Part 4 out of 4
'But why not go straight to Paris with your despatch? Why should you
choose to pass through the one place where you are almost sure to be
taken or killed?'
'A soldier does not choose--he obeys,' said I, just as I had heard
Napoleon say it.
Old Bouvet laughed in his wheezy way, until I had to give my moustachios
a twirl and look him up and down in a manner which brought him to
'Well', said he, 'you had best come along with us, for we are all bound
for Senlis. Our orders are to reconnoitre the place. A squadron of
Poniatowski's Polish Lancers are in front of us. If you must ride
through it, it is possible that we may be able to go with you.'
So away we went, jingling and clanking through the quiet night until we
came up with the Poles--fine old soldiers all of them, though a trifle
heavy for their horses. It was a treat to see them, for they could not
have carried themselves better if they had belonged to my own brigade.
We rode together, until in the early morning we saw the lights of
Senlis. A peasant was coming along with a cart, and from him we learned
how things were going there.
His information was certain, for his brother was the Mayor's coachman,
and he had spoken with him late the night before. There was a single
squadron of Cossacks--or a polk, as they call it in their frightful
language--quartered upon the Mayor's house, which stands at the corner
of the market-place, and is the largest building in the town. A whole
division of Prussion infantry was encamped in the woods to the north,
but only the Cossacks were in Senlis. Ah, what a chance to avenge
ourselves upon these barbarians, whose cruelty to our poor countryfolk
was the talk at every camp fire.
We were into the town like a torrent, hacked down the vedettes, rode
over the guard, and were smashing in the doors of the Mayor's house
before they understood that there was a Frenchman within twenty miles of
them. We saw horrid heads at the windows--heads bearded to the temples,
with tangled hair and sheepskin caps, and silly, gaping mouths. 'Hourra!
Hourra!' they shrieked, and fired with their carbines, but our fellows
were into the house and at their throats before they had wiped the sleep
out of their eyes. It was dreadful to see how the Poles flung themselves
upon them, like starving wolves upon a herd of fat bucks--for, as you
know, the Poles have a blood feud against the Cossacks. The most were
killed in the upper rooms, whither they had fled for shelter, and the
blood was pouring down into the hall like rain from a roof. They are
terrible soldiers, these Poles, though I think they are a trifle heavy
for their horses. Man for man, they are as big as Kellerman's
cuirassiers. Their equipment is, of course, much lighter, since they are
without the cuirass, back-plate, and helmet.
Well, it was at this point that I made an error--a very serious error it
must be admitted. Up to this moment I had carried out my mission in a
manner which only my modesty prevents me from describing as remarkable.
But now I did that which an official would condemn and a soldier excuse.
There is no doubt that the mare was spent, but still it is true that I
might have galloped on through Senlis and reached the country, where I
should have had no enemy between me and Paris. But what hussar can ride
past a fight and never draw rein? It is to ask too much of him.
Besides, I thought that if Violette had an hour of rest I might have
three hours the better at the other end. Then on the top of it came
those heads at the windows, with their sheepskin hats and their
barbarous cries. I sprang from my saddle, threw Violette's bridle over a
rail-post, and ran into the house with the rest. It is true that I was
too late to be of service, and that I was nearly wounded by a
lance-thrust from one of these dying savages. Still, it is a pity to
miss even the smallest affair, for one never knows what opportunity for
advancement may present itself. I have seen more soldierly work in
outpost skirmishes and little gallop-and-hack affairs of the kind than
in any of the Emperor's big battles.
When the house was cleared I took a bucket of water out for Violette,
and our peasant guide showed me where the good Mayor kept his fodder. My
faith, but the little sweetheart was ready for it. Then I sponged down
her legs, and leaving her still tethered I went back into the house to
find a mouthful for myself, so that I should not need to halt again
until I was in Paris.
And now I come to the part of my story which may seem singular to you,
although I could tell you at least ten things every bit as queer which
have happened to me in my lifetime. You can understand that, to a man
who spends his life in scouting and vedette duties on the bloody ground
which lies between two great armies, there are many chances of strange
experiences. I'll tell you, however, exactly what occurred.
Old Bouvet was waiting in the passage when I entered, and he asked me
whether we might not crack a bottle of wine together. 'My faith, we must
not be long,' said he. 'There are ten thousand of Theilmann's Prussians
in the woods up yonder.'
'Where is the wine?' I asked.
'Ah, you may trust two hussars to find where the wine is,' said he, and
taking a candle in his hand, he led the way down the stone stairs into
When we got there we found another door, which opened on to a winding
stair with the cellar at the bottom. The Cossacks had been there before
us, as was easily seen by the broken bottles littered all over it.
However, the Mayor was a _bon-vivant_, and I do not wish to have a
better set of bins to pick from. Chambertin, Graves, Alicant, white wine
and red, sparkling and still, they lay in pyramids peeping coyly out of
sawdust. Old Bouvet stood with his candle looking here and peeping
there, purring in his throat like a cat before a milk-pail. He had
picked upon a Burgundy at last, and had his hand outstretched to the
bottle when there came a roar of musketry from above us, a rush of feet,
and such a yelping and screaming as I have never listened to. The
Prussians were upon us!
Bouvet is a brave man: I will say that for him. He flashed out his sword
and away he clattered up the stone steps, his spurs clinking as he ran.
I followed him, but just as we came out into the kitchen passage a
tremendous shout told us that the house had been recaptured.
'It is all over,' I cried, grasping at Bouvet's sleeve.
'There is one more to die,' he shouted, and away he went like a madman
up the second stair. In effect, I should have gone to my death also had
I been in his place, for he had done very wrong in not throwing out his
scouts to warn him if the Germans advanced upon him. For an instant I
was about to rush up with him, and then I bethought myself that, after
all, I had my own mission to think of, and that if I were taken the
important letter of the Emperor would be sacrificed. I let Bouvet die
alone, therefore, and I went down into the cellar again, closing the
door behind me.
Well, it was not a very rosy prospect down there either. Bouvet had
dropped the candle when the alarm came, and I, pawing about in the
darkness, could find nothing but broken bottles. At last I came upon
the candle, which had rolled under the curve of a cask, but, try as I
would with my tinderbox, I could not light it. The reason was that the
wick had been wet in a puddle of wine, so suspecting that this might be
the case, I cut the end off with my sword. Then I found that it lighted
easily enough. But what to do I could not imagine. The scoundrels
upstairs were shouting themselves hoarse, several hundred of them from
the sound, and it was clear that some of them would soon want to moisten
their throats. There would be an end to a dashing soldier, and of the
mission and of the medal. I thought of my mother and I thought of the
Emperor. It made me weep to think that the one would lose so excellent a
son and the other the best light cavalry officer he ever had since
Lasalle's time. But presently I dashed the tears from my eyes.
'Courage!' I cried, striking myself upon the chest. 'Courage, my brave
boy. Is it possible that one who has come safely from Moscow without so
much as a frost-bite will die in a French wine-cellar?' At the thought I
was up on my feet and clutching at the letter in my tunic, for the
crackle of it gave me courage.
My first plan was to set fire to the house, in the hope of escaping in
the confusion. My second to get into an empty wine-cask. I was looking
round to see if I could find one, when suddenly, in the corner, I espied
a little low door, painted of the same grey colour as the wall, so that
it was only a man with quick sight who would have noticed it. I pushed
against it, and at first I imagined that it was locked. Presently,
however, it gave a little, and then I understood that it was held by the
pressure of something on the other side. I put my feet against a
hogshead of wine, and I gave such a push that the door flew open and I
came down with a crash upon my back, the candle flying out of my hands,
so that I found myself in darkness once more. I picked myself up and
stared through the black archway into the gloom beyond.
There was a slight ray of light coming from some slit or grating. The
dawn had broken outside, and I could dimly see the long, curving sides
of several huge casks, which made me think that perhaps this was where
the Mayor kept his reserves of wine while they were maturing. At any
rate, it seemed to be a safer hiding-place than the outer cellar, so
gathering up my candle, I was just closing the door behind me, when I
suddenly saw something which filled me with amazement, and even, I
confess, with the smallest little touch of fear.
I have said that at the further end of the cellar there was a dim grey
fan of light striking downwards from somewhere near the roof. Well, as I
peered through the darkness, I suddenly saw a great, tall man skip into
this belt of daylight, and then out again into the darkness at the
further end. My word, I gave such a start that my shako nearly broke its
chin-strap! It was only a glance, but, none the less, I had time to see
that the fellow had a hairy Cossack cap on his head, and that he was a
great, long-legged, broad-shouldered brigand, with a sabre at his waist.
