Napoleon And Marie Walewska
There are four women who may be said to have deeply influenced the
life of Napoleon. These four are the only ones who need to be
taken into account by the student of his imperial career. The
great emperor was susceptible to feminine charms at all times; but
just as it used to be said of him that "his smile never rose above
his eyes," so it might as truly be said that in most instances the
throbbing of his heart did not affect his actions.
Women to him were the creatures of the moment, although he might
seem to care for them and to show his affection in extravagant
ways, as in his affair with Mlle. Georges, the beautiful but
rather tiresome actress. As for Mme. de Stael, she bored him to
distraction by her assumption of wisdom. That was not the kind of
woman that Napoleon cared for. He preferred that a woman should be
womanly, and not a sort of owl to sit and talk with him about the
theory of government.
When it came to married women they interested him only because of
the children they might bear to grow up as recruits for his
insatiate armies. At the public balls given at the Tuileries he
would walk about the gorgeous drawing-rooms, and when a lady was
presented to him he would snap out, sharply:
"How many children have you?"
If she were able to answer that she had several the emperor would
look pleased and would pay her some compliment; but if she said
that she had none he would turn upon her sharply and say:
"Then go home and have some!"
Of the four women who influenced his life, first must come
Josephine, because she secured him his earliest chance of
advancement. She met him through Barras, with whom she was said to
be rather intimate. The young soldier was fascinated by her--the
more because she was older than he and possessed all the practised
arts of the creole and the woman of the world. When she married
him she brought him as her dowry the command of the army of Italy,
where in a few months he made the tri-color, borne by ragged
troops, triumphant over the splendidly equipped hosts of Austria.
She was his first love, and his knowledge of her perfidy gave him
the greatest shock and horror of his whole life; yet she might
have held him to the end if she had borne an heir to the imperial
throne. It was her failure to do so that led Napoleon to divorce
Josephine and marry the thick-lipped Marie Louise of Austria.
There were times later when he showed signs of regret and said:
"I have had no luck since I gave up Josephine!"
Marie Louise was of importance for a time--the short time when
she entertained her husband and delighted him by giving birth to
the little King of Rome. Yet in the end she was but an episode;
fleeing from her husband in his misfortune, becoming the mistress
of Count Neipperg, and letting her son--l'Aiglon--die in a land
that was far from France.
Napoleon's sister, Pauline Bonaparte, was the third woman who
comes to mind when we contemplate the great Corsican's career.
She, too, is an episode. During the period of his ascendancy she
plagued him with her wanton ways, her sauciness and trickery. It
was amusing to throw him into one of his violent rages; but
Pauline was true at heart, and when her great brother was sent to
Elba she followed him devotedly and gave him all her store of
jewels, including the famous Borghese diamonds, perhaps the most
superb of all gems known to the western world. She would gladly
have followed him, also, to St. Helena had she been permitted.
Remaining behind, she did everything possible in conspiring to
secure his freedom.
But, after all, Pauline and Marie Louise count for comparatively
little. Josephine's fate was interwoven with Napoleon's; and, with
his Corsican superstition, he often said so. The fourth woman, of
whom I am writing here, may be said to have almost equaled
Josephine in her influence on the emperor as well as in the pathos
of her life-story.
On New-Year's Day of 1807 Napoleon, who was then almost Emperor of
Europe, passed through the little town of Bronia, in Poland.
Riding with his cavalry to Warsaw, the ancient capital of the
Polish kingdom, he seemed a very demigod of battle.
True, he had had to abandon his long-cherished design of invading
and overrunning England, and Nelson had shattered his fleets and
practically driven his flag from the sea; but the naval disaster
of Trafalgar had speedily been followed by the triumph of
Austerlitz, the greatest and most brilliant of all Napoleon's
victories, which left Austria and Russia humbled to the very
ground before him.
Then Prussia had dared to defy the over-bearing conqueror and had
put into the field against him her armies trained by Frederick the
Great; but these he had shattered almost at a stroke, winning in
one day the decisive battles of Jena and Auerstadt. He had stabled
his horses in the royal palace of the Hohenzollerns and had
pursued the remnant of the Prussian forces to the Russian border.
