| The Peasant Story Of Napoleon |
E TOOK MOSCOW. Would you believe it? the Russians burned their own city! 'Twas a haystack six miles square, and it blazed for two days. The buildings crashed like slates, and showers of melted iron and lead rained down upon us, which was naturally horrible. I may say to you plainly, it was like a flash of lightning on our disasters. The Emperor said, 'We have done enough; my soldiers shall rest here.' So we rested awhile, just to get the breath into our bodies and the flesh on our bones, for we were really tired. We took possession of the golden cross that was on the Kremlin; and every soldier brought away with him a small fortune. But out there the winter sets in a month earlier—a thing those fools of science didn't properly explain. So, coming back, the cold nipped us. No longer an army—do you hear me?—no longer any generals, no longer any sergeants even. 'Twas the reign of wretchedness and hunger—a reign of equality at last. No one thought of anything but to see France once more; no one stooped to pick up his gun or his money if he dropped them; each man followed his nose, and went as he pleased without caring for glory. The weather was so bad the Emperor couldn't see his star; there was something between him and the skies. Poor man! it made him ill to see his eagles flying away from victory. Ah! 'twas a mortal blow, you may believe me.
"Well, we got to the Beresina, My friends, I can affirm to you by all that is most sacred, by my honour, that since mankind came into the world, never, never was there seen such a fricassee of any army—guns, carriages, artillery-waggons—in the midst of such snows, under such relentless skies! The muzzles of the muskets burned our hands if we touched them, the iron was so cold. It was there that the army was saved by the pontoniers, who were firm at their post; and there that Gondrin—sole survivor of the men who were bold enough to go into the water and build the bridges by which the army crossed—that Gondrin, here present, admirably conducted himself, and saved us from the Russians, who, I must tell you, still respected the grand army, remembering its victories. And," he added, pointing to Gondrin, who was gazing at him with the peculiar attention of a deaf man, "Gondrin is a finished soldier, a soldier who is honour itself, and he merits your highest esteem.
"I saw the Emperor," he resumed, "standing by the bridge, motionless, not feeling the cold—was that human? He looked at the destruction of his treasure, his friends, his old Egyptians. Bah! all that passed him, women, army-waggons, artillery, all were shattered, destroyed, ruined. The bravest carried the eagles; for the eagles, d'ye see, were France, the nation, all of you! they were the civil and the military honour that must be kept pure; could their heads be lowered because of the cold? It was only near the Emperor that we warmed ourselves, because when he was in danger we ran, frozen as we were—we, who wouldn't have stretched a hand to save a friend. They told us he wept at night over his poor family of soldiers. Ah! none but he and Frenchmen could have got themselves out of that business. We did get out, but with losses, great losses, as I tell you. The Allies captured our provisions. Men began to betray him, as the Red Man predicted. Those chatterers in Paris, who had held their tongues after the Imperial Guard was formed, now thought he was dead; so they hoodwinked the prefect of police, and hatched a conspiracy to overthrow the empire. He heard of it; it worried him. He left us, saying: 'Adieu, my children; guard the outposts; I shall return to you,' Bah! without him nothing went right; the generals lost their heads, the marshals talked nonsense and committed follies; but that was not surprising, for Napoleon, who was kind, had fed 'em on gold; they had got as fat as lard, and wouldn't stir; some stayed in camp when they ought to have been warming the backs of the enemy who was between us and France.
"But the Emperor came back, and he brought recruits, famous recruits; he changed their backbone and made 'em dogs of war, fit to set their teeth into anything; and he brought a guard of honour, a fine body indeed!—all bourgeois, who melted away like butter on a gridiron.
"Well, spite of our stern bearing, here's everything going against us; and yet the army did prodigies of valour. Then came battles on the mountains, nations against nations—Dresden, Lützen, Bautzen. Remember these days, all of you, for 'twas then that Frenchmen were so particularly heroic that a good grenadier only lasted six months. We triumphed always; yet there were those English, in our rear, rousing revolts against us with their lies! No matter, we cut our way home through the whole pack of the nations. Wherever the Emperor showed himself we followed him; for if, by sea or land, he gave us the word 'Go!' we went. At last, we were in France; and many a poor foot-soldier felt the air of his own country restore his soul to satisfaction, spite of the wintry weather. I can say for myself that it refreshed my life. Well, next, our business was to defend France, our country, our beautiful France, against, all Europe, which resented our having laid down the law to the Russians, and pushed them back into their dens so that they couldn't eat us up alive, as northern nations, who are dainty and like southern flesh, have a habit of doing—at least, so I've heard some generals say. Then the Emperor saw his own father-in-law, his friends whom he had made kings, and the scoundrels to whom he had given back their thrones, all against him. Even Frenchmen, and allies in our own ranks, turned against us under secret orders, as at the battle of Leipsic. Would common soldiers have been capable of such wickedness? Three times a day men were false to their word—and they called themselves princes!