My faith, even Etienne Gerard was a little staggered at being left alone
with such a creature in the dark.
But only for a moment. 'Courage!' I thought. 'Am I not a hussar, a
brigadier, too, at the age of thirty-one, and the chosen messenger of
the Emperor?' After all, this skulker had more cause to be afraid of me
than I of him. And then suddenly I understood that he was
afraid--horribly afraid. I could read it from his quick step and his
bent shoulders as he ran among the barrels, like a rat making for its
hole. And, of course, it must have been he who had held the door against
me, and not some packing-case or wine-cask as I had imagined. He was the
pursued then, and I the pursuer. Aha, I felt my whiskers bristle as I
advanced upon him through the darkness! He would find that he had no
chicken to deal with, this robber from the North. For the moment I was
At first I had feared to light my candle lest I should make a mark of
myself, but now, after cracking my shin over a box, and catching my
spurs in some canvas, I thought the bolder course the wiser. I lit it,
therefore, and then I advanced with long strides, my sword in my hand.
'Come out, you rascal!' I cried. 'Nothing can save you. You will at last
meet with your deserts.'
I held my candle high, and presently I caught a glimpse of the man's
head staring at me over a barrel. He had a gold chevron on his black
cap, and the expression of his face told me in an instant that he was an
officer and a man of refinement.
'Monsieur,' he cried, in excellent French, 'I surrender myself on a
promise of quarter. But if I do not have your promise, I will then sell
my life as dearly as I can.'
'Sir,' said I, 'a Frenchman knows how to treat an unfortunate enemy.
Your life is safe.' With that he handed his sword over the top of the
barrel, and I bowed with the candle on my heart. 'Whom have I the honour
of capturing?' I asked.
'I am the Count Boutkine, of the Emperor's own Don Cossacks,' said he.
'I came out with my troop to reconnoitre Senlis, and as we found no sign
of your people we determined to spend the night here.'
'And would it be an indiscretion,' I asked, 'if I were to inquire how
you came into the back cellar?'
'Nothing more simple,' said he. 'It was our intention to start at early
dawn. Feeling chilled after dressing, I thought that a cup of wine would
do me no harm, so I came down to see what I could find. As I was
rummaging about, the house was suddenly carried by assault so rapidly
that by the time I had climbed the stairs it was all over. It only
remained for me to save myself, so I came down here and hid myself in
the back cellar, where you have found me.'
I thought of how old Bouvet had behaved under the same conditions, and
the tears sprang to my eyes as I contemplated the glory of France. Then
I had to consider what I should do next. It was clear that this Russian
Count, being in the back cellar while we were in the front one, had not
heard the sounds which would have told him that the house was once again
in the hands of his own allies. If he should once understand this the
tables would be turned, and I should be his prisoner instead of he being
mine. What was I to do? I was at my wits' end, when suddenly there came
to me an idea so brilliant that I could not but be amazed at my own
'Count Boutkine,' said I, 'I find myself in a most difficult position.'
'And why?' he asked.
'Because I have promised you your life.'
His jaw dropped a little.
'You would not withdraw your promise?' he cried.
'If the worst comes to the worst I can die in your defence,' said I;
'but the difficulties are great.'
'What is it, then?' he asked.
'I will be frank with you,' said I. 'You must know that our fellows, and
especially the Poles, are so incensed against the Cossacks that the mere
sight of the uniform drives them mad. They precipitate themselves
instantly upon the wearer and tear him limb from limb. Even their
officers cannot restrain them.'
The Russian grew pale at my words and the way in which I said them.
'But this is terrible,' said he.
'Horrible!' said I. 'If we were to go up together at this moment I
cannot promise how far I could protect you.'
'I am in your hands,' he cried. 'What would you suggest that we should
do? Would it not be best that I should remain here?'
'That worst of all.'
'Because our fellows will ransack the house presently, and then you
would be cut to pieces. No, no, I must go and break it to them. But even
then, when once they see that accursed uniform, I do not know what may
'Should I then take the uniform off?'
'Excellent!' I cried. 'Hold, we have it! You will take your uniform off
and put on mine. That will make you sacred to every French soldier.'
'It is not the French I fear so much as the Poles.'
'But my uniform will be a safeguard against either.'
'How can I thank you?' he cried. 'But you--what are you to wear?'
'I will wear yours.'
'And perhaps fall a victim to your generosity?'
'It is my duty to take the risk,' I answered; 'but I have no fears. I
will ascend in your uniform. A hundred swords will be turned upon me.
"Hold!" I will shout, "I am the Brigadier Gerard!" Then they will see my
face. They will know me. And I will tell them about you. Under the
shield of these clothes you will be sacred.'
His fingers trembled with eagerness as he tore off his tunic. His boots
and breeches were much like my own, so there was no need to change them,
but I gave him my hussar jacket, my dolman, my shako, my sword-belt, and
my sabre-tasche, while I took in exchange his high sheepskin cap with
the gold chevron, his fur-trimmed coat, and his crooked sword. Be it
well understood that in changing the tunics I did not forget to change
my thrice-precious letter also from my old one to my new.
'With your leave,' said I, 'I shall now bind you to a barrel.'
He made a great fuss over this, but I have learned in my soldiering
never to throw away chances, and how could I tell that he might not,
when my back was turned, see how the matter really stood, and break in
upon my plans? He was leaning against a barrel at the time, so I ran six
times round it with a rope, and then tied it with a big knot behind. If
he wished to come upstairs he would, at least, have to carry a thousand
litres of good French wine for a knapsack. I then shut the door of the
back cellar behind me, so that he might not hear what was going forward,
and tossing the candle away I ascended the kitchen stair.
There were only about twenty steps, and yet, while I came up them, I
seemed to have time to think of everything that I had ever hoped to do.
It was the same feeling that I had at Eylau when I lay with my broken
leg and saw the horse artillery galloping down upon me. Of course, I
knew that if I were taken I should be shot instantly as being disguised
within the enemy's lines. Still, it was a glorious death--in the direct
service of the Emperor--and I reflected that there could not be less
than five lines, and perhaps seven, in the _Moniteur_ about me. Palaret
had eight lines, and I am sure that he had not so fine a career.
When I made my way out into the hall, with all the nonchalance in my
face and manner that I could assume, the very first thing that I saw was
Bouvet's dead body, with his legs drawn up and a broken sword in his
hand. I could see by the black smudge that he had been shot at close
quarters. I should have wished to salute as I went by, for he was a
gallant man, but I feared lest I should be seen, and so I passed on.
The front of the hall was full of Prussian infantry, who were knocking
loopholes in the wall, as though they expected that there might be yet
another attack. Their officer, a little man, was running about giving
directions. They were all too busy to take much notice of me, but
another officer, who was standing by the door with a long pipe in his
mouth, strode across and clapped me on the shoulder, pointing to the
dead bodies of our poor hussars, and saying something which was meant
for a jest, for his long beard opened and showed every fang in his head.
I laughed heartily also, and said the only Russian words that I knew. I
learned them from little Sophie, at Wilna, and they meant: 'If the night
is fine we shall meet under the oak tree, but if it rains we shall meet
in the byre.' It was all the same to this German, however, and I have no
doubt that he gave me credit for saying something very witty indeed, for
he roared laughing, and slapped me on my shoulder again. I nodded to him
and marched out of the hall-door as coolly as if I were the commandant
of the garrison.
There were a hundred horses tethered about outside, most of them
belonging to the Poles and hussars. Good little Violette was waiting
with the others, and she whinnied when she saw me coming towards her.
But I would not mount her. No. I was much too cunning for that. On the
contrary, I chose the most shaggy little Cossack horse that I could see,
and I sprang upon it with as much assurance as though it had belonged to
my father before me. It had a great bag of plunder slung over its neck,
and this I laid upon Violette's back, and led her along beside me. Never
have you seen such a picture of the Cossack returning from the foray. It
Well, the town was full of Prussians by this time. They lined the
side-walks and pointed me out to each other, saying, as I could judge
from their gestures, 'There goes one of those devils of Cossacks. They
are the boys for foraging and plunder.'