As he marched into the Polish provinces the people swarmed by
thousands to meet him and hail him as their country's savior. They
believed down to the very last that Bonaparte would make the Poles
once more a free and independent nation and rescue them from the
tyranny of Russia.
Napoleon played upon this feeling in every manner known to his
artful mind. He used it to alarm the Czar. He used it to
intimidate the Emperor of Austria; but more especially did he use
it among the Poles themselves to win for his armies thousands upon
thousands of gallant soldiers, who believed that in fighting for
Napoleon they were fighting for the final independence of their
Therefore, with the intensity of patriotism which is a passion
among the Poles, every man and every woman gazed at Napoleon with
something like adoration; for was not he the mighty warrior who
had in his gift what all desired? Soldiers of every rank swarmed
to his standards. Princes and nobles flocked about him. Those who
stayed at home repeated wonderful stories of his victories and
prayed for him and fed the flame which spread through all the
country. It was felt that no sacrifice was too great to win his
favor; that to him, as to a deity, everything that he desired
should be yielded up, since he was to restore the liberty of
And hence, when the carriage of the emperor dashed into Bronia,
surrounded by Polish lancers and French cuirassiers, the enormous
crowd surged forward and blocked the way so that their hero could
not pass because of their cheers and cries and supplications.
In the midst of it all there came a voice of peculiar sweetness
from the thickest portion of the crowd.
"Please let me pass!" said the voice. "Let me see him, if only for
The populace rolled backward, and through the lane which they made
a beautiful girl with dark blue eyes that flamed and streaming
hair that had become loosened about her radiant face was
confronting the emperor. Carried away by her enthusiasm, she
"Thrice welcome to Poland! We can do or say nothing to express our
joy in the country which you will surely deliver from its tyrant."
The emperor bowed and, with a smile, handed a great bouquet of
roses to the girl, for her beauty and her enthusiasm had made a
deep impression on him.
"Take it," said he, "as a proof of my admiration. I trust that I
may have the pleasure of meeting you at Warsaw and of hearing your
thanks from those beautiful lips."
In a moment more the trumpets rang out shrilly, the horsemen
closed up beside the imperial carriage, and it rolled away amid
the tumultuous shouting of the populace.
The girl who had so attracted Napoleon's attention was Marie
Walewska, descended from an ancient though impoverished family in
Poland. When she was only fifteen she was courted by one of the
wealthiest men in Poland, the Count Walewska. He was three or four
times her age, yet her dark blue eyes, her massive golden hair,
and the exquisite grace of her figure led him to plead that she
might become his wife. She had accepted him, but the marriage was
that of a mere child, and her interest still centered upon her
country and took the form of patriotism rather than that of
wifehood and maternity.
It was for this reason that the young Countess had visited Bronia.
She was now eighteen years of age and still had the sort of
romantic feeling which led her to think that she would keep in
some secret hiding-place the bouquet which the greatest man alive
had given her.
But Napoleon was not the sort of man to forget anything that had
given him either pleasure or the reverse. He who, at the height of
his cares, could recall instantly how many cannon were in each
seaport of France and could make out an accurate list of all his
military stores; he who could call by name every soldier in his
guard, with a full remembrance of the battles each man had fought
in and the honors that he had won--he was not likely to forget so
lovely a face as the one which had gleamed with peculiar radiance
through the crowd at Bronia.
On reaching Warsaw he asked one or two well-informed persons about
this beautiful stranger. Only a few hours had passed before Prince
Poniatowski, accompanied by other nobles, called upon her at her
"I am directed, madam," said he, "by order of the Emperor of
France, to bid you to be present at a ball that is to be given in
his honor to-morrow evening."
Mme. Walewska was startled, and her face grew hot with blushes.
Did the emperor remember her escapade at Bronia? If so, how had he
discovered her? Why should he seek her out and do her such an
"That, madam, is his imperial majesty's affair," Poniatowski told
her. "I merely obey his instructions and ask your presence at the
ball. Perhaps Heaven has marked you out to be the means of saving
our unhappy country."
In this way, by playing on her patriotism, Poniatowski almost
persuaded her, and yet something held her back. She trembled,
though she was greatly fascinated; and finally she refused to go.
