The moment came when the Well Beloved died. His death-room was fetid with disease, and even the long corridors of the palace reeked with infection, while the motley mob of men and women, clad in silks and satins and glittering with jewels, hurried from the spot to pay their homage to the new Louis, who was spoken of as “the Desired.” The body of the late monarch was hastily thrown into a mass of quick-lime, and was driven away in a humble wagon, without guards and with no salute, save from a single veteran, who remembered the glories of Fontenoy and discharged his musket as the royal corpse was carried through the palace gates.
This was a critical moment in the history of France; but we have to consider it only as a critical moment in the history of Marie Antoinette. She was now queen. She had it in her power to restore to the French court its old-time grandeur, and, so far as the queen was concerned, its purity. Above all, being a foreigner, she should have kept herself free from reproach and above every shadow of suspicion.
But here again the indifference of the king undoubtedly played a strange part in her life. Had he borne himself as her lord and master she might have respected him. Had he shown her the affection of a husband she might have loved him. But he was neither imposing, nor, on the other hand, was he alluring. She wrote very frankly about him in a letter to the Count Orsini:
My tastes are not the same as those of the king, who cares only for hunting and blacksmith work. You will admit that I should not show to advantage in a forge. I could not appear there as Vulcan, and the part of Venus might displease him even more than my tastes.
Thus on the one side is a woman in the first bloom of youth, ardent, eager–and neglected. On the other side is her husband, whose sluggishness may be judged by quoting from a diary which he kept during the month in which he was married. Here is a part of it:
Sunday, 13–Left Versailles. Supper and slept at Compignee, at the house of M. de Saint-Florentin.
Monday, 14–Interview with Mme. la Dauphine.
Tuesday, 15–Supped at La Muette. Slept at Versailles.
Wednesday, 16–My marriage. Apartment in the gallery. Royal banquet in the Salle d’Opera.
Thursday, 17–Opera of “Perseus.”
Friday, 18–Stag-hunt. Met at La Belle Image. Took one.
Saturday, 19–Dress-ball in the Salle d’Opera. Fireworks.
Thursday, 31–I had an indigestion.
What might have been expected from a young girl placed as this queen was placed? She was indeed an earlier Eugenie. The first was of royal blood, the second was almost a plebeian; but each was headstrong, pleasure-loving, and with no real domestic ties. As Mr. Kipling expresses it–
The colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady Are sisters under their skins;
and so the Austrian woman of 1776 and the Spanish woman of 1856 found amusement in very similar ways. They plunged into a sea of strange frivolity, such as one finds to-day at the centers of high fashion. Marie Antoinette bedecked herself with eccentric garments. On her head she wore a hat styled a “what-is-it,” towering many feet in height and flaunting parti-colored plumes. Worse than all this, she refused to wear corsets, and at some great functions she would appear in what looked exactly like a bedroom gown.
She would even neglect the ordinary niceties of life. Her hands were not well cared for. It was very difficult for the ladies in attendance to persuade her to brush her teeth with regularity. Again, she would persist in wearing her frilled and lace-trimmed petticoats long after their dainty edges had been smirched and blackened.
Yet these things might have been counteracted had she gone no further. Unfortunately, she did go further. She loved to dress at night like a shop-girl and venture out into the world of Paris, where she was frequently followed and recognized. Think of it–the Queen of France, elbowed in dense crowds and seeking to attract the attention of common soldiers!
Of course, almost every one put the worst construction upon this, and after a time upon everything she did. When she took a fancy for constructing labyrinths and secret passages in the palace, all Paris vowed that she was planning means by which her various lovers might enter without observation. The hidden printing- presses of Paris swarmed with gross lampoons about this reckless girl; and, although there was little truth in what they said, there was enough to cloud her reputation. When she fell ill with the measles she was attended in her sick-chamber by four gentlemen of the court. The king was forbidden to enter lest he might catch the childish disorder.
The apathy of the king, indeed, drove her into many a folly. After four years of marriage, as Mrs. Mayne records, he had only reached the point of giving her a chilly kiss. The fact that she had no children became a serious matter. Her brother, the Emperor Joseph of Austria, when he visited Paris, ventured to speak to the king upon the subject. Even the Austrian ambassador had thrown out hints that the house of Bourbon needed direct heirs. Louis grunted and said little, but he must have known how good was the advice.
It was at about this time when there came to the French court a young Swede named Axel de Fersen, who bore the title of count, but who was received less for his rank than for his winning manner, his knightly bearing, and his handsome, sympathetic face. Romantic in spirit, he threw himself at once into a silent inner worship of Marie Antoinette, who had for him a singular attraction. Wherever he could meet her they met. To her growing cynicism this breath of pure yet ardent affection was very grateful. It came as something fresh and sweet into the feverish life she led.
Other men had had the audacity to woo her–among them Duc de Lauzun, whose complicity in the famous affair of the diamond necklace afterward cast her, though innocent, into ruin; the Duc de Biron; and the Baron de Besenval, who had obtained much influence over her, which he used for the most evil purposes. Besenval tainted her mind by persuading her to read indecent books, in the hope that at last she would become his prey.
But none of these men ever meant to Marie Antoinette what Fersen meant. Though less than twenty years of age, he maintained the reserve of a great gentleman, and never forced himself upon her notice. Yet their first acquaintance had occurred in such a way as to give to it a touch of intimacy. He had gone to a masked ball, and there had chosen for his partner a lady whose face was quite concealed. Something drew the two together. The gaiety of the woman and the chivalry of the man blended most harmoniously. It was only afterward that he discovered that his chance partner was the first lady in France. She kept his memory in her mind; for some time later, when he was at a royal drawing-room and she heard his voice, she exclaimed:
“Ah, an old acquaintance!”
From this time Fersen was among those who were most intimately favored by the queen. He had the privilege of attending her private receptions at the palace of the Trianon, and was a conspicuous figure at the feasts given in the queen’s honor by the Princess de Lamballe, a beautiful girl whose head was destined afterward to be severed from her body and borne upon a bloody pike through the streets of Paris. But as yet the deluge had not arrived and the great and noble still danced upon the brink of a volcano.
Fersen grew more and more infatuated, nor could he quite conceal his feelings. The queen, in her turn, was neither frightened nor indignant. His passion, so profound and yet so respectful, deeply moved her. Then came a time when the truth was made clear to both of them. Fersen was near her while she was singing to the harpsichord, and “she was betrayed by her own music into an avowal which song made easy.” She forgot that she was Queen of France. She only felt that her womanhood had been starved and slighted, and that here was a noble-minded lover of whom she could be proud.