One or two officers spoke to me with an air of authority, but I shook my
head and smiled, and said, 'If the night is fine we shall meet under the
oak tree, but if it rains we shall meet in the byre,' at which they
shrugged their shoulders and gave the matter up. In this way I worked
along until I was beyond the northern outskirt of the town. I could see
in the roadway two lancer vedettes with their black and white pennons,
and I knew that when I was once past these I should be a free man once
more. I made my pony trot, therefore, Violette rubbing her nose against
my knee all the time, and looking up at me to ask how she had deserved
that this hairy doormat of a creature should be preferred to her. I was
not more than a hundred yards from the Uhlans when, suddenly, you can
imagine my feelings when I saw a real Cossack coming galloping along the
road towards me.
Ah, my friend, you who read this, if you have any heart, you will feel
for a man like me, who had gone through so many dangers and trials, only
at this very last moment to be confronted with one which appeared to put
an end to everything. I will confess that for a moment I lost heart, and
was inclined to throw myself down in my despair, and to cry out that I
had been betrayed. But, no; I was not beaten even now. I opened two
buttons of my tunic so that I might get easily at the Emperor's message,
for it was my fixed determination when all hope was gone to swallow the
letter and then die sword in hand. Then I felt that my little, crooked
sword was loose in its sheath, and I trotted on to where the vedettes
were waiting. They seemed inclined to stop me, but I pointed to the
other Cossack, who was still a couple of hundred yards off, and they,
understanding that I merely wished to meet him, let me pass with a
I dug my spurs into my pony then, for if I were only far enough from the
lancers I thought I might manage the Cossack without much difficulty. He
was an officer, a large, bearded man, with a gold chevron in his cap,
just the same as mine. As I advanced he unconsciously aided me by
pulling up his horse, so that I had a fine start of the vedettes. On I
came for him, and I could see wonder changing to suspicion in his brown
eyes as he looked at me and at my pony, and at my equipment. I do not
know what it was that was wrong, but he saw something which was as it
should not be. He shouted out a question, and then when I gave no answer
he pulled out his sword. I was glad in my heart to see him do so, for I
had always rather fight than cut down an unsuspecting enemy. Now I made
at him full tilt, and, parrying his cut, I got my point in just under
the fourth button of his tunic. Down he went, and the weight of him
nearly took me off my horse before I could disengage. I never glanced at
him to see if he were living or dead, for I sprang off my pony and on to
Violette, with a shake of my bridle and a kiss of my hand to the two
Uhlans behind me. They galloped after me, shouting, but Violette had had
her rest, and was just as fresh as when she started. I took the first
side road to the west and then the first to the south, which would take
me away from the enemy's country. On we went and on, every stride taking
me further from my foes and nearer to my friends. At last, when I
reached the end of a long stretch of road, and looking back from it
could see no sign of any pursuers, I understood that my troubles were
And it gave me a glow of happiness, as I rode, to think that I had done
to the letter what the Emperor had ordered. What would he say when he
saw me? What could he say which would do justice to the incredible way
in which I had risen above every danger? He had ordered me to go through
Sermoise, Soissons, and Senlis, little dreaming that they were all three
occupied by the enemy. And yet I had done it. I had borne his letter in
safety through each of these towns. Hussars, dragoons, lancers,
Cossacks, and infantry--I had run the gauntlet of all of them, and had
come out unharmed.
When I had got as far as Dammartin I caught a first glimpse of our own
outposts. There was a troop of dragoons in a field, and of course I
could see from the horsehair crests that they were French. I galloped
towards them in order to ask them if all was safe between there and
Paris, and as I rode I felt such a pride at having won my way back to my
friends again, that I could not refrain from waving my sword in the air.
At this a young officer galloped out from among the dragoons, also
brandishing his sword, and it warmed my heart to think that he should
come riding with such ardour and enthusiasm to greet me. I made
Violette caracole, and as we came together I brandished my sword more
gallantly than ever, but you can imagine my feelings when he suddenly
made a cut at me which would certainly have taken my head off if I had
not fallen forward with my nose in Violette's mane. My faith, it
whistled just over my cap like an east wind. Of course, it came from
this accursed Cossack uniform which, in my excitement, I had forgotten
all about, and this young dragoon had imagined that I was some Russian
champion who was challenging the French cavalry. My word, he was a
frightened man when he understood how near he had been to killing the
celebrated Brigadier Gerard.
Well, the road was clear, and about three o'clock in the afternoon I was
at St Denis, though it took me a long two hours to get from there to
Paris, for the road was blocked with commissariat waggons and guns of
the artillery reserve, which was going north to Marmont and Mortier. You
cannot conceive the excitement which my appearance in such a costume
made in Paris, and when I came to the Rue de Rivoli I should think I had
a quarter of a mile of folk riding or running behind me. Word had got
about from the dragoons (two of whom had come with me), and everybody
knew about my adventures and how I had come by my uniform. It was a
triumph--men shouting and women waving their handkerchiefs and blowing
kisses from the windows.
Although I am a man singularly free from conceit, still I must confess
that, on this one occasion, I could not restrain myself from showing
that this reception gratified me. The Russian's coat had hung very loose
upon me, but now I threw out my chest until it was as tight as a
sausage-skin. And my little sweetheart of a mare tossed her mane and
pawed with her front hoofs, frisking her tail about as though she said,
'We've done it together this time. It is to us that commissions should
be intrusted.' When I kissed her between the nostrils as I dismounted at
the gate of the Tuileries, there was as much shouting as if a bulletin
had been read from the Grand Army.
I was hardly in costume to visit a King; but, after all, if one has a
soldierly figure one can do without all that. I was shown up straight
away to Joseph, whom I had often seen in Spain. He seemed as stout, as
quiet, and as amiable as ever. Talleyrand was in the room with him, or I
suppose I should call him the Duke of Benevento, but I confess that I
like old names best. He read my letter when Joseph Buonaparte handed it
to him, and then he looked at me with the strangest expression in those
funny little, twinkling eyes of his.
'Were you the only messenger?' he asked.
'There was one other, sir,' said I. 'Major Charpentier, of the Horse
'He has not yet arrived,' said the King of Spain.
'If you had seen the legs of his horse, sire, you would not wonder at
it,' I remarked.
'There may be other reasons,' said Talleyrand, and he gave that singular
smile of his.
Well, they paid me a compliment or two, though they might have said a
good deal more and yet have said too little. I bowed myself out, and
very glad I was to get away, for I hate a Court as much as I love a
camp. Away I went to my old friend Chaubert, in the Rue Miromesnil, and
there I got his hussar uniform, which fitted me very well. He and
Lisette and I supped together in his rooms, and all my dangers were
forgotten. In the morning I found Violette ready for another
twenty-league stretch. It was my intention to return instantly to the
Emperor's headquarters, for I was, as you may well imagine, impatient to
hear his words of praise, and to receive my reward.
I need not say that I rode back by a safe route, for I had seen quite
enough of Uhlans and Cossacks. I passed through Meaux and Chateau
Thierry, and so in the evening I arrived at Rheims, where Napoleon was
still lying. The bodies of our fellows and of St Prest's Russians had
all been buried, and I could see changes in the camp also. The soldiers
looked better cared for; some of the cavalry had received remounts, and
everything was in excellent order. It was wonderful what a good general
can effect in a couple of days.
When I came to the headquarters I was shown straight into the Emperor's
room. He was drinking coffee at a writing-table, with a big plan drawn
out on paper in front of him. Berthier and Macdonald were leaning, one
over each shoulder, and he was talking so quickly that I don't believe
that either of them could catch a half of what he was saying. But when
his eyes fell upon me he dropped the pen on to the chart, and he sprang
up with a look in his pale face which struck me cold.
'What the deuce are you doing here?' he shouted. When he was angry he
had a voice like a peacock.
'I have the honour to report to you, sire,' said I, 'that I have
delivered your despatch safely to the King of Spain.'
'What!' he yelled, and his two eyes transfixed me like bayonets. Oh,
those dreadful eyes, shifting from grey to blue, like steel in the
sunshine. I can see them now when I have a bad dream.
'What has become of Charpentier?' he asked.
'He is captured,' said Macdonald.
'No, a single Cossack.'
'He gave himself up?'
'He is an intelligent officer. You will see that the medal of honour is
awarded to him.'
