The Exploits Of Brigadier Gerard
Arthur Conan Doyle
Part 3 out of 4
chance of a fine cavalry skirmish with the English. On the other hand,
there was my mission at the Abbey of Almeixal, which seemed already to
be so much above my power. If I were to lose any of my men, it was
certain that I should be unable to carry out my orders. I was sitting
my horse, with my chin in my gauntlet, looking across at the rippling
gleams of light from the further wood, when suddenly one of these
red-coated Englishmen rode out from the cover, pointing at me and
breaking into a shrill whoop and halloa as if I had been a fox. Three
others joined him, and one who was a bugler sounded a call, which
brought the whole of them into the open. They were, as I had thought, a
half squadron, and they formed a double line with a front of
twenty-five, their officer--the one who had whooped at me--at their
For my own part, I had instantly brought my own troopers into the same
formation, so that there we were, hussars and dragoons, with only two
hundred yards of grassy sward between us. They carried themselves well,
those red-coated troopers, with their silver helmets, their high white
plumes, and their long, gleaming swords; while, on the other hand, I am
sure that they would acknowledge that they had never looked upon finer
light horsemen than the fifty hussars of Conflans who were facing them.
They were heavier, it is true, and they may have seemed the smarter, for
Wellington used to make them burnish their metal work, which was not
usual among us. On the other hand, it is well known that the English
tunics were too tight for the sword-arm, which gave our men an
advantage. As to bravery, foolish, inexperienced people of every nation
always think that their own soldiers are braver than any others. There
is no nation in the world which does not entertain this idea. But when
one has seen as much as I have done, one understands that there is no
very marked difference, and that although nations differ very much in
discipline, they are all equally brave--except that the French have
rather more courage than the rest.
Well, the cork was drawn and the glasses ready, when suddenly the
English officer raised his sword to me as if in a challenge, and
cantered his horse across the grassland. My word, there is no finer
sight upon earth than that of a gallant man upon a gallant steed! I
could have halted there just to watch him as he came with such careless
grace, his sabre down by his horse's shoulder, his head thrown back, his
white plume tossing--youth and strength and courage, with the violet
evening sky above and the oak trees behind. But it was not for me to
stand and stare. Etienne Gerard may have his faults, but, my faith, he
was never accused of being backward in taking his own part. The old
horse, Rataplan, knew me so well that he had started off before ever I
gave the first shake to the bridle.
There are two things in this world that I am very slow to forget: the
face of a pretty woman, and the legs of a fine horse. Well, as we drew
together, I kept on saying, 'Where have I seen those great roan
shoulders? Where have I seen that dainty fetlock?' Then suddenly I
remembered, and as I looked up at the reckless eyes and the challenging
smile, whom should I recognize but the man who had saved me from the
brigands and played me for my freedom--he whose correct title was Milor
the Hon. Sir Russell Bart!
'Bart!' I shouted.
He had his arm raised for a cut, and three parts of his body open to my
point, for he did not know very much about the use of the sword. As I
brought my hilt to the salute he dropped his hand and stared at me.
'Halloa!' said he. 'It's Gerard!' You would have thought by his manner
that I had met him by appointment. For my own part, I would have
embraced him had he but come an inch of the way to meet me.
'I thought we were in for some sport,' said he. 'I never dreamed that it
I found this tone of disappointment somewhat irritating. Instead of
being glad at having met a friend, he was sorry at having missed an
'I should have been happy to join in your sport, my dear Bart,' said I.
'But I really cannot turn my sword upon a man who saved my life.'
'Tut, never mind about that.'
'No, it is impossible. I should never forgive myself.'
'You make too much of a trifle.'
'My mother's one desire is to embrace you. If ever you should be in
'Lord Wellington is coming there with 60,000 men.'
'Then one of them will have a chance of surviving,' said I, laughing.
'In the meantime, put your sword in your sheath!'
Our horses were standing head to tail, and the Bart put out his hand and
patted me on the thigh.
'You're a good chap, Gerard,' said he. 'I only wish you had been born on
the right side of the Channel.'
'I was,' said I.
'Poor devil!' he cried, with such an earnestness of pity that he set me
laughing again. 'But look here, Gerard,' he continued; 'this is all very
well, but it is not business, you know. I don't know what Massena would
say to it, but our Chief would jump out of his riding-boots if he saw
us. We weren't sent out here for a picnic--either of us.'
'What would you have?'
'Well, we had a little argument about our hussars and dragoons, if you
remember. I've got fifty of the Sixteenth all chewing their carbine
bullets behind me. You've got as many fine-looking boys over yonder, who
seem to be fidgeting in their saddles. If you and I took the right
flanks we should not spoil each other's beauty--though a little
blood-letting is a friendly thing in this climate.'
There seemed to me to be a good deal of sense in what he said. For the
moment Mr Alexis Morgan and the Countess of La Ronda and the Abbey of
Almeixal went right out of my head, and I could only think of the fine
level turf and of the beautiful skirmish which we might have.
'Very good, Bart,' said I. 'We have seen the front of your dragoons. We
shall now have a look at their backs.'
'Any betting?' he asked.
'The stake,' said I, 'is nothing less than the honour of the Hussars of
'Well, come on!' he answered. 'If we break you, well and good--if you
break us, it will be all the better for Marshal Millefleurs.'
When he said that I could only stare at him in astonishment.
'Why for Marshal Millefleurs?' I asked.
'It is the name of a rascal who lives out this way. My dragoons have
been sent by Lord Wellington to see him safely hanged.'
'Name of a name!' I cried. 'Why, my hussars have been sent by Massena
for that very object.'
We burst out laughing at that, and sheathed our swords. There was a
whirr of steel from behind us as our troopers followed our example.
'We are allies!' he cried.
'For a day.'
'We must join forces.'
'There is no doubt of it.'
And so, instead of fighting, we wheeled our half squadrons round and
moved in two little columns down the valley, the shakos and the helmets
turned inwards, and the men looking their neighbours up and down, like
old fighting dogs with tattered ears who have learned to respect each
other's teeth. The most were on the broad grin, but there were some on
either side who looked black and challenging, especially the English
sergeant and my own sub-officer Papilette. They were men of habit, you
see, who could not change all their ways of thinking in a moment.
Besides, Papilette had lost his only brother at Busaco. As for the Bart
and me, we rode together at the head and chatted about all that had
occurred to us since that famous game of ecarte of which I have told
For my own part, I spoke to him of my adventures in England. They are a
very singular people, these English. Although he knew that I had been
engaged in twelve campaigns, yet I am sure that the Bart thought more
highly of me because I had had an affair with the Bristol Bustler. He
told me, too, that the Colonel who presided over his court-martial for
playing cards with a prisoner acquitted him of neglect of duty, but
nearly broke him because he thought that he had not cleared his trumps
before leading his suit. Yes, indeed, they are a singular people.
At the end of the valley the road curved over some rising ground before
winding down into another wider valley beyond. We called a halt when we
came to the top; for there, right in front of us, at the distance of
about three miles, was a scattered, grey town, with a single enormous
building upon the flank of the mountain which overlooked it. We could
not doubt that we were at last in sight of the Abbey that held the gang
of rascals whom we had come to disperse. It was only now, I think, that
we fully understood what a task lay in front of us, for the place was a
veritable fortress, and it was evident that cavalry should never have
been sent out upon such an errand.
'That's got nothing to do with us,' said the Bart; Wellington and
Massena can settle that between them.'
'Courage!' I answered. 'Pire took Leipzig with fifty hussars.'
'Had they been dragoons,' said the Bart, laughing, 'he would have had
Berlin. But you are senior officer; give us a lead, and we'll see who
will be the first to flinch.'
'Well,' said I, 'whatever we do must be done at once, for my orders are
to be on my way to Abrantes by tomorrow night. But we must have some
information first, and here is someone who should be able to give it to
There was a square, whitewashed house standing by the roadside, which
appeared, from the bush hanging over the door, to be one of those
wayside tabernas which are provided for the muleteers. A lantern was
hung in the porch, and by its light we saw two men, the one in the brown
habit of a Capuchin monk, and the other girt with an apron, which showed
him to be the landlord. They were conversing together so earnestly that
we were upon them before they were aware of us. The innkeeper turned to
fly, but one of the Englishmen seized him by the hair, and held him
'For mercy's sake, spare me,' he yelled. 'My house has been gutted by
the French and harried by the English, and my feet have been burned by
the brigands. I swear by the Virgin that I have neither money nor food
in my inn, and the good Father Abbot, who is starving upon my doorstep,
will be witness to it.'
'Indeed, sir,' said the Capuchin, in excellent French, 'what this worthy
man says is very true. He is one of the many victims to these cruel
wars, although his loss is but a feather-weight compared to mine. Let
him go,' he added, in English, to the trooper, 'he is too weak to fly,
even if he desired to.'
In the light of the lantern I saw that this monk was a magnificent man,
dark and bearded, with the eyes of a hawk, and so tall that his cowl
came up to Rataplan's ears. He wore the look of one who had been through
much suffering, but he carried himself like a king, and we could form
some opinion of his learning when we each heard him talk our own
language as fluently as if he were born to it.
'You have nothing to fear,' said I, to the trembling innkeeper. 'As to
you, father, you are, if I am not mistaken, the very man who can give us
the information which we require.'
'All that I have is at your service, my son. But,' he added, with a wan
smile, 'my Lenten fare is always somewhat meagre, and this year it has
been such that I must ask you for a crust of bread if I am to have the
strength to answer your questions.'
We bore two days' rations in our haversacks, so that he soon had the
little he asked for. It was dreadful to see the wolfish way in which he
seized the piece of dried goat's flesh which I was able to offer him.
'Time presses, and we must come to the point,' said I. 'We want your
advice as to the weak points of yonder Abbey, and concerning the habits
of the rascals who infest it.'
He cried out something which I took to be Latin, with his hands clasped
and his eyes upturned. 'The prayer of the just availeth much,' said he,
'and yet I had not dared to hope that mine would have been so speedily
answered. In me you see the unfortunate Abbot of Almeixal, who has been
cast out by this rabble of three armies with their heretical leader. Oh!
to think of what I have lost!' his voice broke, and the tears hung upon
'Cheer up, sir,' said the Bart. 'I'll lay nine to four that we have you
back again by tomorrow night.'
It is not of my own welfare that I think,' said he, 'nor even of that of
my poor, scattered flock. But it is of the holy relics which are left in
the sacrilegious hands of these robbers.'
'It's even betting whether they would ever bother their heads about
them,' said the Bart. 'But show us the way inside the gates, and we'll
soon clear the place out for you.'
In a few short words the good Abbot gave us the very points that we
wished to know. But all that he said only made our task more formidable.