Some time after this announcement was officially made of the approaching accouchement of the queen. It was impossible that malicious tongues should be silent. The king’s brother, the Comte de Provence, who hated the queen, just as the Bonapartes afterward hated Josephine, did his best to besmirch her reputation. He had, indeed, the extraordinary insolence to do so at a time when one would suppose that the vilest of men would remain silent. The child proved to be a princess, and she afterward received the title of Duchesse d’Angouleme. The King of Spain asked to be her godfather at the christening, which was to be held in the cathedral of Notre Dame. The Spanish king was not present in person, but asked the Comte de Provence to act as his proxy.
On the appointed day the royal party proceeded to the cathedral, and the Comte de Provence presented the little child at the baptismal font. The grand almoner, who presided, asked;
“What name shall be given to this child?”
The Comte de Provence answered in a sneering tone:
“Oh, we don’t begin with that. The first thing to find out is who the father and the mother are!”
These words, spoken at such a place and such a time, and with a strongly sardonic ring, set all Paris gossiping. It was a thinly veiled innuendo that the father of the child was not the King of France. Those about the court immediately began to look at Fersen with significant smiles. The queen would gladly have kept him near her; but Fersen cared even more for her good name than for his love of her. It would have been so easy to remain in the full enjoyment of his conquest; but he was too chivalrous for that, or, rather, he knew that the various ambassadors in Paris had told their respective governments of the rising scandal. In fact, the following secret despatch was sent to the King of Sweden by his envoy:
I must confide to your majesty that the young Count Fersen has been so well received by the queen that various persons have taken it amiss. I own that I am sure that she has a liking for him. I have seen proofs of it too certain to be doubted. During the last few days the queen has not taken her eyes off him, and as she gazed they were full of tears. I beg your majesty to keep their secret to yourself.
The queen wept because Fersen had resolved to leave her lest she should be exposed to further gossip. If he left her without any apparent reason, the gossip would only be the more intense. Therefore he decided to join the French troops who were going to America to fight under Lafayette. A brilliant but dissolute duchess taunted him when the news became known.
“How is this?” said she. “Do you forsake your conquest?”
But, “lying like a gentleman,” Fersen answered, quietly:
“Had I made a conquest I should not forsake it. I go away free, and, unfortunately, without leaving any regret.”
Nothing could have been more chivalrous than the pains which Fersen took to shield the reputation of the queen. He even allowed it to be supposed that he was planning a marriage with a rich young Swedish woman who had been naturalized in England. As a matter of fact, he departed for America, and not very long afterward the young woman in question married an Englishman.
Fersen served in America for a time, returning, however, at the end of three years. He was one of the original Cincinnati, being admitted to the order by Washington himself. When he returned to France he was received with high honors and was made colonel of the royal Swedish regiment.
The dangers threatening Louis and his court, which were now gigantic and appalling, forbade him to forsake the queen. By her side he did what he could to check the revolution; and, failing this, he helped her to maintain an imperial dignity of manner which she might otherwise have lacked. He faced the bellowing mob which surrounded the Tuileries. Lafayette tried to make the National Guard obey his orders, but he was jeered at for his pains. Violent epithets were hurled at the king. The least insulting name which they could give him was “a fat pig.” As for the queen, the most filthy phrases were showered upon her by the men, and even more so by the women, who swarmed out of the slums and sought her life.
At last, in 1791, it was decided that the king and the queen and their children, of whom they now had three, should endeavor to escape from Paris. Fersen planned their flight, but it proved to be a failure. Every one remembers how they were discovered and halted at Varennes. The royal party was escorted back to Paris by the mob, which chanted with insolent additions:
“We’ve brought back the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s boy! Now we shall have bread!”
Against the savage fury which soon animated the French a foreigner like Fersen could do very little; but he seems to have endeavored, night and day, to serve the woman whom he loved. His efforts have been described by Grandat; but they were of no avail. The king and queen were practically made prisoners. Their eldest son died. They went through horrors that were stimulated by the wretch Hebert, at the head of his so-called Madmen (Enrages). The king was executed in January, 1792. The queen dragged out a brief existence in a prison where she was for ever under the eyes of human brutes, who guarded her and watched her and jeered at her at times when even men would be sensitive. Then, at last, she mounted the scaffold, and her head, with its shining hair, fell into the bloody basket.
Marie Antoinette shows many contradictions in her character. As a young girl she was petulant and silly and almost unseemly in her actions. As a queen, with waning power, she took on a dignity which recalled the dignity of her imperial mother. At first a flirt, she fell deeply in love when she met a man who was worthy of that love. She lived for most part like a mere cocotte. She died every inch a queen.
One finds a curious resemblance between the fate of Marie Antoinette and that of her gallant lover, who outlived her for nearly twenty years. She died amid the shrieks and execrations of a maddened populace in Paris; he was practically torn in pieces by a mob in the streets of Stockholm. The day of his death was the anniversary of the flight to Varennes. To the last moment of his existence he remained faithful to the memory of the royal woman who had given herself so utterly to him.
THE STORY OF AARON BURR
There will come a time when the name of Aaron Burr will be cleared from the prejudice which now surrounds it, when he will stand in the public estimation side by side with Alexander Hamilton, whom he shot in a duel in 1804, but whom in many respects he curiously resembled. When the white light of history shall have searched them both they will appear as two remarkable men, each having his own undoubted faults and at the same time his equally undoubted virtues.
Burr and Hamilton were born within a year of each other–Burr being a grandson of Jonathan Edwards, and Alexander Hamilton being the illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant in the West Indies. Each of them was short in stature, keen of intellect, of great physical endurance, courage, and impressive personality. Each as a young man served on the staff of Washington during the Revolutionary War, and each of them quarreled with him, though in a different way.
On one occasion Burr was quite unjustly suspected by Washington of looking over the latter’s shoulder while he was writing. “Washington leaped to his feet with the exclamation:
“How dare you, Colonel Burr?”
Burr’s eyes flashed fire at the question, and he retorted, haughtily:
“Colonel Burr DARE do anything.”
This, however, was the end of their altercation The cause of Hamilton’s difference with his chief is not known, but it was a much more serious quarrel; so that the young officer left his staff position in a fury and took no part in the war until the end, when he was present at the battle of Yorktown.
Burr, on the other hand, helped Montgomery to storm the heights of Quebec, and nearly reached the upper citadel when his commander was shot dead and the Americans retreated. In all this confusion Burr showed himself a man of mettle. The slain Montgomery was six feet high, but Burr carried his body away with wonderful strength amid a shower of musket-balls and grape-shot.
Hamilton had no belief in the American Constitution, which he called “a shattered, feeble thing.” He could never obtain an elective office, and he would have preferred to see the United States transformed into a kingdom. Washington’s magnanimity and clear-sightedness made Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury. Burr, on the other hand, continued his military service until the war was ended, routing the enemy at Hackensack, enduring the horrors of Valley Forge, commanding a brigade at the battle of Monmouth, and heading the defense of the city of New Haven. He was also attorney-general of New York, was elected to the United States Senate, was tied with Jefferson for the Presidency, and then became Vice-President.
