Meeting with Pauline Bonaparte at Aix-les-Bains -- Flirtation -- Correspondence -- Talma's Passion and Pauline's indifference.

This article was originally published in Romances of the French Theatre. Francis Gribble. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1913. p. 267-277.

A vain actor, as we all know, is the vainest of vain men; and Talma was the vainest of vain actors. It would have been strange if he had not aspired to strut as Napoleon on the stage when he saw Napoleon figuring as a kind of Talma on a throne. We have rejected the story that the actor coached the Emperor in imperial deportment; but credible witnesses attest that the Emperor instinctively adopted some of the actor's mannerisms. The Emperor, too, frequently invited the actor to lunch, and kept ministers and generals waiting for their audience while he conversed with him; and we have already seen the Emperor speaking of tragedy as "the School of Kings and Peoples." It was natural, in the circumstances, that Talma should echo the sentiment and improve upon it. He did so, in a letter contained in Mlle. Bartlet's collection of theatrical autographs in language which anticipates the aspirations of our modern Church and Stage Guild:

"Why" (he demands) "should not the theatre be a School of Virtue analogous to the ancient Schools of Philosophy? Socrates, the wisest of men, did not disdain to lend Euripides a helping hand with his tragedies.

"I should like to accomodate my art to the teaching of numbers of persons equally renowned for their piety and for their doctrines. But..." [1]

But there were difficulties; and one of those difficulties was Talma's personal conception of virtue, as the story to which we are coming will indicate.

It is a story of which the secret was wonderfully well kept. Even his wife seems only to have guessed at it:

"Talma" (she wrote in her Étude sur l'Art Théâtral) "became quite suddenly a man of good fortunes. Pursued and solicited by women in the highest ranks of society, he laid himself out to acquire this kind of notoriety, which is so fatal to domestic happiness."

No more than that; and none of Talma's biographers, and none of the social historians of the Empire -- not even M. Copin, and not even M. Frédéric Masson -- succeeded in reading between the lines or putting the dots on the i's. But all the time, the secret was awaiting discovery in a dusty portfolio of manuscripts preserved at the Bibliothèque Mazarin, where nobody troubled to look at it.

Those manuscripts were some of Talma's papers, presented to the library by his friend Lebrun. They bore an inscription, which one would have supposed to be provocative of curiosity, in Mms. Lebrun's handwriting: "Would it not be better to destroy them? That remains to be seen." Nobody destroyed them, however, and nobody examined them [for many years] until MM. Hector Fleischmann and Pierre Bart found that they consisted of Talma's drafts of letters which he had written to Napoleon's sister Pauline, the wife successively of General Leclere and Prince Borghese, immortalized by Canova as Venus Victrix. A Venus victorious, and very cruelly victorious, in the encounter about which we have to speak!

Pauline, as is well known, was always in love -- though not with her husbands -- and always an interesting invalid. She spent her time in going about from health resort to health resort -- from spa to spa; and wherever she went, she sought and found consolatory adventures. In the late summer and early autumn of 1813 she was at Aix-les-Bains; and there is a note of the visit in the Memoires of the Duchesse d'Abrantès:

"At Aix there were not only many persons of the imperial family, but also all the people who used to follow them about. About twenty of us, as I have said, had agreed to meet at a resort which is nearly always amusing, but this year seemed likely to be very tedious on account of the princesses and queens who were there in such numbers that one could not walk up the street without meeting one of them. There was every kind of royalty: reigning queens like the Queen of Spain; queens presumptive like the Princess of Sweden; ex-royalties like the Empress Josephine, and a King of the Theatre in the person of Talma, who came to Aix to drink hot water for the benefit of his health, and nearly contracted a fatal illness there."

The waters, one supposes, did not agree with him; but there is no reason to assume that his indisposition was serious. He was well enough to go to Lyon and play, and to return to Aix after he had fulfilled his engagement. A letter which he wrote to his brother-in-law, Ducis, indicates that his absence was intended to put a stop to certain rumors, which had even got as far as Paris. This is the enigmatic reference:

"I assure you I received no one except a single lady, and I received her in such a manner that none of the neighbors knew anything about it. I tell you this in strict confidence, for you will understand the trouble which might arise if people knew. What are they saying about it at Paris? Are they gossiping? For my own part, I like to believe that they are not, and that the absence of the two persons involved will have put an end to the scandal-mongering. I have heard from my wife on the subject. She tells me people are talking; but I do not think that can be true."

