A Book of Remarkable Criminals
stepping-stones to me. As soon as they begin to fail or are played out, I put them
scornfully aside. Society is a vast chess-board, men the pawns, some white,
some black; I move them as I please, and break them when they bore me."
The early years of Jeanne de la Cour's career as a Phryne were hardly more
successful than her attempts at literature, acting and journalism. True to her
philosophy, she had driven one lover, a German, to suicide, and brought another
to his death by over-doses of cantharides. On learning of the death of the first,
she reflected patriotically, "One German the less in Paris!" That of the second
elicited the matter-of-fact comment, "It was bound to happen; he had no
moderation." A third admirer, who died in a hospital, was dismissed as "a fool
who, in spite of all, still respects women." But, in ruining her lovers, she had
ruined her own health. In 1865 she was compelled to enter a private asylum.
There she is described as "dark in complexion, with dark expressive eyes, very
pale, and of a nervous temperament, agreeable, and pretty." She was suffering
at the time of her admission from hysterical seizures, accompanied by insane
exaltation, convulsions and loss of speech. In speaking of her humble parents
she said, "I don't know such people"; her manner was bombastic, and she was
fond of posing as a fine lady.
After a few months Jeanne de la Cour was discharged from the asylum as cured,
and on the advice of her doctors went to Vittel.
There she assumed the rank of Baroness and recommenced her career, but this
time in a more reasonable and businesslike manner. Her comments, written to
her sister, on her fellow guests at the hotel are caustic. She mocks at some
respectable married women who are trying to convert her to Catholicism. To
others who refuse her recognition, she makes herself so mischievous and
objectionable that in self-defence they are frightened into acknowledging her.
Admirers among men she has many, ex-ministers, prefects. It was at Vittel that
occurred the incident of the wounded pigeon. There had been some pigeon-
shooting. One of the wounded birds flew into the room of the Baroness de la
Cour. She took pity on it, tended it, taught it not to be afraid of her and to stay in
her room. So touching was her conduct considered by some of those who heard
it, that she was nicknamed "the Charmer." But she is well aware, she writes to
her sister, that with the true ingratitude of the male, the pigeon will leave her as
soon as it needs her help no longer.
However, for the moment, "disfigured as it is, beautiful or ugly," she loves it.
"Don't forget," she writes, "that a woman who is practical and foreseeing, she too
enjoys her pigeon shooting, but the birds are her lovers."
Shortly after she left Vittel an event occurred which afforded Jeanne de la Cour
the prospect of acquiring that settled position in life which, "practical and
foreseeing," she now regarded as indispensable to her future welfare. Her
husband, Gras, died, as she had foretold, in the Charity Hospital. The widow was
free. If she could bring down her bird, it was now in her power to make it hers for
life. Henceforth all her efforts were directed to that end. She was reaching her
fortieth year, her hair was turning grey, her charms were waning. Poverty,
degradation, a miserable old age, a return to the wretched surroundings of her
childhood, such she knew to be the fate of many of her kind. There was nothing