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CHAPTER III
Brilliant success of Lisette—Love of her art—The Vernet—Life in Paris before the Revolution—Mme. Geoffrin—Marriage of Lisette to M. Le Brun—A terrible prediction.
Capital letter I

IN after life Mme. Le Brun used to say that her girlhood had not been like that of other young girls. And indeed it was not. By the time she was fifteen she was already not only a celebrated portrait painter, but very much sought after in society. A portrait of her mother, which she painted when she was not yet fifteen, excited so much admiration that the Duchesse de Chartres, who had often looked at her with interest from the gardens of the Palais Royal, opposite which she lived, sent for her to paint her portrait, and was so delighted with the pretty, gentle girl whose talents were so extraordinary that she spoke of her to all her friends.

The beautiful Comtesse de Brionne and her daughter, the Princesse de Lorraine, who was also very pretty, then came to call on her, and their visit was followed by those of all the court and faubourg Saint Germain. She also knew all the great artists [30] and literary people, and had more invitations than she could accept.

In her brilliant career, although the odious step-father was still a great disadvantage and annoyance, it was impossible that he could inflict much of his company upon her, full and absorbed as her life now was with her professional work and social engagements. The most celebrated foreign visitors to Paris generally came to see her, amongst the first of whom were Count Orloff, one of the assassins of Peter III., whose colossal height and the enormous diamond in his ring seem to have made a great impression upon her; and Count Schouvaloff, Grand Chamberlain, who had been one of the lovers of the Empress Elizabeth II., but was now a man of sixty, extremely courteous, pleasant, and a great favourite in French society.

Her first great dinner-party was at the house of the sculptor Le Moine, where she met chiefly artists and literary people. It was the custom to sing at dessert, a terrible ordeal for young girls, whose alarm often spoilt their song, but who were obliged to sing all the same.

Joseph Vernet had a little son of whose talent for drawing he was very proud; and one day at a party where his friends joked him on his infatuation, he sent for the child, gave him a pencil and paper, and told him to draw.

He began at once to draw a horse so well and so boldly that murmurs arose.

“Well! Very well! But he has begun too low down, he will have no room for the legs.”

[31]

The boy, however, drew on with unconcern, finished the body of the horse, drew the upper portion of the legs, and then with a few strokes of the pencil indicated water at the bottom of the sheet, and gave the impression of a horse bathing his legs and feet. [12]

But as dinner-parties then took place in the day-time, often as early as two o’clock, Lisette soon found it impossible to spare the time to go to them. What finally decided her to give them up was an absurd contretemps that happened one day when she was going to dine with the Princesse de Rohan-Rochefort. Just as she was dressed in a white satin dress she was wearing for the first time, and ready to get into the carriage, she, like her father in former days, remembered that she wished to look again at a picture she was painting, and going into her studio sat down upon a chair which stood before her easel without noticing that her palette was upon it. The consequences were of course far more disastrous than what had befallen her father; it was impossible to go to the party, and after this she declined as a rule all except evening invitations, of which she had even more than enough.

These evening parties were usually delightful; those of the Princesse de Rohan-Rochefort were especially so. The intimate friends of the Princess, the Comtesse de Brionne, Princesse de Lorraine, Duc de Choiseul, Duc de Lauzun, Cardinal de Rohan, and M. de Rulhières, a distinguished literary [32] man, were always present, and other pleasant and interesting people were to be met there.

The evenings were spent in brilliant conversation and music, supper was at half-past ten, ten or twelve guests being the usual number at the table.

It speaks well for Lisette that her head was not the least turned and her reputation blameless, considering that at an age when girls in our own day are at their lessons in the schoolroom, she, young, pretty, attractive, and celebrated, was constantly thrown into a society the most corrupt and the most fascinating that has perhaps ever existed.

But although fully enjoying the amusement and admiration that fell to her lot, she passed unscathed through the temptations and dangers around her. The strength and devotion of her religious principles, the deep love of her art, which was the ruling passion of her life, her affection for her mother, who was always with her, and to whom she confided all her affairs, were her only safeguards.

She was constantly surrounded by perils and temptations which to many would have been irresistible. Admiring eyes followed her at the theatre, people crowded round her in the gardens and places of entertainment, men of rank who wanted an opportunity of making love to her had their portraits painted by her for that purpose; but she treated them all with indifference, and when she noticed that their looks and glances were too expressive she would coolly remark: “I am painting your eyes now,” or would insist on the portrait being done with the eyes looking in another direction.

