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首页 » 经典英文小说 » Heroines of French Society » CHAPTER V
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The theatre—Raincy—Chantilly—Calonne—Attempt to ruin the reputation of Mme. Le Brun—Two deplorable marriages—Fate of Mme. Chalgrin—Under the shadow of death—Mme. Du Barry.
Capital letter T

THE theatre was a passion with Mme. Le Brun, and all the more interesting to her from her friendships with some of the chief actors and actresses, and her acquaintance with most of them, from the great geniuses such as Talma, Mlle. Mars, and Mlle. Clairon to the débutantes like Mlle. Rancourt, whose career she watched with sympathetic interest. For Mme. Dugazon, sister of Mme. Vestris and aunt of the famous dancer Vestris, she had an unmixed admiration; she was a gifted artist and a Royalist heart and soul. One evening when Mme. Dugazon was playing a soubrette, in which part came a duet with a valet, who sang:
“J’aime mon ma?tre tendrement,”

to which she had to answer:
“Ah, comme j’aime ma ma?tresse;”

as she sang these words she laid her hand upon [61] her heart and, turning to the Queen’s box, bowed profoundly. As this was in the beginning of the Revolution, there were many who wished to revenge themselves in consequence, and tried to force her to sing one of the horrible revolutionary songs which were then to be heard constantly upon the stage. She refused indignantly, and left the theatre. Her husband, Dugazon, the comic actor, on the contrary, played an atrocious part during the Revolution. Although he had been loaded with benefits by the royal family, especially the Comte d’Artois, he was one of those who pursued them to Varennes. Mme. Le Brun was told by an eye-witness that he had seen this wretch at the door of the King’s carriage with a gun upon his shoulder.

It was impossible to spare much time to be absent from Paris, but Mme. Le Brun often spent two or three days at the magnificent chateaux to which she was invited, either to paint a portrait or simply as a guest.

For the former reason she spent some time at Raincy, [25] then the residence of the Duke of Orléans, father of Philippe-égalité, where she painted his portrait, and that of his morganatic wife, Mme. de Montesson. While she was there the old Princesse de Conti came one day to see Mme. de Montesson, and much to her surprise always addressed Mme. Le Brun as “Mademoiselle.” As it was shortly before the birth of her first child, this rather startled her, and she then recollected that it [62] had been the custom in former days for grandees of the court so to address their inferiors. It was a survival that she never met with but upon this occasion, as it had quite come to an end with Louis XV. Mme. Le Brun never cared to stay at Raincy, which she found uncongenial; but she delighted in several of the other chateaux where she stayed, above all in Chantilly, where the Prince de Condé gave the most magnificent fêtes, and where the grandeur of the chateau and the beauty of the gardens, lakes, and woods fascinated her.

Another place at which she liked staying was Gennevilliers, which belonged to the Comte de Vaudreuil, a great friend of hers, and one of the subjects of malicious gossip about her. Gennevilliers was not so picturesque as the other places, but there was an excellent private theatre. The Comte d’Artois and all his society always came to the representations there.

The last at which Mme. Le Brun was present was the Mariage de Figaro, played by the actors of the Comédie Fran?aise; but, as she observes in one of her letters, Beaumarchais [26] must have intolerably tormented M. de Vaudreuil to induce him to allow the production of a piece so improper in every respect. Dialogue, couplets, all were directed against the court, many belonging to which were present, besides the Comte d’Artois himself. Everybody was uncomfortable and embarrassed except Beaumarchais [27] himself, who had no manners and [63] was beside himself with vanity and conceit, running and fussing to and fro, giving himself absurd airs, and when some one complained of the heat, breaking the windows with his stick instead of opening them.

Shortly after this he called upon the Comte de Vaudreuil at Versailles one morning just after he was up, and confided to him a financial scheme by which he expected enormous profit, ending by offering M. de Vaudreuil a large sum of money if he would undertake to make it succeed.

The Count listened quietly to all he said, and then replied—

“Monsieur de Beaumarchais, you could not have come at a more favourable moment; for I have had a very good night, I have a good digestion, and I never felt better than I do to-day. If you had made me such a proposal yesterday I should have had you thrown out of the window.”

