One of the worst corners in all Paris is undoubtedly that part of the rue Mazarin which lies between the rue Guenegard and its junction with the rue de Seine, behind the palace of the Institute. The high gray walls of the college and of the library which Cardinal Mazarin presented to the city of Paris, and which the French Academy was in after days to inhabit, cast chill shadows over this angle of the street, where the sun seldom shines, and the north wind blows. The poor ruined widow came to live on the third floor of a house standing at this damp, dark, cold corner. Opposite, rose the Institute buildings, in which were the dens of ferocious animals known to the bourgeoisie under the name of artists — under that of tyro, or rapin, in the studios. Into these dens they enter rapins, but they may come forth prix de Rome. The transformation does not take place without extraordinary uproar and disturbance at the time of year when the examinations are going on, and the competitors are shut up in their cells. To win a prize, they were obliged, within a given time, to make, if a sculptor, a clay model; if a painter, a picture such as may be seen at the Ecole des Beaux–Arts; if a musician, a cantata; if an architect, the plans for a public building. At the time when we are penning the words, this menagerie has already been removed from these cold and cheerless buildings, and taken to the elegant Palais des Beaux–Arts, which stands near by.
From the windows of Madame Bridau’s new abode, a glance could penetrate the depths of those melancholy barred cages. To the north, the view was shut in by the dome of the Institute; looking up the street, the only distraction to the eye was a file of hackney-coaches, which stood at the upper end of the rue Mazarin. After a while, the widow put boxes of earth in front of her windows, and cultivated those aerial gardens that police regulations forbid, though their vegetable products purify the atmosphere. The house, which backed up against another fronting on the rue de Seine, was necessarily shallow, and the staircase wound round upon itself. The third floor was the last. Three windows to three rooms, namely, a dining-room, a small salon, and a chamber on one side of the landing; on the other, a little kitchen, and two single rooms; above, an immense garret without partitions. Madame Bridau chose this lodging for three reasons: economy, for it cost only four hundred francs a year, so that she took a lease of it for nine years; proximity to her sons’ school, the Imperial Lyceum being at a short distance; thirdly, because it was in the quarter to which she was used.
The inside of the appartement was in keeping with the general look of the house. The dining-room, hung with a yellow paper covered with little green flowers, and floored with tiles that were not glazed, contained nothing that was not strictly necessary — namely, a table, two sideboards, and six chairs, brought from the other appartement. The salon was adorned with an Aubusson carpet given to Bridau when the ministry of the interior was refurnished. To the furniture of this room the widow added one of those commonplace mahogany sofas with the Egyptian heads that Jacob Desmalter manufactured by the gross in 1806, covering them with a silken green stuff bearing a design of white geometric circles. Above this piece of furniture hung a portrait of Bridau, done in pastel by the hand of an amateur, which at once attracted the eye. Though art might have something to say against it, no one could fail to recognize the firmness of the noble and obscure citizen upon that brow. The serenity of the eyes, gentle, yet proud, was well given; the sagacious mind, to which the prudent lips bore testimony, the frank smile, the atmosphere of the man of whom the Emperor had said, “Justum et tenacem,” had all been caught, if not with talent, at least with fidelity. Studying that face, an observer could see that the man had done his duty. His countenance bore signs of the incorruptibility which we attribute to several men who served the Republic. On the opposite wall, over a card-table, flashed a picture of the Emperor in brilliant colors, done by Vernet; Napoleon was riding rapidly, attended by his escort.
Agathe had bestowed upon herself two large birdcages; one filled with canaries, the other with Java sparrows. She had given herself up to this juvenile fancy since the loss of her husband, irreparable to her, as, in fact, it was to many others. By the end of three months, her widowed chamber had become what it was destined to remain until the appointed day when she left it forever — a litter of confusion which words are powerless to describe. Cats were domiciled on the sofa. The canaries, occasionally let loose, left their commas on the furniture. The poor dear woman scattered little heaps of millet and bits of chickweed about the room, and put tidbits for the cats in broken saucers. Garments lay everywhere. The room breathed of the provinces and of constancy. Everything that once belonged to Bridau was scrupulously preserved. Even the implements in his desk received the care which the widow of a paladin might have bestowed upon her husband’s armor. One slight detail here will serve to bring the tender devotion of this woman before the reader’s mind. She had wrapped up a pen and sealed the package, on which she wrote these words, “Last pen used by my dear husband.” The cup from which he drank his last draught was on the fireplace; caps and false hair were tossed, at a later period, over the glass globes which covered these precious relics. After Bridau’s death not a trace of coquetry, not even a woman’s ordinary care of her person, was left in the young widow of thirty-five. Parted from the only man she had ever known, esteemed, and loved, from one who had never caused her the slightest unhappiness, she was no longer conscious of her womanhood; all things were as nothing to her; she no longer even thought of her dress. Nothing was ever more simply done or more complete than this laying down of conjugal happiness and personal charm. Some human beings obtain through love the power of transferring their self — their I— to the being of another; and when death takes that other, no life of their own is possible for them.