The walls of the Abbey were forty feet high. The lower windows were
barricaded, and the whole building loopholed for musketry fire. The gang
preserved military discipline, and their sentries were too numerous for
us to hope to take them by surprise. It was more than ever evident that
a battalion of grenadiers and a couple of breaching pieces were what was
needed. I raised my eyebrows, and the Bart began to whistle.
'We must have a shot at it, come what may,' said he.
The men had already dismounted, and, having watered their horses, were
eating their suppers. For my own part I went into the sitting-room of
the inn with the Abbot and the Bart, that we might talk about our plans.
I had a little cognac in my _sauve vie_, and I divided it among us--just
enough to wet our moustaches.
'It is unlikely,' said I, 'that those rascals know anything about our
coming. I have seen no signs of scouts along the road. My own plan is
that we should conceal ourselves in some neighbouring wood, and then,
when they open their gates, charge down upon them and take them by
The Bart was of opinion that this was the best that we could do, but,
when we came to talk it over, the Abbot made us see that there were
difficulties in the way.
'Save on the side of the town, there is no place within a mile of the
Abbey where you could shelter man or horse,' said he. 'As to the
townsfolk, they are not to be trusted. I fear, my son, that your
excellent plan would have little chance of success in the face of the
vigilant guard which these men keep.'
'I see no other way,' answered I. 'Hussars of Conflans are not so
plentiful that I can afford to run half a squadron of them against a
forty-foot wall with five hundred infantry behind it.'
'I am a man of peace,' said the Abbot, 'and yet I may, perhaps, give a
word of counsel. I know these villains and their ways. Who should do so
better, seeing that I have stayed for a month in this lonely spot,
looking down in weariness of heart at the Abbey which was my own? I will
tell you now what I should myself do if I were in your place.'
'Pray tell us, father,' we cried, both together.
'You must know that bodies of deserters, both French and English, are
continually coming in to them, carrying their weapons with them. Now,
what is there to prevent you and your men from pretending to be such a
body, and so making your way into the Abbey?'
I was amazed at the simplicity of the thing, and I embraced the good
Abbot. The Bart, however, had some objections to offer.
'That is all very well,' said he, 'but if these fellows are as sharp as
you say, it is not very likely that they are going to let a hundred
armed strangers into their crib. From all I have heard of Mr Morgan, or
Marshal Millefleurs, or whatever the rascal's name is, I give him credit
for more sense than that.'
'Well, then,' I cried, 'let us send fifty in, and let them at daybreak
throw open the gates to the other fifty, who will be waiting outside.'
We discussed the question at great length and with much foresight and
discretion. If it had been Massena and Wellington instead of two young
officers of light cavalry, we could not have weighed it all with more
judgment. At last we agreed, the Bart and I, that one of us should
indeed go with fifty men, under pretence of being deserters, and that in
the early morning he should gain command of the gate and admit the
others. The Abbot, it is true, was still of opinion that it was
dangerous to divide our force, but finding that we were both of the same
mind, he shrugged his shoulders and gave in.
'There is only one thing that I would ask,' said he. 'If you lay hands
upon this Marshal Millefleurs--this dog of a brigand--what will you do
'Hang him,' I answered.
'It is too easy a death,' cried the Capuchin, with a vindictive glow in
his dark eyes. 'Had I my way with him--but, oh, what thoughts are these
for a servant of God to harbour!' He clapped his hands to his forehead
like one who is half demented by his troubles, and rushed out of the
There was an important point which we had still to settle, and that was
whether the French or the English party should have the honour of
entering the Abbey first. My faith, it was asking a great deal of
Etienne Gerard that he should give place to any man at such a time! But
the poor Bart pleaded so hard, urging the few skirmishes which he had
seen against my four-and-seventy engagements, that at last I consented
that he should go. We had just clasped hands over the matter when there
broke out such a shouting and cursing and yelling from the front of the
inn, that out we rushed with our drawn sabres in our hands, convinced
that the brigands were upon us.
You may imagine our feelings when, by the light of the lantern which
hung from the porch, we saw a score of our hussars and dragoons all
mixed in one wild heap, red coats and blue, helmets and busbies,
pommelling each other to their hearts' content. We flung ourselves upon
them, imploring, threatening, tugging at a lace collar, or at a spurred
heel, until, at last, we had dragged them all apart. There they stood,
flushed and bleeding, glaring at each other, and all panting together
like a line of troop horses after a ten-mile chase. It was only with our
drawn swords that we could keep them from each other's throats. The poor
Capuchin stood in the porch in his long brown habit, wringing his hands
and calling upon all the saints for mercy.
He was, indeed, as I found upon inquiry, the innocent cause of all the
turmoil, for, not understanding how soldiers look upon such things, he
had made some remark to the English sergeant that it was a pity that his
squadron was not as good as the French. The words were not out of his
mouth before a dragoon knocked down the nearest hussar, and then, in a
moment, they all flew at each other like tigers. We would trust them no
more after that, but the Bart moved his men to the front of the inn, and
I mine to the back, the English all scowling and silent, and our fellows
shaking their fists and chattering, each after the fashion of their own
Well, as our plans were made, we thought it best to carry them out at
once, lest some fresh cause of quarrel should break out between our
followers. The Bart and his men rode off, therefore, he having first
torn the lace from his sleeves, and the gorget and sash from his
uniform, so that he might pass as a simple trooper. He explained to his
men what it was that was expected of them, and though they did not raise
a cry or wave their weapons as mine might have done, there was an
expression upon their stolid and clean-shaven faces which filled me with
confidence. Their tunics were left unbuttoned, their scabbards and
helmets stained with dirt, and their harness badly fastened, so that
they might look the part of deserters, without order or discipline. At
six o'clock next morning they were to gain command of the main gate of
the Abbey, while at that same hour my hussars were to gallop up to it
from outside. The Bart and I pledged our words to it before he trotted
off with his detachment. My sergeant, Papilette, with two troopers,
followed the English at a distance, and returned in half an hour to say
that, after some parley, and the flashing of lanterns upon them from the
grille, they had been admitted into the Abbey.
So far, then, all had gone well. It was a cloudy night with a sprinkling
of rain, which was in our favour, as there was the less chance of our
presence being discovered. My vedettes I placed two hundred yards in
every direction, to guard against a surprise, and also to prevent any
peasant who might stumble upon us from carrying the news to the Abbey.
Oudin and Papilette were to take turns of duty, while the others with
their horses had snug quarters in a great wooden granary. Having walked
round and seen that all was as it should be, I flung myself upon the bed
which the innkeeper had set apart for me, and fell into a dreamless
No doubt you have heard my name mentioned as being the beau-ideal of a
soldier, and that not only by friends and admirers like our
fellow-townsfolk, but also by old officers of the great wars who have
shared the fortunes of those famous campaigns with me. Truth and modesty
compel me to say, however, that this is not so. There are some gifts
which I lack--very few, no doubt--but, still, amid the vast armies of
the Emperor there may have been some who were free from those blemishes
which stood between me and perfection. Of bravery I say nothing. Those
who have seen me in the field are best fitted to speak about that. I
have often heard the soldiers discussing round the camp-fires as to who
was the bravest man in the Grand Army. Some said Murat, and some said
Lasalle, and some Ney; but for my own part, when they asked me, I merely
shrugged my shoulders and smiled. It would have seemed mere conceit if I
had answered that there was no man braver than Brigadier Gerard. At the
same time, facts are facts, and a man knows best what his own feelings
are. But there are other gifts besides bravery which are necessary for a
soldier, and one of them is that he should be a light sleeper. Now, from
my boyhood onwards, I have been hard to wake, and it was this which
brought me to ruin upon that night.
It may have been about two o'clock in the morning that I was suddenly
conscious of a feeling of suffocation. I tried to call out, but there
was something which prevented me from uttering a sound. I struggled to
rise, but I could only flounder like a hamstrung horse. I was strapped
at the ankles, strapped at the knees, and strapped again at the wrists.
Only my eyes were free to move, and there at the foot of my couch, by
the light of a Portuguese lamp, whom should I see but the Abbot and the
The latter's heavy, white face had appeared to me when I looked upon it
the evening before to express nothing but stupidity and terror. Now, on
the contrary, every feature bespoke brutality and ferocity. Never have I
seen a more dreadful-looking villain. In his hand he held a long,
dull-coloured knife. The Abbot, on the other hand, was as polished and
as dignified as ever. His Capuchin gown had been thrown open, however,
and I saw beneath it a black, frogged coat, such as I have seen among
the English officers. As our eyes met he leaned over the wooden end of
the bed and laughed silently until it creaked again.
'You will, I am sure, excuse my mirth, my dear Colonel Gerard,' said he.
'The fact is, that the expression upon your face when you grasped the
situation was just a little funny. I have no doubt that you are an
excellent soldier, but I hardly think that you are fit to measure wits
with the Marshal Millefleurs, as your fellows have been good enough to
call me. You appear to have given me credit for singularly little
intelligence, which argues, if I may be allowed to say so, a want of
acuteness upon your own part. Indeed, with the single exception of my
thick-headed compatriot, the British dragoon, I have never met anyone
who was less competent to carry out such a mission.'
You can imagine how I felt and how I looked, as I listened to this
insolent harangue, which was all delivered in that flowery and
condescending manner which had gained this rascal his nickname. I could
say nothing, but they must have read my threat in my eyes, for the
fellow who had played the part of the innkeeper whispered something to
'No, no, my dear Chenier, he will be infinitely more valuable alive,'
said he. 'By the way, Colonel, it is just as well that you are a sound
sleeper, for my friend here, who is a little rough in his ways, would
certainly have cut your throat if you had raised any alarm. I should
recommend you to keep in his good graces, for Sergeant Chenier, late of
the 7th Imperial Light Infantry, is a much more dangerous person than
Captain Alexis Morgan, of His Majesty's foot-guards.'
Chenier grinned and shook his knife at me, while I tried to look the
loathing which I felt at the thought that a soldier of the Emperor could
fall so low.
'It may amuse you to know,' said the Marshal, in that soft, suave voice
of his, 'that both your expeditions were watched from the time that you
left your respective camps. I think that you will allow that Chenier and
I played our parts with some subtlety. We had made every arrangement
for your reception at the Abbey, though we had hoped to receive the
whole squadron instead of half. When the gates are secured behind them,
our visitors will find themselves in a very charming little mediaeval
quadrangle, with no possible exit, commanded by musketry fire from a
hundred windows. They may choose to be shot down; or they may choose to
surrender. Between ourselves, I have not the slightest doubt that they
have been wise enough to do the latter. But since you are naturally
interested in the matter, we thought that you would care to come with us
and to see for yourself. I think I can promise you that you will find
your titled friend waiting for you at the Abbey with a face as long as
The two villains began whispering together, debating, as far as I could
hear, which was the best way of avoiding my vedettes.
'I will make sure that it is all clear upon the other side of the barn,'
said the Marshal at last. 'You will stay here, my good Chenier, and if
the prisoner gives any trouble you will know what to do.'
