La Maréchale d’Aubemer, Nouvelle du XVIIIème Siècle, or The Widow of Field Marshal d’Aubemer: A Novella of the 18th Century, posthumously published in 1867, is a novel by the author and memoirist Madame de Boigne, born Adélaïde d’Osmond (1781-1866). Mine is the first English translation, available here for the first time anywhere.
In Chapter 3, the Maréchale d’Aubemer sees an apparition from her sickbed…
THE WIDOW OF FIELD MARSHAL D’AUBEMER: A NOVELLA OF THE 18TH CENTURY
Almost two weeks after the day of the ball, Madame d’Aubemer, who had been nearly at death’s door and in a state of constant delirium, opened her eyes after a heavy sleep procured by opium and gave a little sigh. Mlle Julie, who had been watching over her day and night, leaned towards her. The Maréchale recognized her, smiled wanly, and tried to turn her head. She thought she saw an angelic figure standing behind her faithful maid and heard a silvery voice say, “Let’s take advantage of this moment. It’s time for her medicine.” She felt herself being gently lifted. Mlle Julie fed her a spoonful of some bitter drug, and she was carefully settled back onto her freshly plumped pillows. It was not long before she fell back into a fairly calm sleep. Without realizing quite what had happened, she had a confused notion of having seen her guardian angel, who was calling her back to health.
A few hours later, the Maréchale woke up completely. Night had fallen; a lamp, veiled on her side of the bed, cast its light on a young woman, who, holding her forehead in her hand, was reading in the dim light. Ringlets of the most beautiful blonde hair fell over this hand, which was of a startling whiteness, and hid the greater part of her face. Nonetheless, the contour of the beautiful oval of her cheeks was visible. The Maréchale remained in contemplation of this scene for some time, saying to herself, “If this is a feverish hallucination, it’s at least more agreeable than the hideous phantoms that have been chasing me these last days.” A soft movement made the charming apparition lift her head and revealed the traits of a rare beauty. She responded with a negative signal to a question whispered by Mlle Julie, who had come to take up again her post at the foot of the invalid’s bed. The Maréchale called out to her, at which the figure in the lamplight rose noiselessly, glided into the darkness, and disappeared from the sight of Mme d’Aubemer.
“Julie, who is that young woman?”
“What young woman, Madame?”
“There, by the table.”
“I see nothing, Madame.”
The Maréchale, too tired to argue, did not insist. She had a good night. At their first visit of the morning, the doctors declared the danger past if calm and silence were maintained. One could have heard the beating wings of a fly in that vast house, so scrupulously were the doctors’ orders executed by its devoted inhabitants. Mme d’Aubemer’s people, most of them old servants of long date, grumbled sometimes, but they were profoundly attached to her.
The Maréchale found herself in that state of somnolence that results from great weakness, but that still allows the use of one’s faculties, when some murmurings at the door of her room caught her attention, and, lifting her head a little, she perceived in a mirror’s reflection Mlle Julie talking with the young person of the evening before. This time, however, she was wearing a hat, a mantle, and an ensemble of the kind that ladies wear when visiting. The conversation went on long enough to tire the invalid’s attention, and she fell back into unconsciousness. The fever did not come back that night. The doctors permitted a bit of nourishment, and the next day they proclaimed that she was on the road to recovery. Great was the joy at the Hôtel d’Aubemer. Among the Maréchale’s many friends, Mme de Montford alone was authorized to see her for a few minutes. After the visit, addressing herself to Mlle Julie, the Maréchale said, “I know very well that I was delirious, and God knows that I saw, and perhaps said, many quite extravagant things, but I wasn’t delirious anymore when I distinctly saw a young person three times that I had a confused notion of seeing near me when I was most sick. Don’t treat me like a lunatic, I beg you, by trying to deny it.”
“How could Madame have seen her?”
“My God, I looked at her, but why try to hide it from me?”
“Madame doesn’t like new people.”
“Oh, but people like that…where is she?”
“We were afraid that her presence would displease Madame, and we thought we had kept her hidden so well!”
“But who is it, finally? I want to know!”
“Now, Madame, don’t upset yourself so. Since I have to tell you, it’s the Comtesse Lionel de Saveuse.”
“What! My niece, with that angelic appearance!”
“Oh, Madame might well say so, and she has more than the appearance, for in fact she really is an angel.”
“So, that’s my niece! If she comes back, you must let her into my room.”