Agathe, who now lived only for her children, was infinitely sad at the thought of the privations this financial ruin would bring upon them. From the time of her removal to the rue Mazarin a shade of melancholy came upon her face, which made it very touching. She hoped a little in the Emperor; but the Emperor at that time could do no more than he was already doing; he was giving three hundred francs a year to each child from his privy purse, besides the scholarships.
As for the brilliant Descoings, she occupied an appartement on the second floor similar to that of her niece above her. She had made Madame Bridau an assignment of three thousand francs out of her annuity. Roguin, the notary, attended to this in Madame Bridau’s interest; but it would take seven years of such slow repayment to make good the loss. The Descoings, thus reduced to an income of twelve hundred francs, lived with her niece in a small way. These excellent but timid creatures employed a woman-of-all-work for the morning hours only. Madame Descoings, who liked to cook, prepared the dinner. In the evenings a few old friends, persons employed at the ministry who owed their places to Bridau, came for a game of cards with the two widows. Madame Descoings still cherished her trey, which she declared was obstinate about turning up. She expected, by one grand stroke, to repay the enforced loan she had made upon her niece. She was fonder of the little Bridaus than she was of her grandson Bixiou — partly from a sense of the wrong she had done them, partly because she felt the kindness of her niece, who, under her worst deprivations, never uttered a word of reproach. So Philippe and Joseph were cossetted, and the old gambler in the Imperial Lottery of France (like others who have a vice or a weakness to atone for) cooked them nice little dinners with plenty of sweets. Later on, Philippe and Joseph could extract from her pocket, with the utmost facility, small sums of money, which the younger used for pencils, paper, charcoal and prints, the elder to buy tennis-shoes, marbles, twine, and pocket-knives. Madame Descoings’s passion forced her to be content with fifty francs a month for her domestic expenses, so as to gamble with the rest.
On the other hand, Madame Bridau, motherly love, kept her expenses down to the same sum. By way of penance for her former over-confidence, she heroically cut off her own little enjoyments. As with other timid souls of limited intelligence, one shock to her feelings rousing her distrust led her to exaggerate a defect in her character until it assumed the consistency of a virtue. The Emperor, she said to herself, might forget them; he might die in battle; her pension, at any rate, ceased with her life. She shuddered at the risk her children ran of being left alone in the world without means. Quite incapable of understanding Roguin when he explained to her that in seven years Madame Descoings’s assignment would replace the money she had sold out of the Funds, she persisted in trusting neither the notary nor her aunt, nor even the government; she believed in nothing but herself and the privations she was practising. By laying aside three thousand francs every year from her pension, she would have thirty thousand francs at the end of ten years; which would give fifteen hundred a year to her children. At thirty-six, she might expect to live twenty years longer; and if she kept to the same system of economy she might leave to each child enough for the bare necessaries of life.
Thus the two widows passed from hollow opulence to voluntary poverty, — one under the pressure of a vice, the other through the promptings of the purest virtue. None of these petty details are useless in teaching the lesson which ought to be learned from this present history, drawn as it is from the most commonplace interests of life, but whose bearings are, it may be, only the more widespread. The view from the windows into the student dens; the tumult of the rapins below; the necessity of looking up at the sky to escape the miserable sights of the damp angle of the street; the presence of that portrait, full of soul and grandeur despite the workmanship of an amateur painter; the sight of the rich colors, now old and harmonious, in that calm and placid home; the preference of the mother for her eldest child; her opposition to the tastes of the younger; in short, the whole body of facts and circumstances which make the preamble of this history are perhaps the generating causes to which we owe Joseph Bridau, one of the greatest painters of the modern French school of art.