So we were left together, this murderous renegade and I--he sitting at
the end of the bed, sharpening his knife upon his boot in the light of
the single smoky little oil-lamp. As to me, I only wonder now, as I look
back upon it, that I did not go mad with vexation and self-reproach as I
lay helplessly upon the couch, unable to utter a word or move a finger,
with the knowledge that my fifty gallant lads were so close to me, and
yet with no means of letting them know the straits to which I was
reduced. It was no new thing for me to be a prisoner; but to be taken by
these renegades, and to be led into their Abbey in the midst of their
jeers, befooled and out-witted by their insolent leaders--that was
indeed more than I could endure. The knife of the butcher beside me
would cut less deeply than that.
I twitched softly at my wrists, and then at my ankles, but whichever of
the two had secured me was no bungler at his work. I could not move
either of them an inch. Then I tried to work the handkerchief down over
my mouth, but the ruffian beside me raised his knife with such a
threatening snarl that I had to desist. I was lying still looking at his
bull neck, and wondering whether it would ever be my good fortune to fit
it for a cravat, when I heard returning steps coming down the inn
passage and up the stair. What word would the villain bring back? If he
found it impossible to kidnap me, he would probably murder me where I
lay. For my own part, I was indifferent which it might be, and I looked
at the doorway with the contempt and defiance which I longed to put into
words. But you can imagine my feelings, my dear friends, when, instead
of the tall figure and dark, sneering face of the Capuchin, my eyes fell
upon the grey pelisse and huge moustaches of my good little sub-officer,
The French soldier of those days had seen too much to be ever taken by
surprise. His eyes had hardly rested upon my bound figure and the
sinister face beside me before he had seen how the matter lay.
'Sacred name of a dog!' he growled, and out flashed his great sabre.
Chenier sprang forward at him with his knife, and then, thinking better
of it, he darted back and stabbed frantically at my heart. For my own
part, I had hurled myself off the bed on the side opposite to him, and
the blade grazed my side before ripping its way through blanket and
sheet. An instant later I heard the thud of a heavy fall, and then
almost simultaneously a second object struck the floor--something
lighter but harder, which rolled under the bed. I will not horrify you
with details, my friends. Suffice it that Papilette was one of the
strongest swordsmen in the regiment, and that his sabre was heavy and
sharp. It left a red blotch upon my wrists and my ankles, as it cut the
thongs which bound me.
When I had thrown off my gag, the first use which I made of my lips was
to kiss the sergeant's scarred cheeks. The next was to ask him if all
was well with the command. Yes, they had had no alarms. Oudin had just
relieved him, and he had come to report. Had he seen the Abbot? No, he
had seen nothing of him. Then we must form a cordon and prevent his
escape. I was hurrying out to give the orders, when I heard a slow and
measured step enter the door below, and come creaking up the stairs.
Papilette understood it all in an instant. 'You are not to kill him,' I
whispered, and thrust him into the shadow on one side of the door; I
crouched on the other. Up he came, up and up, and every footfall seemed
to be upon my heart. The brown skirt of his gown was not over the
threshold before we were both on him, like two wolves on a buck. Down we
crashed, the three of us, he fighting like a tiger, and with such
amazing strength that he might have broken away from the two of us.
Thrice he got to his feet, and thrice we had him over again, until
Papilette made him feel that there was a point to his sabre. He had
sense enough then to know that the game was up, and to lie still while I
lashed him with the very cords which had been round my own limbs.
'There has been a fresh deal, my fine fellow,' said I, 'and you will
find that I have some of the trumps in _my_ hand this time.'
'Luck always comes to the aid of a fool,' he answered. 'Perhaps it is as
well, otherwise the world would fall too completely into the power of
the astute. So, you have killed Chenier, I see. He was an insubordinate
dog, and always smelt abominably of garlic. Might I trouble you to lay
me upon the bed? The floor of these Portuguese tabernas is hardly a
fitting couch for anyone who has prejudices in favour of cleanliness.'
I could not but admire the coolness of the man, and the way in which he
preserved the same insolent air of condescension in spite of this sudden
turning of the tables. I dispatched Papilette to summon a guard, whilst
I stood over our prisoner with my drawn sword, never taking my eyes off
him for an instant, for I must confess that I had conceived a great
respect for his audacity and resource.
'I trust,' said he, 'that your men will treat me in a becoming manner.'
'You will get your deserts--you may depend upon that.'
'I ask nothing more. You may not be aware of my exalted birth, but I am
so placed that I cannot name my father without treason, nor my mother
without a scandal. I cannot _claim_ Royal honours, but these things are
so much more graceful when they are conceded without a claim. The thongs
are cutting my skin. Might I beg you to loosen them?'
'You do not give me credit for much intelligence,' I remarked, repeating
his own words.
'_Touche_,' he cried, like a pinked fencer. 'But here come your men, so
it matters little whether you loosen them or not.'
I ordered the gown to be stripped from him and placed him under a strong
guard. Then, as morning was already breaking, I had to consider what my
next step was to be. The poor Bart and his Englishmen had fallen victims
to the deep scheme which might, had we adopted all the crafty
suggestions of our adviser, have ended in the capture of the whole
instead of the half of our force. I must extricate them if it were still
possible. Then there was the old lady, the Countess of La Ronda, to be
thought of. As to the Abbey, since its garrison was on the alert it was
hopeless to think of capturing that. All turned now upon the value which
they placed upon their leader. The game depended upon my playing that
one card. I will tell you how boldly and how skilfully I played it.
It was hardly light before my bugler blew the assembly, and out we
trotted on to the plain. My prisoner was placed on horseback in the very
centre of the troops. It chanced that there was a large tree just out of
musket-shot from the main gate of the Abbey, and under this we halted.
Had they opened the great doors in order to attack us, I should have
charged home upon them; but, as I had expected, they stood upon the
defensive, lining the long wall and pouring down a torrent of hootings
and taunts and derisive laughter upon us. A few fired their muskets, but
finding that we were out of reach they soon ceased to waste their
powder. It was the strangest sight to see that mixture of uniforms,
French, English, and Portuguese, cavalry, infantry, and artillery, all
wagging their heads and shaking their fists at us.
My word, their hubbub soon died away when we opened our ranks, and
showed whom we had got in the midst of us! There was silence for a few
seconds, and then such a howl of rage and grief! I could see some of
them dancing like mad-men upon the wall. He must have been a singular
person, this prisoner of ours, to have gained the affection of such a
I had brought a rope from the inn, and we slung it over the lower bough
of the tree.
'You will permit me, monsieur, to undo your collar,' said Papilette,
with mock politeness.
'If your hands are perfectly clean,' answered our prisoner, and set the
whole half-squadron laughing.
There was another yell from the wall, followed by a profound hush as the
noose was tightened round Marshal Millefleurs' neck. Then came a shriek
from a bugle, the Abbey gates flew open, and three men rushed out waving
white cloths in their hands. Ah, how my heart bounded with joy at the
sight of them. And yet I would not advance an inch to meet them, so that
all the eagerness might seem to be upon their side. I allowed my
trumpeter, however, to wave a handkerchief in reply, upon which the
three envoys came running towards us. The Marshal, still pinioned, and
with the rope round his neck, sat his horse with a half smile, as one
who is slightly bored and yet strives out of courtesy not to show it.
If I were in such a situation I could not wish to carry myself better,
and surely I can say no more than that.
They were a singular trio, these ambassadors. The one was a Portuguese
cacadore in his dark uniform, the second a French chasseur in the
lightest green, and the third a big English artilleryman in blue and
gold. They saluted, all three, and the Frenchman did the talking.
'We have thirty-seven English dragoons in our hands,' said he. 'We give
you our most solemn oath that they shall all hang from the Abbey wall
within five minutes of the death of our Marshal.'
'Thirty-seven!' I cried. 'You have fifty-one.'
'Fourteen were cut down before they could be secured.'
'And the officer?'
'He would not surrender his sword save with his life. It was not our
fault. We would have saved him if we could.'
Alas for my poor Bart! I had met him but twice, and yet he was a man
very much after my heart. I have always had a regard for the English for
the sake of that one friend. A braver man and a worse swordsman I have
I did not, as you may think, take these rascals' word for anything.
Papilette was dispatched with one of them, and returned to say that it
was too true. I had now to think of the living.
'You will release the thirty-seven dragoons if I free your leader?'
'We will give you ten of them.'
'Up with him!' I cried.
'Twenty,' shouted the chasseur.
'No more words,' said I. 'Pull on the rope!'
'All of them,' cried the envoy, as the cord tightened round the
'With horses and arms?'
They could see that I was not a man to jest with.
'All complete,' said the chasseur, sulkily.
'And the Countess of La Ronda as well?' said I.
But here I met with firmer opposition. No threats of mine could induce
them to give up the Countess. We tightened the cord. We moved the horse.
We did all but leave the Marshal suspended. If once I broke his neck the
dragoons were dead men. It was as precious to me as to them.
'Allow me to remark,' said the Marshal, blandly, 'that you are exposing
me to a risk of a quinsy. Do you not think, since there is a difference
of opinion upon this point, that it would be an excellent idea to
consult the lady herself? We would neither of us, I am sure, wish to
override her own inclinations.'
Nothing could be more satisfactory. You can imagine how quickly I
grasped at so simple a solution. In ten minutes she was before us, a
most stately dame, with her grey curls peeping out from under her
mantilla. Her face was as yellow as though it reflected the countless
doubloons of her treasury.
'This gentleman,' said the Marshal, 'is exceedingly anxious to convey
you to a place where you will never see us more. It is for you to decide
whether you would wish to go with him, or whether you prefer to remain
She was at his horse's side in an instant. 'My own Alexis,' she cried,
'nothing can ever part us.'
He looked at me with a sneer upon his handsome face.
'By the way, you made a small slip of the tongue, my dear Colonel,' said
he. 'Except by courtesy, no such person exists as the Dowager Countess
of La Ronda. The lady whom I have the honour to present to you is my
very dear wife, Mrs Alexis Morgan--or shall I say Madame la Marechale
It was at this moment that I came to the conclusion that I was dealing
with the cleverest, and also the most unscrupulous, man whom I had ever
met. As I looked upon this unfortunate old woman my soul was filled with
wonder and disgust. As for her, her eyes were raised to his face with
such a look as a young recruit might give to the Emperor.
'So be it,' said I at last; 'give me the dragoons and let me go.'
They were brought out with their horses and weapons, and the rope was
taken from the Marshal's neck.
'Good-bye, my dear Colonel,' said he. 'I am afraid that you will have
rather a lame account to give of your mission, when you find your way
back to Massena, though, from all I hear, he will probably be too busy
to think of you. I am free to confess that you have extricated yourself
from your difficulties with greater ability than I had given you credit
for. I presume that there is nothing which I can do for you before you
'There is one thing.'