Both Hamilton and Burr were effective speakers; but, while Hamilton was wordy and diffuse, Burr spoke always to the point, with clear and cogent reasoning. Both were lavish spenders of money, and both were engaged in duels before the fatal one in which Hamilton fell. Both believed in dueling as the only way of settling an affair of honor. Neither of them was averse to love affairs, though it may be said that Hamilton sought women, while Burr was rather sought by women. When Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was obliged to confess an adulterous amour in order to save himself from the charge of corrupt practices in public office. So long as Burr’s wife lived he was a devoted, faithful husband to her. Hamilton was obliged to confess his illicit acts while his wife, formerly Miss Elizabeth Schuyler, was living. She spent her later years in buying and destroying the compromising documents which her husband had published for his countrymen to read.
The most extraordinary thing about Aaron Burr was the magnetic quality that was felt by every one who approached him. The roots of this penetrated down into a deep vitality. He was always young, always alert, polished in manner, courageous with that sort of courage which does not even recognize the presence of danger, charming in conversation, and able to adapt it to men or women of any age whatever. His hair was still dark in his eightieth year. His step was still elastic, his motions were still as spontaneous and energetic, as those of a youth.
So it was that every one who knew him experienced his fascination. The rough troops whom he led through the Canadian swamps felt the iron hand of his discipline; yet they were devoted to him, since he shared all their toils, faced all their dangers, and ate with them the scraps of hide which they gnawed to keep the breath of life in their shrunken bodies.
Burr’s discipline was indeed very strict, so that at first raw recruits rebelled against it. On one occasion the men of an untrained company resented it so bitterly that they decided to shoot Colonel Burr as he paraded them for roll-call that evening. Burr somehow got word of it and contrived to have all the cartridges drawn from their muskets. When the time for the roll- call came one of the malcontents leaped from the front line and leveled his weapon at Burr.
“Now is the time, boys!” he shouted.
Like lightning Burr’s sword flashed from its scabbard with such a vigorous stroke as to cut the man’s arm completely off and partly to cleave the musket.
“Take your place in the ranks,” said Burr.
The mutineer obeyed, dripping with blood. A month later every man in that company was devoted to his commander. They had learned that discipline was the surest source of safety.
But with this high spirit and readiness to fight Burr had a most pleasing way of meeting every one who came to him. When he was arrested in the Western forests, charged with high treason, the sound of his voice won from jury after jury verdicts of acquittal. Often the sheriffs would not arrest him. One grand jury not merely exonerated him from all public misdemeanors, but brought in a strong presentment against the officers of the government for molesting him.
It was the same everywhere. Burr made friends and devoted allies among all sorts of men. During his stay in France, England, Germany, and Sweden he interested such men as Charles Lamb, Jeremy Bentham, Sir Walter Scott, Goethe, and Heeren. They found his mind able to meet with theirs on equal terms. Burr, indeed, had graduated as a youth with honors from Princeton, and had continued his studies there after graduation, which was then a most unusual thing to do. But, of course, he learned most from his contact with men and women of the world.
Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in The Minister’s Wooing, has given what is probably an exact likeness of Aaron Burr, with his brilliant gifts and some of his defects. It is strong testimony to the character of Burr that Mrs. Stowe set out to paint him as a villain; but before she had written long she felt his fascination and made her readers, in their own despite, admirers of this remarkable man. There are many parallels, indeed, between him and Napoleon–in the quickness of his intellect, the ready use of his resources, and his power over men, while he was more than Napoleon in his delightful gift of conversation and the easy play of his cultured mind.
Those who are full of charm are willing also to be charmed. All his life Burr was abstemious in food and drink. His tastes were most refined. It is difficult to believe that such a man could have been an unmitigated profligate.
In his twentieth year there seems to have begun the first of the romances that run through the story of his long career. Perhaps one ought not to call it the first romance, for at eighteen, while he was studying law at Litchfield, a girl, whose name has been suppressed, made an open avowal of love for him. Almost at the same time an heiress with a large fortune would have married him had he been willing to accept her hand. But at this period he was only a boy and did not take such things seriously.
Two years later, after Burr had seen hard service at Quebec and on Manhattan Island, his name was associated with that of a very beautiful girl named Margaret Moncrieffe. She was the daughter of a British major, but in some way she had been captured while within the American lines. Her captivity was regarded as little more than a joke; but while she was thus a prisoner she saw a great deal of Burr. For several months they were comrades, after which General Putnam sent her with his compliments to her father.
Margaret Moncrieffe had a most emotional nature. There can be no doubt that she deeply loved the handsome young American officer, whom she never saw again. It is doubtful how far their intimacy was carried. Later she married a Mr. Coghlan. After reaching middle life she wrote of Burr in a way which shows that neither years nor the obligations of marriage could make her forget that young soldier, whom she speaks of as “the conqueror of her soul.” In the rather florid style of those days the once youthful Margaret Moncrieffe expresses herself as follows:
Oh, may these pages one day meet the eye of him who subdued my virgin heart, whom the immutable, unerring laws of nature had pointed out for my husband, but whose sacred decree the barbarous customs of society fatally violated!
Commenting on this paragraph, Mr. H. C. Merwin justly remarks that, whatever may have been Burr’s conduct toward Margaret Moncrieffe, the lady herself, who was the person chiefly concerned, had no complaint to make of it. It certainly was no very serious affair, since in the following year Burr met a lady who, while she lived, was the only woman for whom he ever really cared.
This was Theodosia Prevost, the wife of a major in the British army. Burr met her first in 1777, while she was living with her sister in Westchester County. Burr’s command was fifteen miles across the river, but distance and danger made no difference to him. He used to mount a swift horse, inspect his sentinels and outposts, and then gallop to the Hudson, where a barge rowed by six soldiers awaited him. The barge was well supplied with buffalo-skins, upon which the horse was thrown with his legs bound, and then half an hour’s rowing brought them to the other side. There Burr resumed his horse, galloped to the house of Mrs. Prevost, and, after spending a few hours with her, returned in the same way.
Mrs. Prevost was by no means beautiful, but she had an attractiveness of her own. She was well educated and possessed charming manners, with a disposition both gentle and affectionate. Her husband died soon after the beginning of the war, and then Burr married her. No more ideal family life could be conceived than his, and the letters which passed between the two are full of adoration. Thus she wrote to him:
Tell me, why do I grow every day more tenacious of your regard? Is it because each revolving day proves you more deserving?
And thus Burr answered her:
Continue to multiply your letters to me. They are all my solace. The last six are constantly within my reach. I read them once a day at least. Write me all that I have asked, and a hundred things which I have not.
When it is remembered that these letters were written after nine years of marriage it is hard to believe all the evil things that have been said of Burr.
His wife died in 1794, and he then gave a double affection to his daughter Theodosia, whose beauty and accomplishments were known throughout the country. Burr took the greatest pains in her education, and believed that she should be trained, as he had been, to be brave, industrious, and patient. He himself, who has been described as a voluptuary, delighted in the endurance of cold and heat and of severe labor.