Perhaps not--it does not matter. But the allusion, obscure in itself, is obvious in light of what we know, and is an interesting gloss on a further passage in the Mémoires above quoted:

"The poor man (Talma) was condemned, every evening, by Princess Pauline, to read Molière to us, to make us laugh! Talma dared not refuse the request of the Emperor's sister. . . . But the poor fellow had more than enough of it. 'I cannot stand it any longer,' he said to me one day. 'It will end by killing me. It is altogether too much of a good thing. She is driving me out of Aix; and I am very angry, for I should have amused myself very much there, if it had not been for this abominable obligation to rehearse parts with her every evening. She actually wants to learn the part of Agnès (Ecole de femmes) and that of Angélique (Les femmes savantes).'"

But that, of course, was very far from true, and was only said in order to cover up the truth. Dramatic rehearsals had been the means but not the end -- no one who knew Pauline could even at the time have believed anything else; and the gossip which Talma sought to silence could hardly have reached Paris if it had not first permeated Aix-les-Bains. Having for the moment no one else to flirt with, Pauline had flirted with Talma; though no one knew how far she had gone, and Talma himself did not know how far she was willing to go. Indeed, it is probable that even Pauline left that question open. She was willing that he should write, of course -- she was the sort of woman who feels that she has drawn a blank on any morning on which she does not receive a love-letter. She, too, would write -- sometimes; for the matter was obviously one in which there must be a certain amount of give and take. But the rest would depend upon circumstances -- upon accident -- upon the ardor of other admirers. And, in any case, the romance must be secret and mysterious.

So all the usual apparatus of mystery was contrived; a false name; an accomodation address; a discreet and trustworthy confidential agent. The Princess, for the purposes of the post office, became Mlle. Sophie; Mlle. Sophie's letters were to be sent to an address at which they could be kept till called for; they should be called for by Ferrand, the Princess' butler; and Talma, on his part, must promise faithfully to destroy any letters which the Princess wrote him.

He seems to have done so, without much pain or compunction. His grievance, if he had formulated it, would have been, not that the letters must not be preserved, but that they were not worth preserving. He had reason to complain that they were few -- that they got fewer -- that their forms of expression were but imperfectly responsive to the ardor of his own communications. But that, of course, was not a discovery made in a day. At first Talma's attention was concentrated on the rendering of his own rôle; and it took him some time to realize that his partner was not playing up to him as he could have wished. Even when he did realize it he made excuses for her. She must be ill, or on a journey, or too closely watched, etc.... He was far too vain to imagine that she had only amused herself with him, and was now amusing herself with some one else. And yet the very first letter shows that there were already reasons why the course of Talma's love could not be expected to run smoothly:

"So I have left you, dearest! I am separated from you, and for ever such a long time. It was your wish; my absence was necessary to your tranquillity; I had no choice but to obey. But what a sacrifice it is that you have imposed on me! Your goodness, the tears I saw you shed, and the balm of consolation which you poured upon my suffering heart, have failed to soften the bitterness of my regrets, though they have left me a ray of hope that you will not altogether forget me."

That was written from Geneva, where Talma was engaged to play. On his way there, he says, he had longed to be alone, in order that he might relieve his heart with tears; but he does not forget to mention that he found an unprecedented crowd assembled to welcome him on his arrival. "If the homage of their curiosity," he writes, "has any value in my eyes, that is only because I think it may perhaps render me worthier of your affection." It must surely have seemed cruel to the actor that the answer to that was a letter, not from the Princess, but from her butler. The necessity for making excuses for Pauline's negligence was certainly beginning early in the day; but Talma made them. "Poor little thing!" he wrote. "How sorry I am for you! How it distresses me to hear that you are so ill!"

It might have distressed him still more acutely to know -- what her own correspondence shows to have been the fact -- that she was well enough to write to other people with her own hand; but he proceeded, according to his lights, se faire valoir by dwelling upon the admiration expressed for him by the Genevese. "During the four days that I have been here," he says, "I have been overwhelmed with calls and invitations"; and a day or two later he returns to the subject:

"Ah, dearest, if only you could have witnessed my success here -- the amazing admiration displayed for me by a whole town -- an entire nation! I cannot doubt that the homage which I have received would have made be dearer to you. Again and again people have invited me to visit them in their country houses. Again and again they have implored me to sail round the Lake with them. But I have declined all their invitations. I wish to visit no other scenes than those which we planned to visit together."