'And that is?'
'To give fitting burial to this young officer and his men.'
'I pledge my word to it.'
'And there is one other.'
'To give me five minutes in the open with a sword in your hand and a
horse between your legs.'
'Tut, tut!' said he. 'I should either have to cut short your promising
career, or else to bid adieu to my own bonny bride. It is unreasonable
to ask such a request of a man in the first joys of matrimony.'
I gathered my horsemen together and wheeled them into column.
'Au revoir,' I cried, shaking my sword at him. 'The next time you may
not escape so easily.'
'Au revoir,' he answered. 'When you are weary of the Emperor, you will
always find a commission waiting for you in the service of the Marshal
6. HOW THE BRIGADIER PLAYED FOR A KINGDOM
It has sometimes struck me that some of you, when you have heard me tell
these little adventures of mine, may have gone away with the impression
that I was conceited. There could not be a greater mistake than this,
for I have always observed that really fine soldiers are free from this
failing. It is true that I have had to depict myself sometimes as brave,
sometimes as full of resource, always as interesting; but, then, it
really was so, and I had to take the facts as I found them. It would be
an unworthy affectation if I were to pretend that my career has been
anything but a fine one. The incident which I will tell you tonight,
however, is one which you will understand that only a modest man would
describe. After all, when one has attained such a position as mine, one
can afford to speak of what an ordinary man might be tempted to conceal.
You must know, then, that after the Russian campaign the remains of our
poor army were quartered along the western bank of the Elbe, where they
might thaw their frozen blood and try, with the help of the good German
beer, to put a little between their skin and their bones. There were
some things which we could not hope to regain, for I daresay that three
large commissariat fourgons would not have sufficed to carry the fingers
and the toes which the army had shed during that retreat. Still, lean
and crippled as we were, we had much to be thankful for when we thought
of our poor comrades whom we had left behind, and of the snowfields--the
horrible, horrible snowfields. To this day, my friends, I do not care to
see red and white together. Even my red cap thrown down upon my white
counterpane has given me dreams in which I have seen those monstrous
plains, the reeling, tortured army, and the crimson smears which glared
upon the snow behind them. You will coax no story out of me about that
business, for the thought of it is enough to turn my wine to vinegar and
my tobacco to straw.
Of the half-million who crossed the Elbe in the autumn of the year '12
about forty thousand infantry were left in the spring of '13. But they
were terrible men, these forty thousand: men of iron, eaters of horses,
and sleepers in the snow; filled, too, with rage and bitterness against
the Russians. They would hold the Elbe until the great army of
conscripts, which the Emperor was raising in France, should be ready to
help them to cross it once more.
But the cavalry was in a deplorable condition. My own hussars were at
Borna, and when I paraded them first, I burst into tears at the sight of
them. My fine men and my beautiful horses--it broke my heart to see the
state to which they were reduced. 'But, courage,' I thought, 'they have
lost much, but their Colonel is still left to them.' I set to work,
therefore, to repair their disasters, and had already constructed two
good squadrons, when an order came that all colonels of cavalry should
repair instantly to the depots of the regiments in France to organize
the recruits and the remounts for the coming campaign.
You will think, doubtless, that I was over-joyed at this chance of
visiting home once more. I will not deny that it was a pleasure to me to
know that I should see my mother again, and there were a few girls who
would be very glad at the news; but there were others in the army who
had a stronger claim. I would have given my place to any who had wives
and children whom they might not see again. However, there is no arguing
when the blue paper with the little red seal arrives, so within an hour
I was off upon my great ride from the Elbe to the Vosges. At last I was
to have a period of quiet. War lay behind my mare's tail and peace in
front of her nostrils. So I thought, as the sound of the bugles died in
the distance, and the long, white road curled away in front of me
through plain and forest and mountain, with France somewhere beyond the
blue haze which lay upon the horizon.
It is interesting, but it is also fatiguing, to ride in the rear of an
army. In the harvest time our soldiers could do without supplies, for
they had been trained to pluck the grain in the fields as they passed,
and to grind it for themselves in their bivouacs. It was at that time of
year, therefore, that those swift marches were performed which were the
wonder and the despair of Europe. But now the starving men had to be
made robust once more, and I was forced to draw into the ditch
continually as the Coburg sheep and the Bavarian bullocks came streaming
past with waggon loads of Berlin beer and good French cognac. Sometimes,
too, I would hear the dry rattle of the drums and the shrill whistle of
the fifes, and long columns of our good little infantry men would swing
past me with the white dust lying thick upon their blue tunics. These
were old soldiers drawn from the garrisons of our German fortresses, for
it was not until May that the new conscripts began to arrive from
Well, I was rather tired of this eternal stopping and dodging, so that I
was not sorry when I came to Altenburg to find that the road divided,
and that I could take the southern and quieter branch. There were few
wayfarers between there and Greiz, and the road wound through groves of
oaks and beeches, which shot their branches across the path. You will
think it strange that a Colonel of hussars should again and again pull
up his horse in order to admire the beauty of the feathery branches and
the little, green, new-budded leaves, but if you had spent six months
among the fir trees of Russia you would be able to understand me.
There was something, however, which pleased me very much less than the
beauty of the forests, and that was the words and looks of the folk who
lived in the woodland villages. We had always been excellent friends
with the Germans, and during the last six years they had never seemed to
bear us any malice for having made a little free with their country. We
had shown kindnesses to the men and received them from the women, so
that good, comfortable Germany was a second home to all of us. But now
there was something which I could not understand in the behaviour of the
people. The travellers made no answer to my salute; the foresters turned
their heads away to avoid seeing me; and in the villages the folk would
gather into knots in the roadway and would scowl at me as I passed. Even
women would do this, and it was something new for me in those days to
see anything but a smile in a woman's eyes when they were turned upon
It was in the hamlet of Schmolin, just ten miles out of Altenburg, that
the thing became most marked. I had stopped at the little inn there just
to damp my moustache and to wash the dust out of poor Violette's throat.
It was my way to give some little compliment, or possibly a kiss, to the
maid who served me; but this one would have neither the one nor the
other, but darted a glance at me like a bayonet-thrust. Then when I
raised my glass to the folk who drank their beer by the door they turned
their backs on me, save only one fellow, who cried, 'Here's a toast for
you, boys! Here's to the letter T!' At that they all emptied their beer
mugs and laughed; but it was not a laugh that had good-fellowship in it.
I was turning this over in my head and wondering what their boorish
conduct could mean, when I saw, as I rode from the village, a great T
new carved upon a tree. I had already seen more than one in my morning's
ride, but I had given no thought to them until the words of the
beer-drinker gave them an importance. It chanced that a
respectable-looking person was riding past me at the moment, so I turned
to him for information.
'Can you tell me, sir,' said I, 'what this letter T is?'
He looked at it and then at me in the most singular fashion. 'Young
man,' said he, 'it is not the letter N.' Then before I could ask further
he clapped his spurs into his horses ribs and rode, stomach to earth,
upon his way.
At first his words had no particular significance in my mind, but as I
trotted onwards Violette chanced to half turn her dainty head, and my
eyes were caught by the gleam of the brazen N's at the end of the
bridle-chain. It was the Emperor's mark. And those T's meant something
which was opposite to it. Things had been happening in Germany, then,
during our absence, and the giant sleeper had begun to stir. I thought
of the mutinous faces that I had seen, and I felt that if I could only
have looked into the hearts of these people I might have had some
strange news to bring into France with me. It made me the more eager to
get my remounts, and to see ten strong squadrons behind my kettle-drums
While these thoughts were passing through my head I had been alternately
walking and trotting, as a man should who has a long journey before, and
a willing horse beneath, him. The woods were very open at this point,
and beside the road there lay a great heap of fagots. As I passed there
came a sharp sound from among them, and, glancing round, I saw a face
looking out at me--a hot, red face, like that of a man who is beside
himself with excitement and anxiety. A second glance told me that it was
the very person with whom I had talked an hour before in the village.
'Come nearer!' he hissed. 'Nearer still! Now dismount and pretend to be
mending the stirrup leather. Spies may be watching us, and it means
death to me if I am seen helping you.'
'Death!' I whispered. 'From whom?'
'From the Tugendbund. From Lutzow's night-riders. You Frenchmen are
living on a powder magazine, and the match has been struck that will
'But this is all strange to me,' said I, still fumbling at the leathers
of my horse. 'What is this Tugendbund?'
'It is the secret society which has planned the great rising which is to
drive you out of Germany, just as you have been driven out of Russia.'
'And these T's stand for it?'
'They are the signal. I should have told you all this in the village,
but I dared not be seen speaking with you. I galloped through the woods
to cut you off, and concealed both my horse and myself.'
'I am very much indebted to you,' said I, 'and the more so as you are
the only German that I have met today from whom I have had common
'All that I possess I have gained through contracting for the French
armies,' said he. 'Your Emperor has been a good friend to me. But I beg
that you will ride on now, for we have talked long enough. Beware only
of Lutzow's night-riders!'
'Banditti?' I asked.
'All that is best in Germany,' said he. 'But for God's sake ride
forwards, for I have risked my life and exposed my good name in order to
carry you this warning.'
Well, if I had been heavy with thought before, you can think how I felt
after my strange talk with the man among the fagots. What came home to
me even more than his words was his shivering, broken voice, his
twitching face, and his eyes glancing swiftly to right and left, and
opening in horror whenever a branch cracked upon a tree. It was clear
that he was in the last extremity of terror, and it is possible that he
had cause, for shortly after I had left him I heard a distant gunshot
and a shouting from somewhere behind me. It may have been some sportsman
halloaing to his dogs, but I never again heard of or saw the man who had
given me my warning.
I kept a good look-out after this, riding swiftly where the country was
open, and slowly where there might be an ambuscade. It was serious for
me, since 500 good miles of German soil lay in front of me; but somehow
I did not take it very much to heart, for the Germans had always seemed
to me to be a kindly, gentle people, whose hands closed more readily
round a pipe-stem than a sword-hilt--not out of want of valour, you
understand, but because they are genial, open souls, who would rather be
on good terms with all men. I did not know then that beneath that homely
surface there lurks a devilry as fierce as, and far more persistent
than, that of the Castilian or the Italian.
And it was not long before I had shown to me that there was something
more serious abroad than rough words and hard looks. I had come to a
spot where the road runs upwards through a wild tract of heath-land and
vanishes into an oak wood. I may have been half-way up the hill when,
looking forward, I saw something gleaming under the shadow of the
tree-trunks, and a man came out with a coat which was so slashed and
spangled with gold that he blazed like a fire in the sunlight. He
appeared to be very drunk, for he reeled and staggered as he came
towards me. One of his hands was held up to his ear and clutched a great
red handkerchief, which was fixed to his neck.