“Oh, it won’t be long,” replied Mlle Julie looking at the clock, “she’s never absent for more than two hours.”
Soon enough, the Comtesse Lionel was ushered in to the Maréchale. She made no sentimental effusions, and uttered no rehearsed phrases. She contented herself with kissing the hand that the Maréchale extended to her and sat down tranquilly next to the bed. Mme d’Aubemer, wanting to get a better look at her, asked her if her hat were not uncomfortable. She took it off, and her mantle as well, put them down at a distance, and then promptly began taking care of the invalid.
“I think I remember seeing this little hand, and this same blue ring in the midst of many less agreeable visions,” said the Maréchale, touching her niece’s hands while she was helping her drink something.
“Oh, Madame can be more than sure of that,” cried Mlle Julie, “she scarcely stirred from the edge of your pillows for ten days, and…” A sharp look from Mme de Saveuse cut this speech off. Having put down the cup, she approached the fireplace, sat down in an armchair, took up a book, and seemed to be absorbed in her reading, but the smallest sound caused her to lift her head and showed her ready to come back to the bed. Mme d’Aubemer, still to weak to able to converse much, nonetheless noticed her niece’s quietly intelligent ministrations, and when the Comtesse Lionel, getting ready to leave at the end of the morning, asked her, “Shall I come back tonight, Aunt?” she understood that she would be repaying her devotion by responding in kind, and simply said, “Yes, my child.”
Mme de Saveuse withdrew with a satisfaction that was not shared by Mlle Julie. This “Yes, my child” seemed to her overly laconic. She had taken the Maréchale’s pretty niece under her special protection and burned to talk about her. As soon as she was no longer there to hush her, she hastily recounted how she had spent her days at her aunt’s bedside, and several times the nights, too, so that she, Julie, could get a bit of much needed rest, but which she would have refused if it had been anyone else who was going to supervise the sickroom. She recounted how she, the Comtesse Lionel, had alone been able to keep her head when everyone had lost theirs, how she had succeeded in calming Mme d’Aubemer in the most violent transports of her delirium, and how the doctors had placed greater faith in her reports than those of the official nurse appointed by them to watch over the invalid, and who had had to be dismissed because the unfamiliar ministrations of this new person had aggravated the Maréchale. In the end, she said so much and to such effect that she succeeded in agitating her mistress. Suddenly perceiving the alteration and the redness in the Maréchale’s face, she was in despair, gave her another spoonful of medicine, and enjoined her to rest. Despite this tardy recommendation, Mme de Saveuse found her aunt less well than she had left her. The doctors noticed an elevation in the pulse, for which they blamed the chicken broth. They ordered it to be thinned out. Mlle Julie, keeping her little secret, changed nothing about the broth and promised herself to be more circumspect in the future. Mme d’Aubemer calmed down little by little under the salutary influence of Mme de Saveuse; she fell asleep holding her hand, and when she woke up an hour later, the febrile episode had dissipated. She took the full-strength chicken broth with pleasure and passed the night well.
Soon it was Mme de Montford’s turn to recount how assiduous and charming Mme de Saveuse had been, and the place in her heart that her tender care of her aunt had assured her. This time the Maréchale felt her gratitude well up, but no agitation joined it.
“I find,” said Mme de Montford, who had been raised in the same convent as the Mesdemoiselles d’Élancourt, “my dear, that Mme de Saveuse resembles you a great deal.”
“You do me too much honour. I never had hair and a complexion like that. There are moments, for all that, that she reminds me of her mother, although she’s infinitely prettier.”
“Much more than Caroline, assuredly, but I don’t concede that she surpasses the beautiful Émilie. You were superb, my dear.”
“Mademoiselle de Lillebonne was my rival,” replied the Maréchale smilingly, “and yet we weren’t jealous of one another.”
“No, it’s true.”
And so these two beautiful contemporaries gave themselves up to the pleasure, so natural, of recalling their youth with someone who traveled in the same circles and has the same memories.