Another of the people declared to be in love with Mme. Le Brun, and about whom there was so much gossip as to cause her serious annoyance, was M. de Calonne, the brilliant, extravagant, fascinating Finance Minister of Louis XVI. [28]

What made this all the more provoking was that M. de Calonne was not even, like M. de Vaudreuil, [64] a great friend of hers. She did not know him at all intimately, and in fact only once went to a party given by him at the Ministère des finances, and that was because the soirée was in honour of Prince Henry of Prussia, who was constantly at her house. The splendid portrait she painted of Calonne was exhibited in the Salon of 1786. Mlle. Arnould remarked on seeing it, “Mme. Le Brun has cut his legs off to keep him in the same place,” alluding to the picture being painted to the knees.

All sorts of preposterous stories were circulated about it and about them. Some said M. de Calonne had given Mme. Le Brun a number of bonbons, called papillottes, wrapped up in bank-notes; others that she had received in a pasty a sum of money large enough to ruin the treasury: the truth being that he had sent her, as the price of his portrait, four thousand francs in notes in a box worth about twenty louis, and this was considered by no means a high price for the picture. M. de Beaujon had given her eight thousand francs for a portrait of the same size a short time before, without anybody finding the least fault. The character of Calonne was such that no woman who cared about her reputation would wish her name to be connected with his.

The first step in his rapid rise he is said to have owed to having left about some compromising papers of his friend Chalotais on a bureau, where they were found, and the disclosure of their contents caused the ruin and imprisonment of Chalotais and others, about the year 1763. After this he continued to prosper financially, politically, and [65] socially, until another intrigue raised him to the height of power.
Madame Vigée Le Brun

He was deeply in love with Mme. d’Harvelay, whose husband was the banker and intimate friend of M. de Vergennes, then Foreign Minister. Mme. d’Harvelay, who returned his passion and carried on a secret liaison with him, used her influence with her husband to induce M. de Vergennes to push him on. The husband, who was fascinated by Calonne and did not know or suspect what was going on, was persuaded by his wife one day to write a confidential letter to Vergennes on the subject of the general alarm then beginning to be felt about the disastrous state of the finances and the peril threatening the Monarchy itself, in which he declared Calonne to be the only man who could save the situation. The Court was then at Fontainebleau, and it was contrived that this letter should be shown to the King in the evening, after he had retired to supper with his family.

Next day the destinies of France were in the hands of Calonne.

Dissipated, unscrupulous, with no money and owing 200,000 écus, the new Contr?leur-général des Finances found an empty treasury, an enormous mass of debt, alarm and perplexity in the Government, and gathering fury and suspicion amongst the populace.

As to the plans he proposed to meet this grave state of affairs, Louis Blanc declares that his frivolity was only upon the surface, [29] and that his designs were wise, bold, and strongly conceived. Other [66] historians assert that he had no plan at all except to borrow money, spend it, and then borrow more.

However that might be, he spent enormous sums, lavished money upon the Princes and the Queen, for whom Saint Cloud was bought, and to whom he said upon one occasion—

“Madame, si c’est possible c’est fait; si c’est impossible, cela ce fera.” [30]

He and Vergennes were said to have wasted the revenues of France, but at any rate he spent money like a gentleman, and when, in 1787, he was dismissed from office, he did not possess an écu.

He was one of the earliest to emigrate, and at Coblentz he met his old love, Mme. de Harvelay, now a rich widow and willing to marry him. He spent her fortune, and later on tried to get employment under Napoleon, who would have nothing to do with him, and he died in comparative obscurity.

The royalist sympathies and associations of Mme. Le Brun made her particularly obnoxious to the Radical party, to whom lies and calumnies were all welcome as weapons to be used against political opponents. She was therefore assailed by shoals of libels, accusing her of a liaison with M. de Calonne, by people who were absolutely unknown to her.

One Gorsas, a violent Radical whom she had never seen or heard of, was especially violent in the atrocities he poured forth against her for no reason whatever. He was a political writer and afterwards a Jacobin, but met with his due reward, for he was [67] arrested by the Revolutionists he admired so greatly, and guillotined.

M. Le Brun was just then building a house in the rue Gros-Chenet, and one of the reports spread was that M. de Calonne paid for it, although both M. and Mme. Le Brun were making money enough to afford themselves much greater expenditure than that.

Lisette complained bitterly to her husband, who only told her to let them talk, and treated the matter with indignant contempt.

But Lisette fretted and made herself unhappy, especially when a deliberate attempt was made to destroy her reputation by a certain Mme. S——, who lived in the rue Gros-Chenet, to which she herself had not yet removed.