When I heard those words I had to rub my eyes to make sure that I was
'As to you,' cried the Emperor, taking a step forward as if he would
have struck me, 'you brain of a hare, what do you think that you were
sent upon this mission for? Do you conceive that I would send a really
important message by such a hand as yours, and through every village
which the enemy holds? How you came through them passes my
comprehension; but if your fellow-messenger had had but as little sense
as you, my whole plan of campaign would have been ruined. Can you not
see, coglione, that this message contained false news, and that it was
intended to deceive the enemy whilst I put a very different scheme into
When I heard those cruel words and saw the angry, white face which
glared at me, I had to hold the back of a chair, for my mind was failing
me and my knees would hardly bear me up. But then I took courage as I
reflected that I was an honourable gentleman, and that my whole life had
been spent in toiling for this man and for my beloved country.
'Sire,' said I, and the tears would trickle down my cheeks whilst I
spoke, 'when you are dealing with a man like me you would find it wiser
to deal openly. Had I known that you had wished the despatch to fall
into the hands of the enemy, I would have seen that it came there. As I
believed that I was to guard it, I was prepared to sacrifice my life for
it. I do not believe, sire, that any man in the world ever met with more
toils and perils than I have done in trying to carry out what I thought
was your will.'
I dashed the tears from my eyes as I spoke, and with such fire and
spirit as I could command I gave him an account of it all, of my dash
through Soissons, my brush with the dragoons, my adventure in Senlis, my
rencontre with Count Boutkine in the cellar, my disguise, my meeting
with the Cossack officer, my flight, and how at the last moment I was
nearly cut down by a French dragoon. The Emperor, Berthier, and
Macdonald listened with astonishment on their faces. When I had finished
Napoleon stepped forward and he pinched me by the ear.
'There, there!' said he. 'Forget anything which I may have said. I
would have done better to trust you. You may go.'
I turned to the door, and my hand was upon the handle, when the Emperor
called upon me to stop.
'You will see,' said he, turning to the Duke of Tarentum, 'that
Brigadier Gerard has the special medal of honour, for I believe that if
he has the thickest head he has also the stoutest heart in my army.'
8. HOW THE BRIGADIER WAS TEMPTED BY THE DEVIL
The spring is at hand, my friends. I can see the little green
spear-heads breaking out once more upon the chestnut trees, and the cafe
tables have all been moved into the sunshine. It is more pleasant to sit
there, and yet I do not wish to tell my little stories to the whole
town. You have heard my doings as a lieutenant, as a squadron officer,
as a colonel, as the chief of a brigade. But now I suddenly become
something higher and more important. I become history.
If you have read of those closing years of the life of the Emperor which
were spent in the Island of St Helena, you will remember that, again and
again, he implored permission to send out one single letter which should
be unopened by those who held him. Many times he made this request, and
even went so far as to promise that he would provide for his own wants
and cease to be an expense to the British Government if it were granted
to him. But his guardians knew that he was a terrible man, this pale,
fat gentleman in the straw hat, and they dared not grant him what he
asked. Many have wondered who it was to whom he could have had anything
so secret to say. Some have supposed that it was to his wife, and some
that it was to his father-in-law; some that it was to the Emperor
Alexander, and some to Marshal Soult. What will you think of me, my
friends, when I tell you it was to me--to me, the Brigadier Gerard--that
the Emperor wished to write? Yes, humble as you see me, with only my 100
francs a month of half-pay between me and hunger, it is none the less
true that I was always in the Emperor's mind, and that he would have
given his left hand for five minutes' talk with me. I will tell you
tonight how this came about.
It was after the Battle of Fere-Champenoise where the conscripts in
their blouses and their sabots made such a fine stand, that we, the more
long-headed of us, began to understand that it was all over with us. Our
reserve ammunition had been taken in the battle, and we were left with
silent guns and empty caissons. Our cavalry, too, was in a deplorable
condition, and my own brigade had been destroyed in the charge at
Craonne. Then came the news that the enemy had taken Paris, that the
citizens had mounted the white cockade; and finally, most terrible of
all, that Marmont and his corps had gone over to the Bourbons. We looked
at each other and asked how many more of our generals were going to turn
against us. Already there were Jourdan, Marmont, Murat, Bernadotte, and
Jomini--though nobody minded much about Jomini, for his pen was always
sharper than his sword. We had been ready to fight Europe, but it looked
now as though we were to fight Europe and half of France as well.
We had come to Fontainebleau by a long, forced march, and there we were
assembled, the poor remnants of us, the corps of Ney, the corps of my
cousin Gerard, and the corps of Macdonald: twenty-five thousand in all,
with seven thousand of the guard. But we had our prestige, which was
worth fifty thousand, and our Emperor, who was worth fifty thousand
more. He was always among us, serene, smiling, confident, taking his
snuff and playing with his little riding-whip. Never in the days of his
greatest victories have I admired him as much as I did during the
Campaign of France.
One evening I was with a few of my officers, drinking a glass of wine of
Suresnes. I mention that it was wine of Suresnes just to show you that
times were not very good with us. Suddenly I was disturbed by a message
from Berthier that he wished to see me. When I speak of my old
comrades-in-arms, I will, with your permission, leave out all the fine
foreign titles which they had picked up during the wars. They are
excellent for a Court, but you never heard them in the camp, for we
could not afford to do away with our Ney, our Rapp, or our Soult--names
which were as stirring to our ears as the blare of our trumpets blowing
the reveille. It was Berthier, then, who sent to say that he wished to
He had a suite of rooms at the end of the gallery of Francis the First,
not very far from those of the Emperor. In the ante-chamber were waiting
two men whom I knew well: Colonel Despienne, of the 57th of the line,
and Captain Tremeau, of the Voltigeurs. They were both old
soldiers--Tremeau had carried a musket in Egypt--and they were also both
famous in the army for their courage and their skill with weapons.
Tremeau had become a little stiff in the wrist, but Despienne was
capable at his best of making me exert myself. He was a tiny fellow,
about three inches short of the proper height for a man--he was exactly
three inches shorter than myself--but both with the sabre and with the
small-sword he had several times almost held his own against me when we
used to exhibit at Verron's Hall of Arms in the Palais Royal. You may
think that it made us sniff something in the wind when we found three
such men called together into one room. You cannot see the lettuce and
dressing without suspecting a salad.
'Name of a pipe!' said Tremeau, in his barrack-room fashion. 'Are we
then expecting three champions of the Bourbons?'
To all of us the idea appeared not improbable. Certainly in the whole
army we were the very three who might have been chosen to meet them.
'The Prince of Neufchatel desires to speak with the Brigadier Gerard,'
said a footman, appearing at the door.
In I went, leaving my two companions consumed with impatience behind me.
It was a small room, but very gorgeously furnished. Berthier was seated
opposite to me at a little table, with a pen in his hand and a note-book
open before him. He was looking weary and slovenly--very different from
that Berthier who used to give the fashion to the army, and who had so
often set us poorer officers tearing our hair by trimming his pelisse
with fur one campaign, and with grey astrakhan the next. On his
clean-shaven, comely face there was an expression of trouble, and he
looked at me as I entered his chamber in a way which had in it something
furtive and displeasing.
'Chief of Brigade Gerard!' said he.
'At your service, your Highness!' I answered.
'I must ask you, before I go further, to promise me, upon your honour as
a gentleman and a soldier, that what is about to pass between us shall
never be mentioned to any third person.'
My word, this was a fine beginning! I had no choice but to give the
'You must know, then, that it is all over with the Emperor,' said he,
looking down at the table and speaking very slowly, as if he had a hard
task in getting out the words. 'Jourdan at Rouen and Marmont at Paris
have both mounted the white cockade, and it is rumoured that Talleyrand
has talked Ney into doing the same. It is evident that further
resistance is useless, and that it can only bring misery upon our
country. I wish to ask you, therefore, whether you are prepared to join
me in laying hands upon the Emperor's person, and bringing the war to a
conclusion by delivering him over to the allies?'
I assure you that when I heard this infamous proposition put forward by
the man who had been the earliest friend of the Emperor, and who had
received greater favours from him than any of his followers, I could
only stand and stare at him in amazement. For his part he tapped his
pen-handle against his teeth, and looked at me with a slanting head.
'Well?' he asked.
'I am a little deaf on one side,' said I, coldly. 'There are some
things which I cannot hear. I beg that you will permit me to return to
'Nay, but you must not be headstrong,' rising up and laying his hand
upon my shoulder. 'You are aware that the Senate has declared against
Napoleon, and that the Emperor Alexander refuses to treat with him.'
'Sir,' I cried, with passion, 'I would have you know that I do not care
the dregs of a wine-glass for the Senate or for the Emperor Alexander
'Then for what do you care?'
