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The Mirrors of Versailles

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the president’s wife, turned to her full-length mirror for the pinning of her brooch. Her immigrant Norwegian maid lifted the large ornament from its case, then knelt and tried to fix it where Mrs. Wilson wanted it.

“It’s much too large to put at my neck, but it will do nicely to accent my waist,” she explained to the girl, drawing in her breath a bit.

Designed by Rene Lalique of Paris, presented to her at the Hotel de Ville in an official gathering honoring her husband, the jewel was six inches across and two inches high and most delicate--a filigree of olive leaves encrusted with tiny diamonds and ornamented with pure white peace doves. At least that was what everyone said they were. People who thought themselves out of her hearing whispered “pigeons,” but such mean-spirited people were everywhere, she thought. They only wanted to drag society back to the dreary, old days before her husband--days of dark foreboding, war after war looming, and no prospects of a better age dawning! Thank God for her husband, who had much to accomplish at the coming peace conference. He would show the grim naysayers and the prophets of gloom! America the beautiful would usher the world-weary, tarnished nations of the Old World into a glorious, new age of benevolence and equity and beauty and--

“Uff da!” the maid cried, for the pin had pricked her finger, drawing blood and putting the wounded finger immediately to her mouth and sucking hard.

“Poor dear, run to the infirmary and get a boiled cloth to bind it, and some iodine so the wound won’t go bad and poison your circulatory system!” the well-informed Mrs. Wilson cautioned, having read the latest book on modern home medicine and hygiene based on Miss Nightengale’s work.

Left with the job, she struggled with the pin, and after some tries got it to look just right. The doves--how lovely they were! They truly fitted the theme of world peace, established on her husband’s philosophy of government, the same he had taught for years in his classes.

This was just a dress rehearsal, of course. There would be the voyage to Brest from New York, then the railway to Paris on a special train, and the reception at Paris, then the additional trip to Versailles in the countryside, the receptions at the palace--several weeks of such while her husband and the heads of France and England worked on his proposals, before the Peace Conference Declaration was proclaimed to the world and the return home. This wonderful dress of Worth’s was the one she planned for the ball in Paris, to be held the evening of their arrival.

Everyone of quality and importance would no doubt be present, and she would look her best, honoring her hosts with the lovely jewel they had given her the year before at the celebration of the war’s end. It would be a nice touch of diplomacy she thought, just the thing to help her husband’s Fourteen Points go down French and British throats a little easier.

“Why fourteen, dear?” she had once asked. “Isn’t that a rather big, tedious number to grasp and remember?”

“I suppose you’re right,” he had replied, after several moments of consideration. “But I had to make sure the Old World’s politicians we’re going head to head with get the point of it all--that this is going to be a fresh start for them--a completely fresh start! I’ll teach them! None of their imperial pretensions, and lording it over weaker neighbors, creating awkward, oppressive hegemonies and carving up the map just to suit antiquated, absurd prejudices! None of that! This is not the Middle Ages when every king and prince did what he pleased. No, we are going to have a new, fair order of modern, progressive, democratic states, all drawn up and recognized on the best principles, or--”

“Or what, dear?” she had managed to slip into his lecture.

He had stared at her through his thick spectacles, as if he were surprised a woman could address such topics intelligently on a man’s level. “Well!” he huffed, the train of his lecture interrupted and no notes at hand. “You’ll see it won’t happen! We must learn from the past, so that it needn’t be repeated!”

Always the optimist, her husband! Mrs. Wilson sighed. That was one of his chief characteristics, the one that perhaps drew her to him at the first. Such a lovely, brave, high-spirited, manly soul!

So different from the politicians grubbing about in the dirt of disreputable campaigns for this and that post. Her husband upheld pure, sterling ideals, whereas they possessed foul greed and ambition and vainglory as their motivations. He was a bright and shining star compared to their tribe!

The First Lady took a few, slow passes in front of the mirror, just to make sure the fit was right and everything looked as it should, front and back. Her neck line was a bit daring, to be sure, but she had such a pure, lily-white bosom--it was a shame not to show some, she had decided as a young woman for her coming out into society.

How her raven dark hair contrasted with her still very fine complexion--not many married women in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York could claim her shapely, full figure and appearance! The line and shape of her hips, why, they were perfection itself!

She would have to order a portrait done of herself in this dress, with the Lalique “Peace Brooch,” for her official portrait in the White House!

Then she called for her maid, so she might remove the costume for packing.

The maid came, a rather large, boxlike bandage on her finger, which Mrs. Wilson saw immediately was going to make difficulties.

Sure enough, after a few tries, the new maid nearly lost the bandage trying to remove the big Lalique brooch.

“That’s all right, dear,” said Mrs. Wilson, wondering how a Norwegian immigrant, even though she was fair and good-looking, could be so clumsy--had she only milked goats and cows before she came over? There were rather a lot of such immigrants lately in America, now that she thought of it--the string of cold summers in Nordic countries driving poor farm people to warmer shores, no doubt.