After his death one of his younger admirers was asked what Burr had done for him. The reply was characteristic.
“He made me iron,” was the answer.
No father ever gave more attention to his daughter’s welfare. As to Theodosia’s studies he was very strict, making her read Greek and Latin every day, with drawing and music and history, in addition to French. Not long before her marriage to Joseph Allston, of South Carolina, Burr wrote to her:
I really think, my dear Theo, that you will be very soon beyond all verbal criticism, and that my whole attention will be presently directed to the improvement of your style.
Theodosia Burr married into a family of good old English stock, where riches were abundant, and high character was regarded as the best of all possessions. Every one has heard of the mysterious tragedy which is associated with her history. In 1812, when her husband had been elected Governor of his state, her only child–a sturdy boy of eleven–died, and Theodosia’s health was shattered by her sorrow. In the same year Burr returned from a sojourn in Europe, and his loving daughter embarked from Charleston on a schooner, the Patriot, to meet her father in New York. When Burr arrived he was met by a letter which told him that his grandson was dead and that Theodosia was coming to him.
Weeks sped by, and no news was heard of the ill-fated Patriot. At last it became evident that she must have gone down or in some other way have been lost. Burr and Governor Allston wrote to each other letter after letter, of which each one seems to surpass the agony of the other. At last all hope was given up. Governor Allston died soon after of a broken heart; but Burr, as became a Stoic, acted otherwise.
He concealed everything that reminded him of Theodosia. He never spoke of his lost daughter. His grief was too deep-seated and too terrible for speech. Only once did he ever allude to her, and this was in a letter written to an afflicted friend, which contained the words:
Ever since the event which separated me from mankind I have been able neither to give nor to receive consolation.
In time the crew of a pirate vessel was captured and sentenced to be hanged. One of the men, who seemed to be less brutal than the rest, told how, in 1812, they had captured a schooner, and, after their usual practice, had compelled the passengers to walk the plank. All hesitated and showed cowardice, except only one–a beautiful woman whose eyes were as bright and whose bearing was as unconcerned as if she were safe on shore. She quickly led the way, and, mounting the plank with a certain scorn of death, said to the others:
“Come, I will show you how to die.”
It has always been supposed that this intrepid girl may have been Theodosia Allston. If so, she only acted as her father would have done and in strict accordance with his teachings.
This resolute courage, this stern joy in danger, this perfect equanimity, made Burr especially attractive to women, who love courage, the more so when it is coupled with gentleness and generosity.
Perhaps no man in our country has been so vehemently accused regarding his relations with the other sex. The most improbable stories were told about him, even by his friends. As to his enemies, they took boundless pains to paint him in the blackest colors. According to them, no woman was safe from his intrigues. He was a perfect devil in leading them astray and then casting them aside.
Thus one Matthew L. Davis, in whom Burr had confided as a friend, wrote of him long afterward a most unjust account–unjust because we have proofs that it was false in the intensity of its abuse. Davis wrote:
It is truly surprising how any individual could become so eminent as a soldier, as a statesman, and as a professional man who devoted so much time to the other sex as was devoted by Colonel Burr. For more than half a century of his life they seemed to absorb his whole thought. His intrigues were without number; the sacred bonds of friendship were unhesitatingly violated when they operated as barriers to the indulgence of his passions. In this particular Burr appears to have been unfeeling and heartless.
It is impossible to believe that the Spartan Burr, whose life was one of incessant labor and whose kindliness toward every one was so well known, should have deserved a commentary like this. The charge of immorality is so easily made and so difficult of disproof that it has been flung promiscuously at all the great men of history, including, in our own country,
Washington and Jefferson as well as Burr. In England, when Gladstone was more than seventy years of age, he once stopped to ask a question of a woman in the street. Within twenty-four hours the London clubs were humming with a sort of demoniac glee over the story that this aged and austere old gentleman was not above seeking common street amours.
And so with Aaron Burr to a great extent. That he was a man of strict morality it would be absurd to maintain. That he was a reckless and licentious profligate would be almost equally untrue. Mr. H. O. Merwin has very truly said:
Part of Burr’s reputation for profligacy was due, no doubt, to that vanity respecting women of which Davis himself speaks. He never refused to accept the parentage of a child.
“Why do you allow this woman to saddle you with her child when you KNOW you are not the father of it?” said a friend to him a few months before his death.
“Sir,” he replied, “when a lady does me the honor to name me the father of her child I trust I shall always be too gallant to show myself ungrateful for the favor.”
There are two curious legends relating to Aaron Burr. They serve to show that his reputation became such that he could not enjoy the society of a woman without having her regarded as his mistress.
When he was United States Senator from New York he lived in Philadelphia at the lodging-house of a Mrs. Payne, whose daughter, Dorothy Todd, was the very youthful widow of an officer. This young woman was rather free in her manners, and Burr was very responsive in his. At the time, however, nothing was thought of it; hut presently Burr brought to the house the serious and somewhat pedantic James Madison and introduced him to the hoyden.
Madison was then forty-seven years of age, a stranger to society, but gradually rising to a prominent position in politics–“the great little Madison,” as Burr rather lightly called him. Before very long he had proposed marriage to the young widow. She hesitated, and some one referred the matter to President Washington. The Father of his Country answered in what was perhaps the only opinion that he ever gave on the subject of matrimony. It is worth preserving because it shows that he had a sense of humor:
For my own part, I never did nor do I believe I ever shall give advice to a woman who is setting out on a matrimonial voyage … A woman very rarely asks an opinion or seeks advice on such an occasion till her mind is wholly made up, and then it is with the hope and expectation of obtaining a sanction, and not that she means to be governed by your disapproval.
Afterward when Dolly Madison with, her yellow turban and kittenish ways was making a sensation in Washington society some one recalled her old association with Burr. At once the story sprang to light that Burr had been her lover and that he had brought about the match with Madison as an easy way of getting rid of her.
There is another curious story which makes Martin Van Buren, eighth President of the United States, to have been the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr. There is no earthly reason for believing this, except that Burr sometimes stopped overnight at the tavern in Kinderhook which was kept by Van Buren’s putative father, and that Van Buren in later life showed an astuteness equal to that of Aaron Burr himself, so that he was called by his opponents “the fox of Kinderhook.” But, as Van Buren was born in December of the same year (1782) in which Burr was married to Theodosia Prevost, the story is utterly improbable when we remember, as we must, the ardent affection which Burr showed his wife, not only before their marriage, but afterward until her death.
Putting aside these purely spurious instances, as well as others cited by Mr. Parton, the fact remains that Aaron Burr, like Daniel Webster, found a great attraction in the society of women; that he could please them and fascinate them to an extraordinary degree; and that during his later life he must be held quite culpable in this respect. His love-making was ardent and rapid, as we shall afterward see in the case of his second marriage.