I had reined up the mare and was looking at him with some disgust, for
it seemed strange to me that one who wore so gorgeous a uniform should
show himself in such a state in broad daylight. For his part, he looked
hard in my direction and came slowly onwards, stopping from time to time
and swaying about as he gazed at me. Suddenly, as I again advanced, he
screamed out his thanks to Christ, and, lurching forwards, he fell with
a crash upon the dusty road. His hands flew forward with the fall, and I
saw that what I had taken for a red cloth was a monstrous wound, which
had left a great gap in his neck, from which a dark blood-clot hung,
like an epaulette upon his shoulder.
'My God!' I cried, as I sprang to his aid. 'And I thought that you were
'Not drunk, but dying,' said he. 'But thank Heaven that I have seen a
French officer while I have still strength to speak.'
I laid him among the heather and poured some brandy down his throat. All
round us was the vast countryside, green and peaceful, with nothing
living in sight save only the mutilated man beside me.
'Who has done this?' I asked, 'and what are you? You are French, and yet
the uniform is strange to me.'
'It is that of the Emperor's new guard of honour. I am the Marquis of
Chateau St Arnaud, and I am the ninth of my blood who has died in the
service of France. I have been pursued and wounded by the night-riders
of Lutzow, but I hid among the brushwood yonder, and waited in the hope
that a Frenchman might pass. I could not be sure at first if you were
friend or foe, but I felt that death was very near, and that I must take
'Keep your heart up, comrade,' said I; 'I have seen a man with a worse
wound who has lived to boast of it.'
'No, no,' he whispered; 'I am going fast.' He laid his hand upon mine as
he spoke, and I saw that his finger-nails were already blue. 'But I have
papers here in my tunic which you must carry at once to the Prince of
Saxe-Felstein, at his Castle of Hof. He is still true to us, but the
Princess is our deadly enemy. She is striving to make him declare
against us. If he does so, it will determine all those who are wavering,
for the King of Prussia is his uncle and the King of Bavaria his cousin.
These papers will hold him to us if they can only reach him before he
takes the last step. Place them in his hands tonight, and, perhaps, you
will have saved all Germany for the Emperor. Had my horse not been shot,
I might, wounded as I am----' He choked, and the cold hand tightened
into a grip, which left mine as bloodless as itself. Then, with a groan,
his head jerked back, and it was all over with him.
Here was a fine start for my journey home. I was left with a commission
of which I knew little, which would lead me to delay the pressing needs
of my hussars, and which at the same time was of such importance that it
was impossible for me to avoid it. I opened the Marquis's tunic, the
brilliance of which had been devised by the Emperor in order to attract
those young aristocrats from whom he hoped to raise these new regiments
of his Guard. It was a small packet of papers which I drew out, tied up
with silk, and addressed to the Prince of Saxe-Felstein. In the corner,
in a sprawling, untidy hand, which I knew to be the Emperor's own, was
written: 'Pressing and most important.' It was an order to me, those
four words--an order as clear as if it had come straight from the firm
lips with the cold grey eyes looking into mine. My troopers might wait
for their horses, the dead Marquis might lie where I had laid him
amongst the heather, but if the mare and her rider had a breath left in
them the papers should reach the Prince that night.
I should not have feared to ride by the road through the wood, for I
have learned in Spain that the safest time to pass through a guerilla
country is after an outrage, and that the moment of danger is when all
is peaceful. When I came to look upon my map, however, I saw that Hof
lay further to the south of me, and that I might reach it more directly
by keeping to the moors. Off I set, therefore, and had not gone fifty
yards before two carbine shots rang out of the brushwood and a bullet
hummed past me like a bee. It was clear that the night-riders were
bolder in their ways than the brigands of Spain, and that my mission
would have ended where it had begun if I had kept to the road.
It was a mad ride, that--a ride with a loose rein, girth-deep in heather
and in gorse, plunging through bushes, flying down hill-sides, with my
neck at the mercy of my dear little Violette. But she--she never
slipped, she never faltered, as swift and as surefooted as if she knew
that her rider carried the fate of all Germany beneath the buttons of
his pelisse. And I--I had long borne the name of being the best
horseman in the six brigades of light cavalry, but I never rode as I
rode then. My friend the Bart had told me of how they hunt the fox in
England, but the swiftest fox would have been captured by me that day.
The wild pigeons which flew overhead did not take a straighter course
than Violette and I below. As an officer, I have always been ready to
sacrifice myself for my men, though the Emperor would not have thanked
me for it, for he had many men, but only one--well, cavalry leaders of
the first class are rare.
But here I had an object which was indeed worth a sacrifice, and I
thought no more of my life than of the clods of earth that flew from my
We struck the road once more as the light was failing, and galloped into
the little village of Lobenstein. But we had hardly got upon the
cobblestones when off came one of the mare's shoes, and I had to lead
her to the village smithy. His fire was low, and his day's work done, so
that it would be an hour at the least before I could hope to push on to
Hof. Cursing at the delay, I strode into the village inn and ordered a
cold chicken and some wine to be served for my dinner. It was but a few
miles to Hof, and I had every hope that I might deliver my papers to the
Prince on that very night, and be on my way for France next morning with
despatches for the Emperor in my bosom. I will tell you now what befell
me in the inn of Lobenstein.
The chicken had been served and the wine drawn, and I had turned upon
both as a man may who has ridden such a ride, when I was aware of a
murmur and a scuffling in the hall outside my door. At first I thought
that it was some brawl between peasants in their cups, and I left them
to settle their own affairs. But of a sudden there broke from among the
low, sullen growl of the voices such a sound as would send Etienne
Gerard leaping from his death-bed. It was the whimpering cry of a woman
in pain. Down clattered my knife and my fork, and in an instant I was
in the thick of the crowd which had gathered outside my door.
The heavy-cheeked landlord was there and his flaxen-haired wife, the two
men from the stables, a chambermaid, and two or three villagers. All of
them, women and men, were flushed and angry, while there in the centre
of them, with pale cheeks and terror in her eyes, stood the loveliest
woman that ever a soldier would wish to look upon. With her queenly head
thrown back, and a touch of defiance mingled with her fear, she looked
as she gazed round her like a creature of a different race from the
vile, coarse-featured crew who surrounded her. I had not taken two steps
from my door before she sprang to meet me, her hand resting upon my arm
and her blue eyes sparkling with joy and triumph.
'A French soldier and gentleman!' she cried. 'Now at last I am safe.'
'Yes, madam, you are safe,' said I, and I could not resist taking her
hand in mine in order that I might reassure her. 'You have only to
command me,' I added, kissing the hand as a sign that I meant what I was
'I am Polish,' she cried; 'the Countess Palotta is my name. They abuse
me because I love the French. I do not know what they might have done to
me had Heaven not sent you to my help.'
I kissed her hand again lest she should doubt my intentions. Then I
turned upon the crew with such an expression as I know how to assume. In
an instant the hall was empty.
'Countess,' said I, 'you are now under my protection. You are faint, and
a glass of wine is necessary to restore you.' I offered her my arm and
escorted her into my room, where she sat by my side at the table and
took the refreshment which I offered her.
How she blossomed out in my presence, this woman, like a flower before
the sun! She lit up the room with her beauty. She must have read my
admiration in my eyes, and it seemed to me that I also could see
something of the sort in her own. Ah! my friends, I was no
ordinary-looking man when I was in my thirtieth year. In the whole light
cavalry it would have been hard to find a finer pair of whiskers.
Murat's may have been a shade longer, but the best judges are agreed
that Murat's were a shade too long. And then I had a manner. Some women
are to be approached in one way and some in another, just as a siege is
an affair of fascines and gabions in hard weather and of trenches in
soft. But the man who can mix daring with timidity, who can be
outrageous with an air of humility, and presumptuous with a tone of
deference, that is the man whom mothers have to fear. For myself, I felt
that I was the guardian of this lonely lady, and knowing what a
dangerous man I had to deal with, I kept strict watch upon myself.
Still, even a guardian has his privileges, and I did not neglect them.
But her talk was as charming as her face. In a few words she explained
that she was travelling to Poland, and that her brother who had been her
escort had fallen ill upon the way. She had more than once met with
ill-treatment from the country folk because she could not conceal her
good-will towards the French. Then turning from her own affairs she
questioned me about the army, and so came round to myself and my own
exploits. They were familiar to her, she said, for she knew several of
Poniatowski's officers, and they had spoken of my doings. Yet she would
be glad to hear them from my own lips. Never have I had so delightful a
conversation. Most women make the mistake of talking rather too much
about their own affairs, but this one listened to my tales just as you
are listening now, ever asking for more and more and more. The hours
slipped rapidly by, and it was with horror that I heard the village
clock strike eleven, and so learned that for four hours I had forgotten
the Emperor's business.
'Pardon me, my dear lady,' I cried, springing to my feet, 'but I must
go on instantly to Hof.'
She rose also, and looked at me with a pale, reproachful face. 'And me?'
she said. 'What is to become of me?'
'It is the Emperor's affair. I have already stayed far too long. My duty
calls me, and I must go.'
'You must go? And I must be abandoned alone to these savages? Oh, why
did I ever meet you? Why did you ever teach me to rely upon your
strength?' Her eyes glazed over, and in an instant she was sobbing upon
Here was a trying moment for a guardian! Here was a time when he had to
keep a watch upon a forward young officer. But I was equal to it. I
smoothed her rich brown hair and whispered such consolations as I could
think of in her ear, with one arm round her, it is true, but that was to
hold her lest she should faint. She turned her tear-stained face to
mine. 'Water,' she whispered. 'For God's sake, water!'
I saw that in another moment she would be senseless. I laid the drooping
head upon the sofa, and then rushed furiously from the room, hunting
from chamber to chamber for a carafe. It was some minutes before I could
get one and hurry back with it. You can imagine my feelings to find the
room empty and the lady gone.
Not only was she gone, but her cap and silver-mounted riding switch
which had lain upon the table were gone also. I rushed out and roared
for the landlord. He knew nothing of the matter, had never seen the
woman before, and did not care if he never saw her again. Had the
peasants at the door seen anyone ride away? No, they had seen nobody. I
searched here and searched there, until at last I chanced to find myself
in front of a mirror, where I stood with my eyes staring and my jaw as
far dropped as the chin-strap of my shako would allow.
Four buttons of my pelisse were open, and it did not need me to put my
hand up to know that my precious papers were gone. Oh! the depth of
cunning that lurks in a woman's heart. She had robbed me, this creature,
robbed me as she clung to my breast. Even while I smoothed her hair, and
whispered kind words into her ear, her hands had been at work beneath my
dolman. And here I was, at the very last step of my journey, without the
power of carrying out this mission which had already deprived one good
man of his life, and was likely to rob another one of his credit. What
would the Emperor say when he heard that I had lost his despatches?