Philippe, the elder of the two sons, was strikingly like his mother. Though a blond lad, with blue eyes, he had the daring look which is readily taken for intrepidity and courage. Old Claparon, who entered the ministry of the interior at the same time as Bridau, and was one of the faithful friends who played whist every night with the two widows, used to say of Philippe two or three times a month, giving him a tap on the cheek, “Here’s a young rascal who’ll stand to his guns!” The boy, thus stimulated, naturally and out of bravado, assumed a resolute manner. That turn once given to his character, he became very adroit at all bodily exercises; his fights at the Lyceum taught him the endurance and contempt for pain which lays the foundation of military valor. He also acquired, very naturally, a distaste for study; public education being unable to solve the difficult problem of developing “pari passu” the body and the mind.
Agathe believed that the purely physical resemblance which Philippe bore to her carried with it a moral likeness; and she confidently expected him to show at a future day her own delicacy of feeling, heightened by the vigor of manhood. Philippe was fifteen years old when his mother moved into the melancholy appartement in the rue Mazarin; and the winning ways of a lad of that age went far to confirm the maternal beliefs. Joseph, three years younger, was like his father, but only on the defective side. In the first place, his thick black hair was always in disorder, no matter what pains were taken with it; while Philippe’s, notwithstanding his vivacity, was invariably neat. Then, by some mysterious fatality, Joseph could not keep his clothes clean; dress him in new clothes, and he immediately made them look like old ones. The elder, on the other hand, took care of his things out of mere vanity. Unconsciously, the mother acquired a habit of scolding Joseph and holding up his brother as an example to him. Agathe did not treat the two children alike; when she went to fetch them from school, the thought in her mind as to Joseph always was, “What sort of state shall I find him in?” These trifles drove her heart into the gulf of maternal preference.
No one among the very ordinary persons who made the society of the two widows — neither old Du Bruel nor old Claparon, nor Desroches the father, nor even the Abbe Loraux, Agathe’s confessor — noticed Joseph’s faculty for observation. Absorbed in the line of his own tastes, the future colorist paid no attention to anything that concerned himself. During his childhood this disposition was so like torpor that his father grew uneasy about him. The remarkable size of the head and the width of the brow roused a fear that the child might be liable to water on the brain. His distressful face, whose originality was thought ugliness by those who had no eye for the moral value of a countenance, wore rather a sullen expression during his childhood. The features, which developed later in life, were pinched, and the close attention the child paid to what went on about him still further contracted them. Philippe flattered his mother’s vanity, but Joseph won no compliments. Philippe sparkled with the clever sayings and lively answers that lead parents to believe their boys will turn out remarkable men; Joseph was taciturn, and a dreamer. The mother hoped great things of Philippe, and expected nothing of Joseph.
Joseph’s predilection for art was developed by a very commonplace incident. During the Easter holidays of 1812, as he was coming home from a walk in the Tuileries with his brother and Madame Descoings, he saw a pupil drawing a caricature of some professor on the wall of the Institute, and stopped short with admiration at the charcoal sketch, which was full of satire. The next day the child stood at the window watching the pupils as they entered the building by the door on the rue Mazarin; then he ran downstairs and slipped furtively into the long courtyard of the Institute, full of statues, busts, half-finished marbles, plasters, and baked clays; at all of which he gazed feverishly, for his instinct was awakened, and his vocation stirred within him. He entered a room on the ground-floor, the door of which was half open; and there he saw a dozen young men drawing from a statue, who at once began to make fun of him.
“Hi! little one,” cried the first to see him, taking the crumbs of his bread and scattering them at the child.
“Whose child is he?”
“Goodness, how ugly!”
For a quarter of an hour Joseph stood still and bore the brunt of much teasing in the atelier of the great sculptor, Chaudet. But after laughing at him for a time, the pupils were struck with his persistency and with the expression of his face. They asked him what he wanted. Joseph answered that he wished to know how to draw; thereupon they all encouraged him. Won by such friendliness, the child told them he was Madame Bridau’s son.
“Oh! if you are Madame Bridau’s son,” they cried, from all parts of the room, “you will certainly be a great man. Long live the son of Madame Bridau! Is your mother pretty? If you are a sample of her, she must be stylish!”