[33]

The Marquis de Choiseul had just married a very pretty American of sixteen years old, which did not prevent his entertaining a violent passion for Lisette, and trying to make love to her on all possible occasions, but greatly increased her indignation at his doing so.

In fact she had given her whole heart to her work. She thought and dreamed of nothing but painting, her career as an artist was her life, and her affection for her mother, her brother, and her friends sufficed for her domestic happiness; she wanted neither love intrigues nor even marriage to disturb the state of things she found so entirely satisfactory.

So little did the idea of love enter into her life that until after her marriage she had never read a single novel. Then she read “Clarissa Harlowe,” by way of a beginning, and found it intensely interesting. Before, she only read Lives of the Saints, and various religious or instructive books.

It is difficult for those who are accustomed to think of Paris only as it is now, to picture to themselves at all what it was like in the eighteenth century; for until years after the Revolution it was, to all intents and purposes, a medi?val city.

Paris without the wide streets of enormous houses, the broad, shady boulevards, the magnificent shops and crowded pavements, the glare and wealth and luxury of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; Paris of old France, of the Monarchy, with its ancient towers and buildings, its great h?tels and convents with vast gardens above whose high walls rose stately trees; its narrow, crooked, ill-paved [34] streets, mostly unsafe to walk in after dusk, through which troops of cavalry clattered in gay uniforms, scattering the foot-passengers right and left, and magnificent coaches drawn by four, six, or eight horses lumbered heavily along.

The fêtes and pageants of the Church and court were most gorgeous and impressive. Even to see the King, royal family and court set off for Versailles, Fontainebleau, or any other of the country palaces was a splendid spectacle, the immense number of state coaches which conveyed the King, [13] the Dauphin, [14] Mesdames de France, [15] their numerous households and those of the other Princes of the blood, made a procession which seemed interminable. It was the custom that on these occasions the court should be in full dress, and Mme. Le Brun, in her “Souvenirs,” mentions that a few years later, after her marriage, she went to see the last of these departures in state for Fontainebleau, and observes that the Queen, the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, covered with diamonds which flashed in the sunshine, and with her regal air and majestic beauty, looked like a goddess surrounded by her nymphs. [16]

The Parisians delighted in any shows or festivities, and the royal family were received with acclamations whenever they appeared from the mob, which twenty years later was yelling and howling with savage fury for their destruction.

[35]

Arnault, in his memoirs, relates that he was brought up at Versailles, where he was at school from 1772 to 1776, and often saw Louis XV. pass in his carriage. The King had a calm, noble face and very thick eyebrows. He took not the slightest notice of the shouts of Vive le roi from the boys drawn up in a line, or from the people; neither did Louis XVI. when he succeeded him.

A post in one of the royal households was an object of general ambition. Duruflé, though a poet and well-known literary man who had received a prize from the Academy, applied for and obtained the appointment of valet e chambre to the young Comte de Provence, second grandson of the King, afterwards Louis XVIII., and was in consequence obliged to put on his stockings, in doing which he accidentally hurt him.

“How stupid you are!” cried the young prince, angrily.

“I did not know, Monsieur,” replied he, “that one was stupid because one did not put on a stocking well.”

“People are stupid,” answered the prince, “who have not the sense to do properly what they undertake to do.”

Duruflé, who did not like this sort of thing, hastened to sell the post he had been so anxious to get. [17]

Most people at that time, like those before the flood, had no idea of the possibility of the coming destruction.

Only the encyclop?dists and such persons of advanced opinions had any presentiments of the [36] overwhelming changes at hand, and they were far from anticipating the horrible calamities and crimes they were helping to bring about.

Their great stronghold was the salon of Mme. Geoffrin, where all the radical, atheist, and philosophic parties congregated. D’Alembert, Condorcet, Turgot, Diderot, Morellet, Marmontel, and many other celebrated names were amongst the intimate friends of the singular woman, who although possessing neither rank, beauty, talent, nor any particular gift, had yet succeeded in establishing a salon celebrated not only in France but all over Europe. Owing to her want of rank she could not be presented at court, and yet amongst her guests were many of the greatest names in France, members of the royal family, strangers of rank and distinction. She knew nothing of art or literature, but her Monday dinners and evenings were the resort of all the first artists of the day, and her Wednesdays of the literary and political world.

Her salon had been famous from 1750, before Lisette was born, and now, as an old woman, she came to visit the young girl of whose artistic genius she had heard enough to excite her curiosity. She arrived in the morning and expressed great admiration for the beauty and talent of her young hostess.