'For my own honour and for the service of my glorious master, the
'That is all very well,' said Berthier, peevishly, shrugging his
shoulders. 'Facts are facts, and as men of the world, we must look them
in the face. Are we to stand against the will of the nation? Are we to
have civil war on the top of all our misfortunes? And, besides, we are
thinning away. Every hour comes the news of fresh desertions. We have
still time to make our peace, and, indeed, to earn the highest regard,
by giving up the Emperor.'
I shook so with passion that my sabre clattered against my thigh.
'Sir,' I cried, 'I never thought to have seen the day when a Marshal of
France would have so far degraded himself as to put forward such a
proposal. I leave you to your own conscience; but as for me, until I
have the Emperor's own order, there shall always be the sword of Etienne
Gerard between his enemies and himself.'
I was so moved by my own words and by the fine position which I had
taken up, that my voice broke, and I could hardly refrain from tears. I
should have liked the whole army to have seen me as I stood with my head
so proudly erect and my hand upon my heart proclaiming my devotion to
the Emperor in his adversity. It was one of the supreme moments of my
'Very good,' said Berthier, ringing a bell for the lackey. 'You will
show the Chief of Brigade Gerard into the salon.'
The footman led me into an inner room, where he desired me to be seated.
For my own part, my only desire was to get away, and I could not
understand why they should wish to detain me. When one has had no change
of uniform during a whole winter's campaign, one does not feel at home
in a palace.
I had been there about a quarter of an hour when the footman opened the
door again, and in came Colonel Despienne. Good heavens, what a sight he
was! His face was as white as a guardsman's gaiters, his eyes
projecting, the veins swollen upon his forehead, and every hair of his
moustache bristling like those of an angry cat. He was too angry to
speak, and could only shake his hands at the ceiling and make a gurgling
in his throat. 'Parricide! Viper!' those were the words that I could
catch as he stamped up and down the room.
Of course it was evident to me that he had been subjected to the same
infamous proposals as I had, and that he had received them in the same
spirit. His lips were sealed to me, as mine were to him, by the promise
which we had taken, but I contented myself with muttering 'Atrocious!
Unspeakable!'--so that he might know that I was in agreement with him.
Well, we were still there, he striding furiously up and down, and I
seated in the corner, when suddenly a most extraordinary uproar broke
out in the room which we had just quitted. There was a snarling,
worrying growl, like that of a fierce dog which has got his grip. Then
came a crash and a voice calling for help. In we rushed, the two of us,
and, my faith, we were none too soon.
Old Tremeau and Berthier were rolling together upon the floor, with the
table upon the top of them. The Captain had one of his great, skinny
yellow hands upon the Marshal's throat, and already his face was
lead-coloured, and his eyes were starting from their sockets. As to
Tremeau, he was beside himself, with foam upon the corners of his lips,
and such a frantic expression upon him that I am convinced, had we not
loosened his iron grip, finger by finger, that it would never have
relaxed while the Marshal lived. His nails were white with the power of
'I have been tempted by the devil!' he cried, as he staggered to his
feet. 'Yes, I have been tempted by the devil!'
As to Berthier, he could only lean against the wall, and pant for a
couple of minutes, putting his hands up to his throat and rolling his
head about. Then, with an angry gesture, he turned to the heavy blue
curtain which hung behind his chair.
The curtain was torn to one side and the Emperor stepped out into the
room. We sprang to the salute, we three old soldiers, but it was all
like a scene in a dream to us, and our eyes were as far out as
Berthier's had been. Napoleon was dressed in his green-coated chasseur
uniform, and he held his little, silver-headed switch in his hand. He
looked at us each in turn, with a smile upon his face--that frightful
smile in which neither eyes nor brow joined--and each in turn had, I
believe, a pringling on his skin, for that was the effect which the
Emperor's gaze had upon most of us. Then he walked across to Berthier
and put his hand upon his shoulder.
'You must not quarrel with blows, my dear Prince,' said he; 'they are
your title to nobility.' He spoke in that soft, caressing manner which
he could assume. There was no one who could make the French tongue sound
so pretty as the Emperor, and no one who could make it more harsh and
'I believe he would have killed me,' cried Berthier, still rolling his
'Tut, tut! I should have come to your help had these officers not heard
your cries. But I trust that you are not really hurt!' He spoke with
earnestness, for he was in truth very fond of Berthier--more so than of
any man, unless it were of poor Duroc.
Berthier laughed, though not with a very good grace.
'It is new for me to receive my injuries from French hands,' said he.
'And yet it was in the cause of France,' returned the Emperor. Then,
turning to us, he took old Tremeau by the ear. 'Ah, old grumbler,' said
he, 'you were one of my Egyptian grenadiers, were you not, and had your
musket of honour at Marengo. I remember you very well, my good friend.
So the old fires are not yet extinguished! They still burn up when you
think that your Emperor is wronged. And you, Colonel Despienne, you
would not even listen to the tempter. And you, Gerard, your faithful
sword is ever to be between me and my enemies. Well, well, I have had
some traitors about me, but now at last we are beginning to see who are
the true men.'
You can fancy, my friends, the thrill of joy which it gave us when the
greatest man in the whole world spoke to us in this fashion. Tremeau
shook until I thought he would have fallen, and the tears ran down his
gigantic moustache. If you had not seen it, you could never believe the
influence which the Emperor had upon those coarse-grained, savage old
'Well, my faithful friends,' said he, 'if you will follow me into this
room, I will explain to you the meaning of this little farce which we
have been acting. I beg, Berthier, that you will remain in this chamber,
and so make sure that no one interrupts us.'
It was new for us to be doing business, with a Marshal of France as
sentry at the door. However, we followed the Emperor as we were ordered,
and he led us into the recess of the window, gathering us around him and
sinking his voice as he addressed us.
'I have picked you out of the whole army,' said he, 'as being not only
the most formidable but also the most faithful of my soldiers. I was
convinced that you were all three men who would never waver in your
fidelity to me. If I have ventured to put that fidelity to the proof,
and to watch you while attempts were at my orders made upon your honour,
it was only because, in the days when I have found the blackest treason
amongst my own flesh and blood, it is necessary that I should be doubly
circumspect. Suffice it that I am well convinced now that I can rely
upon your valour.'
'To the death, sire!' cried Tremeau, and we both repeated it after him.
Napoleon drew us all yet a little closer to him, and sank his voice
'What I say to you now I have said to no one--not to my wife or my
brothers; only to you. It is all up with us, my friends. We have come to
our last rally. The game is finished, and we must make provision
My heart seemed to have changed to a nine-pounder ball as I listened to
him. We had hoped against hope, but now when he, the man who was always
serene and who always had reserves--when he, in that quiet, impassive
voice of his, said that everything was over, we realized that the clouds
had shut for ever, and the last gleam gone. Tremeau snarled and gripped
at his sabre, Despienne ground his teeth, and for my own part I threw
out my chest and clicked my heels to show the Emperor that there were
some spirits which could rise to adversity.
'My papers and my fortune must be secured,' whispered the Emperor. 'The
whole course of the future may depend upon my having them safe. They are
our base for the next attempt--for I am very sure that these poor
Bourbons would find that my footstool is too large to make a throne for
them. Where am I to keep these precious things? My belongings will be
searched--so will the houses of my supporters. They must be secured and
concealed by men whom I can trust with that which is more precious to me
than my life. Out of the whole of France, you are those whom I have
chosen for this sacred trust.
'In the first place, I will tell you what these papers are. You shall
not say that I have made you blind agents in the matter. They are the
official proof of my divorce from Josephine, of my legal marriage to
Marie Louise, and of the birth of my son and heir, the King of Rome. If
we cannot prove each of these, the future claim of my family to the
throne of France falls to the ground. Then there are securities to the
value of forty millions of francs--an immense sum, my friends, but of no
more value than this riding-switch when compared to the other papers of
which I have spoken. I tell you these things that you may realize the
enormous importance of the task which I am committing to your care.
Listen, now, while I inform you where you are to get these papers, and
what you are to do with them.
'They were handed over to my trusty friend, the Countess Walewski, at
Paris, this morning. At five o'clock she starts for Fontainebleau in her
blue berline. She should reach here between half-past nine and ten. The
papers will be concealed in the berline, in a hiding-place which none
know but herself. She has been warned that her carriage will be stopped
outside the town by three mounted officers, and she will hand the packet
over to your care. You are the younger man, Gerard, but you are of the
senior grade. I confide to your care this amethyst ring, which you will
show the lady as a token of your mission, and which you will leave with
her as a receipt for her papers.