“Ha! you want to be an artist?” said the eldest pupil, coming up to Joseph, “but don’t you know that that requires pluck; you’ll have to bear all sorts of trials — yes, trials — enough to break your legs and arms and soul and body. All the fellows you see here have gone through regular ordeals. That one, for instance, he went seven days without eating! Let me see, now, if you can be an artist.”
He took one of the child’s arms and stretched it straight up in the air; then he placed the other arm as if Joseph were in the act of delivering a blow with his fist.
“Now that’s what we call the telegraph trial,” said the pupil. “If you can stand like that, without lowering or changing the position of your arms for a quarter of an hour, then you’ll have proved yourself a plucky one.”
“Courage, little one, courage!” cried all the rest. “You must suffer if you want to be an artist.”
Joseph, with the good faith of his thirteen years, stood motionless for five minutes, all the pupils gazing solemnly at him.
“There! you are moving,” cried one.
“Steady, steady, confound you!” cried another.
“The Emperor Napoleon stood a whole month as you see him there,” said a third, pointing to the fine statue by Chaudet, which was in the room.
That statue, which represents the Emperor standing with the Imperial sceptre in his hand, was torn down in 1814 from the column it surmounted so well.
At the end of ten minutes the sweat stood in drops on Joseph’s forehead. At that moment a bald-headed little man, pale and sickly in appearance, entered the atelier, where respectful silence reigned at once.
“What you are about, you urchins?” he exclaimed, as he looked at the youthful martyr.
“That is a good little fellow, who is posing,” said the tall pupil who had placed Joseph.
“Are you not ashamed to torture a poor child in that way?” said Chaudet, lowering Joseph’s arms. “How long have you been standing there?” he asked the boy, giving him a friendly little pat on the cheek.
“A quarter of an hour.”
“What brought you here?”
“I want to be an artist.”
“Where do you belong? where do you come from?”
“From mamma’s house.”
“Oh! mamma!” cried the pupils.
“Silence at the easels!” cried Chaudet. “Who is your mamma?”
“She is Madame Bridau. My papa, who is dead, was a friend of the Emperor; and if you will teach me to draw, the Emperor will pay all you ask for it.”
“His father was head of a department at the ministry of the Interior,” exclaimed Chaudet, struck by a recollection. “So you want to be an artist, at your age?”
“Well, come here just as much as you like; we’ll amuse you. Give him a board, and paper, and chalks, and let him alone. You are to know, you young scamps, that his father did me a service. Here, Corde-a-puits, go and get some cakes and sugar-plums,” he said to the pupil who had tortured Joseph, giving him some small change. “We’ll see if you are to be artist by the way you gobble up the dainties,” added the sculptor, chucking Joseph under the chin.
Then he went round examining the pupils’ works, followed by the child, who looked and listened, and tried to understand him. The sweets were brought, Chaudet, himself, the child, and the whole studio all had their teeth in them; and Joseph was petted quite as much as he had been teased. The whole scene, in which the rough play and real heart of artists were revealed, and which the boy instinctively understood, made a great impression on his mind. The apparition of the sculptor, — for whom the Emperor’s protection opened a way to future glory, closed soon after by his premature death — was like a vision to little Joseph. The child said nothing to his mother about this adventure, but he spent two hours every Sunday and every Thursday in Chaudet’s atelier. From that time forth, Madame Descoings, who humored the fancies of the two cherubim, kept Joseph supplied with pencils and red chalks, prints and drawing-paper. At school, the future colorist sketched his masters, drew his comrades, charcoaled the dormitories, and showed surprising assiduity in the drawing-class. Lemire, the drawing-master, struck not only with the lad’s inclination but also with his actual progress, came to tell Madame Bridau of her son’s faculty. Agathe, like a true provincial, who knows as little of art as she knows much of housekeeping, was terrified. When Lemire left her, she burst into tears.
“Ah!” she cried, when Madame Descoings went to ask what was the matter. “What is to become of me! Joseph, whom I meant to make a government clerk, whose career was all marked out for him at the ministry of the interior, where, protected by his father’s memory, he might have risen to be chief of a division before he was twenty-five, he, my boy, he wants to be a painter — a vagabond! I always knew that child would give me nothing but trouble.”