Mme d’Aubemer’s convalescence was taking hold, accompanied by the inherent tedium of a state in which one’s strength is not quite up to the use one would like to make of it. Mme de Saveuse proved herself just as skilled at combating this moral weakness as she had been the physical suffering. The Maréchale, on whom none of these attentions were lost, observed her with an affectionate curiosity that lent some interest to her enforced inactivity. Similarly, as soon as the Comtesse Lionel absented herself, she lapsed into dejection. She would have fallen into a sort of egoism to suit, but Mlle Julie did not fail to comment on it, so that the young countess hardly left the Hôtel d’Aubemer. One day she was reading to the Maréchale a little pamphlet that had been left at the door, and the latter remarked how well modulated her voice was and how pure her diction. “If it doesn’t tire you, Aunt, I have a lot of stamina from the habit of reading to my grandfather, and I can read as long as you like.”
Mme d’Aubemer accepted eagerly, so desirous was she to judge her niece’s tastes and opinions as prompted by the various subjects of the books, and she was also pleased to make use of the hours that were weighing heavily on her. The books scattered about the salon were sent for. The majority were new works. Among them was the academic speech of which we have already spoken. The sight of it inspired something like remorse in Mme d’Aubemer. She remembered the irritation she had felt, the last time she opened its pages, against the charming creature who was now surrounding her with such loving attention. The contrast caused her some emotion. Suspending her perusal of the books placed on her chaise longue, she regarded the Comtesse Lionel tenderly, and asked how the idea of taking such affectionate care of an old woman who was too unknown, much too unknown to her, had come in to her head. “Oh, Aunt, the first day I saw you lying there in the depths1 of your bed, and long as you were so ill, you looked so much like Mama!”
The Maréchale felt a tear drop on the hand that she had held out to her niece, which the latter kissed. Finding herself a little wounded by this reflected tenderness, she gently drew her hand back. Nonetheless, being at bottom an eminently reasonable person, a moment’s reflection reminded her that she had no right to inspire a more direct feeling. She continued, despite herself, a little more coolly, “Do I not resemble your mother any more?”
“Oh, a good deal less now. You’re more elegant, more beautifully turned out, more youthful…”
“Yet I’m her elder.”
“That’s possible, but you don’t seem so. I assuredly don’t regret the improvement in your condition, but I loved you with that melancholic look — sweet, a little vague, so much like Mama’s.”
“So much so that when I regain my health and my beauty, as you say, you won’t love me at all.”
“Oh, no, Aunt, you’re so good to me!”
“It’s you, my child, who have been good to me until now, but…”
The Maréchale, out of tact, did not finish the sentence that was on her lips as well as in her heart, and after an instant’s hesitation, she added, “But we’ll get to know each other better. Here, my dear girl, is a poem that people have praised to me recently. Do you like poetry?”
“When it’s beautiful, Aunt, I prefer it to prose, but in general I find that poetry is like the violin: it can no more bear mediocrity than the instrument; when it doesn’t rise to the sublime and scrapes the strings, it makes me grit my teeth,” she replied, showing two rows of pearls which pleased the Maréchale even more than the words, although they quite agreed with her own way of thinking.
Mme d’Aubemer’s esteem for her niece was signaled by the welcome that she accorded to Comte Lionel when his wife asked permission to bring him in one morning. Despite her desire to find him better than he had seemed before, he displeased her just as much. However, the Comtesse Lionel seeming to look at him and listen to him with satisfaction, she enjoined him to come back as often as he liked. He did not abuse this permission, and did not reappear for a goodly number of days, nor did Mme de Saveuse seem to be troubled or saddened by his absence. Only two or three times did she make his excuses for him, naming the show he had gone to.
Nonetheless Mme d’Aubemer’s strength was returning and it soon allowed her to receive her intimates. For the most part, these were people of wit and learning. Mme de Saveuse’s role changed. The activity that she had engaged in up to then was replaced by that intelligent attention so becoming to young women admitted to a circle of superior people. It was not long before she became their idol. Her grace, her beauty, and above all her naturalness, charmed them, and the Maréchale’s old friends were grateful to her for taking such evident pleasure in their company. Getting to know them better, little by little she revealed the intellectual treasures that a sedentary education had acquired for her without her being aware of it, and each of these distinguished men was pleased to foster such natural gifts accompanied by such simplicity. The Duchesse de Montford, the only other woman admitted to these intimate gatherings, was infatuated with Mme de Saveuse, and perpetually vaunted her merits in society without reflecting that she was inciting the animosity of the other young women. She was already being designated by the name of ‘The Marvel of Uzerche’ and ‘The Muse of Limousin.’
A few weeks passed in this manner. Mme d’Aubemer’s salon gradually re-opened. The visitors, more numerous, rendered the evenings a good deal less agreeable, as Mme de Saveuse remarked to her aunt.