'Having received the packet, you will ride with it into the forest as
far as the ruined dove-house--the Colombier. It is possible that I may
meet you there--but if it seems to me to be dangerous, I will send my
body-servant, Mustapha, whose directions you may take as being mine.
There is no roof to the Colombier, and tonight will be a full moon. At
the right of the entrance you will find three spades leaning against the
wall. With these you will dig a hole three feet deep in the
north-eastern corner--that is, in the corner to the left of the door,
and nearest to Fontainebleau. Having buried the papers, you will replace
the soil with great care, and you will then report to me at the palace.'
These were the Emperor's directions, but given with an accuracy and
minuteness of detail such as no one but himself could put into an order.
When he had finished, he made us swear to keep his secret as long as he
lived, and as long as the papers should remain buried. Again and again
he made us swear it before he dismissed us from his presence.
Colonel Despienne had quarters at the 'Sign of the Pheasant,' and it was
there that we supped together. We were all three men who had been
trained to take the strangest turns of fortune as part of our daily life
and business, yet we were all flushed and moved by the extraordinary
interview which we had had, and by the thought of the great adventure
which lay before us. For my own part, it had been my fate three several
times to take my orders from the lips of the Emperor himself, but
neither the incident of the Ajaccio murderers nor the famous ride which
I made to Paris appeared to offer such opportunities as this new and
most intimate commission.
'If things go right with the Emperor,' said Despienne, 'we shall all
live to be marshals yet.'
We drank with him to our future cocked hats and our batons.
It was agreed between us that we should make our way separately to our
rendezvous, which was to be the first mile-stone upon the Paris road. In
this way we should avoid the gossip which might get about if three men
who were so well known were to be seen riding out together. My little
Violette had cast a shoe that morning, and the farrier was at work upon
her when I returned, so that my comrades were already there when I
arrived at the trysting-place. I had taken with me not only my sabre,
but also my new pair of English rifled pistols, with a mallet for
knocking in the charges. They had cost me a hundred and fifty francs at
Trouvel's, in the Rue de Rivoli, but they would carry far further and
straighter than the others. It was with one of them that I had saved old
Bouvet's life at Leipzig.
The night was cloudless, and there was a brilliant moon behind us, so
that we always had three black horsemen riding down the white road in
front of us. The country is so thickly wooded, however, that we could
not see very far. The great palace clock had already struck ten, but
there was no sign of the Countess. We began to fear that something might
have prevented her from starting.
And then suddenly we heard her in the distance. Very faint at first were
the birr of wheels and the tat-tat-tat of the horses' feet. Then they
grew louder and clearer and louder yet, until a pair of yellow lanterns
swung round the curve, and in their light we saw the two big brown
horses tearing along the high, blue carriage at the back of them. The
postilion pulled them up panting and foaming within a few yards of us.
In a moment we were at the window and had raised our hands in a salute
to the beautiful pale face which looked out at us.
'We are the three officers of the Emperor, madame,' said I, in a low
voice, leaning my face down to the open window. 'You have already been
warned that we should wait upon you.'
The Countess had a very beautiful, cream-tinted complexion of a sort
which I particularly admire, but she grew whiter and whiter as she
looked up at me. Harsh lines deepened upon her face until she seemed,
even as I looked at her, to turn from youth into age.
'It is evident to me,' she said, 'that you are three impostors.'
If she had struck me across the face with her delicate hand she could
not have startled me more. It was not her words only, but the bitterness
with which she hissed them out.
'Indeed, madame,' said I. 'You do us less than justice. These are the
Colonel Despienne and Captain Tremeau. For myself, my name is Brigadier
Gerard, and I have only to mention it to assure anyone who has heard of
'Oh, you villains!' she interrupted. 'You think that because I am only a
woman I am very easily to be hoodwinked! You miserable impostors!'
I looked at Despienne, who had turned white with anger, and at Tremeau,
who was tugging at his moustache.
'Madame,' said I, coldly, 'when the Emperor did us the honour to intrust
us with this mission, he gave me this amethyst ring as a token. I had
not thought that three honourable gentlemen would have needed such
corroboration, but I can only confute your unworthy suspicions by
placing it in your hands.'
She held it up in the light of the carriage lamp, and the most dreadful
expression of grief and of horror contorted her face.
'It is his!' she screamed, and then, 'Oh, my God, what have I done? What
have I done?'
I felt that something terrible had befallen. 'Quick, madame, quick!' I
cried. 'Give us the papers!'
'I have already given them.'
'Given them! To whom?'
'To three officers.'
'Within the half-hour.'
'Where are they?'
'God help me, I do not know. They stopped the berline, and I handed them
over to them without hesitation, thinking that they had come from the
It was a thunder-clap. But those are the moments when I am at my finest.
'You remain here,' said I, to my comrades. 'If three horsemen pass you,
stop them at any hazard. The lady will describe them to you. I will be
with you presently.' One shake of the bridle, and I was flying into
Fontainebleau as only Violette could have carried me. At the palace I
flung myself off, rushed up the stairs, brushed aside the lackeys who
would have stopped me, and pushed my way into the Emperor's own cabinet.
He and Macdonald were busy with pencil and compasses over a chart. He
looked up with an angry frown at my sudden entry, but his face changed
colour when he saw that it was I.
'You can leave us, Marshal,' said he, and then, the instant the door was
closed: 'What news about the papers?'
'They are gone!' said I, and in a few curt words I told him what had
happened. His face was calm, but I saw the compasses quiver in his hand.
'You must recover them, Gerard!' he cried. 'The destinies of my dynasty
are at stake. Not a moment is to be lost! To horse, sir, to horse!'
'Who are they, sire?'
'I cannot tell. I am surrounded with treason. But they will take them to
Paris. To whom should they carry them but to the villain Talleyrand?
Yes, yes, they are on the Paris road, and may yet be overtaken. With the
three best mounts in my stables and----'
I did not wait to hear the end of the sentence. I was already clattering
down the stairs. I am sure that five minutes had not passed before I was
galloping Violette out of the town with the bridle of one of the
Emperor's own Arab chargers in either hand. They wished me to take
three, but I should have never dared to look my Violette in the face
again. I feel that the spectacle must have been superb when I dashed up
to my comrades and pulled the horses on to their haunches in the
'No one has passed?'
'Then they are on the Paris road. Quick! Up and after them!'
They did not take long, those good soldiers. In a flash they were upon
the Emperor's horses, and their own left masterless by the roadside.
Then away we went upon our long chase, I in the centre, Despienne upon
my right, and Tremeau a little behind, for he was the heavier man.
Heavens, how we galloped! The twelve flying hoofs roared and roared
along the hard, smooth road. Poplars and moon, black bars and silver
streaks, for mile after mile our course lay along the same chequered
track, with our shadows in front and our dust behind. We could hear the
rasping of bolts and the creaking of shutters from the cottages as we
thundered past them, but we were only three dark blurs upon the road by
the time that the folk could look after us. It was just striking
midnight as we raced into Corbail; but an hostler with a bucket in
either hand was throwing his black shadow across the golden fan which
was cast from the open door of the inn.
'Three riders!' I gasped. 'Have they passed?'
'I have just been watering their horses,' said he. 'I should think
'On, on, my friends!' and away we flew, striking fire from the
cobblestones of the little town. A gendarme tried to stop up, but his
voice was drowned by our rattle and clatter. The houses slid past, and
we were out on the country road again, with a clear twenty miles between
ourselves and Paris. How could they escape us, with the finest horses in
France behind them? Not one of the three had turned a hair, but Violette
was always a head and shoulders to the front. She was going within
herself too, and I knew by the spring of her that I had only to let her
stretch herself, and the Emperor's horses would see the colour of her
'There they are!' cried Despienne.
'We have them!' growled Tremeau.
'On, comrades, on!' I shouted, once more.
A long stretch of white road lay before us in the moonlight. Far away
down it we could see three cavaliers, lying low upon their horses'
necks. Every instant they grew larger and clearer as we gained upon
them. I could see quite plainly that the two upon either side were
wrapped in mantles and rode upon chestnut horses, whilst the man between
them was dressed in a chasseur uniform and mounted upon a grey. They
were keeping abreast, but it was easy enough to see from the way in
which he gathered his legs for each spring that the centre horse was far
the fresher of the three. And the rider appeared to be the leader of the
party, for we continually saw the glint of his face in the moonshine as
he looked back to measure the distance between us. At first it was only
a glimmer, then it was cut across with a moustache, and at last when we
began to feel their dust in our throats I could give a name to my man.