Many other stories are told of him. For instance, it is said that he once took a stage-coach from Jersey City to Philadelphia. The only other occupant was a woman of high standing and one whose family deeply hated Aaron Burr. Nevertheless, so the story goes, before they had reached Newark she was absolutely swayed by his charm of manner; and when the coach made its last stop before Philadelphia she voluntarily became his mistress.
It must also be said that, unlike those of Webster and Hamilton, his intrigues were never carried on with women of the lower sort. This may be held by some to deepen the charge against him; but more truly does it exonerate him, since it really means that in many cases these women of the world threw themselves at him and sought him as a lover, when otherwise he might never have thought of them.
That he was not heartless and indifferent to those who had loved him may be shown by the great care which he took to protect their names and reputations. Thus, on the day before his duel with Hamilton, he made a will in which he constituted his son-in-law as his executor. At the same time he wrote a sealed letter to Governor Allston in which he said:
If you can pardon and indulge a folly, I would suggest that Mme. —-, too well known under the name of Leonora, has claims on my recollection. She is now with her husband at Santiago, in Cuba.
Another fact has been turned to his discredit. From many women, in the course of his long life, he had received a great quantity of letters written by aristocratic hands on scented paper, and these letters he had never burned. Here again, perhaps, was shown the vanity of the man who loved love for its own sake. He kept all these papers in a huge iron-clamped chest, and he instructed Theodosia in case he should die to burn every letter which might injure any one.
After Theodosia’s death Burr gave the same instructions to Matthew L. Davis, who did, indeed, burn them, though he made their existence a means of blackening the character of Burr. He should have destroyed them unopened, and should never have mentioned them in his memoirs of the man who trusted him as a friend.
Such was Aaron Burr throughout a life which lasted for eighty years. His last romance, at the age of seventy-eight, is worth narrating because it has often been misunderstood.
Mme. Jumel was a Rhode Island girl who at seventeen years of age eloped with an English officer, Colonel Peter Croix. Her first husband died while she was still quite young, and she then married a French wine-merchant, Stephen Jumel, some twenty years her senior, but a man of much vigor and intelligence. M. Jumel made a considerable fortune in New York, owning a small merchant fleet; and after Napoleon’s downfall he and his wife went to Paris, where she made a great impression in the salons by her vivacity and wit and by her lavish expenditures.
Losing, however, part of what she and her husband possessed, Mme. Jumel returned to New York, bringing with her a great amount of furniture and paintings, with which she decorated the historic house still standing in the upper part of Manhattan Island–a mansion held by her in her own right. She managed her estate with much ability; and in 1828 M. Jumel returned to live with her in what was in those days a splendid villa.
Four years later, however, M. Jumel suffered an accident from which he died in a few days, leaving his wife still an attractive woman and not very much past her prime. Soon after she had occasion to seek for legal advice, and for this purpose visited the law-office of Aaron Burr. She had known him a good many years before; and, though he was now seventy-eight years of age, there was no perceptible change in him. He was still courtly in manner, tactful, and deferential, while physically he was straight, active, and vigorous.
A little later she invited him to a formal banquet, where he displayed all his charms and shone to great advantage. When he was about to lead her in to dinner, he said:
“I give my hand, madam; my heart has long been yours.”
These attentions he followed up with several other visits, and finally proposed that she should marry him. Much fluttered and no less flattered, she uttered a sort of “No” which was not likely to discourage a man like Aaron Burr.
“I shall come to you before very long,” he said, “accompanied by a clergyman; and then you will give me your hand because I want it.”
This rapid sort of wooing was pleasantly embarrassing. The lady rather liked it; and so, on an afternoon when the sun was shining and the leaves were rustling in the breeze, Burr drove up to Mme. Jumel’s mansion accompanied by Dr. Bogart–the very clergyman who had married him to his first wife fifty years before.
Mme. Jumel was now seriously disturbed, but her refusal was not a strong one. There were reasons why she should accept the offer. The great house was lonely. The management of her estate required a man’s advice. Moreover, she was under the spell of Burr’s fascination. Therefore she arrayed herself in one of her most magnificent Paris gowns; the members of her household and eight servants were called in and the ceremony was duly performed by Dr. Bogart. A banquet followed. A dozen cobwebbed bottles of wine were brought up from the cellar, and the marriage feast went on merrily until after midnight.
This marriage was a singular one from many points of view. It was strange that a man of seventy-eight should take by storm the affections of a woman so much younger than he–a woman of wealth and knowledge of the world. In the second place, it is odd that there was still another woman–a mere girl–who was so infatuated with Burr that when she was told of his marriage it nearly broke her heart. Finally, in the early part of that same year he had been accused of being the father of a new-born child, and in spite of his age every one believed the charge to be true. Here is a case that it would be hard to parallel.
The happiness of the newly married pair did not, however, last very long. They made a wedding journey into Connecticut, of which state Burr’s nephew was then Governor, and there Burr saw a monster bridge over the Connecticut River, in which his wife had shares, though they brought her little income. He suggested that she should transfer the investment, which, after all, was not a very large one, and place it in a venture in Texas which looked promising. The speculation turned out to be a loss, however, and this made Mrs. Burr extremely angry, the more so as she had reason to think that her ever-youthful husband had been engaged in flirting with the country girls near the Jumel mansion.
She was a woman of high spirit and had at times a violent temper. One day the post-master at what was then the village of Harlem was surprised to see Mrs. Burr drive up before the post-office in an open carriage. He came out to ask what she desired, and was surprised to find her in a violent temper and with an enormous horse-pistol on each cushion at her side.
“What do you wish, madam?” said he, rather mildly.
“What do I wish?” she cried. “Let me get at that villain Aaron Burr!”
Presently Burr seems to have succeeded in pacifying her; but in the end they separated, though she afterward always spoke most kindly of him. When he died, only about a year later, she is said to have burst into a flood of tears–another tribute to the fascination which Aaron Burr exercised through all his checkered life.
It is difficult to come to any fixed opinion regarding the moral character of Aaron Burr. As a soldier he was brave to the point of recklessness. As a political leader he was almost the equal of Jefferson and quite superior to Hamilton. As a man of the world he was highly accomplished, polished in manner, charming in conversation. He made friends easily, and he forgave his enemies with a broadmindedness that is unusual.
On the other hand, in his political career there was a touch of insincerity, and it can scarcely be denied that he used his charm too often to the injury of those women who could not resist his insinuating ways and the caressing notes of his rich voice. But as a husband, in his youth, he was devoted, affectionate, and loyal; while as a father he was little less than worshiped by the daughter whom he reared so carefully.
One of his biographers very truly says that no such wretch as Burr has been declared to be could have won and held the love of such a wife and such a daughter as Burr had.