"So, then, France was invaded. Wherever the Emperor showed his lion face, the enemy retreated; and he did more prodigies in defending France than ever he had done in conquering Italy, the East, Spain, Europe, and Russia. He meant to bury every invader under the sod, and teach 'em to respect the soil of France. So he let them get to Paris, that he might swallow them at a mouthful, and rise to the height of his genius in a battle greater than all the rest—a mother-battle, as 'twere. But there, there! the Parisians were afraid for their twopenny skins, and their trumpery shops; they opened the gates. Then the Ragusades began, and happiness ended. The Empress was fooled, and the white banner flaunted from the windows. The generals whom he had made his nearest friends abandoned him for the Bourbons—a set of people no one had heard tell of. The Emperor bade us farewell at Fontainebleau: 'Soldiers!'—I can hear him now; we wept like children; the flags and the eagles were lowered as if for a funeral: it was, I may well say it to you, it was the funeral of the Empire; her dapper armies were nothing now but skeletons. So he said to us, standing there on the portico of his palace: 'My soldiers! we are vanquished by treachery; but we shall meet in heaven, the country of the brave. Defend my child, whom I commit to you. Long live Napoleon II!' He meant to die, that no man should look upon Napoleon vanquished; he took poison, enough to have killed a regiment, because, like Jesus Christ before his Passion, he thought himself abandoned of God and his talisman. But the poison did not hurt him.
"See again! he found he was immortal.
"Sure of himself, knowing he must ever be THE EMPEROR, he went for a while to an island to study out the nature of these others, who, you may be sure, committed follies without end. Whilst he bided his time down there, the Chinese, and the wild men on the coast of Africa, and the Barbary States, and others who are not at all accommodating, know so well he was more than man that they respected his tent, saying to touch it would be to offend God. Thus, d'ye see, when these others turned him from the doors of his own France, he still reigned over the whole world. Before long he embarked in the same little cockleshell of a boat he had had in Egypt, sailed round the beard of the English, set foot in France, and France acclaimed him. The sacred cuckoo flew from spire to spire; all France cried out with one voice, 'LONG LIVE THE EMPEROR!' In this region, here, the enthusiasm for that wonder of the ages was, I may say, solid. Dauphine behaved well; and I am particularly pleased to know that her people wept when they saw, once more, the gray top-coat. March first it was, when Napoleon landed with two hundred men to conquer that kingdom of France and of Navarre, which, on the twentieth of the same month was again the French Empire. On that day our MAN was in Paris; he had made a clean sweep, recovered his dear France, and gathered his veterans together by saying no more than three words, 'I am here.'
"'Twas the greatest miracle God had yet done! Before him, did ever man recover an empire by showing his hat? And these others, who thought they had subdued France! Not they! At sight of the eagles, a national army sprang up, and we marched to Waterloo. There, the Guard died at one blow. Napoleon, in despair, threw himself three times before the cannon of the enemy without obtaining death. We saw that. The battle was lost. That night the Emperor called his old soldiers to him; on the field soaked with our blood he burned his banners and his eagles—his poor eagles, ever victorious, who cried 'Forward' in the battles, and had flown the length and breadth of Europe, they were saved the infamy of belonging to the enemy: all the treasures of England couldn't get her a tail-feather of them. No more eagles—the rest is well known. The Red Man went over to the Bourbons, like the scoundrel that he is. France is crushed; the soldier is nothing; they deprive him of his dues; they discharge him to make room for broken-down nobles—ah, 'tis pitiable! They seized Napoleon by treachery; the English nailed him on a desert island in mid-ocean on a rock raised ten thousand feet above the earth; and there he is, and will be, till the Red Man gives him back his power for the happiness of France. These others say he's dead. Ha, dead! 'Tis easy to see they don't know Him. They tell that fib to catch the people, and feel safe in their hovel of a government. Listen! the truth at the bottom of it all is that his friends have left him alone on the desert isle to fulfil a prophecy, for I forgot to say that his name, Napoleon, means 'lion of the desert.' Now this that I tell you is true as the Gospel. All other tales that you hear about the Emperor are follies without common-sense; because, d'ye see, God never gave to child of woman born the right to stamp his name in red as he did, on the earth, which forever shall remember him! Long live Napoleon, the father of his people and of the soldier!"