To Lisette she seemed to be about a hundred years of age, though she was not really very old, but her costume, a dark grey dress and a cap over which she wore a large hood tied under her chin, and her bent figure, increased the appearance of age.

Mme. Geoffrin [18] was born 1699: her father a [37] valet de chambre of the Dauphin. He and her mother died young and left her and her brother to the guardianship of their grandmother, a certain Mme. Chemineau, a woman of strong, upright character, and a devout Catholic, but narrow and without much education. She brought up her grandchildren with care and affection, and married the girl when about fourteen to M. Geoffrin, a rich and worthy commercial man of forty-eight. With him Thérèse lived in tranquil obscurity until she was about thirty, when she became acquainted with the celebrated Mlle. Tencin, sister of the Cardinal, over whose house and salon she presided, and who, like Mme. Geoffrin, lived in the rue St. Honoré.

M. Geoffrin did not altogether approve of his wife’s perpetual presence at the h?tel Tencin, which had by no means a good reputation; and when she also began to receive in her own house a few of the literary men whom she met there, philosophers, freethinkers, and various persons upon whom he looked with suspicion, he at first strongly objected. But it was useless. His wife had found the sixteen years of her married life remarkably dull; she had at length, by good fortune, discovered the means of transforming her monotonous existence into one full of interest, and the obscurity which had hitherto been her lot into an increasing celebrity. She turned a deaf ear to his remonstrances, and after a good deal of dissension and quarrelling the husband gave way and contented himself with looking after the household and being a silent guest at the famous dinners given by his wife, until at length, on some one asking her what had become of the old gentleman [38] who was always there and never spoke, she replied—

“It was my husband; he is dead.”

Although stupid, M. Geoffrin was harmless, good, and charitable. Their only child, the Marquise de la Ferté Imbault, adored her father, whom she preferred to her mother. She was a pretty, high-spirited girl, an ardent Catholic, hated her mother’s atheist friends, and always declared that she had forced her into her marriage, which, although a great one, was not a happy one.

When Lisette was about twenty, her step-father retired from business and took an apartment in the rue de Cléry in a large house called h?tel Lubert, which had recently been bought by the well-known picture dealer, M. Le Brun.

Lisette was enchanted at this, as she knew that M. Le Brun had rooms full of the most splendid pictures of all the different schools, to which she would thus have constant access. And her anticipations were more than realised, for M. Le Brun was completely fascinated by her, and only too delighted not only to show her the pictures, but to lend her any she liked to copy.

For six months she worked with enthusiasm, perfectly happy and engrossed with her painting, never noticing that her landlord, who was a good-looking, pleasant, but exceedingly dissipated man, was paying her great attention, having fallen violently in love with her.

It was therefore a surprise, and not altogether an agreeable one, when at the end of the six months he asked for her mother’s consent to marry her.

[39]

Lisette at first wished to refuse this offer. She did not at all dislike M. Le Brun, but she was by no means in love with him, and as she could make plenty of money by her profession, she had no anxiety about the future and no occasion to make a mariage de convenance. But her mother, who seems to have had the talent for doing always the wrong thing, and who fancied that M. Le Brun was very rich, did not cease to persecute her by constant representations and entreaties not to refuse such an excellent parti, and she was still more influenced by the desire to escape from her step-father, who, now that he had no occupation, was more at home and more intolerable than ever.

So after much hesitation she consented, but so reluctantly, that even on her way to the church where the marriage was to be celebrated, [19] she still doubted and said to herself, “Shall I say Yes or No?” The wedding, however, took place, and she even agreed to its being a private one, and being kept secret for some time, because M. Le Brun was engaged to the daughter of a Dutchman with whom he had considerable dealings in pictures, and whom he continued to deceive in this matter until their business affairs were finished.

The dishonourable nature of this transaction does not seem to have occurred either to her mother or to Lisette herself. She was rather glad to keep her own name a little longer, but not at all pleased when, it being rumoured that she was engaged to M. Le Brun, everybody began to warn her on no account to marry him.

[40]

M. Auber, jeweller to the Crown, said: “You had better fasten a stone to your neck and throw yourself into the river than marry Le Brun.”

The Duchesse d’Aremberg, Mme. de Canillac, and Mme. de Souza, then Ambassadress to Portugal, all young and pretty, all friends of Lisette’s, came to warn her not to marry the man whose wife she had already been for a fortnight.

“In Heaven’s name don’t marry him,” cried the Duchess. “You will be miserable.”

And they proceeded to tell her a number of stories, many of which she did not believe, until she found out to her cost that they were true; but which, nevertheless, filled her mind with uneasy suspicions; while her mother sat by with tears in her eyes, repenting of the new folly by which she had again ruined the happiness of her child.