'Halt, Colonel de Montluc!' I shouted. 'Halt, in the Emperor's name!'
I had known him for years as a daring officer and an unprincipled
rascal. Indeed, there was a score between us, for he had shot my friend,
Treville, at Warsaw, pulling his trigger, as some said, a good second
before the drop of the handkerchief.
Well, the words were hardly out of my mouth when his two comrades
wheeled round and fired their pistols at us. I heard Despienne give a
terrible cry, and at the same instant both Tremeau and I let drive at
the same man. He fell forward with his hands swinging on each side of
his horse's neck. His comrade spurred on to Tremeau, sabre in hand, and
I heard the crash which comes when a strong cut is met by a stronger
parry. For my own part I never turned my head, but I touched Violette
with the spur for the first time and flew after the leader. That he
should leave his comrades and fly was proof enough that I should leave
mine and follow.
He had gained a couple of hundred paces, but the good little mare set
that right before we could have passed two milestones. It was in vain
that he spurred and thrashed like a gunner driver on a soft road. His
hat flew off with his exertions, and his bald head gleamed in the
moonshine. But do what he might, he still heard the rattle of the hoofs
growing louder and louder behind him. I could not have been twenty yards
from him, and the shadow head was touching the shadow haunch, when he
turned with a curse in his saddle and emptied both his pistols, one
after the other, into Violette.
I have been wounded myself so often that I have to stop and think before
I can tell you the exact number of times. I have been hit by musket
balls, by pistol bullets, and by bursting shells, besides being pierced
by bayonet, lance, sabre, and finally by a brad-awl, which was the most
painful of any. Yet out of all these injuries I have never known the
same deadly sickness as came over me when I felt the poor, silent,
patient creature, which I had come to love more than anything in the
world except my mother and the Emperor, reel and stagger beneath me. I
pulled my second pistol from my holster and fired point-blank between
the fellow's broad shoulders. He slashed his horse across the flank with
his whip, and for a moment I thought that I had missed him. But then on
the green of his chasseur jacket I saw an ever-widening black smudge,
and he began to sway in his saddle, very slightly at first, but more and
more with every bound, until at last over he went, with his foot caught
in the stirrup, and his shoulders thud-thud-thudding along the road,
until the drag was too much for the tired horse, and I closed my hand
upon the foam-spattered bridle-chain. As I pulled him up it eased the
stirrup leather, and the spurred heel clinked loudly as it fell.
'Your papers!' I cried, springing from my saddle. 'This instant!'
But even as I said, it, the huddle of the green body and the fantastic
sprawl of the limbs in the moonlight told me clearly enough that it was
all over with him. My bullet had passed through his heart, and it was
only his own iron will which had held him so long in the saddle. He had
lived hard, this Montluc, and I will do him justice to say that he died
But it was the papers--always the papers--of which I thought. I opened
his tunic and I felt in his shirt. Then I searched his holsters and his
sabre-tasche. Finally I dragged off his boots, and undid his horse's
girth so as to hunt under the saddle. There was not a nook or crevice
which I did not ransack. It was useless. They were not upon him.
When this stunning blow came upon me I could have sat down by the
roadside and wept. Fate seemed to be fighting against me, and that is an
enemy from whom even a gallant hussar might not be ashamed to flinch. I
stood with my arm over the neck of my poor wounded Violette, and I tried
to think it all out, that I might act in the wisest way. I was aware
that the Emperor had no great respect for my wits, and I longed to show
him that he had done me an injustice. Montluc had not the papers. And
yet Montluc had sacrificed his companions in order to make his escape. I
could make nothing of that. On the other hand, it was clear that, if he
had not got them, one or other of his comrades had. One of them was
certainly dead. The other I had left fighting with Tremeau, and if he
escaped from the old swordsman he had still to pass me. Clearly, my work
lay behind me.
I hammered fresh charges into my pistols after I had turned this over in
my head. Then I put them back in the holsters, and I examined my little
mare, she jerking her head and cocking her ears the while, as if to tell
me that an old soldier like herself did not make a fuss about a scratch
or two. The first shot had merely grazed her off-shoulder, leaving a
skin-mark, as if she had brushed a wall. The second was more serious. It
had passed through the muscle of her neck, but already it had ceased to
bleed. I reflected that if she weakened I could mount Montluc's grey,
and meanwhile I led him along beside us, for he was a fine horse, worth
fifteen hundred francs at the least, and it seemed to me that no one had
a better right to him than I.
Well, I was all impatience now to get back to the others, and I had just
given Violette her head, when suddenly I saw something glimmering in a
field by the roadside. It was the brass-work upon the chasseur hat which
had flown from Montluc's head; and at the sight of it a thought made me
jump in the saddle. How could the hat have flown off? With its weight,
would it not have simply dropped? And here it lay, fifteen paces from
the roadway! Of course, he must have thrown it off when he had made sure
that I would overtake him. And if he threw it off--I did not stop to
reason any more, but sprang from the mare with my heart beating the
_pas-de-charge_. Yes, it was all right this time. There, in the crown of
the hat was stuffed a roll of papers in a parchment wrapper bound round
with yellow ribbon. I pulled it out with the one hand and, holding the
hat in the other, I danced for joy in the moonlight. The Emperor would
see that he had not made a mistake when he put his affairs into the
charge of Etienne Gerard.
I had a safe pocket on the inside of my tunic just over my heart, where
I kept a few little things which were dear to me, and into this I thrust
my precious roll. Then I sprang upon Violette, and was pushing forward
to see what had become of Tremeau, when I saw a horseman riding across
the field in the distance. At the same instant I heard the sound of
hoofs approaching me, and there in the moonlight was the Emperor upon
his white charger, dressed in his grey overcoat and his three-cornered
hat, just as I had seen him so often upon the field of battle.
'Well!' he cried, in the sharp, sergeant-major way of his. 'Where are my
I spurred forward and presented them without a word. He broke the ribbon
and ran his eyes rapidly over them. Then, as we sat our horses head to
tail, he threw his left arm across me with his hand upon my shoulder.
Yes, my friends, simple as you see me, I have been embraced by my great
'Gerard,' he cried, 'you are a marvel!'
I did not wish to contradict him, and it brought a flush of joy upon my
cheeks to know that he had done me justice at last.
'Where is the thief, Gerard?' he asked.
'You killed him?'
'He wounded my horse, sire, and would have escaped had I not shot him.'
'Did you recognize him?'
'De Montluc is his name, sire--a Colonel of Chasseurs.'
'Tut,' said the Emperor. 'We have got the poor pawn, but the hand which
plays the game is still out of our reach.' He sat in silent thought for
a little, with his chin sunk upon his chest. 'Ah, Talleyrand,
Talleyrand,' I heard him mutter, 'if I had been in your place and you in
mine, you would have crushed a viper when you held it under your heel.
For five years I have known you for what you are, and yet I have let you
live to sting me. Never mind, my brave,' he continued, turning to me,
'there will come a day of reckoning for everybody, and when it arrives,
I promise you that my friends will be remembered as well as my enemies.'
'Sire,' said I, for I had had time for thought as well as he, 'if your
plans about these papers have been carried to the ears of your enemies,
I trust you do not think that it was owing to any indiscretion upon the
part of myself or of my comrades.'
'It would be hardly reasonable for me to do so,' he answered, 'seeing
that this plot was hatched in Paris, and that you only had your orders a
few hours ago.'
'Enough,' he cried, sternly. 'You take an undue advantage of your
That was always the way with the Emperor. He would chat with you as with
a friend and a brother, and then when he had wiled you into forgetting
the gulf which lay between you, he would suddenly, with a word or with a
look, remind you that it was as impassable as ever. When I have fondled
my old hound until he has been encouraged to paw my knees, and I have
then thrust him down again, it has made me think of the Emperor and his
He reined his horse round, and I followed him in silence and with a
heavy heart. But when he spoke again his words were enough to drive all
thought of myself out of my mind.
'I could not sleep until I knew how you had fared,' said he. 'I have
paid a price for my papers. There are not so many of my old soldiers
left that I can afford to lose two in one night.'
When he said 'two' it turned me cold.
'Colonel Despienne was shot, sire,' I stammered.
'And Captain Tremeau cut down. Had I been a few minutes earlier, I might
have saved him. The other escaped across the fields.'
