“The failure of his absurd enterprise”

We left off yesterday with Countess Potocka’s rather unflattering description of Murat following his triumphant entry into Poland in November of 1806; today we will continue with the Countess’s recollection of Murat’s clumsy and, ultimately, unsuccessful attempt to arrange a liaison with her. This occurs shortly after the arrival of Napoleon and the beginning of the Emperor’s affair with the young (and married) Madame Walewska.

Source: Memoirs of the Countess Potocka, English translation by Lionel Strachey, 1900.

***

After the emperor had made his choice the princes of the family wanted to follow suit. It was difficult, as there was more than glory involved in this audacious enterprise.

One morning M. Janvier, Prince Murat’s private secretary, was announced. He entered, a key in his hand, much embarrassed at his undertaking. Not knowing how to begin, he remained mute, and turned his key over and over without venturing to look at me, whilst I, on my side, racked my brain to guess what he wanted.

In order that this anecdote may be understood, I must say a word about the arrangements of the palace. Between the story occupied by my mother-in-law and the ground floor, where the large apartment was situated which I had surrendered to Prince Murat, there were tiny mezzanine rooms, of which my mother-in-law never made use except in the coldest weather, because they communicated the heat thoroughly by way of a secret staircase.

This charming retreat, furnished and decorated in Louis XV style, was looked upon as a part of the large apartment. The key of it had been given to Prince Murat’s servants when he had come to live in our house, and nobody had thought of it since. That was the key M. Janvier had been ordered to bring to me.

Being a man of sense, he felt fully the impropriety of his mission, and was doubly confused when he perceived that I did not understand, and that I persisted in refusing the key as a useless object; because, inhabiting the same floor as my mother-in-law, her private stairs were all that concerned me. Seeing me utterly at a loss, he took the liberty to say, that His Highness, not caring to propose large parties, had thought I might perhaps be pleased to take tea occasionally in these charming nooks. I began to comprehend, and I got angry! He must have read it in my eyes, for I thought he would fall from his chair. He rose, stumbling, and going to a bracket deposited there the miserable key, and made a profound bow, preparatory to his exit.

I could scarce contain myself–indignation inspired me. Smiling as disdainfully as I was able, I begged M. Janvier to tell the prince that my mother-in-law would certainly be sensible to his attention, that at her age large parties were found objectionable, and that she might avail herself of His Highness’ obliging offer; that, in any case, since he was leaving the key, I should hand it to my mother-in-law. And, bestowing my haughtiest salute on the poor secretary, who stood petrified by the door, I left the room. [pgs 81-82]

***

M. de Talleyrand’s ball was followed by two others; one given by Prince Borghese, the other by Prince Murat. I was indisposed, and did not attend the first; it was my mother-in-law’s opinion that I ought to be at the second, so as to sustain the part I had adopted towards M. Janvier, and not in any way change the relationship of frigid politeness existing between our guest and ourselves. [pg 83]

***

No one sat down in the emperor’s presence, not even his brothers-in-law. This did not seem to displease Prince Murat, who did not lose the opportunity to pose, and to strike attitudes which he judged appropriate to show off the beauty of his figure. But little Borghese [ed. note: husband of Pauline Bonaparte] was enraged, and still had not the courage to sit down. [pg 86]

***

My mother-in-law, being the only lady of Warsaw who had kept up a salon, found herself obliged to give drawing-room teas and dances. A host of strangers who had come with the diplomatic body asked nothing better than to be entertained. The princes, of the blood so-called, missed none of these parties, without, however, compromising their dignity, for they only danced at court balls!

Prince Murat, little discountenanced by the failure of his absurd enterprise, seized this opportunity to talk to me, and overwhelmed me with insipid compliments. I scarcely made an effort to prevent his seeing how he wearied me. He finally, though somewhat late, did perceive it. Then, assuming a melodramatic air, he said this very ridiculous phrase–rendered more so by his Gascon accent–which has made my friends laugh so much:

Madame Alexandre! you are not ambitious; you do not care for princes!”

At Paris I heard a companion anecdote. The day that Murat was proclaimed King of Naples, a fair one, touched by his greatness, accorded him a private interview. As the cares of his empire were not yet taking up much of his time, he arrived too early, and, impatient of waiting, he carried his hand to his forehead, exclaiming:

“Was an unhappier monarch ever known?” [pgs 86-87]

***

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