Mme. S—— was carrying on a liaison with Calonne, who was very much in love with her and very often at her house; she was also sitting for her portrait to Mme. Le Brun, who looked upon her as a pretty, gentle, attractive woman, but thought the expression of her face rather false.

One day, while she was sitting to Mme. Le Brun, Mme. S—— asked her to lend her carriage to her that evening to go to the theatre. Mme. Le Brun consented, but when she ordered the carriage next morning at eleven o’clock she was told that neither carriage, horses, nor coachman had come back. She sent at once to Mme. S——, who had passed the night at the h?tel des Finances and had not yet returned. It was not for some days that Mme. Le Brun made this discovery by means of her coachman, who had been bribed to keep silent, but [68] had nevertheless told the story to several persons in the house.

It was, of course, obvious that this was done in order that the carriage and servants of Mme. Le Brun being seen at night at the h?tel des Finances, the scandal might be diverted from Mme. S—— to the innocent owner of the carriage.

Whether this dastardly trick was done out of mere spite and envy, or only in order to save the reputation of the guilty woman at the expense of the innocent one, Mme. Le Brun never knew, and of course had no more communication with the person in question.

Mme. Vigée, or rather Mme. le Sèvre, had certainly, by her obstinate folly, succeeded in ruining first her own life, then her daughter’s; for the two deplorable marriages she had arranged, both of them entirely for mercenary reasons, had turned out as badly as possible. Her own was the worst, as the husband she had chosen was the more odious of the two men, and she had no means of escaping from him; but Lisette’s was disastrous enough.

M. le Brun, though neither disagreeable nor ill-tempered, was impossible on account of the dissipated life he led. Always running after other women, always gambling and in debt, spending not only his own money but all his wife’s earnings, another woman would have left him or led a miserable life. Not so Lisette. She lived in his house on friendly terms with him, though their marriage had long been one only in name.

She cared so little for money, and her dress, her [69] entertainments and requirements were so simple, that she let him spend all she earned; whilst her occupations, professional and social, were so engrossing, and her life so full of interest, excitement, and enjoyment, that she was content to make the best of things and let her husband go his way, while she followed her own career among the friends and pursuits she loved.

Besides the immense number of her friends and acquaintance of later years, she kept up faithfully those of her early days. Her old fellow student, Mlle. Boquet, had given up the profession in which she was getting on so well, and married a M. Filleul, whom the Queen had made her concierge de la Muette. [31]

With the Vernet family, too, she was on intimate terms. The landscape painter, Joseph Vernet, was always a kind friend to her. His son Charles, or Carle, as he was called, was also an artist, and his daughter émilie, the wife of M. Chalgrin, was constantly at her house.

The Vernet [32] were staunch Royalists, and watched with horror and dread only too well justified the breaking out of the Revolution.

Carle was a captain in the garde nationale, and lodged with his family in the Louvre when, on the 10th of August, 1792, the mob attacked the Tuileries. As the windows began to break and the shots to rattle round them it was evident that they were all in great danger. Carle caught up in his arms his youngest child, Horace, [33] then three [70] years old, and mounted his horse, his wife accompanying him carrying their little daughter.

As he rode across the Carrousel Carle was a conspicuous mark for the mob, who took him for one of the Swiss guards, as he had unfortunately taken off his uniform, and not having time to put it on, was wearing a white vest with a red collar. He was several times fired at, and wounded in the hand, but succeeded in reaching a place of safety with his wife and children.

His sister émilie was not so fortunate. Arrested upon some frivolous pretext, she was thrown into prison. In desperate anxiety Carle flew to David, who, though a terrorist himself, was a comrade and friend of his, and would surely use his influence to help them. David, however, either could or would do nothing; Mme. Chalgrin was dragged before the revolutionary tribunal, convicted of having corresponded with the princes, condemned, and executed.

One of David’s most rising pupils before the Revolution was young Isabey, son of a peasant of Franche Comté, who had made money and was rich.

Old Isabey had a passion for art, and having two boys resolved to make one a painter, the other a musician; and as Louis, the elder one, was always scribbling upon walls and everywhere figures of all sorts, his father, regardless of the fact that the drawings were not at all good, assured his son that he would be a great artist, perhaps painter to the King; and as the younger boy, Jean-Baptiste, [34] was [71] constantly making a deafening noise with trumpets, drums, castagnettes, &c., he decided that he should be a musician.