When all the other witnesses have been heard, let the two Theodosias be summoned, and especially that daughter who showed toward him an affectionate veneration unsurpassed by any recorded in history or romance. Such an advocate as Theodosia the younger must avail in some degree, even though the culprit were brought before the bar of Heaven itself.
GEORGE IV. AND MRS. FITZHERBERT
In the last decade of the eighteenth century England was perhaps the most brilliant nation of the world. Other countries had been humbled by the splendid armies of France and were destined to be still further humbled by the emperor who came from Corsica. France had begun to seize the scepter of power; yet to this picture there was another side–fearful want and grievous poverty and the horrors of the Revolution. Russia was too far away, and was still considered too barbarous, for a brilliant court to flourish there. Prussia had the prestige that Frederick the Great won for her, but she was still a comparatively small state. Italy was in a condition of political chaos; the banks of the Rhine were running blood where the Austrian armies faced the gallant Frenchmen under the leadership of Moreau. But England, in spite of the loss of her American colonies, was rich and prosperous, and her invincible fleets were extending her empire over the seven seas.
At no time in modern England has the court at London seen so much real splendor or such fine manners. The royalist emigres who fled from France brought with them names and pedigrees that were older than the Crusades, and many of them were received with the frankest, freest English hospitality. If here and there some marquis or baron of ancient blood was perforce content to teach music to the daughters of tradesmen in suburban schools, nevertheless they were better off than they had been in France, harried by the savage gaze-hounds of the guillotine. Afterward, in the days of the Restoration, when they came back to their estates, they had probably learned more than one lesson from the bouledogues of Merry England, who had little tact, perhaps, but who were at any rate kindly and willing to share their goods with pinched and poverty-stricken foreigners.
The court, then, as has been said, was brilliant with notables from Continental countries, and with the historic wealth of the peerage of England. Only one cloud overspread it; and that was the mental condition of the king. We have become accustomed to think of George III as a dull creature, almost always hovering on the verge of that insanity which finally swept him into a dark obscurity; but Thackeray’s picture of him is absurdly untrue to the actual facts. George III. was by no means a dullard, nor was he a sort of beefy country squire who roved about the palace gardens with his unattractive spouse.
Obstinate enough he was, and ready for a combat with the rulers of the Continent or with his self-willed sons; but he was a man of brains and power, and Lord Rosebery has rightly described him as the most striking constitutional figure of his time. Had he retained his reason, and had his erratic and self-seeking son not succeeded him during his own lifetime, Great Britain might very possibly have entered upon other ways than those which opened to her after the downfall of Napoleon.
The real center of fashionable England, however, was not George III., but rather his son, subsequently George IV., who was made Prince of Wales three days after his birth, and who became prince regent during the insanity of the king. He was the leader of the social world, the fit companion of Beau Brummel and of a choice circle of rakes and fox-hunters who drank pottle-deep. Some called him “the first gentleman of Europe.” Others, who knew him better, described him as one who never kept his word to man or woman and who lacked the most elementary virtues.
Yet it was his good luck during the first years of his regency to be popular as few English kings have ever been. To his people he typified old England against revolutionary France; and his youth and gaiety made many like him. He drank and gambled; he kept packs of hounds and strings of horses; he ran deeply into debt that he might patronize the sports of that uproarious day. He was a gallant “Corinthian,” a haunter of dens where there were prize- fights and cock-fights, and there was hardly a doubtful resort in London where his face was not familiar.
He was much given to gallantry–not so much, as it seemed, for wantonness, but from sheer love of mirth and chivalry. For a time, with his chosen friends, such as Fox and Sheridan, he ventured into reckless intrigues that recalled the amours of his predecessor, Charles II. He had by no means the wit and courage of Charles; and, indeed, the house of Hanover lacked the outward show of chivalry which made the Stuarts shine with external splendor. But he was good-looking and stalwart, and when he had half a dozen robust comrades by his side he could assume a very manly appearance. Such was George IV. in his regency and in his prime. He made that period famous for its card-playing, its deep drinking, and for the dissolute conduct of its courtiers and noblemen no less than for the gallantry of its soldiers and its momentous victories on sea and land. It came, however, to be seen that his true achievements were in reality only escapades, that his wit was only folly, and his so-called “sensibility” was but sham. He invented buckles, striped waistcoats, and flamboyant collars, but he knew nothing of the principles of kingship or the laws by which a state is governed.
The fact that he had promiscuous affairs with women appealed at first to the popular sense of the romantic. It was not long, however, before these episodes were trampled down into the mire of vulgar scandal.
One of the first of them began when he sent a letter, signed “Florizel,” to a young actress, “Perdita” Robinson. Mrs. Robinson, whose maiden name was Mary Darby, and who was the original of famous portraits by Gainsborough and Reynolds, was a woman of beauty, talent, and temperament. George, wishing in every way to be “romantic,” insisted upon clandestine meetings on the Thames at Kew, with all the stage trappings of the popular novels–cloaks, veils, faces hidden, and armed watchers to warn her of approaching danger. Poor Perdita took this nonsense so seriously that she gave up her natural vocation for the stage, and forsook her husband, believing that the prince would never weary of her.
He did weary of her very soon, and, with the brutality of a man of such a type, turned her away with the promise of some money; after which he cut her in the Park and refused to speak to her again. As for the money, he may have meant to pay it, but Perdita had a long struggle before she succeeded in getting it. It may be assumed that the prince had to borrow it and that this obligation formed part of the debts which Parliament paid for him.
It is not necessary to number the other women whose heads he turned. They are too many for remembrance here, and they have no special significance, save one who, as is generally believed, became his wife so far as the church could make her so. An act of 1772 had made it illegal for any member of the English royal family to marry without the permission of the king. A marriage contracted without the king’s consent might be lawful in the eyes of the church, but the children born of it could not inherit any claim to the throne.
It may be remarked here that this withholding of permission was strictly enforced. Thus William IV., who succeeded George IV., was married, before his accession to the throne, to Mrs. Jordan (Dorothy Bland). Afterward he lawfully married a woman of royal birth who was known as Queen Adelaide.
There is an interesting story which tells how Queen Victoria came to be born because her father, the Duke of Kent, was practically forced to give up a morganatic union which he greatly preferred to a marriage arranged for him by Parliament. Except the Duke of Cambridge, the Duke of Kent was the only royal duke who was likely to have children in the regular line. The only daughter of George IV. had died in childhood. The Duke of Cumberland was for various reasons ineligible; the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV., was almost too old; and therefore, to insure the succession, the Duke of Kent was begged to marry a young and attractive woman, a princess of the house of Saxe-Coburg, who was ready for the honor. It was greatly to the Duke’s credit that he showed deep and sincere feeling in this matter. As he said himself in effect:
“This French lady has stood by me in hard times and in good times, too–why should I cast her off? She has been more than a wife to me. And what do I care for your plans in Parliament? Send over for one of the Stuarts–they are better men than the last lot of our fellows that you have had!”
