‘This is Mademoiselle de Bergerot.’
‘How old are you?’
’It is time that you were married. Every woman should be married at twenty-three. How is it that you are not married?’
The poor girl appeared to be incapable of answering, so the Empress gently remarked that it was to the young men that that question should be addressed.
‘Oh, that is the difficulty, is it?’ said the Emperor. ’We must look about and find a husband for you.’ He turned, and to my horror I found his eyes fixed with a questioning gaze upon my face.
‘We have to find you a wife also, Monsieur de Laval,’ said he. ’Well, well, we shall see—we shall see. What is your name?’ to a quiet refined man in black.
‘I am Gretry, the musician.’
’Yes, yes, I remember you. I have seen you a hundred times, but I can never recall your name. Who are you?’
‘I am Joseph de Chenier.’
’Of course. I have seen your tragedy. I have forgotten the name of it, but it was not good. You have written some other poetry, have you not?’
‘Yes, sire. I had your permission to dedicate my last volume to you.’
’Very likely, but I have not had time to read it. It is a pity that we have no poets now in France, for the deeds of the last few years would have given a subject for a Homer or a Virgil. It seems that I can create kingdoms but not poets. Whom do you consider to be the greatest French writer?’
’Then you are a blockhead, for Corneille was infinitely greater. I have no ear for metre or trivialities of the kind, but I can sympathise with the spirit of poetry, and I am conscious that Corneille is far the greatest of poets. I would have made him my prime minister had he had the good fortune to live in my epoch. It is his intellect which I admire, his knowledge of the human heart, and his profound feeling. Are you writing anything at present?’
‘I am writing a tragedy upon Henry IV., sire.’
’It will not do, sir. It is too near the present day, and I will not have politics upon the stage. Write a play about Alexander. What is your name?’
He had pitched upon the same person whom he had already addressed.
‘I am still Gretry, the musician,’ said he meekly.
The Emperor flushed for an instant at the implied rebuke. He said nothing, however, but passed on to where several ladies were standing together near the door of the card-room.
‘Well, madame,’ said he to the nearest of them, ’I hope you are behaving rather better. When last I heard from Paris your doings were furnishing the Quartier St. Germain with a good deal of amusement and gossip.’
‘I beg that your Majesty will explain what you mean,’ said she with spirit.
‘They had coupled your name with that of Colonel Lasalle.’