Madame Descoings confessed that for several months past she had encouraged Joseph’s passion, aiding and abetting his Sunday and Thursday visits to the Institute. At the Salon, to which she had taken him, the little fellow had shown an interest in the pictures, which was, she declared, nothing short of miraculous.
“If he understands painting at thirteen, my dear,” she said, “your Joseph will be a man of genius.”
“Yes; and see what genius did for his father — killed him with overwork at forty!”
At the close of autumn, just as Joseph was entering his fourteenth year, Agathe, contrary to Madame Descoings’s entreaties, went to see Chaudet, and requested that he would cease to debauch her son. She found the sculptor in a blue smock, modelling his last statue; he received the widow of the man who formerly had served him at a critical moment, rather roughly; but, already at death’s door, he was struggling with passionate ardor to do in a few hours work he could hardly have accomplished in several months. As Madame Bridau entered, he had just found an effect long sought for, and was handling his tools and clay with spasmodic jerks and movements that seemed to the ignorant Agathe like those of a maniac. At any other time Chaudet would have laughed; but now, as he heard the mother bewailing the destiny he had opened to her child, abusing art, and insisting that Joseph should no longer be allowed to enter the atelier, he burst into a holy wrath.
“I was under obligations to your deceased husband, I wished to help his son, to watch his first steps in the noblest of all careers,” he cried. “Yes, madame, learn, if you do not know it, that a great artist is a king, and more than a king; he is happier, he is independent, he lives as he likes, he reigns in the world of fancy. Your son has a glorious future before him. Faculties like his are rare; they are only disclosed at his age in such beings as the Giottos, Raphaels, Titians, Rubens, Murillos — for, in my opinion, he will make a better painter than sculptor. God of heaven! if I had such a son, I should be as happy as the Emperor is to have given himself the King of Rome. Well, you are mistress of your child’s fate. Go your own way, madame; make him a fool, a miserable quill-driver, tie him to a desk, and you’ve murdered him! But I hope, in spite if all your efforts, that he will stay an artist. A true vocation is stronger than all the obstacles that can be opposed to it. Vocation! why the very word means a call; ay, the election of God himself! You will make your child unhappy, that’s all.” He flung the clay he no longer needed violently into a tub, and said to his model, “That will do for today.”
Agathe raised her eyes and saw, in a corner of the atelier where her glance had not before penetrated, a nude woman sitting on a stool, the sight of whom drove her away horrified.
“You are not to have the little Bridau here any more,” said Chaudet to his pupils, “it annoys his mother.”
“Eugh!” they all cried, as Agathe closed the door.
No sooner did the students of sculpture and painting find out that Madame Bridau did not wish her son to be an artist, than their whole happiness centred on getting Joseph among them. In spite of a promise not to go to the Institute which his mother exacted from him, the child often slipped into Regnauld the painter’s studio, where he was encouraged to daub canvas. When the widow complained that the bargain was not kept, Chaudet’s pupils assured her that Regnauld was not Chaudet, and they hadn’t the bringing up of her son, with other impertinences; and the atrocious young scamps composed a song with a hundred and thirty-seven couplets on Madame Bridau.
On the evening of that sad day Agathe refused to play at cards, and sat on her sofa plunged in such grief that the tears stood in her handsome eyes.
“What is the matter, Madame Bridau?” asked old Claparon.
“She thinks her boy will have to beg his bread because he has got the bump of painting,” said Madame Descoings; “but, for my part, I am not the least uneasy about the future of my step-son, little Bixiou, who has a passion for drawing. Men are born to get on.”
“You are right,” said the hard and severe Desroches, who, in spite of his talents, had never himself got on in the position of assistant-head of a department. “Happily I have only one son; otherwise, with my eighteen hundred francs a year, and a wife who makes barely twelve hundred out of her stamped-paper office, I don’t know what would become of me. I have just placed my boy as under-clerk to a lawyer; he gets twenty-five francs a month and his breakfast. I give him as much more, and he dines and sleeps at home. That’s all he gets; he must manage for himself, but he’ll make his way. I keep the fellow harder at work than if he were at school, and some day he will be a barrister. When I give him money to go to the theatre, he is as happy as a king and kisses me. Oh, I keep a tight hand on him, and he renders me an account of all he spends. You are too good to your children, Madame Bridau; if your son wants to go through hardships and privations, let him; they’ll make a man of him.”