Would the army believe it of Etienne Gerard? And when they heard that a
woman's hand had coaxed them from me, what laughter there would be at
mess-table and at camp-fire! I could have rolled upon the ground in my
But one thing was certain--all this affair of the fracas in the hall and
the persecution of the so-called Countess was a piece of acting from the
beginning. This villainous innkeeper must be in the plot. From him I
might learn who she was and where my papers had gone. I snatched my
sabre from the table and rushed out in search of him. But the scoundrel
had guessed what I would do, and had made his preparations for me. It
was in the corner of the yard that I found him, a blunderbuss in his
hands and a mastiff held upon a leash by his son. The two stable-hands,
with pitchforks, stood upon either side, and the wife held a great
lantern behind him, so as to guide his aim.
'Ride away, sir, ride away!' he cried, with a crackling voice. 'Your
horse is at the door, and no one will meddle with you if you go your
way; but if you come against us, you are alone against three brave men.'
I had only the dog to fear, for the two forks and the blunderbuss were
shaking about like branches in a wind. Still, I considered that, though
I might force an answer with my sword-point at the throat of this fat
rascal, still I should have no means of knowing whether that answer was
the truth. It would be a struggle, then, with much to lose and nothing
certain to gain. I looked them up and down, therefore, in a way that
set their foolish weapons shaking worse than ever, and then, throwing
myself upon my mare, I galloped away with the shrill laughter of the
landlady jarring upon my ears.
I had already formed my resolution. Although I had lost my papers, I
could make a very good guess as to what their contents would be, and
this I would say from my own lips to the Prince of Saxe-Felstein, as
though the Emperor had commissioned me to convey it in that way. It was
a bold stroke and a dangerous one, but if I went too far I could
afterwards be disavowed. It was that or nothing, and when all Germany
hung on the balance the game should not be lost if the nerve of one man
could save it.
It was midnight when I rode into Hof, but every window was blazing,
which was enough it itself, in that sleepy country, to tell the ferment
of excitement in which the people were. There was hooting and jeering as
I rode through the crowded streets, and once a stone sang past my head,
but I kept upon my way, neither slowing nor quickening my pace, until I
came to the palace. It was lit from base to battlement, and the dark
shadows, coming and going against the yellow glare, spoke of the turmoil
within. For my part, I handed my mare to a groom at the gate, and
striding in I demanded, in such a voice as an ambassador should have, to
see the Prince instantly, upon business which would brook no delay.
The hall was dark, but I was conscious as I entered of a buzz of
innumerable voices, which hushed into silence as I loudly proclaimed my
mission. Some great meeting was being held then--a meeting which, as my
instincts told me, was to decide this very question of war and peace. It
was possible that I might still be in time to turn the scale for the
Emperor and for France. As to the major-domo, he looked blackly at me,
and showing me into a small ante-chamber he left me. A minute later he
returned to say that the Prince could not be disturbed at present, but
that the Princess would take my message.
The Princess! What use was there in giving it to her? Had I not been
warned that she was German in heart and soul, and that it was she who
was turning her husband and her State against us?
'It is the Prince that I must see,' said I.
'Nay, it is the Princess,' said a voice at the door, and a woman swept
into the chamber. 'Von Rosen, you had best stay with us. Now, sir, what
is it that you have to say to either Prince or Princess of
At the first sound of the voice I had sprung to my feet. At the first
glance I had thrilled with anger. Not twice in a lifetime does one meet
that noble figure, that queenly head, and those eyes as blue as the
Garonne, and as chilling as her winter waters.
'Time presses, sir!' she cried, with an impatient tap of her foot. 'What
have you to say to me?'
'What have I to say to you?' I cried. 'What can I say, save that you
have taught me never to trust a woman more? You have ruined and
dishonoured me for ever.'
She looked with arched brows at her attendant.
'Is this the raving of fever, or does it come from some less innocent
cause?' said she. 'Perhaps a little blood-letting--'
'Ah, you can act!' I cried. 'You have shown me that already.'
'Do you mean that we have met before?'
'I mean that you have robbed me within the last two hours.'
'This is past all bearing,' she cried, with an admirable affectation of
anger. 'You claim, as I understand, to be an ambassador, but there are
limits to the privileges which such an office brings with it.'
'You brazen it admirably,' said I. 'Your Highness will not make a fool
of me twice in one night.' I sprang forward and, stooping down, caught
up the hem of her dress. 'You would have done well to change it after
you had ridden so far and so fast,' said I.
It was like the dawn upon a snow-peak to see her ivory cheeks flush
suddenly to crimson.
'Insolent!' she cried. 'Call the foresters and have him thrust from the
'I will see the Prince first.'
'You will never see the Prince. Ah! Hold him, Von Rosen, hold him.'
She had forgotten the man with whom she had to deal--was it likely that
I would wait until they could bring their rascals? She had shown me her
cards too soon. Her game was to stand between me and her husband. Mine
was to speak face to face with him at any cost. One spring took me out
of the chamber. In another I had crossed the hall. An instant later I
had burst into the great room from which the murmur of the meeting had
come. At the far end I saw a figure upon a high chair under a dais.
Beneath him was a line of high dignitaries, and then on every side I saw
vaguely the heads of a vast assembly. Into the centre of the room I
strode, my sabre clanking, my shako under my arm.
'I am the messenger of the Emperor,' I shouted. 'I bear his message to
His Highness the Prince of Saxe-Felstein.'
The man beneath the dais raised his head, and I saw that his face was
thin and wan, and that his back was bowed as though some huge burden was
balanced between his shoulders.
'Your name, sir?' he asked.
'Colonel Etienne Gerard, of the Third Hussars.'
Every face in the gathering was turned upon me, and I heard the rustle
of the innumerable necks and saw countless eyes without meeting one
friendly one amongst them. The woman had swept past me, and was
whispering, with many shakes of her head and dartings of her hands, into
the Prince's ear. For my own part I threw out my chest and curled my
moustache, glancing round in my own debonair fashion at the assembly.
They were men, all of them, professors from the college, a sprinkling of
their students, soldiers, gentlemen, artisans, all very silent and
serious. In one corner there sat a group of men in black, with
riding-coats drawn over their shoulders. They leaned their heads to each
other, whispering under their breath, and with every movement I caught
the clank of their sabres or the clink of their spurs.
'The Emperor's private letter to me informs me that it is the Marquis
Chateau St Arnaud who is bearing his despatches,' said the Prince.
'The Marquis has been foully murdered,' I answered, and a buzz rose up
from the people as I spoke. Many heads were turned, I noticed, towards
the dark men in the cloaks.
'Where are your papers?' asked the Prince.
'I have none.'
A fierce clamour rose instantly around me. 'He is a spy! He plays a
part!' they cried. 'Hang him!' roared a deep voice from the corner, and
a dozen others took up the shout. For my part, I drew out my
handkerchief and nicked the dust from the fur of my pelisse. The Prince
held out his thin hands, and the tumult died away.
'Where, then, are your credentials, and what is your message?'
'My uniform is my credential, and my message is for your private ear.'
He passed his hand over his forehead with the gesture of a weak man who
is at his wits' end what to do. The Princess stood beside him with her
hand upon his throne, and again whispered in his ear.
'We are here in council together, some of my trusty subjects and
myself,' said he. 'I have no secrets from them, and whatever message the
Emperor may send to me at such a time concerns their interests no less
There was a hum of applause at this, and every eye was turned once more
upon me. My faith, it was an awkward position in which I found myself,
for it is one thing to address eight hundred hussars, and another to
speak to such an audience on such a subject. But I fixed my eyes upon
the Prince, and tried to say just what I should have said if we had been
alone, shouting it out, too, as though I had my regiment on parade.
'You have often expressed friendship for the Emperor,' I cried. 'It is
now at last that this friendship is about to be tried. If you will stand
firm, he will reward you as only he can reward. It is an easy thing for
him to turn a Prince into a King and a province into a power. His eyes
are fixed upon you, and though you can do little to harm him, you can
ruin yourself. At this moment he is crossing the Rhine with two hundred
thousand men. Every fortress in the country is in his hands. He will be
upon you in a week, and if you have played him false, God help both you
and your people. You think that he is weakened because a few of us got
the chilblains last winter. Look there!' I cried, pointing to a great
star which blazed through the window above the Prince's head. 'That is
the Emperor's star. When it wanes, he will wane--but not before.'
You would have been proud of me, my friends, if you could have seen and
heard me, for I clashed my sabre as I spoke, and swung my dolman as
though my regiment was picketed outside in the courtyard. They listened
to me in silence, but the back of the Prince bowed more and more as
though the burden which weighed upon it was greater than his strength.
He looked round with haggard eyes.
'We have heard a Frenchman speak for France,' said he. 'Let us have a
German speak for Germany.'
The folk glanced at each other, and whispered to their neighbours. My
speech, as I think, had its effect, and no man wished to be the first to
commit himself in the eyes of the Emperor. The Princess looked round
her with blazing eyes, and her clear voice broke the silence.
'Is a woman to give this Frenchman his answer?' she cried. 'Is it
possible, then, that among the night-riders of Lutzow there is none who
can use his tongue as well as his sabre?'
Over went a table with a crash, and a young man had bounded upon one of
the chairs. He had the face of one inspired--pale, eager, with wild hawk
eyes, and tangled hair. His sword hung straight from his side, and his
riding-boots were brown with mire.
'It is Korner!' the people cried. 'It is young Korner, the poet! Ah, he
will sing, he will sing.'
And he sang! It was soft, at first, and dreamy, telling of old Germany,
the mother of nations, of the rich, warm plains, and the grey cities,
and the fame of dead heroes. But then verse after verse rang like a
trumpet-call. It was of the Germany of now, the Germany which had been
taken unawares and overthrown, but which was up again, and snapping the
bonds upon her giant limbs. What was life that one should covet it? What
was glorious death that one should shun it? The mother, the great
mother, was calling. Her sigh was in the night wind. She was crying to
her own children for help. Would they come? Would they come? Would they
Ah, that terrible song, the spirit face and the ringing voice! Where
were I, and France, and the Emperor? They did not shout, these
people--they howled. They were up on the chairs and the tables. They
were raving, sobbing, the tears running down their faces. Korner had
sprung from the chair, and his comrades were round him with their sabres
in the air. A flush had come into the pale face of the Prince, and he
rose from his throne.
'Colonel Gerard,' said he, 'you have heard the answer which you are to
carry to your Emperor. The die is cast, my children. Your Prince and you
must stand or fall together.'
He bowed to show that all was over, and the people with a shout made
for the door to carry the tidings into the town. For my own part, I had
done all that a brave man might, and so I was not sorry to be carried
out amid the stream. Why should I linger in the palace? I had had my
answer and must carry it, such as it was. I wished neither to see Hof
nor its people again until I entered it at the head of a vanguard. I
turned from the throng, then, and walked silently and sadly in the
direction in which they had led the mare.