“I’ll do it for you this time until you’re healed and have the bandage off,” she said finally, when she saw the girl just wasn’t going to get the brooch off. The clasp over the pin was the hard part, it wouldn’t move! Mrs. Wilson set to work all the harder on it. She dug at it with her fingertips. Then suddenly the pin was freed, and she, too, pricked her finger and drew blood, some of which got on her gown and the brooch.

“Oh, ribbons and puppy dogs!” she swore sedately, not so much for herself, for the pain was slight, but from the fright of possibly spoiling her expensive New York gown. But it was dark blue, so it was saved from being spoiled, fortunately! With a handkerchief pressed to her finger, she hurried off to the White House infirmary.

Just as they had celebrating the Armistice in 1918, crowds went wild as the presidential car left the Elysees Palace with Georges Clemenceau, the French Premier, and turned through the principal boulevards. Vive Veelson! they cried. Vive Veelson! Mrs. Wilson, too, was acclaimed for her pretty American looks and charming smile. Everywhere they went, from Brest and through cities and towns on the way to Paris, millions had stood for hours to await the presidential car, throw flowers, wave, and cry “Vive Veelson!”

Everyone understood President Wilson and his charming wife had come to the peace conference being held at Versailles in order to end warfare once and for all. Four years of exhausting conflict with Germany had put the greatest hope into the allied nations of Britain, France, and Belgium.

“They all love peace as much as we do,” Edith commented to her husband, as she waved to the dear, sweet people cheering them from both sides of every road they traveled.

Her eloquent, handsome husband accepted greeting after greeting in the most gracious manner, while their host, Clemenceau lived up to his reputation and scowled the whole time they stood with him in public.

At Paris Mrs. Wilson parted with her husband, so he might proceed with Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, and Clemenceau to Versailles, a short drive from Paris, and commence the peace conference at the palace.

Versailles? Oh, she had seen it before, in 1918, the hugeness of it, the uncountable chandeliers and mirrors constituting the primary furniture in the innumerable drawing rooms and marble halls. Really only thing that had interested her was the domestic apartments of the vanished royals, such as the boudoir of Marie Antoinette with its wonderful bed still on display.

The President stayed over the first nights of the conference, but then slipped away during a lull in the conference schedule so he might rejoin his wife at the Ritz.

“How is it going, dear?” she asked, for he looked somewhat out of sorts after everyone else was removed from their presence and they were retiring for the night.

“Dear?” she prompted, when he seemed abstracted with something on his mind.

“Oh!” he said, startled, as if he had seen her for the first time. “Did you say something?”

“Yes, darling!” she said, amused. “I was just wondering how you were getting on with that mean old tiger, Clemenceau and--”

The president winced, as if something she just said struck a nerve.

“What’s wrong?” she said, interrupted in her train of pitter-patter.

“You called him an ‘old tiger,’” he said.

His wife looked at him strangely. “Why, yes, but what is so unusual about that? He really is a fierce man, and ill mannered too. Why, these Frenchmen are supposed to be well mannered and charming and so very debonair, but he--”

The president turned away, his shoulders showing he was breathing hard.

Growing alarmed, his wife forgot her dressing for bed and went and put her hand gently on his shoulder.

“Tell me dear, if it’s something I’ve said that’s disturbed you, I want to know.”

“No, not that. Just you reminded me by calling him a--a tiger.”

The president went to sit down at a chair, and his shoulders slumped. “I wonder if I’m well in my mind. Or if--”

Mrs. Wilson, now really alarmed, went and put her cool palm on his forehead. “I don’t think it’s a fever. There! You’re working yourself up over nothing! Let’s go to bed, and you will rest and feel your old self in the morning! We’ll order breakfast brought and spend the time here alone, just us for a change. How would you like that, dear?”

She glanced at him, then noticed he wasn’t listening, and had that blank, abstracted look he often got when he was utterly lost in thought.

To draw him back out, she decided to be playful. “Well! I said the word ‘tiger,” and you jumped ten feet up. Did you see a tiger today at Versailles perhaps? Did a tiger escape from the palace zoo!”

This time the president could not ignore her. “No tiger escaped from the zoo! What a silly idea! Besides, Versailles has no zoos! Perhaps, their ridiculous last king, Louis something or other, had one, but it has been long removed, I can assure you of that!”

Mrs. Wilson drew her breath, feeling hurt. She went to the bed and sat down.

Watching her, the president shook his head. He went and sat down by her. “I’m sorry, dear, I must be tired and irritable. We went over a lot of my points today, Mr. Clemenceau and Mr. Lloyd George and I, and it didn’t go so well with my Fourteen Points. In fact, they are rejecting almost all of them!”

“Oh no! Oh no!” Mrs. Wilson cried. “They can’t! You can’t let them do that! The people all are counting on us! You saw them! We can't break their hearts like this! They look at you as--as a Messiah! A Savior! Their only hope of peace!”

