Josephine, however, refused to become clever, refused to scheme, and, therefore, as was inevitable, Beauharnais grew weary of her, weary of his home, and once again rejoined the magic, brilliant circle of the Paris half-world, that wonderful collection of dazzling women who were ever plotting and ever scheming around the mysterious temples of place and power.'
Steadily he drifted downwards. In vain his parents implored; in vain M. de la Pagerie protested. Alexandre had grown weary of his wife; he hated his home, and added insult to injury. He accused her of infidelity, and once he dared even to deny the parentage of Hortense, Josephine's second child and his own image.
In 1788 he instituted legal proceedings against his wife, but even the Parlement de Paris was not insensible to justice, and the vicomte failed to win his case.
For his wife to live with him, however, was now impossible. She returned to Martinique, and there, amid the scenes of her childhood, made her home until at length the spectre of her husband, face to face with death, melted the image of his cruelty. His desperate and urgent plea for a reconciliation convulsed her with a wave of wifely feeling, and she hastened back to France to comfort or, perhaps, to save him.
Alexandre, patriot though he declared himself to be, was too moderate in his views for men like Robespierre. In his veins, moreover, blue blood flowed; he was a noble, he was suspected, and on
July 23rd, 1794, the guillotine claimed him among the number of its victims.
Josephine escaped only by a miracle, and by adopting the lustful 'tenets of the " new religion." Liberte, egalite, frater-nite! Never have three fair words been more degraded ! Josephine, a defenceless woman, was at the mercy of the patriots. Her property, her all, were in their power. On men such as Hoche, Barras, and Tallien she depended for her very right to live; and live she must, for she loved life, and was shamelessly extravagant.
These men taught her how to live and how to gratify each of her fancy's fleet desires, and once she had learned the lesson, never could she forget it.
Love seemed to be dead in France. On every side brute passion exercised its ghastly sway. Josephine forgot the power of love and sentiment; and when she met Bonaparte, failed to understand the ardour of his passion; failed to realise that still a man could love in France and look to woman for a helpmate and a friend.
Her first meeting with " the little general " was delightfully dramatic. Bonaparte, as Commandant of Paris, commanded that all Parisians should be disarmed. Paris demurred, but dared not disobey; and among those who came to deliver up their arms was Eugene de Beau-harnais. He brought his only weapon, the sword of his dead father, whose memory he ardently revered. Bonaparte himself was a witness of the scene. He saw the boy's tears, under-stood and admired their meaning, and allowed Eugene to depart carrying his sword " by special permission of the commander himself."
On the following day the Vicomtesse de Beauharnais called in person on the general, and thanked him for the favour. Bonaparte was inordinately flattered, and succumbed immediately - he who knew not the meaning of defeat - to the charm and fascination of the widow. He had seen Josephine, and he loved her!
Josephine recognised this and encouraged the general, not because she loved him, but because she realised his greatness, and saw in him a rising " star."
Bonaparte's letters proclaim the ardour of his wooing. They pulsate with passion. Indeed, at seven o'clock one morning, he wrote:
"My waking thoughts are all of thee. Your portrait and the remembrances of last night's delirium have robbed me of my senses of repose. Sweet and incomparable Josephine, what an extraordinary influence you have over my heart ! Are you vexed ? Did I see you sad ? Are you ill at ease ? My soul is broken with grief, and there is no rest for your lover. But there is more for me when, delivering ourselves up to the deep feelings which master me, I breathe upon your lips, upon our hearts a flame which burns me up. . . . Mio dolce amor, accept a thousand kisses, but give me none, for they fire my blood."
Ultimately, the marriage took place before a Paris registrar on March 9th, 1796, and Josephine found herself wedded to the greatest man the world has ever known, the most devout of husband-lovers.
But this was the man with whose affection she thought fit to play; the man whose love and whose esteem she threw away as worthless. One word, one glance. would have made him her slave for ever, would have bound him to her with a chain which even death could not have severed; but she refused to give it to him. In her the flame of pleasure had consumed the flame of love.
Napoleon's last farewell to Josephine From the painting by I.aslette J. Pott
But even then, when, weary after battle, recklessly he had deserted camp and army to greet her, he had occasion to write:
"I get to Milan; I fling myself into your room; I have left all in order to see you, to clasp you in my arms. . . . You were not there. You gad about the town amid junketings. . . . You care no longer for your Napoleon. A passing fancy made you love him; your inconstancy now renders him indifferent to you. Used to perils, I know the remedy for weariness and the ills of life. The ill-luck that I now suffer is past my calculation; I should not have to reckon with that. I shall be here till the evening of the 29th, but don't alter your plans. Have your fling of pleasure; happiness was made for you. The whole world pleases itself to make you happy, but your husband - he alone is very, very unhappy."
Moreover, later, when as the conqueror of nations Bonaparte returned to Paris, Josephine would not forsake the charms of Italy to grace his triumph. Throughout the course of his Egyptian expedition, again, Bonaparte was in an anguish of fears and doubt. In his mind he saw the image of a faithless wife; he could not blot it out. And that image, alas ! was not the mere fancy of a jealous brain.
Josephine's fickleness now, as in the days of her widowhood, was merely a matter of policy. She loved life. For no man, for no ideal, would she make sacrifices. Her husband was hated by the Government; it was more than doubtful if he would return safely from the East. At all cost, therefore, her own position must be made secure.
But Bonaparte did return, and his return is one of the most dramatic incidents in history.
When the news of his approach reached Paris, Josephine was dining with the Gohiers, her husband's bitterest enemies. Immediately she sprang from the table, summoned her carriage, and bade the postillions hasten with all speed to her house in the Rue de la Victoire. She hoped to get there first, but her husband had forestalled her, and when she arrived he was closeted in his study. He refused to see her, although he would, as he himself declared, have given all his glory to know that she had been a faithful wife.
At length the tearful intercession of her children melted his heart, and he received his wife, a contrite woman. At last Josephine realised the splendour of Napoleon's passion and the greatness of his nature, and she loved him, but loved too late; for although Napoleon forgave her everything, and had her crowned his empress, his faith had been shaken to its very roots. His eyes had been opened, and the end was now at hand.
To the emperor the need for an heir was imperative, and Josephine had borne him no son. He had a mission to fulfil, and must become the founder of a mighty dynasty to carry on his work and recivilise the world. On one side Napoleon saw glory, fame, and empire; on the other, a faithless wife whom he adored. Between them he had to choose, and on December 14th, 1809, he published his decision.
"The political interests of my monarchy, the desires of my people, require that I should leave behind me heirs to occupy the throne upon which Providence has placed me. For years I have given up hope of children by my marriage with my well-beloved Josephine, and it is this fact, and this alone, which causes me to renounce her whom I love, believing that it is for the good of my country and my subjects. I have no cause for complaint; on the contrary, I have nothing but kindness in my heart for her who for thirteen years has been my wife."
The Senate then annulled the act of marriage, and Josephine retired to La Malmaison, but carried with her the proud title, Empress Crowned.
In April, 1814, she heard the news of the Emperor's abdication. His downfall grieved her greatly, and on May 29th she breathed her last.
"Sorrow," said the doctor, "and anxiety at your Majesty's fallen fortunes."
"Ah," replied Napoleon, "good Josephine! So she spoke of me. Good woman ! She loved me truly."
Then he went to La Malmaison, and shut himself in the room where she had died whom he had loved.