As the lads grew older, however, their talents developed in exactly opposite directions, so that their father found himself obliged to consent to a change of plans with regard to their education. Louis, in fact, became ultimately first violinist to the Emperor Alexander of Russia, while Jean-Baptiste, casting aside his noisy musical instruments, studied painting with enthusiasm, went to Paris in 1786, and with much difficulty succeeded in getting into the studio of David, from which he was shortly afterwards on the point of being expelled, because he made a picture of David as a wild boar, surrounded by his pupils in the form of little pigs; all excellent likenesses.

Having no money young Isabey supported himself at Paris by making designs for snuff-boxes and buttons. The Comte d’Artois saw the buttons, which had become very much the fashion, admired them, and desired that Isabey should be presented to him. He was also presented to the Comtesse d’Artois, rapidly got commissions, painted portraits of different members of the royal family and court, and was becoming more and more prosperous when the Revolution broke out, and he was apparently ruined.

One day he and other pupils of David had the fancy to spend an idle hour in listening to the debates in the Assemblée, where every one went in and out at their pleasure.

But they were very little edified by what they [72] heard and saw. The Abbé Maury was speaking, and the outrageous behaviour, the rows and quarrels, the discreditable manner in which the discussions were carried on, so shocked them that they allowed their disgust to be more apparent than was prudent.

Presently they observed a strange, ugly-looking man, who was watching them with a mocking smile.

“What gives you the right to laugh at us, Monsieur?” asked one of them, with irritation.

“Your youth, mes amis; and above all your na?veté. Laws are like sauces: you should never see them made.”

He bowed and turned away; it was Mirabeau.

The acquaintance thus begun was a fortunate one for Isabey. In despair at the disappearance of the court and apparently of his own chance of getting on with his profession, he was thinking of giving it up. Mirabeau advised him to stick to it and gave him the commission to paint his own portrait.

He persevered accordingly, passed safely through the Revolution, and was a favourite court painter during the Empire and Restoration.

One dark, gloomy day, during the height of the Terror, he was sitting in his studio early in the morning, busily making up the fire in his stove, for it was bitterly cold. There was a knock at the door, and a woman wrapped in a large cloak stood on the threshold, saying—

“You are the painter, Isabey?”

“Yes. What do you want of me?”

“I want you to do my portrait at once.”


“Diable! At once? You are in great haste,” said he, smiling.

“It is not I who am in haste; it is the guillotine,” replied the stranger. “To-day I am on the suspected list, to-morrow I shall no doubt be condemned. I have children. I wish to leave them a remembrance of me, that is why I come to ask you to paint my portrait. Will you?”

“I am ready, Madame,” he said, beginning at once to prepare his palette and brushes. “In what costume do you wish to be painted?”

“In this,” she answered; and throwing off her hood and cloak, he saw a woman still young and pretty, her hair powdered and covered with a simple little cap, a grey silk dress, green apron, high-heeled shoes, and a carton in her hand.

“I am Mme. Venotte,” she went on. “I had the honour to be marchande de dentelles to la sainte reine whom they have sent to God. I wish my children always to see me in the costume I used to wear when Marie Antoinette deigned to admit me to her presence.”

Though he painted this portrait in haste, with tears in his eyes, it was one of the best ever done by Isabey. [35]

In 1786 Mme. Le Brun received an invitation to paint the portrait of Mme. Du Barry, the once lovely and all powerful favourite of Louis XV. With great curiosity she went down to the chateau of Louveciennes, given to his mistress by the late King, where she still lived in luxury but almost in solitude, for of the courtiers and acquaintances who [74] had crowded round her in the days of her prosperity scarcely any remembered her now.

Louveciennes [36] was near Marly and Versailles. The chateau built by Louis XV. was in a delightful park, but there was a melancholy feeling about the whole place.

The career of Jeanne Vaubernier, Comtesse Du Barry, was a most extraordinary one. Her father was a workman, and she, after being a milliner’s apprentice for some years, lived under the name of Mlle. Lange, in a house of bad fame, where she became the mistress of Count Jean Du Barry, who in 1769 presented her to Louis XV., who was deeply fascinated by her wonderful beauty, and over whom, after having gone through the form of marriage with the brother of Jean Du Barry, she reigned supreme during the remainder of his life. But her day of power and splendour was only a short one, for the King died five years afterwards (1774), when she was, of course, immediately obliged to leave the court and live in retirement; probably much sooner than she expected, for Louis XV. was only sixty-three when he fell a victim to small-pox. The twelve years had been spent in her chateau, where the Duc de Brissac took the place of his royal predecessor.