In the end, however, he was wearied out and was persuaded to marry, but he insisted that a generous sum should be settled on the lady who had been so long his true companion, and to whom, no doubt, he gave many a wistful thought in his new but unfamiliar quarters in Kensington Palace, which was assigned as his residence.
Again, the second Duke of Cambridge, who died only a few years ago, greatly desired to marry a lady who was not of royal rank, though of fine breeding and of good birth. He besought his young cousin, as head of the family, to grant him this privilege of marriage; but Queen Victoria stubbornly refused. The duke was married according to the rites of the church, but he could not make his wife a duchess. The queen never quite forgave him for his partial defiance of her wishes, though the duke’s wife–she was usually spoken of as Mrs. FitzGeorge–was received almost everywhere, and two of her sons hold high rank in the British army and navy, respectively.
The one real love story in the life of George IV. is that which tells of his marriage with a lady who might well have been the wife of any king. This was Maria Anne Smythe, better known as Mrs. Fitzherbert, who was six years older than the young prince when she first met him in company with a body of gentlemen and ladies in 1784.
Maria Fitzherbert’s face was one which always displayed its best advantages. Her eyes were peculiarly languishing, and, as she had already been twice a widow, and was six years his senior, she had the advantage over a less experienced lover. Likewise, she was a Catholic, and so by another act of Parliament any marriage with her would be illegal. Yet just because of all these different objections the prince was doubly drawn to her, and was willing to sacrifice even the throne if he could but win her.
His father, the king, called him into the royal presence and said:
“George, it is time that you should settle down and insure the succession to the throne.”
“Sir,” replied the prince, “I prefer to resign the succession and let my brother have it, and that I should live as a private English gentleman.”
Mrs. Fitzherbert was not the sort of woman to give herself up readily to a morganatic connection. Moreover, she soon came to love Prince George too well to entangle him in a doubtful alliance with one of another faith than his. Not long after he first met her the prince, who was always given to private theatricals, sent messengers riding in hot haste to her house to tell her that he had stabbed himself, that he begged to see her, and that unless she came he would repeat the act. The lady yielded, and hurried to Carlton House, the prince’s residence; but she was prudent enough to take with her the Duchess of Devonshire, who was a reigning beauty of the court.
The scene which followed was theatrical rather than impressive.– The prince was found in his sleeping-chamber, pale and with his ruffles blood-stained. He played the part of a youthful and love- stricken wooer, vowing that he would marry the woman of his heart or stab himself again. In the presence of his messengers, who, with the duchess, were witnesses, he formally took the lady as his wife, while Lady Devonshire’s wedding-ring sealed the troth. The prince also acknowledged it in a document.
Mrs. Fitzherbert was, in fact, a woman of sound sense. Shortly after this scene of melodramatic intensity her wits came back to her, and she recognized that she had merely gone through a meaningless farce. So she sent back the prince’s document and the ring and hastened to the Continent, where he could not reach her, although his detectives followed her steps for a year.
At the last she yielded, however, and came home to marry the prince in such fashion as she could–a marriage of love, and surely one of morality, though not of parliamentary law. The ceremony was performed “in her own drawing-room in her house in London, in the presence of the officiating Protestant clergyman and two of her own nearest relatives.”
Such is the serious statement of Lord Stourton, who was Mrs. Fitzherbert’s cousin and confidant. The truth of it was never denied, and Mrs. Fitzherbert was always treated with respect, and even regarded as a person of great distinction. Nevertheless, on more than one occasion the prince had his friends in Parliament deny the marriage in order that his debts might be paid and new allowances issued to him by the Treasury.
George certainly felt himself a husband. Like any other married prince, he set himself to build a palace for his country home. While in search of some suitable spot he chanced to visit the “pretty fishing-village” of Brighton to see his uncle, the Duke of Cumberland. Doubtless he found it an attractive place, yet this may have been not so much because of its view of the sea as for the reason that Mrs. Fitzherbert had previously lived there.
However, in 1784 the prince sent down his chief cook to make arrangements for the next royal visit. The cook engaged a house on the spot where the Pavilion now stands, and from that time Brighton began to be an extremely fashionable place. The court doctors, giving advice that was agreeable, recommended their royal patient to take sea-bathing at Brighton. At once the place sprang into popularity.
At first the gentry were crowded into lodging-houses and the accommodations were primitive to a degree. But soon handsome villas arose on every side; hotels appeared; places of amusement were opened. The prince himself began to build a tasteless but showy structure, partly Chinese and partly Indian in style, on the fashionable promenade of the Steyne.
During his life with Mrs. Fitzherbert at Brighton the prince held what was practically a court. Hundreds of the aristocracy came down from London and made their temporary dwellings there; while thousands who were by no means of the court made the place what is now popularly called “London by the Sea.” There were the Duc de Chartres, of France; statesmen and rakes, like Fox, Sheridan, and the Earl of Barrymore; a very beautiful woman, named Mrs. Couch, a favorite singer at the opera, to whom the prince gave at one time jewels worth ten thousand pounds; and a sister of the Earl of Barrymore, who was as notorious as her brother. She often took the president’s chair at a club which George’s friends had organized and which she had christened the Hell Fire Club.
Such persons were not the only visitors at Brighton. Men of much more serious demeanor came down to visit the prince and brought with them quieter society. Nevertheless, for a considerable time the place was most noted for its wild scenes of revelry, into which George frequently entered, though his home life with Mrs. Fitzherbert at the Pavilion was a decorous one.
No one felt any doubt as to the marriage of the two persons, who seemed so much like a prince and a princess. Some of the people of the place addressed Mrs. Fitzherbert as “Mrs. Prince.” The old king and his wife, however, much deplored their son’s relation with her. This was partly due to the fact that Mrs. Fitzherbert was a Catholic and that she had received a number of French nuns who had been driven out of France at the time of the Revolution. But no less displeasure was caused by the prince’s racing and dicing, which swelled his debts to almost a million pounds, so that Parliament and, indeed, the sober part of England were set against him.
Of course, his marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert had no legal status; nor is there any reason for believing that she ever became a mother. She had no children by her former two husbands, and Lord Stourton testified positively that she never had either son or daughter by Prince George. Nevertheless, more than one American claimant has risen to advance some utterly visionary claim to the English throne by reason of alleged descent from Prince George and Mrs. Fitzherbert.
Neither William IV. nor Queen Victoria ever spent much time at Brighton. In King William’s case it was explained that the dampness of the Pavilion did not suit him; and as to Queen Victoria, it was said that she disliked the fact that buildings had been erected so as to cut off the view of the sea. It is quite likely, however, that the queen objected to the associations of the place, and did not care to be reminded of the time when her uncle had lived there so long in a morganatic state of marriage.