However, there was no help for it. The marriage was shortly acknowledged, and Lisette, whose mind was full of her painting, did not allow her spirits to be depressed; more especially as M. Le Brun, although he gambled and ran after other women, was not disagreeable or ill-tempered like her step-father, from whose odious presence she was now set free. Her husband spent all the money she made, and even persuaded her to take pupils, but she did not much mind. She never cared about money, and she made great friends with her pupils, many of whom were older than herself. They put up a swing, fastened to the beams in the roof of the studio, with which they amused themselves at intervals during the lesson.

During the March that followed the marriage a [41] kind of mission or religious revival went on at Paris; a sort of wave of religious devotion seemed to have arisen in opposition to the atheism and irreligion of the day. Notre Dame and most of the other churches were thronged during the frequent services, religious processions passed through the streets amidst excited crowds, friars preached and people knelt around them regardless of the bitterly cold weather. Strange to say, one of those who fell victims to their imprudence was Mme. Geoffrin, who, in spite of her infidel friends and surroundings, had never really abandoned her belief in God, or the practice of her religious duties, but had always gone secretly to mass, retained a seat in the Church of the Capucines, and an apartment in a convent to which she occasionally retired to spend a retreat. A chill she got at this mission brought on an attack of apoplexy, and she remained partly paralysed during the remaining year of her life. Her daughter, the Marquise de la Ferté Imbault, took devoted care of her, refusing to allow any of her infidel friends to visit her, and only admitting those whose opinions were not irreligious.

There was at this same time a perfect rage for fortune-telling, second sight, and every sort of occult knowledge and experiences.

The Comtesses de Flahault and de Marigny, two sisters, both young, thoughtless, and eager for adventures, were anxious to see and consult a certain wizard, then very much the fashion, about whom their curiosity was greatly aroused by the stories told of him.

[42]

It was not altogether easy in those days for two women of their age and class to go out unattended and unseen, and if they had been discovered it would have caused gossip and scandal. So one dark night they disguised themselves as grisettes, put on large cloaks with hoods and let themselves out through a side door in the garden of the h?tel. After a long walk they arrived, very tired and rather frightened, at a dirty house in a bad quarter, on the fifth floor of which the wizard lived. They rang a dirty-looking bell, a dingy servant appeared with a smoky lamp, and led them into a dimly-lighted room adorned with deaths’ heads and other weird-looking symbols. As they looked round them with misgiving a concealed door suddenly opened and the wizard stood before them dressed in a long flame-coloured robe, with a black mask, and began to make passes in the air with an ivory wand, using strange words they could not understand, while blue sulphur flames played around him.

The two sisters clung to each other in terror, but the man, who saw quite well that they were no grisettes, came forward respectfully, saying to Mme. de Marigny, “Alas! Mme. la Comtesse, why consult destiny? It is pitiless. Nothing will succeed with you; you will die young.”

With a cry of alarm she tried to draw her sister away, but the wizard, taking her hand, seemed to study it carefully, and suddenly dropped it with a strange exclamation.

“Speak,” said the Comtesse de Flahault. “Speak! Whatever my future is to be, let me know it. Tell [43] me. I have strength and courage to hear. Besides, who can assure me that what you say is true?”

“Have you then such a love of falsehood, Madame, that you must have it at any price? Poor woman! she has not the courage to say she believes and fears.”

“Well, yes! I believe and am afraid. Will you speak now?”

The sorcerer hesitated, and only after much persuasion said slowly and gravely—

“Monsieur le Comte, your husband, will lose his head on the scaffold; you will leave France to live without resources in a foreign land; you will work for your living, but after long years of exile you will return to France. You will marry an ambassador, but you will have other vicissitudes.”

Such prophecies in the height of their prosperity seemed so absurd that they laughed, gave the wizard a large fee, and returned home, thinking the whole adventure very amusing.

However, the predictions were fulfilled. Mme. de Marigny, after many misfortunes, died young. The Comte de Flahault was guillotined during the Terror, and the Comtesse escaped with her son to England, where she lived in great poverty in a village near London, until a friend of hers, the Marquis ——, also an emigré, suggested to her that she should write a novel. That same night she began “Adèle de Senanges,” which she sold for £100 to a publisher in London, and after which she continued by her writing to support herself and [44] educate her boy at a good English school. When she returned to France she lived at a small h?tel in an out-of-the-way part of Paris until she married M. de Souza, the Portuguese Ambassador.


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