“I see, my child,” she said with a smile, “that you treat my salon like me; you like us better in a nightcap. However,” she added more seriously, “conversation is like other pleasures — it doesn’t do to exhaust it. It has to happen spontaneously and naturally, when the circumstances are propitious and the talkers meet without an agenda, for they bear winning words as trees bear fruit, and they arrive in their own good time. While I was still weak and those gentlemen gathered around my chaise longue in small numbers, I admit the conversation was in fact richer and more brilliant; those moments were for them a sort of saturnalia of wit. They were sure of not being distracted, nor of being interrupted, yet at the same time listened to and appreciated. And then, my dear girl, my old friends were posturing a bit in front of your lovely eyes.
“Yes, my dear niece, that’s how things are, but they themselves would have been tired by the constant necessity to perform, and our gatherings would have degenerated into a workshop of wit, and nothing is more apt to kill true wit. Trust in my experience; conversation is alternately the most tenacious and the most fleeting thing in the world. Sometimes it holds forth despite every interruption, overcoming all obstacles, but more often the buzzing of a fly or the sound of a chair being moved upsets it. Should we be concerned? No, not at all. It will start up again in its own time, the next day, or right away, and the buzzing of the fly, that shifted chair, will perhaps have given it another subject that will rejuvenate it and lift it to greater heights. What’s needed for conversation is distinguished people who take pleasure in it, mixed with a few learned people and a certain proportion of women and people who are a little frivolous but intelligent. After that, just let it carry on. The less one guides it, the better it finds its way. When I’ve completely resumed my customary life, I will see to it, and you’ll see that the sort of conversation you miss now will start again when the hour for casual visits is over. All the same, my dear girl, I feel remorseful for the life you lead in Paris. You didn’t come here to be a reclusive nun. You must go into society. I can’t present you myself, but Mme de Montford can take you, and you couldn’t appear more agreeably than with her.”
“I assure you, Aunt, that you will punish me by exiling me from your salon. In the morning I go with Lionel to see the monuments and sights, which suffices for my provincial curiosity, and nowhere will I find the same kind of enjoyment as in your house.”
“Alas, my child, I don’t have the courage to push you out and deprive myself of you, but I gather that you’re attending the ambassador’s wife’s party that we were talking of earlier; it will be very beautiful, and it’s an excellent opportunity to make a brilliant debut.”
“But, Aunt,” replied Mme de Saveuse, not even understanding in her naive modesty the meaning attached by the Maréchale to these words, “but, Aunt, it would be very annoying if all this worldly brilliance seduced me, for my retreat from it would follow very closely on my debut.”
The Maréchale smiled, but she felt some sadness thinking of how temporary her niece’s presence was, and her memories, turning on the people she had successively loved and lost, stopped on her sister. Illness and weakness occasioned by a long convalescence had until that moment prevented her from replying to her letter. She sat down for the first time at her desk, and, already predisposed to tenderness, bared her soul in a way that was not usual for her, revisiting the affection of their youth, the pain of their estrangement, and their long separation, and spoke of the Comtesse Lionel in terms sure to find their echo in Caroline’s maternal heart.
Lionel de Saveuse dined quite often at the Maréchale’s. The fare was top rate, a fact to which he was not indifferent, but above all he had gathered that to dine at the Hôtel d’Aubemer was a mark of fashionability, which encouraged him to go. He was mortally bored there, since he did not make any kind of impression, and never stayed the whole evening, but often came to pick up his wife and take her home. Engrossed one evening by her interest in a discussion about literature, she kept Lionel later than he had counted on. They had hardly taken their places in the carriage when he said to her, testily, “I declare that I don’t wish to be subjected to the ridicule of being pointed out as the husband of a bluestocking!”2
“In truth, my dear, you are safe from that danger,” she replied laughingly, “I’m much too ignorant for you to run that risk, but I assure you that there is no pretension or pedantry in these discussions that I listen to with such pleasure. What? Really, Lionel, they don’t amuse you?”
“No, they bore me to death.”
“I am vexed that you didn’t hear Président de Brosses3 yesterday talking about Italy and the Rome that you miss so much. He explained a number of things to me that I hadn’t understood before; it would have interested you a great deal.”
“I understand nothing about the law and I have no desire to make my head sore trying to; I leave the lawyers4 to discuss their codes with women who want to make themselves ridiculous.”