Mme. Du Barry received Mme. Le Brun with the greatest politeness and attention; she was now about forty-two, and still extremely handsome. The brilliant beauty of her complexion had begun to fade, but her face was still charming, her features [75] beautiful, her figure tall and well-made, and her hair fair and curled like that of a child.

Her way of living was very simple; she walked about the park summer and winter, visited the poor, to whom she was most kind and generous, wore muslin or cambric dresses, and had very few visitors. The only two women who came much to see her were Mme. de Souza, the Portuguese Ambassadress, and the Marquise de Brunoy. M. de Monville, a pleasant, well-bred man, was frequently there, and one day the Ambassador of Tippoo Sahib arrived to visit her, bringing a present of a number of pieces of muslin richly embroidered with gold, one of which she gave to Mme. Le Brun. The Duc de Brissac was of course there also, but, though evidently established at the chateau, there was nothing either in his manner or that of Mme. Du Barry to indicate anything more than friendship between them. Yet Mme. Le Brun saw plainly enough the strong attachment which cost them both their lives.

Under her own room, which looked out towards Marly, Mme. Le Brun discovered a gallery in which were huddled together all sorts of magnificent marbles, busts, vases, columns, and other costly works of art, the relics of former grandeur.

Every day after dinner, they had their coffee in the splendid pavilion of Louis XV. It was decorated and furnished with the greatest luxury and magnificence, the chimney-piece, doors, and locks were precious works of art.

The first time they entered it Mme. Du Barry said, “It was in this room that Louis XV. used to [76] do me the honour to dine. There was a tribune above for the musicians who played and sang during dinner.”

Mme. Le Brun generally spent the evening alone with Mme. Du Barry by the fireside. The latter would sometimes talk of Louis XV. and his court, always with respect and caution. But she avoided many details and did not seem to wish to talk about that phase of her life. Mme. Le Brun painted three portraits of her in 1786, 1787, and in September, 1789. The first was three-quarters length, in a peignoir with a straw hat; in the second, painted for the Duc de Brissac, she was represented in a white satin dress, leaning one arm on a pedestal and holding a crown in the other hand. This picture was afterwards bought by an old general, and when Mme. Le Brun saw it many years later, the head had been so injured and re-painted that she did not recognise it, though the rest of the picture was intact.
Painted by herself

The third portrait Mme. Le Brun retained in her own possession—for she had begun it in September, 1789, when the terrors of the Revolution were beginning. As she painted at Louveciennes they could hear the thunder of the cannonades, and the unfortunate Mme. Du Barry said to her—

“If Louis XV. were alive all this would certainly not have happened.”

When she had painted the head and sketched out the arms and figure, Mme. Le Brun was obliged to go to Paris. She intended to come back to finish her work, but she found the murder of Foulon and Berthier had just taken place, and the state of [77] affairs was so alarming that her one object was to get out of France. The portrait fell into the hands of Count Louis de Narbonne, who restored it to her on her return—when she finished it.

The fate of Mme. Du Barry is well known. She escaped to England where she was kindly received, and where the great value of her diamonds enabled her to live quite well herself, and also to help many of the emigrés, to whom she was most generous. But the Duc de Brissac had remained concealed at Louveciennes, and she insisted on going back to him. The friends she made in England pointed out the danger of doing so, and did all they could to dissuade her—they even unharnessed the horses of her travelling carriage. It was all useless, she would go. Soon after her return to Louveciennes the Duc de Brissac was seized and carried away from her to be taken to Orléans. On the way he and his companions were attacked and murdered by the mob and his head brought to Mme. Du Barry. Then she herself was betrayed and denounced by a little negro named Zamore, who was in her service, and had been loaded with benefits and kindness by Louis XV. and by herself. In consequence of the denunciation of this wretch she was thrown into prison, tried, and executed at the end of 1793.

In all those terrible days she was the only woman whose courage failed at the last. She cried and entreated for help from the crowd around the scaffold, and that crowd began to be so moved by her terror and despair that the execution was hurried on lest they should interfere to prevent it.

Mme. Le Brun, alluding to this circumstance, [78] remarks that in all probability the very heroism and calmness of the victims helped to prolong this horrible state of things.

“I have always been persuaded,” she says in one of her letters, “that if the victims of that time of execrable memory had not had the noble pride to die with courage, the Terror would have ceased much sooner. Those whose intelligence is not developed have too little imagination to be touched by silent suffering, and it is much easier to arouse the compassion than the imagination of the populace.”


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