It was dark down there by the stables, and I was peering round for the
hostler, when suddenly my two arms were seized from behind. There were
hands at my wrists and at my throat, and I felt the cold muzzle of a
pistol under my ear.
'Keep your lips closed, you French dog,' whispered a fierce voice. 'We
have him, captain.'
'Have you the bridle?'
'Here it is.'
'Sling it over his head.'
I felt the cold coil of leather tighten round my neck. An hostler with a
stable lantern had come out and was gazing upon the scene. In its dim
light I saw stern faces breaking everywhere through the gloom, with the
black caps and dark cloaks of the night-riders.
'What would you do with him, captain?' cried a voice.
'Hang him at the palace gate.'
'An ambassador without papers.'
'But the Prince?'
'Tut, man, do you not see that the Prince will then be committed to our
side? He will be beyond all hope of forgiveness. At present he may swing
round tomorrow as he has done before. He may eat his words, but a dead
hussar is more than he can explain.'
'No, no, Von Strelitz, we cannot do it,' said another voice.
'Can we not? I shall show you that!' and there came a jerk on the
bridle which nearly pulled me to the ground. At the same instant a sword
flashed and the leather was cut through within two inches of my neck.
'By Heaven, Korner, this is rank mutiny,' cried the captain. 'You may
hang yourself before you are through with it.'
'I have drawn my sword as a soldier and not as a brigand,' said the
young poet. 'Blood may dim its blade, but never dishonour. Comrades,
will you stand by and see this gentleman mishandled?'
A dozen sabres flew from their sheaths, and it was evident that my
friends and my foes were about equally balanced. But the angry voices
and the gleam of steel had brought the folk running from all parts.
'The Princess!' they cried. 'The Princess is coming!'
And even as they spoke I saw her in front of us, her sweet face framed
in the darkness. I had cause to hate her, for she had cheated and
befooled me, and yet it thrilled me then and thrills me now to think
that my arms have embraced her, and that I have felt the scent of her
hair in my nostrils. I know not whether she lies under her German earth,
or whether she still lingers, a grey-haired woman in her Castle of Hof,
but she lives ever, young and lovely, in the heart and memory of Etienne
'For shame!' she cried, sweeping up to me, and tearing with her own
hands the noose from my neck. 'You are fighting in God's own quarrel,
and yet you would begin with such a devil's deed as this. This man is
mine, and he who touches a hair of his head will answer for it to me.'
They were glad enough to slink off into the darkness before those
scornful eyes. Then she turned once more to me.
'You can follow me, Colonel Gerard,' she said. 'I have a word that I
would speak to you.'
I walked behind her to the chamber into which I had originally been
shown. She closed the door, and then looked at me with the archest
twinkle in her eyes.
'Is it not confiding of me to trust myself with you?' said she. 'You
will remember that it is the Princess of Saxe-Felstein and not the poor
Countess Palotta of Poland.'
'Be the name what it might,' I answered, 'I helped a lady whom I
believed to be in distress, and I have been robbed of my papers and
almost of my honour as a reward.'
'Colonel Gerard,' said she, 'we have been playing a game, you and I, and
the stake was a heavy one. You have shown by delivering a message which
was never given to you that you would stand at nothing in the cause of
your country. My heart is German and yours is French, and I also would
go all lengths, even to deceit and to theft, if at this crisis I could
help my suffering fatherland. You see how frank I am.'
'You tell me nothing that I have not seen.'
'But now that the game is played and won, why should we bear malice? I
will say this, that if ever I were in such a plight as that which I
pretended in the inn of Lobenstein, I should never wish to meet a more
gallant protector or a truer-hearted gentleman than Colonel Etienne
Gerard. I had never thought that I could feel for a Frenchman as I felt
for you when I slipped the papers from your breast.'
'But you took them, none the less.'
'They were necessary to me and to Germany. I knew the arguments which
they contained and the effect which they would have upon the Prince. If
they had reached him all would have been lost.'
'Why should your Highness descend to such expedients when a score of
these brigands, who wished to hang me at your castle gate, would have
done the work as well?'
'They are not brigands, but the best blood of Germany,' she cried,
hotly. 'If you have been roughly used, you will remember the indignities
to which every German has been subjected, from the Queen of Prussia
downwards. As to why I did not have you waylaid upon the road, I may say
that I had parties out on all sides, and that I was waiting at
Lobenstein to hear of their success. When instead of their news you
yourself arrived I was in despair, for there was only the one weak woman
betwixt you and my husband. You see the straits to which I was driven
before I used the weapon of my sex.'
'I confess that you have conquered me, your Highness, and it only
remains for me to leave you in possession of the field.'
'But you will take your papers with you.' She held them out to me as she
spoke. 'The Prince has crossed the Rubicon now, and nothing can bring
him back. You can return these to the Emperor, and tell him that we
refused to receive them. No one can accuse you then of having lost your
despatches. Good-bye, Colonel Gerard, and the best I can wish you is
that when you reach France you may remain there. In a year's time there
will be no place for a Frenchman upon this side of the Rhine.'
And thus it was that I played the Princess of Saxe-Felstein with all
Germany for a stake, and lost my game to her. I had much to think of as
I walked my poor, tired Violette along the highway which leads westward
from Hof. But amid all the thoughts there came back to me always the
proud, beautiful face of the German woman, and the voice of the
soldier-poet as he sang from the chair. And I understood then that there
was something terrible in this strong, patient Germany--this mother root
of nations--and I saw that such a land, so old and so beloved, never
could be conquered. And as I rode I saw that the dawn was breaking, and
that the great star at which I had pointed through the palace window was
dim and pale in the western sky.
7. HOW THE BRIGADIER WON HIS MEDAL
The Duke of Tarentum, or Macdonald, as his old comrades prefer to call
him, was, as I could perceive, in the vilest of tempers. His grim,
Scotch face was like one of those grotesque door-knockers which one sees
in the Faubourg St Germain. We heard afterwards that the Emperor had
said in jest that he would have sent him against Wellington in the
South, but that he was afraid to trust him within the sound of the
pipes. Major Charpentier and I could plainly see that he was smouldering
'Brigadier Gerard of the Hussars,' said he, with the air of the corporal
with the recruit.
'Major Charpentier of the Horse Grenadiers.'
My companion answered to his name.
'The Emperor has a mission for you.'
Without more ado he flung open the door and announced us.
I have seen Napoleon ten times on horseback to once on foot, and I think
that he does wisely to show himself to the troops in this fashion, for
he cuts a very good figure in the saddle. As we saw him now he was the
shortest man out of six by a good hand's breadth, and yet I am no very
big man myself, though I ride quite heavy enough for a hussar. It is
evident, too, that his body is too long for his legs. With his big,
round head, his curved shoulders, and his clean-shaven face, he is more
like a Professor at the Sorbonne than the first soldier in France. Every
man to his taste, but it seems to me that, if I could clap a pair of
fine light cavalry whiskers, like my own, on to him, it would do him no
harm. He has a firm mouth, however, and his eyes are remarkable. I have
seen them once turned on me in anger, and I had rather ride at a square
on a spent horse than face them again. I am not a man who is easily
He was standing at the side of the room, away from the window, looking
up at a great map of the country which was hung upon the wall. Berthier
stood beside him, trying to look wise, and just as we entered, Napoleon
snatched his sword impatiently from him and pointed with it on the map.
He was talking fast and low, but I heard him say, 'The valley of the
Meuse,' and twice he repeated 'Berlin.' As we entered, his aide-de-camp
advanced to us, but the Emperor stopped him and beckoned us to his side.
'You have not yet received the cross of honour, Brigadier Gerard?' he
I replied that I had not, and was about to add that it was not for want
of having deserved it, when he cut me short in his decided fashion.
'And you, Major?' he asked.
'Then you shall both have your opportunity now.'
He led us to the great map upon the wall and placed the tip of
Berthier's sword on Rheims.
'I will be frank with you, gentlemen, as with two comrades. You have
both been with me since Marengo, I believe?' He had a strangely pleasant
smile, which used to light up his pale face with a kind of cold
sunshine. 'Here at Rheims are our present headquarters on this the 14th
of March. Very good. Here is Paris, distant by road a good twenty-five
leagues. Blucher lies to the north, Schwarzenberg to the south.' He
prodded at the map with the sword as he spoke.
'Now,' said he, 'the further into the country these people march, the
more completely I shall crush them. They are about to advance upon
Paris. Very good. Let them do so. My brother, the King of Spain, will be
there with a hundred thousand men. It is to him that I send you. You
will hand him this letter, a copy of which I confide to each of you. It
is to tell him that I am coming at once, in two days' time, with every
man and horse and gun to his relief. I must give them forty-eight hours
to recover. Then straight to Paris! You understand me, gentlemen?'
Ah, if I could tell you the glow of pride which it gave me to be taken
into the great man's confidence in this way. As he handed our letters to
us I clicked my spurs and threw out my chest, smiling and nodding to let
him know that I saw what he would be after. He smiled also, and rested
his hand for a moment upon the cape of my dolman. I would have given
half my arrears of pay if my mother could have seen me at that instant.
'I will show you your route,' said he, turning back to the map. 'Your
orders are to ride together as far as Bazoches. You will then separate,
the one making for Paris by Oulchy and Neuilly, and the other to the
north by Braine, Soissons, and Senlis. Have you anything to say,
I am a rough soldier, but I have words and ideas. I had begun to speak
about glory and the peril of France when he cut me short.
'And you, Major Charpentier?'
'If we find our route unsafe, are we at liberty to choose another?' said
'Soldiers do not choose, they obey.' He inclined his head to show that
we were dismissed, and turned round to Berthier. I do not know what he
said, but I heard them both laughing.
Well, as you may think, we lost little time in getting upon our way. In
half an hour we were riding down the High Street of Rheims, and it
struck twelve o'clock as we passed the Cathedral. I had my little grey
mare, Violette, the one which Sebastiani had wished to buy after
Dresden. It is the fastest horse in the six brigades of light cavalry,
and was only beaten by the Duke of Rovigo's racer from England. As to
Charpentier, he had the kind of horse which a horse grenadier or a
cuirassier would be likely to ride: a back like a bedstead, you
understand, and legs like the posts. He is a hulking fellow himself, so
that they looked a singular pair. And yet in his insane conceit he ogled
the girls as they waved their handkerchiefs to me from the windows, and
he twirled his ugly red moustache up into his eyes, just as if it were
to him that their attention was addressed.
When we came out of the town we passed through the French camp, and then
across the battle-field of yesterday, which was still covered both by
our own poor fellows and by the Russians. But of the two the camp was
the sadder sight. Our army was thawing away. The Guards were all right,
though the young guard was full of conscripts. The artillery and the
heavy cavalry were also good if there were more of them, but the
infantry privates with their under officers looked like schoolboys with
their masters. And we had no reserves. When one considered that there
were 80,000 Prussians to the north and 150,000 Russians and Austrians to
the south, it might make even the bravest man grave.