Scarcely had the envoy left her, however, when a great company of
nobles entered in groups and begged her to humor the emperor.
Finally her own husband joined in their entreaties and actually
commanded her to go; so at last she was compelled to yield.
It was by no means the frank and radiant girl who was now
preparing again to meet the emperor. She knew not why, and yet her
heart was full of trepidation and nervous fright, the cause of
which she could not guess, yet which made her task a severe
ordeal. She dressed herself in white satin, with no adornment save
a wreath of foliage in her hair.
As she entered the ballroom she was welcomed by hundreds whom she
had never seen before, but who were of the highest nobility of
Poland. Murmurs of admiration followed her, and finally
Poniatowski came to her and complimented her, besides bringing her
a message that the emperor desired her to dance with him.
"I am very sorry," she said, with a quiver of the lips, "but I
really cannot dance. Be kind enough to ask the emperor to excuse
But at that very moment she felt some strange magnetic influence;
and without looking up she could feel that Napoleon himself was
standing by her as she sat with blanched face and downcast eyes,
not daring to look up at him.
"White upon white is a mistake, madam," said the emperor, in his
gentlest tones. Then, stooping low, he whispered, "I had expected
a far different reception."
She neither smiled nor met his eyes. He stood there for a moment
and then passed on, leaving her to return to her home with a heavy
heart. The young countess felt that she had acted wrongly, and yet
there was an instinct--an instinct that she could not conquer.
In the gray of the morning, while she was still tossing
feverishly, her maid knocked at the door and brought her a hastily
scribbled note. It ran as follows:
I saw none but you, I admired none but you; I desire only you.
Answer at once, and calm the impatient ardor of--N.
These passionate words burned from her eyes the veil that had
hidden the truth from her. What before had been mere blind
instinct became an actual verity. Why had she at first rushed
forth into the very streets to hail the possible deliverer of her
country, and then why had she shrunk from him when he sought to
honor her! It was all clear enough now. This bedside missive meant
that he had intended her dishonor and that he had looked upon her
simply as a possible mistress.
At once she crushed the note angrily in her hand.
"There is no answer at all," said she, bursting into bitter tears
at the very thought that he should dare to treat her in this way.
But on the following morning when she awoke her maid was standing
beside her with a second letter from Napoleon. She refused to open
it and placed it in a packet with the first letter, and ordered
that both of them should be returned to the emperor.
She shrank from speaking to her husband of what had happened, and
there was no one else in whom she dared confide. All through that
day there came hundreds of visitors, either of princely rank or
men who had won fame by their gallantry and courage. They all
begged to see her, but to them all she sent one answer--that she
was ill and could see no one.
After a time her husband burst into her room, and insisted that
she should see them.
"Why," exclaimed he, "you are insulting the greatest men and the
noblest women of Poland! More than that, there are some of the
most distinguished Frenchmen sitting at your doorstep, as it were.
There is Duroc, grand marshal of France, and in refusing to see
him you are insulting the great emperor on whom depends everything
that our country longs for. Napoleon has invited you to a state
dinner and you have given him no answer whatever. I order you to
rise at once and receive these ladies and gentlemen who have done
you so much honor!"
She could not refuse. Presently she appeared in her drawing-room,
where she was at once surrounded by an immense throng of her own
countrymen and countrywomen, who made no pretense of
misunderstanding the situation. To them, what was one woman's
honor when compared with the freedom and independence of their
nation? She was overwhelmed by arguments and entreaties. She was
even accused of being disloyal to the cause of Poland if she
refused her consent.
One of the strangest documents of that period was a letter sent to
her and signed by the noblest men in Poland. It contained a
powerful appeal to her patriotism. One remarkable passage even
quotes the Bible to point out her line of duty. A portion of this
letter ran as follows:
Did Esther, think you, give herself to Ahasuerus out of the
fulness of her love for him? So great was the terror with which he
inspired her that she fainted at the sight of him. We may
therefore conclude that affection had but little to do with her
resolve. She sacrificed her own inclinations to the salvation of
her country, and that salvation it was her glory to achieve. May
we be enabled to say the same of you, to your glory and our own
After this letter came others from Napoleon himself, full of the
most humble pleading. It was not wholly distasteful thus to have
the conqueror of the world seek her out and offer her his
adoration any more than it was distasteful to think that the
revival of her own nation depended on her single will. M. Frederic
Masson, whose minute studies regarding everything relating to
Napoleon have won him a seat in the French Academy, writes of
Marie Walewska at this time: Every force was now brought into play
against her. Her country, her friends, her religion, the Old and
the New Testaments, all urged her to yield; they all combined for
the ruin of a simple and inexperienced girl of eighteen who had no
parents, whose husband even thrust her into temptation, and whose
friends thought that her downfall would be her glory.
