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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Necker smiles to see the ladies crying


James

Necker was born at Geneva in 1732. Engaging in business without any personal taste for it and by his father's wish, he had been successful in his enterprises; at forty he was a rich man, and his banking-house enjoyed great credit when he retired from business, in 1772, in order to devote himself to occupations more in accordance with his natural inclinations. He was ambitious and disinterested. The great operations in which he had been concerned had made his name known. He had propped up the _Compagnie des Indes_ nearly falling to pieces, and his financial resources had often ministered to the necessities of the State. "We entreat your assistance in the day of need," wrote Abbe Terray when he was comptroller-general; "deign to come to our assistance with a sum which is absolutely necessary." On ceasing to be a banker, Necker soon gave indications of the direction in which his thoughts turned; he wrote an indifferent Bloge de Colbert, crowned by the French Academy, in 1773. He believed that he was destined to wear the mantle of Louis XIV.'s great minister.

Society and public opinion exercised an ever increasing influence in the eighteenth century; M. Necker managed to turn it to account. He had married, in 1764, Mdlle. Suzanne Curchod, a Swiss pastor's daughter, pretty, well informed, and passionately devoted to her husband, his successes and his fame. The respectable talents, the liberality, the large scale of living of M. and Madame

Necker attracted round them the literary and philosophical circle; the religious principles, the somewhat stiff propriety of Madame Necker maintained in her drawing-room an intelligent and becoming gravity which was in strong contrast with the licentious and irreligious frivolity of the conversations customary among the philosophers as well as the courtiers. Madame Necker paid continuous and laborious attention to the duties of society. She was not a Frenchwoman, and she was uncomfortably conscious of it. "When I came to this country," she wrote to one of her fair friends, "I thought that literature was the key to everything, that a man cultivated his mind with books only, and was great by knowledge only." Undeceived by the very fact of her admiration for her husband, who had not found leisure to give himself up to his natural taste for literature, and who remained rather unfamiliar with it, she made it her whole desire to be of good service to him in the society in which she had been called upon to live with him. "I hadn't a word to say in society," she writes; "I didn't even know its language. Obliged, as a woman, to captivate people's minds, I was ignorant how many shades there are of self-love, and I offended it when I thought I was flattering it. Always striking wrong notes and never hitting it off, I saw that my old ideas would never accord with those I was obliged to acquire; so I have hid my little capital away, never to see it again, and set about working for my living and getting together a little stock, if I can." Wit and knowledge thus painfully achieved are usually devoid of grace and charm. Madame du Deffand made this a reproach against M. Necker as well as his wife "He wants one quality, that which is most conducive to agreeability, a certain readiness which, as it were, provides wits for those with whom one talks; he doesn't help to bring out what one thinks, and one is more stupid with him than one is all alone or with other folks." People of talent, nevertheless, thronged about M. and Madame Necker. Diderot often went to see them; Galiani, Raynal, Abbe Morellet, M. Suard, quite young yet, were frequenters of the house; Condorcet did not set foot in it, passionately enlisted as he was amongst the disciples of M. Turgot, who were hostile to his successor; Bernardin de St. Pierre never went thither again from the day when the reading of _Paul and Virginia_ had sent the company to sleep. "At first everybody listens in silence," says M. Aime Martin; "by degrees attention flags, people whisper, people yawn, nobody listens any more; M. de Buffon looks at his watch and asks for his carriage; the nearest to the door slips out, Thomas falls asleep, M. Necker smiles to see the ladies crying, and the ladies ashamed of their tears dare not acknowledge that they have been interested."


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