For my own part, I confess that I shed a tear until the thought came
that the Emperor was still with us, and that on that very morning he had
placed his hand upon my dolman and had promised me a medal of honour.
This set me singing, and I spurred Violette on, until Charpentier had to
beg me to have mercy on his great, snorting, panting camel. The road was
beaten into paste and rutted two feet deep by the artillery, so that he
was right in saying that it was not the place for a gallop.
I have never been very friendly with this Charpentier; and now for
twenty miles of the way I could not draw a word from him. He rode with
his brows puckered and his chin upon his breast, like a man who is heavy
with thought. More than once I asked him what was on his mind, thinking
that, perhaps, with my quicker intelligence I might set the matter
straight. His answer always was that it was his mission of which he was
thinking, which surprised me, because, although I had never thought much
of his intelligence, still it seemed to me to be impossible that anyone
could be puzzled by so simple and soldierly a task.
Well, we came at last to Bazoches, where he was to take the southern
road and I the northern. He half turned in his saddle before he left me,
and he looked at me with a singular expression of inquiry in his face.
'What do you make of it, Brigadier?' he asked.
'Of our mission.'
'Surely it is plain enough.'
'You think so? Why should the Emperor tell us his plans?'
'Because he recognized our intelligence.'
My companion laughed in a manner which I found annoying.
'May I ask what you intend to do if you find these villages full of
Prussians?' he asked.
'I shall obey my orders.'
'But you will be killed.'
He laughed again, and so offensively that I clapped my hand to my sword.
But before I could tell him what I thought of his stupidity and rudeness
he had wheeled his horse, and was lumbering away down the other road. I
saw his big fur cap vanish over the brow of the hill, and then I rode
upon my way, wondering at his conduct. From time to time I put my hand
to the breast of my tunic and felt the paper crackle beneath my fingers.
Ah, my precious paper, which should be turned into the little silver
medal for which I had yearned so long. All the way from Braine to
Sermoise I was thinking of what my mother would say when she saw it.
I stopped to give Violette a meal at a wayside auberge on the side of a
hill not far from Soissons--a place surrounded by old oaks, and with so
many crows that one could scarce hear one's own voice. It was from the
innkeeper that I learned that Marmont had fallen back two days before,
and that the Prussians were over the Aisne. An hour later, in the fading
light, I saw two of their vedettes upon the hill to the right, and then,
as darkness gathered, the heavens to the north were all glimmering from
the lights of a bivouac.
When I heard that Blucher had been there for two days, I was much
surprised that the Emperor should not have known that the country
through which he had ordered me to carry my precious letter was already
occupied by the enemy. Still, I thought of the tone of his voice when he
said to Charpentier that a soldier must not choose, but must obey. I
should follow the route he had laid down for me as long as Violette
could move a hoof or I a finger upon her bridle. All the way from
Sermoise to Soissons, where the road dips up and down, curving among fir
woods, I kept my pistol ready and my sword-belt braced, pushing on
swiftly where the path was straight, and then coming slowly round the
corners in the way we learned in Spain.
When I came to the farmhouse which lies to the right of the road just
after you cross the wooden bridge over the Crise, near where the great
statue of the Virgin stands, a woman cried to me from the field, saying
that the Prussians were in Soissons. A small party of their lancers, she
said, had come in that very afternoon, and a whole division was expected
before midnight. I did not wait to hear the end of her tale, but clapped
spurs into Violette, and in five minutes was galloping her into the
Three Uhlans were at the mouth of the main street, their horses
tethered, and they gossiping together, each with a pipe as long as my
sabre. I saw them well in the light of an open door, but of me they
could have seen only the flash of Violette's grey side and the black
flutter of my cloak. A moment later I flew through a stream of them
rushing from an open gateway. Violette's shoulder sent one of them
reeling, and I stabbed at another but missed him. Pang, pang, went two
carbines, but I had flown round the curve of the street, and never so
much as heard the hiss of the balls. Ah, we were great, both Violette
and I. She lay down to it like a coursed hare, the fire flying from her
hoofs. I stood in my stirrups and brandished my sword. Someone sprang
for my bridle. I sliced him through the arm, and I heard him howling
behind me. Two horsemen closed upon me. I cut one down and outpaced the
other. A minute later I was clear of the town, and flying down a broad
white road with the black poplars on either side. For a time I heard the
rattle of hoofs behind me, but they died and died until I could not tell
them from the throbbing of my own heart. Soon I pulled up and listened,
but all was silent. They had given up the chase.
Well, the first thing that I did was to dismount and to lead my mare
into a small wood through which a stream ran. There I watered her and
rubbed her down, giving her two pieces of sugar soaked in cognac from my
flask. She was spent from the sharp chase, but it was wonderful to see
how she came round with a half-hour's rest. When my thighs closed upon
her again, I could tell by the spring and the swing of her that it would
not be her fault if I did not win my way safe to Paris.
I must have been well within the enemy's lines now, for I heard a number
of them shouting one of their rough drinking songs out of a house by the
roadside, and I went round by the fields to avoid it. At another time
two men came out into the moonlight (for by this time it was a cloudless
night) and shouted something in German, but I galloped on without
heeding them, and they were afraid to fire, for their own hussars are
dressed exactly as I was. It is best to take no notice at these times,
and then they put you down as a deaf man.
It was a lovely moon, and every tree threw a black bar across the road.
I could see the countryside just as if it were daytime, and very
peaceful it looked, save that there was a great fire raging somewhere in
the north. In the silence of the night-time, and with the knowledge that
danger was in front and behind me, the sight of that great distant fire
was very striking and awesome. But I am not easily clouded, for I have
seen too many singular things, so I hummed a tune between my teeth and
thought of little Lisette, whom I might see in Paris. My mind was full
of her when, trotting round a corner, I came straight upon half-a-dozen
German dragoons, who were sitting round a brushwood fire by the
I am an excellent soldier. I do not say this because I am prejudiced in
my own favour, but because I really am so. I can weigh every chance in a
moment, and decide with as much certainty as though I had brooded for a
week. Now I saw like a flash that, come what might, I should be chased,
and on a horse which had already done a long twelve leagues. But it was
better to be chased onwards than to be chased back. On this moonlit
night, with fresh horses behind me, I must take my risk in either case;
but if I were to shake them off, I preferred that it should be near
Senlis than near Soissons.
All this flashed on me as if by instinct, you understand. My eyes had
hardly rested on the bearded faces under the brass helmets before my
rowels had touched Violette, and she was off with a rattle like a
pas-de-charge. Oh, the shouting and rushing and stamping from behind us!
Three of them fired and three swung themselves on to their horses. A
bullet rapped on the crupper of my saddle with a noise like a stick on a
door. Violette sprang madly forward, and I thought she had been wounded,
but it was only a graze above the near fore-fetlock. Ah, the dear little
mare, how I loved her when I felt her settle down into that long, easy
gallop of hers, her hoofs going like a Spanish girl's castanets. I could
not hold myself. I turned on my saddle and shouted and raved, 'Vive
l'Empereur!' I screamed and laughed at the gust of oaths that came back
But it was not over yet. If she had been fresh she might have gained a
mile in five. Now she could only hold her own with a very little over.
There was one of them, a young boy of an officer, who was better mounted
than the others. He drew ahead with every stride. Two hundred yards
behind him were two troopers, but I saw every time that I glanced round
that the distance between them was increasing. The other three who had
waited to shoot were a long way in the rear.
The officer's mount was a bay--a fine horse, though not to be spoken of
with Violette; yet it was a powerful brute, and it seemed to me that in
a few miles its freshness might tell. I waited until the lad was a long
way in front of his comrades, and then I eased my mare down a little--a
very, very little, so that he might think he was really catching me.
When he came within pistol-shot of me I drew and cocked my own pistol,
and laid my chin upon my shoulder to see what he would do. He did not
offer to fire, and I soon discerned the cause. The silly boy had taken
his pistols from his holsters when he had camped for the night. He
wagged his sword at me now and roared some threat or other. He did not
seem to understand that he was at my mercy. I eased Violette down until
there was not the length of a long lance between the grey tail and the
'Rendez-vous!' he yelled.
'I must compliment monsieur upon his French,' said I, resting the barrel
of my pistol upon my bridle-arm, which I have always found best when
shooting from the saddle. I aimed at his face, and could see, even in
the moonlight, how white he grew when he understood that it was all up
with him. But even as my finger pressed the trigger I thought of his
mother, and I put my ball through his horse's shoulder. I fear he hurt
himself in the fall, for it was a fearful crash, but I had my letter to
think of, so I stretched the mare into a gallop once more.
But they were not so easily shaken off, these brigands. The two troopers
thought no more of their young officer than if he had been a recruit
thrown in the riding-school. They left him to the others and thundered
on after me. I had pulled up on the brow of a hill, thinking that I had
heard the last of them; but, my faith, I soon saw there was no time for
loitering, so away we went, the mare tossing her head and I my shako, to
show what we thought of two dragoons who tried to catch a hussar. But at
this moment, even while I laughed at the thought, my heart stood still
within me, for there at the end of the long white road was a black patch
of cavalry waiting to receive me. To a young soldier it might have
seemed the shadow of the trees, but to me it was a troop of hussars,
and, turn where I could, death seemed to be waiting for me.
Well, I had the dragoons behind me and the hussars in front. Never since
Moscow have I seemed to be in such peril. But for the honour of the
brigade I had rather be cut down by a light cavalryman than by a heavy.
I never drew bridle, therefore, or hesitated for an instant, but I let
Violette have her head. I remember that I tried to pray as I rode, but I
am a little out of practice at such things, and the only words I could
remember were the prayer for fine weather which we used at the school on
the evening before holidays. Even this seemed better than nothing, and I
was pattering it out, when suddenly I heard French voices in front of
me. Ah, mon Dieu, but the joy went through my heart like a musket-ball.
They were ours--our own dear little rascals from the corps of Marmont.
Round whisked my two dragoons and galloped for their lives, with the
moon gleaming on their brass helmets, while I trotted up to my friends
with no undue haste, for I would have them understand that though a
hussar may fly, it is not in his nature to fly very fast. Yet I fear
that Violette's heaving flanks and foam-spattered muzzle gave the lie
to my careless bearing.
Who should be at the head of the troop but old Bouvet, whom I saved at
Leipzig! When he saw me his little pink eyes filled with tears, and,
indeed, I could not but shed a few myself at the sight of his joy. I
told him of my mission, but he laughed when I said that I must pass
'The enemy is there,' said he. 'You cannot go.'
'I prefer to go where the enemy is,' I answered.
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