Amid all these powerful influences she consented to attend the
dinner. To her gratification Napoleon treated her with distant
courtesy, and, in fact, with a certain coldness.
"I heard that Mme. Walewska was indisposed. I trust that she has
recovered," was all the greeting that he gave her when they met.
Every one else with whom she spoke overwhelmed her with flattery
and with continued urging; but the emperor himself for a time
acted as if she had displeased him. This was consummate art; for
as soon as she was relieved of her fears she began to regret that
she had thrown her power away.
During the dinner she let her eyes wander to those of the emperor
almost in supplication. He, the subtlest of men, knew that he had
won. His marvelous eyes met hers and drew her attention to him as
by an electric current; and when the ladies left the great dining-
room Napoleon sought her out and whispered in her ear a few words
of ardent love.
It was too little to alarm her seriously now. It was enough to
make her feel that magnetism which Napoleon knew so well how to
evoke and exercise. Again every one crowded about her with
congratulations. Some said:
"He never even saw any of US. His eyes were all for YOU! They
flashed fire as he looked at you."
"You have conquered his heart," others said, "and you can do what
you like with him. The salvation of Poland is in your hands."
The company broke up at an early hour, but Mme. Walewska was asked
to remain. When she was alone General Duroc--one of the emperor's
favorite officers and most trusted lieutenants--entered and placed
a letter from Napoleon in her lap. He tried to tell her as
tactfully as possible how much harm she was doing by refusing the
imperial request. She was deeply affected, and presently, when
Duroc left her, she opened the letter which he had given her and
read it. It was worded thus:
There are times when all splendors become oppressive, as I feel
but too deeply at the present moment. How can I satisfy the
desires of a heart that yearns to cast itself at your feet, when
its impulses are checked at every point by considerations of the
highest moment? Oh, if you would, you alone might overcome the
obstacles that keep us apart. MY FRIEND DUROC WILL MAKE ALL EASY
FOR YOU. Oh, come, come! Your every wish shall be gratified! Your
country will be dearer to me when you take pity on my poor heart.
Every chance of escape seemed to be closed. She had Napoleon's own
word that he would free Poland in return for her self-sacrifice.
Moreover, her powers of resistance had been so weakened that, like
many women, she temporized. She decided that she would meet the
emperor alone. She would tell him that she did not love him, and
yet would plead with him to save her beloved country.
As she sat there every tick of the clock stirred her to a new
excitement. At last there came a knock upon the door, a cloak was
thrown about her from behind, a heavy veil was drooped about her
golden hair, and she was led, by whom she knew not, to the street,
where a finely appointed carriage was waiting for her.
No sooner had she entered it than she was driven rapidly through
the darkness to the beautifully carved entrance of a palace. Half
led, half carried, she was taken up the steps to a door which was
eagerly opened by some one within. There were warmth and light and
color and the scent of flowers as she was placed in a comfortable
arm-chair. Her wrappings were taken from her, the door was closed
behind her; and then, as she looked up, she found herself in the
presence of Napoleon, who was kneeling at her feet and uttering
Wisely, the emperor used no violence. He merely argued with her;
he told her over and over his love for her; and finally he
declared that for her sake he would make Poland once again a
strong and splendid kingdom.
Several hours passed. In the early morning, before daylight, there
came a knock at the door.
"Already?" said Napoleon. "Well, my plaintive dove, go home and
rest. You must not fear the eagle. In time you will come to love
him, and in all things you shall command him."
