THE SOCIAL SIDE OF A MINISTER’S WIFE
My first big dinner at the Ministry of Public Instruction rather intimidated me. We were fifty people—I the only lady. I went over to the ministry in the afternoon to see the table, which was very well arranged with quantities of flowers, beautiful Sevres china, not much silver—there is very little left in France, it having all been melted at the time of the Revolution. The official dinners are always well done in Paris. I suppose the traditions of the Empire have been handed down. We arrived a few minutes before eight, all the staff and directors already there, and by ten minutes after eight every one had arrived. I sat between Gerome, the painter, and Renan, two very different men but each quite charming,—Gerome tall, slight, animated, talking very easily about everything. He told me who a great many of the people were, with a little commentary on their profession and career which was very useful to me, as I knew so few of them. Renan was short, stout, with a very large head, almost unprepossessing-looking, but with a great charm of manner and the most delightful smile and voice imaginable. He often dined with us in our own house, en petit comite, and was always charming. He was one of those happy mortals (there are not many) who made every subject they discuss interesting.
After that first experience, I liked the big men’s dinners very much. There was no general conversation; I talked exclusively to my two neighbours, but as they were always distinguished in some branch of art, science, or literature, the talk was brilliant, and I found the hour our dinner lasted a very short one. W. was very particular about not having long dinners. Later, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we sometimes had eighty guests, the dinner was never over an hour. I did not remain the whole evening at the men’s dinners. As soon as they dispersed to talk and smoke, I came away, leaving W. to entertain his guests. We often had big receptions with music and comedie. At one of our first big parties we had several of the Orleans family. I was rather nervous, as I had never received royalty,—in fact I had never spoken to a royal prince or princess. I had lived a great deal in Rome, as a girl, during the last days of Pius IX, and I was never in Paris during the Empire. When we went back to Rome one winter, after the accession of King Victor Emmanuel, I found myself for the first time in a room with royalties, the Prince and Princesse de Piemont. I remember quite well being so surprised by seeing two of the Roman men we knew very well come backward into the ballroom where we were sitting. I thought they must be anticipating the Mardi Gras and were masquerading a little, didn’t realise that every one was standing. I remained sitting for a moment (much to the horror of one of the English secretaries who was with us and who thought we were going to make a spread-eagle American demonstration and remain sitting when royalty appeared). However, by some sort of instinct, we rose too (perhaps to see what was going on), just as the princes passed. Princess Marguerite looked charming, dressed in white, with her splendid pearls and beautiful fair hair.