“As for my boy,” said Du Bruel, a former chief of a division, who had just retired on a pension, “he is only sixteen; his mother dotes on him; but I shouldn’t listen to his choosing a profession at his age, — a mere fancy, a notion that may pass off. In my opinion, boys should be guided and controlled.”
“Ah, monsieur! you are rich, you are a man, and you have but one son,” said Agathe.
“Faith!” said Claparon, “children do tyrannize over us — over our hearts, I mean. Mine makes me furious; he has nearly ruined me, and now I won’t have anything to do with him — it’s a sort of independence. Well, he is the happier for it, and so am I. That fellow was partly the cause of his mother’s death. He chose to be a commercial traveller; and the trade just suited him, for he was no sooner in the house than he wanted to be out of it; he couldn’t keep in one place, and he wouldn’t learn anything. All I ask of God is that I may die before he dishonors my name. Those who have no children lose many pleasures, but they escape great sufferings.”
“And these men are fathers!” thought Agathe, weeping anew.
“What I am trying to show you, my dear Madame Bridau, is that you had better let your boy be a painter; if not, you will only waste your time.”
“If you were able to coerce him,” said the sour Desroches, “I should advise you to oppose his tastes; but weak as I see you are, you had better let him daub if he likes.”
“Console yourself, Agathe,” said Madame Descoings, “Joseph will turn out a great man.”
After this discussion, which was like all discussions, the widow’s friends united in giving her one and the same advice; which advice did not in the least relieve her anxieties. They advised her to let Joseph follow his bent.
“If he doesn’t turn out a genius,” said Du Bruel, who always tried to please Agathe, “you can then get him into some government office.”
When Madame Descoings accompanied the old clerks to the door she assured them, at the head of the stairs, that they were “Grecian sages.”
“Madame Bridau ought to be glad her son is willing to do anything,” said Claparon.
“Besides,” said Desroches, “if God preserves the Emperor, Joseph will always be looked after. Why should she worry?”
“She is timid about everything that concerns her children,” answered Madame Descoings. “Well, my good girl,” she said, returning to Agathe, “you see they are unanimous; why are you still crying?”
“If it was Philippe, I should have no anxiety. But you don’t know what goes on in that atelier; they have naked women!”
“I hope they keep good fires,” said Madame Descoings.
A few days after this, the disasters of the retreat from Moscow became known. Napoleon returned to Paris to organize fresh troops, and to ask further sacrifices from the country. The poor mother was then plunged into very different anxieties. Philippe, who was tired of school, wanted to serve under the Emperor; he saw a review at the Tuileries, — the last Napoleon ever held — and he became infatuated with the idea of a soldier’s life. In those days military splendor, the show of uniforms, the authority of epaulets, offered irresistible seductions to a certain style of youth. Philippe thought he had the same vocation for the army that his brother Joseph showed for art. Without his mother’s knowledge, he wrote a petition to the Emperor, which read as follows:—
Sire — I am the son of your Bridau; eighteen years of age, five feet six inches; I have good legs, a good constitution, and wish to be one of your soldiers. I ask you to let me enter the army, etc.
Within twenty-four hours, the Emperor had sent Philippe to the Imperial Lyceum at Saint–Cyr, and six months later, in November, 1813, he appointed him sub-lieutenant in a regiment of cavalry. Philippe spent the greater part of that winter in cantonments, but as soon as he knew how to ride a horse he was dispatched to the front, and went eagerly. During the campaign in France he was made a lieutenant, after an affair at the outposts where his bravery had saved his colonel’s life. The Emperor named him captain at the battle of La Fere–Champenoise, and took him on his staff. Inspired by such promotion, Philippe won the cross at Montereau. He witnessed Napoleon’s farewell at Fontainebleau, raved at the sight, and refused to serve the Bourbons. When he returned to his mother, in July, 1814, he found her ruined.