Then he led her to the door, but said that he would not open it
unless she promised to see him the next day--a promise which she
gave the more readily because he had treated her with such
On the following morning her faithful maid came to her bedside
with a cluster of beautiful violets, a letter, and several
daintily made morocco cases. When these were opened there leaped
out strings and necklaces of exquisite diamonds, blazing in the
morning sunlight. Mme. Walewska seized the jewels and flung them
across the room with an order that they should be taken back at
once to the imperial giver; but the letter, which was in the same
romantic strain as the others, she retained.
On that same evening there was another dinner, given to the
emperor by the nobles, and Marie Walewska attended it, but of
course without the diamonds, which she had returned. Nor did she
wear the flowers which had accompanied the diamonds.
When Napoleon met her he frowned upon her and made her tremble
with the cold glances that shot from his eyes of steel. He
scarcely spoke to her throughout the meal, but those who sat
beside her were earnest in their pleading.
Again she waited until the guests had gone away, and with a
lighter heart, since she felt that she had nothing to fear. But
when she met Napoleon in his private cabinet, alone, his mood was
very different from that which he had shown before. Instead of
gentleness and consideration he was the Napoleon of camps, and not
of courts. He greeted her bruskly.
"I scarcely expected to see you again," said he. "Why did you
refuse my diamonds and my flowers? Why did you avoid my eyes at
dinner? Your coldness is an insult which I shall not brook." Then
he raised his voice to that rasping, almost blood-curdling tone
which even his hardiest soldiers dreaded: "I will have you know
that I mean to conquer you. You SHALL--yes, I repeat it, you
SHALL love me! I have restored the name of your country. It owes
its very existence to me."
Then he resorted to a trick which he had played years before in
dealing with the Austrians at Campo Formio.
"See this watch which I am holding in my hand. Just as I dash it
to fragments before you, so will I shatter Poland if you drive me
to desperation by rejecting my heart and refusing me your own."
As he spoke he hurled the watch against the opposite wall with
terrific force, dashing it to pieces. In terror, Mme. Walewska
fainted. When she resumed consciousness there was Napoleon wiping
away her tears with the tenderness of a woman and with words of
The long siege was over. Napoleon had conquered, and this girl of
eighteen gave herself up to his caresses and endearments, thinking
that, after all, her love of country was more than her own honor.
Her husband, as a matter of form, put her away from him, though at
heart he approved what she had done, while the Polish people
regarded her as nothing less than a national heroine. To them she
was no minister to the vices of an emperor, but rather one who
would make him love Poland for her sake and restore its greatness.
So far as concerned his love for her, it was, indeed, almost
idolatry. He honored her in every way and spent all the time at
his disposal in her company. But his promise to restore Poland he
never kept, and gradually she found that he had never meant to
"I love your country," he would say, "and I am willing to aid in
the attempt to uphold its rights, but my first duty is to France.
I cannot shed French blood in a foreign cause."
By this time, however, Marie Walewska had learned to love Napoleon
for his own sake. She could not resist his ardor, which matched
the ardor of the Poles themselves. Moreover, it flattered her to
see the greatest soldier in the world a suppliant for her smiles.
For some years she was Napoleon's close companion, spending long
hours with him and finally accompanying him to Paris. She was the
mother of Napoleon's only son who lived to manhood. This son, who
bore the name of Alexandre Florian de Walewski, was born in Poland
in 1810, and later was created a count and duke of the second
French Empire. It may be said parenthetically that he was a man of
great ability. Living down to 1868, he was made much of by
Napoleon III., who placed him in high offices of state, which he
filled with distinction. In contrast with the Duc de Morny, who
was Napoleon's illegitimate half-brother, Alexandre de Walewski
stood out in brilliant contrast. He would have nothing to do with
stock-jobbing and unseemly speculation.
"I may be poor," he said--though he was not poor--"but at least I
remember the glory of my father and what is due to his great
As for Mme. Walewska, she was loyal to the emperor, and lacked the
greed of many women whom he had made his favorites. Even at Elba,
when he was in exile and disgrace, she visited him that she might
endeavor to console him. She was his counselor and friend as well
as his earnestly loved mate. When she died in Paris in 1817, while
the dethroned emperor was a prisoner at St. Helena, the word
"Napoleon" was the last upon her lips.