Tracks of a Rolling Stone


IN November, 1862, my wife and I received an invitation to spend a week at Compiegne with their Majesties the Emperor and Empress of the French. This was due to the circumstance that my wife's father, Lord Wilton, as Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, had entertained the Emperor during his visit to Cowes.

We found an express train with the imperial carriages awaiting the arrival of the English guests at the station du Nord. The only other English besides ourselves were Lord and Lady Winchilsea with Lady Florence Paget, and Lord and Lady Castlerosse, now Lord and Lady Kenmare. These, however, had preceded us, so that with the exception of M. Drouyn de Lhuys, we had the saloon carriage to ourselves.

The party was a very large one, including the Walewskis, the Persignys, the Metternichs - he, the Austrian Ambassador - Prince Henri VII. of Reuss, Prussian Ambassador, the Prince de la Moskowa, son of Marshal Ney, and the Labedoyeres, amongst the historical names. Amongst those of art and literature, of whom there were many, the only one whom I made the acquaintance of was Octave Feuillet. I happened to have brought his 'Comedies et Proverbes' and another of his books with me, never expecting to meet him; this so pleased him that we became allies. I was surprised to find that he could not even read English, which I begged him to learn for the sake of Shakespeare alone.

We did not see their Majesties till dinner-time. When the guests were assembled, the women and the men were arranged separately on opposite sides of the room. The Emperor and Empress then entered, each respectively welcoming those of their own sex, shaking hands and saying some conventional word in passing. Me, he asked whether I had brought my guns, and hoped we should have a good week's sport. To each one a word. Every night during the week we sat down over a hundred to dinner. The Army was largely represented. For the first time I tasted here the national frog, which is neither fish nor flesh. The wine was, of course, supreme; but after every dish a different wine was handed round. The evening entertainments were varied. There was the theatre in the Palace, and some of the best of the Paris artistes were requisitioned for the occasion. With them came Dejazet, then nearly seventy, who had played before Buonaparte.

Almost every night there was dancing. Sometimes the Emperor would walk through a quadrille, but as a rule he would retire with one of his ministers, though only to a smaller boudoir at the end of the suite, where a couple of whist-tables were ready for the more sedate of the party. Here one evening I found Prince Metternich showing his Majesty a chess problem, of which he was the proud inventor. The Emperor asked whether I was fond of chess. I was very fond of chess, was one of the regular HABITUES of St. George's Chess Club, and had made a study of the game for years. The Prince challenged me to solve his problem in four moves. It was not a very profound one. I had the hardihood to discover that three, rather obvious moves, were sufficient. But as I was not Gil Blas, and the Prince was not the Archbishop of Grenada, it did not much matter. Like the famous prelate, his Excellency proffered his felicitations, and doubtless also wished me 'un peu plus de gout' with the addition of 'un peu moins de perspicacite.'

One of the evening performances was an exhibition of POSES-PLASTIQUES, the subjects being chosen from celebrated pictures in the Louvre. Theatrical costumiers, under the command of a noted painter, were brought from Paris. The ladies of the court were carefully rehearsed, and the whole thing was very perfectly and very beautifully done. All the English ladies were assigned parts. But, as nearly all these depended less upon the beauties of drapery than upon those of nature, the English ladies were more than a little staggered by the demands of the painter and of the - UNdressers. To the young and handsome Lady Castlerosse, then just married, was allotted the figure of Diana. But when informed that, in accordance with the original, the drapery of one leg would have to be looped up above the knee, her ladyship used very firm language; and, though of course perfectly ladylike, would, rendered into masculine terms, have signified that she would 'see the painter d-d first.' The celebrated 'Cruche cassee' of Greuze, was represented by the reigning beauty, the Marquise de Gallifet, with complete fidelity and success.

There was one stage of the performance which neither I nor Lord Castlerosse, both of us newly married, at all appreciated. This was the privileges of the Green-room, or rather of the dressing-rooms. The exhibition was given in the ball-room. On one side of this, until the night of the performances, an enclosure was boarded off. Within it, were compartments in which the ladies dressed and - undressed. At this operation, as we young husbands discovered, certain young gentlemen of the court were permitted to assist - I think I am not mistaken in saying that his Majesty was of the number. What kind of assistance was offered or accepted, Castlerosse and I, being on the wrong side of the boarding, were not in a position to know.

There was a door in the boarding, over which one expected to see, 'No admittance except on business,' or perhaps, 'on pleasure.' At this door I rapped, and rapped again impatiently. It was opened, only as wide as her face, by the empress.

'What do you want, sir?' was the angry demand.

'To see my wife, madame,' was the submissive reply.

'You can't see her; she is rehearsing.'

'But, madame, other gentlemen - '

'Ah! Mais, c'est un enfantillage! Allez-vous-en.'

And the door was slammed in my face.

'Well,' thought I, 'the right woman is in the right place there, at all events.'

Another little incident at the performance itself also recalled the days and manners of the court of Louis XV.

Henry J Coke