“You are completely in the wrong, my dear. The Président spoke of the monuments, the galleries, the statues, the paintings, the landscapes of the countryside, the morals, the literature, and the customs, and he recounted some very lively anecdotes. I am persuaded that you would have listened to him with as much pleasure as I did. I assure you that there was not a single word that I did not understand, which should be enough to prove to you that there was no mention of codes, nor of ‘transcendant knowledge’ as you put it the other day.”
Lionel, a bit disconcerted at having neither provoked his wife to anger nor lorded it over her with his imperious and sulky manner, remained silent. Mme de Saveuse addressed an inconsequential question to him, and he responded with a bit of ill-humour, but it dissipated for lack of any place to gain purchase. Lionel’s great terror was to seem provincial, and the pains he took to avoid this misfortune rendered it inevitable. He divided his time between two societies: one linked to his relations, which he patronized out of pretension5 and where he was very bored because so little was made of him, and the other composed of some families originally from Limousin and young men a little below his station, where he was received with great deference. He flaunted his connections and recounted how he penetrated the most elegant salons and was listened to there like an oracle. It was in the second society that he enjoyed himself most and arranged outings for walks and to the theatre, never suspecting that these outings and the simpering of the women he was escorting, Parisians by birth as they might be, marked him out as a provincial at first glance. Mme de Saveuse’s almost complete removal to the Maréchale’s had suited him perfectly up to this point, but the Princesse Simon de Montford had for several days been making advances to the handsome young provincial. She wanted him, she said, as the drum-major for the cohort of her adorers, mocked him loudly, even to his face, and at the same time worked assiduously to turn his head. A secret instinct of jealously towards Mme de Saveuse, whose praises in her mother-in-law’s mouth annoyed her, had pushed her to enact this whim, and her natural spitefulness made her seek to turn Lionel against a woman who displeased her even though she had never set eyes on her. That very evening, in her box at the opera, which M de Saveuse had been granted the great favour of entering, she had made a thousand little jibes about the pedantry of Mme d’Aubemer’s salon, about how all the young ladies took care to flee from it, and about the ridicule that attached to those who enjoyed it. Princesse Simon had not added how coldly she herself was received there. Henri d’Estouteville, to please her or just on a whim of the moment, had picked up her cue and professed his horror of the cultivated mind, declaring a bluestocking woman so perfectly ridiculous that the colour practically bled onto the husband; as for himself, he would never permit his own wife to pursue any knowledge beyond the study of the latest dance steps. Now, Henri d’Estouteville was Lionel de Saveuse’s lodestar. A word out of his mouth was law and he did not perceive that Henri often dropped ones to which he did not attach the least importance, sometimes amusing himself in sustaining absurd paradoxes out of pure idle devilry, and perhaps with a little malice aforethought in blowing the young dandy of Uzerche off course in his desire to emulate the frivolity of the dandy of Paris. However that may be, the remarks made at the opera had earned Mme de Saveuse the little scene we have just related, but of which she retained neither rancour nor any recollection.
- An 18th century lady of the Maréchale’s status is likely to have had a grand four-poster bed in which she would be a tiny figure.
- A learned or intellectual woman. The term derives from the Blue Stocking Society, an English literary society in the 1750s that was led by Elizabeth Montagu, and which included a number of prominent female writers and intellectuals of the day. The term bluestocking eventually took on a negative connotation in the sense of a pedantic woman with too much learning for her station. The term spread across the Channel to France, where it was literally translated as “bas-bleu.”
- Presumably Charles de Brosses (1709-1777), Comte de Tournay, who wrote a number of learned books. A volume of letters that he wrote to his friends while traveling in Italy in 1739-1740 was published in 1836.
- De Brosses was for decades the president of the Dijon Parliament. Under the Old Regime, there were various regional parlements, which were not parliaments in the English sense, but rather courts of law. De Brosses’ title Président is analogous to Chief Justice. Lionel is supercilious about him because the Saveuses are members of the ancient nobility of the Sword (noblesse d’épée), whose ancestors were ennobled for military service to the crown, while the Brosses are members of the newer nobility of the Robe (noblesse de robe), whose ancestors were ennobled for judicial service to the crown. It should perhaps be explained that certain judicial offices conferred nobility on anyone who was appointed to them.
- The Aubemers are richer and grander than the Saveuses.