Seeing she was almost in tears, the man thought to be so many wonderful things by the millions of a war-ravaged Europe took her hands to steady her a bit. “But we can’t force them to accept the ways of peace, if they won’t go our way, dear,” he reminded her. “Mr. Clemenceau is determined to punish Germany, exact the most stiff reparations he can, and humiliate and ruin them for the suffering they caused his country.”

“And Mr. Lloyd George? Surely, the British won’t be so vengeful, so--so unforgiving. They’ll surely go along with reason and good sense!”

The president took his hands away and sat, shaking his head slowly. “I’m sorry, but not in this case. He and Clemenceau have taken the same position, against me and my proposals.”

Mrs. Wilson rose, and remembered she was still in her Worth gown, which she had put on especially for his return, the one with the Doves of Peace Brooch that touched the hearts of everyone who saw it. She looked at it, then at her husband, and a puzzled look came into her fine, dark eyes.

“If Germany is to be punished, what will happen then?”

“Oh, I suppose it will cause great hardship, even starvation, and perhaps food riots in the cities.”

What will be the punishment?”

France and Britain will strip Germany of all her armaments, and the Saar industrial district will be ceded to France, and the Ruhr coal and steel district will be occupied by French and British troops, and the navy and air forces will be severely restricted, and--”

“What will happen to the other proposals you brought? Will they at least respect the rights of small nations to exist freely, or will they force them to join into larger states with people they can’t possibly want to share sovereignty with.”

The president stared at his wife, aware for the first time she had actually studied his proposals, which was more than the other two parties of the Great Powers had done.

“Well, they will accept a Congress of Nations, but they refuse to respect the territorial integrity of small, weak states, which are not able to defend themselves. Instead, they will declare them mandates of either France or Great Britain.”

“But that will make them mere pawns, puppets in a game of power they will play. The smaller nations will be gobbled up by the great powers, just like it was before the war! What will have changed with this conference? Absolutely nothing but names and titles of things! We are betrayed! Peace is betrayed! This is wretchedness! Wretchedness!”

At this point, Mrs. Wilson was standing, her fists clenched, and her voice was raised beyond that normally accepted from members of the F.F.V.--First Families of Virginia. The president was shocked. He had never seen his little doll so worked up.

Knowing that the conversation had gone beyond bounds, he broke it off in a dignified manner. He went to the balcony, moved the curtain, and looked down at the crowds standing in the street, everyone hoping to catch a glimpse of the Wilsons.

“They’re still there,” he mumbled. “Must be intending to stay there all night. I--I feel sorry for them, the dear, dear people of France. We’ve let them down, I fear.”

When he turned around, he found Mrs. Wilson had slipped out of her gown and was in bed. Unlike her, for she was generally very neat, her dress and the valuable pin were lying in a heap on the floor. And she was not looking at him, her face was turned away toward the brocade-covered wall.

He went to the wardrobe and started with his own clothing. He glanced in the mirror, just to be sure, and was relieved to see it was only himself. How the mirrors of Versailles had startled him! He and Clemenceau and Lloyd George were at the table, discussing some point, when he glanced up and saw a zoo had broken open somehow and tigers prowling in the mirrors, all the mirrors were full of tigers, leaping up, lying down, pacing back and forth, gnawing on big bloody gouts of flesh and bone--tigers!

What trick of the mind could it have been, he had no idea. Had he suffered a stroke? He had tried to shut out the phantasmagorical tigers by shutting his eyes, but Clemenceau had accused him of napping, and forced him to look again, and there were the tigers!

Appalled, he couldn’t keep his thoughts centered on the discussion at all. And, worse, when either Clemenceau or Lloyd George spoke, he heard tigers roaring, drowning out their human speech! One was even wearing a top hat!

Then, when he spoke, trying to defend a particular point at issue, over which Lloyd George and Clemenceau were heaping scorn, his own voice sounded like a tiger’s roaring! Horrible!

Asking that the meeting be adjourned early, pleading ill health, he had escaped the meeting, but when he passed from the room, a tiger approached in the mirrors, and another passed on each side of him down the mirrored hall. Was he a tiger too? The mirrors said he was!

But what had he done? What had he done? All he wanted was peace, and to establish peace among the nations, great and small, but there was going to be no peace, not with a treaty founded on quicksand as the one Clemenceau and Lloyd George demanded he sign.

“What can I do?” he thought, getting into bed, and turning out the light. “Clemenceau laughed when I protested, saying I no longer had any army in Europe, so how dare I dictate to him what France must do or not do? The little monster, he threw scorn in my face, and Lloyd George just sat there, listening, with a smile on his brazen lips! I’ve never been so insulted in my life! I--”

It was hours before the president’s thoughts subsided enough for him to drop off to sleep.

By that time the crowds had mostly given up their vigil for peace, and drifted off homeward. Many had miles to go on foot. Thousands from villages and towns beyond the capital had come a hundred miles or more just to see the American Messiah, the Savior of Europe.

And they had seen him, his flashing American smile, his pretty doll-like wife with the little doves pinned to her gown, and felt assured that this time their hopes would not be betrayed.

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