At length the time came when the king, Parliament, and the people at large insisted that the Prince of Wales should make a legal marriage, and a wife was selected for him in the person of Caroline, daughter of the Duke of Brunswick. This marriage took place exactly ten years after his wedding with the beautiful and gentle-mannered Mrs. Fitzherbert. With the latter he had known many days and hours of happiness. With Princess Caroline he had no happiness at all.
Prince George met her at the pier to greet her. It is said that as he took her hand he kissed her, and then, suddenly recoiling, he whispered to one of his friends:
“For God’s sake, George, give me a glass of brandy!”
Such an utterance was more brutal and barbaric than anything his bride could have conceived of, though it is probable, fortunately, that she did not understand him by reason of her ignorance of English.
We need not go through the unhappy story of this unsympathetic, neglected, rebellious wife. Her life with the prince soon became one of open warfare; but instead of leaving England she remained to set the kingdom in an uproar. As soon as his father died and he became king, George sued her for divorce. Half the people sided with the queen, while the rest regarded her as a vulgar creature who made love to her attendants and brought dishonor on the English throne. It was a sorry, sordid contrast between the young Prince George who had posed as a sort of cavalier and this now furious gray old man wrangling with his furious German wife.
Well might he look back to the time when he met Perdita in the moonlight on the Thames, or when he played the part of Florizel, or, better still, when he enjoyed the sincere and disinterested love of the gentle woman who was his wife in all but legal status. Caroline of Brunswick was thrust away from the king’s coronation. She took a house within sight of Westminster Abbey, so that she might make hag-like screeches to the mob and to the king as he passed by. Presently, in August, 1821, only a month after the coronation, she died, and her body was taken back to Brunswick for burial.
George himself reigned for nine years longer. When he died in 1830 his executor was the Duke of Wellington. The duke, in examining the late king’s private papers, found that he had kept with the greatest care every letter written to him by his morganatic wife. During his last illness she had sent him an affectionate missive which it is said George “read eagerly.” Mrs. Fitzherbert wished the duke to give up her letters; but he would do so only in return for those which he had written to her.
It was finally decided that it would be best to burn both his and hers. This work was carried out in Mrs. Fitzherbert’s own house by the lady, the duke, and the Earl of Albemarle.
Of George it may be said that he has left as memories behind him only three things that will be remembered. The first is the Pavilion at Brighton, with its absurdly oriental decorations, its minarets and flimsy towers. The second is the buckle which he invented and which Thackeray has immortalized with his biting satire. The last is the story of his marriage to Maria Fitzherbert, and of the influence exercised upon him by the affection of a good woman.
CHARLOTTE CORDAY AND ADAM LUX
Perhaps some readers will consider this story inconsistent with those that have preceded it. Yet, as it is little known to most readers and as it is perhaps unique in the history of romantic love, I cannot forbear relating it; for I believe that it is full of curious interest and pathetic power.
All those who have written of the French Revolution have paused in their chronicle of blood and flame to tell the episode of the peasant Royalist, Charlotte Corday; but in telling it they have often omitted the one part of the story that is personal and not political. The tragic record of this French girl and her self- sacrifice has been told a thousand times by writers in many languages; yet almost all of them have neglected the brief romance which followed her daring deed and which was consummated after her death upon the guillotine. It is worth our while to speak first of Charlotte herself and of the man she slew, and then to tell that other tale which ought always to be entwined with her great deed of daring.
Charlotte Corday–Marie Anne Charlotte Corday d’Armand–was a native of Normandy, and was descended, as her name implies, from noble ancestors. Her forefathers, indeed, had been statesmen, civil rulers, and soldiers, and among them was numbered the famous poet Corneille, whom the French rank with Shakespeare. But a century or more of vicissitudes had reduced her branch of the family almost to the position of peasants–a fact which partly justifies the name that some give her when they call her “the Jeanne d’Arc of the Revolution.”
She did not, however, spend her girlish years amid the fields and woods tending her sheep, as did the other Jeanne d’Arc; but she was placed in charge of the sisters in a convent, and from them she received such education as she had. She was a lonely child, and her thoughts turned inward, brooding over many things.
After she had left the convent she was sent to live with an aunt. Here she devoted herself to reading over and over the few books which the house contained. These consisted largely of the deistic writers, especially Voltaire, and to some extent they destroyed her convent faith, though it is not likely that she understood them very fully.
More to her taste was a copy of Plutarch’s Lives. These famous stories fascinated her. They told her of battle and siege, of intrigue and heroism, and of that romantic love of country which led men to throw away their lives for the sake of a whole people. Brutus and Regulus were her heroes. To die for the many seemed to her the most glorious end that any one could seek. When she thought of it she thrilled with a sort of ecstasy, and longed with all the passion of her nature that such a glorious fate might be her own.
Charlotte had nearly come to womanhood at the time when the French Revolution first broke out. Royalist though she had been in her sympathies, she felt the justice of the people’s cause. She had seen the suffering of the peasantry, the brutality of the tax- gatherers, and all the oppression of the old regime. But what she hoped for was a democracy of order and equality and peace. Could the king reign as a constitutional monarch rather than as a despot, this was all for which she cared.
In Normandy, where she lived, were many of those moderate republicans known as Girondists, who felt as she did and who hoped for the same peaceful end to the great outbreak. On the other hand, in Paris, the party of the Mountain, as it was called, ruled with a savage violence that soon was to culminate in the Reign of Terror. Already the guillotine ran red with noble blood. Already the king had bowed his head to the fatal knife. Already the threat had gone forth that a mere breath of suspicion or a pointed finger might be enough to lead men and women to a gory death.
In her quiet home near Caen Charlotte Corday heard as from afar the story of this dreadful saturnalia of assassination which was making Paris a city of bloody mist. Men and women of the Girondist party came to tell her of the hideous deeds that were perpetrated there. All these horrors gradually wove themselves in the young girl’s imagination around the sinister and repulsive figure of Jean Paul Marat. She knew nothing of his associates, Danton and Robespierre. It was in Marat alone that she saw the monster who sent innocent thousands to their graves, and who reveled like some arch-fiend in murder and gruesome death.
In his earlier years Marat had been a very different figure–an accomplished physician, the friend of nobles, a man of science and original thought, so that he was nearly elected to the Academy of Sciences. His studies in electricity gained for him the admiration of Benjamin Franklin and the praise of Goethe. But when he turned to politics he left all this career behind him. He plunged into the very mire of red republicanism, and even there he was for a time so much hated that he sought refuge in London to save his life.
On his return he was hunted by his enemies, so that his only place of refuge was in the sewers and drains of Paris. A woman, one Simonne Evrard, helped him to escape his pursuers. In the sewers, however, he contracted a dreadful skin-disease from which he never afterward recovered, and which was extremely painful as well as shocking to behold.
It is small wonder that the stories about Marat circulated through the provinces made him seem more a devil than a man. His vindictiveness against the Girondists brought all of this straight home to Charlotte Corday and led her to dream of acting the part of Brutus, so that she might free her country from this hideous tyrant.