Joseph’s scholarship was withdrawn after the holidays, and Madame Bridau, whose pension came from the Emperor’s privy purse, vainly entreated that it might be inscribed on the rolls of the ministry of the interior. Joseph, more of a painter than ever, was delighted with the turn of events, and entreated his mother to let him go to Monsieur Regnauld, promising to earn his own living. He declared he was quite sufficiently advanced in the second class to get on without rhetoric. Philippe, a captain at nineteen and decorated, who had, moreover, served the Emperor as an aide-decamp in two battles, flattered the mother’s vanity immensely. Coarse, blustering, and without real merit beyond the vulgar bravery of a cavalry officer, he was to her mind a man of genius; whereas Joseph, puny and sickly, with unkempt hair and absent mind, seeking peace, loving quiet, and dreaming of an artist’s glory, would only bring her, she thought, worries and anxieties.
The winter of 1814–1815 was a lucky one for Joseph. Secretly encouraged by Madame Descoings and Bixiou, a pupil of Gros, he went to work in the celebrated atelier of that painter, whence a vast variety of talent issued in its day, and there he formed the closest intimacy with Schinner. The return from Elba came; Captain Bridau joined the Emperor at Lyons, accompanied him to the Tuileries, and was appointed to the command of a squadron in the dragoons of the Guard. After the battle of Waterloo — in which he was slightly wounded, and where he won the cross of an officer of the Legion of honor — he happened to be near Marshal Davoust at Saint–Denis, and was not with the army of the Loire. In consequence of this, and through Davoust’s intercession, his cross and his rank were secured to him, but he was placed on half-pay.
Joseph, anxious about his future, studied all through this period with an ardor which several times made him ill in the midst of these tumultuous events.
“It is the smell of the paints,” Agathe said to Madame Descoings. “He ought to give up a business so injurious to his health.”
However, all Agathe’s anxieties were at this time for her son the lieutenant-colonel. When she saw him again in 1816, reduced from the salary of nine thousand francs (paid to a commander in the dragoons of the Imperial Guard) to a half-pay of three hundred francs a month, she fitted up her attic rooms for him, and spent her savings in doing so. Philippe was one of the faithful Bonapartes of the cafe Lemblin, that constitutional Boeotia; he acquired the habits, manners, style, and life of a half-pay officer; indeed, like any other young man of twenty-one, he exaggerated them, vowed in good earnest a mortal enmity to the Bourbons, never reported himself at the War department, and even refused opportunities which were offered to him for employment in the infantry with his rank of lieutenant-colonel. In his mother’s eyes, Philippe seemed in all this to be displaying a noble character.
“The father himself could have done no more,” she said.
Philippe’s half-pay sufficed him; he cost nothing at home, whereas all Joseph’s expenses were paid by the two widows. From that moment, Agathe’s preference for Philippe was openly shown. Up to that time it had been secret; but the persecution of this faithful servant of the Emperor, the recollection of the wound received by her cherished son, his courage in adversity, which, voluntary though it were, seemed to her a glorious adversity, drew forth all Agathe’s tenderness. The one sentence, “He is unfortunate,” explained and justified everything. Joseph himself — with the innate simplicity which superabounds in the artist-soul in its opening years, and who was, moreover, brought up to admire his big brother — so far from being hurt by the preference of their mother, encouraged it by sharing her worship of the hero who had carried Napoleon’s orders on two battlefields, and was wounded at Waterloo. How could he doubt the superiority of the grand brother, whom he had beheld in the green and gold uniform of the dragoons of the Guard, commanding his squadron on the Champ de Mars?
Agathe, notwithstanding this preference, was an excellent mother. She loved Joseph, though not blindly; she simply was unable to understand him. Joseph adored his mother; Philippe let his mother adore him. Towards her, the dragoon softened his military brutality; but he never concealed the contempt he felt for Joseph — expressing it, however, in a friendly way. When he looked at his brother, weak and sickly as he was at seventeen years of age, shrunken with determined toil, and over-weighted with his powerful head, he nicknamed him “Cub.” Philippe’s patronizing manners would have wounded any one less carelessly indifferent than the artist, who had, moreover, a firm belief in the goodness of heart which soldiers hid, he thought, beneath a brutal exterior. Joseph did not yet know, poor boy, that soldiers of genius are as gentle and courteous in manner as other superior men in any walk of life. All genius is alike, wherever found.
“Poor boy!” said Philippe to his mother, “we mustn’t plague him; let him do as he likes.”
To his mother’s eyes the colonel’s contempt was a mark of fraternal affection.
“Philippe will always love and protect his brother,” she thought to herself.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51