A later sentence makes it clear that he has been sent away, and that he wants to be called back:

"Dearest, there are moments when my sufferings are so intense that I can bear them no longer, and am on the point of hurrying back to Aix, to throw myself at your feet, and see you once again. Alas! I know that that would only disturb your peace of mind, and invite fresh trouble. Still, if you wished it, how delighted I should be to fly to your side. Speak the word, and I will come to you to say a last good-bye. I can return to Paris by way of Aix and Lyon. The route is the same -- but why should I ask such a favor? I fear I expose myself to a refusal; and a refusal would be very hard to bear."

But, if she refuses to see him, surely Pauline will not refuse him a gift as a souvenir. He tells her what gifts would please him:

"Give me a line authorizing me to go to your place at Neuilly, and report to you how the works are getting on there. You might authorize me, at the same time, to take away one of the little boats from the lake. As I am going to shut myself up in my country house, it will be the greatest possible pleasure to me to have a boat which once belonged to you. And your bust, too, dearest -- do not forget to have it sent to me. Arrange the matter with Ferrand. I want this bust above everything else in the world. I must have it. I shall leave you no peace until you send it to me."

But Pauline did not send the bust, and did not accord the interview. The appeal for the bust reappears again and again in the course of the correspondence; and the appeals for interviews rise to a passionate intensity:

"Dearest, you must by this time have received my letters of the 28th and 31st. I begged you in the latter to let me see you again for one moment before my departure; and I await your reply with terrible anxiety. . . . My sufferings, dearest, are the same whether I am near you or far away from you; and I implore you on my knees to accord me just one moment of your society. Alas! dearest, if it is my misfortune to fail to obtain this favor I do not know how I shall tear myself away from this neighborhood. Grant me this moment of happiness before I have to leave you for so long. My treasure, while I am waiting the opportunity to have the lock of hair you gave me made into a bracelet, I have attached it to the tresses which you had given me before. I have wrapped them in the handkerchief which you gave me, and I wear them next to my heart. And your bracelet with it -- the one which you bade me take from your arm on the day of our terrible parting! You swore by your son that you would never abandon me; and I live in the sweet and perfect assurance that you will be true to your promise."

But Pauline had no son. She had borne a son to her first husband, but he had died eight years before she swore that oath. One does not know whether she thought the oath on that account less binding; but she certainly did not keep it. Indeed, now that her lover was writing her letters which imperatively required answers, she still contented herself with sending messages by the butler.

And such messages! The butler was charged to invent reasons why it was undesirable for Talma to come to Aix; and of course the reasons which the butler gave were not the true ones. The real reason was a Major Duchand, who had now -- more or less -- taken Talma's place in Pauline's heart; but Talma knew nothing about that then; and it is doubtful whether he ever knew. He still attributed Pauline's hesitations to an exaggerated fear of public opinion; he still wrote passionately and reproachfully; he still lived in the hope that he would overcome her timidity and be allowed to see her -- if not at Aix, then at Lyon, where she would break a journey which she was projecting to one of the Mediterranean health resorts:

"To my wish to see you once more he (Ferrand) replies that he is afraid people will talk; but Aix is quite empty now, and it would be quite as natural for me to return to Paris by that route as by any other. This objection which he raises, and which seems to me to be quite unfounded, makes me terribly anxious; his dread of my arrival torments me. Twenty times, at least, I have made up my mind to go to Aix, and offer you my prayers and the homage of my heart without disturbing by my presence the calm of which you feel the need; but I was afraid I should not have sufficient self-command to be near you and make this sacrifice, and I was still more afraid of displeasing you, and losing your heart altogether by an inconsiderate act of which you disapproved. . . .

" . . . Pauline, Pauline, my heart is torn to pieces. I know that you are to start on the 6th, and it is not from you that the news has reached me. I have learned it from the public press. All the people whom I meet have been allowed to see you. Every one of them has had this pleasure. To me alone it is refused. . . .

"Pauline, you are going, and I shall never see you more. I shall be a few days at Lyon; you will come there too; but by that time, I shall have gone. I have to flee your presence as if I were some miserable wretch who had incurred your hatred. Ah, Pauline, is there any one as unhappy as I am? No, Pauline, no one, for my sufferings are more than you can imagine, and I am in the very depths of despair. But shall I not have a line from you to-morrow, or will you not, at least, write to me at Lyon? Oh, my God! What an unhappy wretch I am!"

Whereupon Pauline relented, and promised to meet her lover at Lyon -- "if circumstances permitted."

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1 Printed in the Figaro.

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