I remembered that I had seen a horseman a moment before I had met the
Emperor. He had taken to the fields to avoid me, but if I had known, and
Violette been unwounded, the old soldier would not have gone unavenged.
I was thinking sadly of his sword-play, and wondering whether it was his
stiffening wrist which had been fatal to him, when Napoleon spoke again.
'Yes, Brigadier,' said he, 'you are now the only man who will know where
these papers are concealed.'
It must have been imagination, my friends, but for an instant I may
confess that it seemed to me that there was a tone in the Emperor's
voice which was not altogether one of sorrow. But the dark thought had
hardly time to form itself in my mind before he let me see that I was
doing him an injustice.
'Yes, I have paid a price for my papers,' he said, and I heard them
crackle as he put his hand up to his bosom. 'No man has ever had more
faithful servants--no man since the beginning of the world.'
As he spoke we came upon the scene of the struggle. Colonel Despienne
and the man whom we had shot lay together some distance down the road,
while their horses grazed contentedly beneath the poplars. Captain
Tremeau lay in front of us upon his back, with his arms and legs
stretched out, and his sabre broken short off in his hand. His tunic was
open, and a huge blood-clot hung like a dark handkerchief out of a slit
in his white shirt. I could see the gleam of his clenched teeth from
under his immense moustache.
The Emperor sprang from his horse and bent down over the dead man.
'He was with me since Rivoli,' said he, sadly. 'He was one of my old
grumblers in Egypt.'
And the voice brought the man back from the dead. I saw his eyelids
shiver. He twitched his arm, and moved the sword-hilt a few inches. He
was trying to raise it in salute. Then the mouth opened, and the hilt
tinkled down on to the ground.
'May we all die as gallantly,' said the Emperor, as he rose, and from my
heart I added 'Amen.'
There was a farm within fifty yards of where we were standing, and the
farmer, roused from his sleep by the clatter of hoofs and the cracking
of pistols, had rushed out to the roadside. We saw him now, dumb with
fear and astonishment, staring open-eyed at the Emperor. It was to him
that we committed the care of the four dead men and of the horses also.
For my own part, I thought it best to leave Violette with him and to
take De Montluc's grey with me, for he could not refuse to give me back
my own mare, whilst there might be difficulties about the other.
Besides, my little friend's wound had to be considered, and we had a
long return ride before us.
The Emperor did not at first talk much upon the way. Perhaps the deaths
of Despienne and Tremeau still weighed heavily upon his spirits. He was
always a reserved man, and in those times, when every hour brought him
the news of some success of his enemies or defection of his friends, one
could not expect him to be a merry companion. Nevertheless, when I
reflected that he was carrying in his bosom those papers which he valued
so highly, and which only a few hours ago appeared to be for ever lost,
and when I further thought that it was I, Etienne Gerard, who had placed
them there, I felt that I had deserved some little consideration. The
same idea may have occurred to him, for when we had at last left the
Paris high road, and had entered the forest, he began of his own accord
to tell me that which I should have most liked to have asked him.
'As to the papers,' said he, 'I have already told you that there is no
one now, except you and me, who knows where they are to be concealed. My
Mameluke carried the spades to the pigeon-house, but I have told him
nothing. Our plans, however, for bringing the packet from Paris have
been formed since Monday. There were three in the secret, a woman and
two men. The woman I would trust with my life; which of the two men has
betrayed us I do not know, but I think that I may promise to find out.'
We were riding in the shadow of the trees at the time, and I could hear
him slapping his riding-whip against his boot, and taking pinch after
pinch of snuff, as was his way when he was excited.
'You wonder, no doubt,' said he, after a pause, 'why these rascals did
not stop the carriage at Paris instead of at the entrance to
In truth, the objection had not occurred to me, but I did not wish to
appear to have less wits than he gave me credit for, so I answered that
it was indeed surprising.
'Had they done so they would have made a public scandal, and run a
chance of missing their end. Short of taking the berline to pieces, they
could not have discovered the hiding-place. He planned it well--he could
always plan well--and he chose his agents well also. But mine were the
It is not for me to repeat to you, my friends, all that was said to me
by the Emperor as we walked our horses amid the black shadows and
through the moon-silvered glades of the great forest. Every word of it
is impressed upon my memory, and before I pass away it is likely that I
will place it all upon paper, so that others may read it in the days to
come. He spoke freely of his past, and something also of his future; of
the devotion of Macdonald, of the treason of Marmont, of the little King
of Rome, concerning whom he talked with as much tenderness as any
bourgeois father of a single child; and, finally, of his father-in-law,
the Emperor of Austria, who would, he thought, stand between his enemies
and himself. For myself, I dared not say a word, remembering how I had
already brought a rebuke upon myself; but I rode by his side, hardly
able to believe that this was indeed the great Emperor, the man whose
glance sent a thrill through me, who was now pouring out his thoughts to
me in short, eager sentences, the words rattling and racing like the
hoofs of a galloping squadron. It is possible that, after the
word-splittings and diplomacy of a Court, it was a relief to him to
speak his mind to a plain soldier like myself.
In this way the Emperor and I--even after years it sends a flush of
pride into my cheeks to be able to put those words together--the Emperor
and I walked our horses through the Forest of Fontainebleau, until we
came at last to the Colombier. The three spades were propped against the
wall upon the right-hand side of the ruined door, and at the sight of
them the tears sprang to my eyes as I thought of the hands for which
they were intended. The Emperor seized one and I another.
'Quick!' said he. 'The dawn will be upon us before we get back to the
We dug the hole, and placing the papers in one of my pistol holsters to
screen them from the damp, we laid them at the bottom and covered them
up. We then carefully removed all marks of the ground having been
disturbed, and we placed a large stone upon the top. I dare say that
since the Emperor was a young gunner, and helped to train his pieces
against Toulon, he had not worked so hard with his hands. He was mopping
his forehead with his silk handkerchief long before we had come to the
end of our task.
The first grey cold light of morning was stealing through the tree
trunks when we came out together from the old pigeon-house. The Emperor
laid his hand upon my shoulder as I stood ready to help him to mount.
'We have left the papers there,' said he, solemnly, 'and I desire that
you shall leave all thought of them there also. Let the recollection of
them pass entirely from your mind, to be revived only when you receive a
direct order under my own hand and seal. From this time onwards you
forget all that has passed.'
'I forget it, sire,' said I.
We rode together to the edge of the town, where he desired that I should
separate from him. I had saluted, and was turning my horse, when he
called me back.
'It is easy to mistake the points of the compass in the forest,' said
he. 'Would you not say that it was in the north-eastern corner that we
'Buried what, sire?'
'The papers, of course,' he cried, impatiently.
'What papers, sire?'
'Name of a name! Why, the papers that you have recovered for me.'
'I am really at a loss to know what your Majesty is talking about.'
He flushed with anger for a moment, and then he burst out laughing.
'Very good, Brigadier!' he cried. 'I begin to believe that you are as
good a diplomatist as you are a soldier, and I cannot say more than
* * * * *
So that was my strange adventure in which I found myself the friend and
confident agent of the Emperor. When he returned from Elba he refrained
from digging up the papers until his position should be secure, and they
still remained in the corner of the old pigeon-house after his exile to
St Helena. It was at this time that he was desirous of getting them into
the hands of his own supporters, and for that purpose he wrote me, as I
afterwards learned, three letters, all of which were intercepted by his
guardians. Finally, he offered to support himself and his own
establishment--which he might very easily have done out of the gigantic
sum which belonged to him--if they would only pass one of his letters
unopened. This request was refused, and so, up to his death in '21, the
papers still remained where I have told you. How they came to be dug up
by Count Bertrand and myself, and who eventually obtained them, is a
story which I would tell you, were it not that the end has not yet come.
Some day you will hear of those papers, and you will see how, after he
has been so long in his grave, that great man can still set Europe
shaking. When that day comes, you will think of Etienne Gerard, and you
will tell your children that you have heard the story from the lips of
the man who was the only one living of all who took part in that strange
history--the man who was tempted by Marshal Berthier, who led that wild
pursuit upon the Paris road, who was honoured by the embrace of the
Emperor, and who rode with him by moonlight in the Forest of
Fontainebleau. The buds are bursting and the birds are calling, my
friends. You may find better things to do in the sunlight than listening
to the stories of an old, broken soldier. And yet you may well treasure
what I say, for the buds will have burst and the birds sung in many
seasons before France will see such another ruler as he whose servants
we were proud to be.