It seems I’ve once again been bitten by the Napoleonic bug. How or why, I’ll never know. It is one of those things that seems to happen every so often…
So far the bug has only impacted my reading habits, but I suspect it will soon cause me more pain, as I’m feeling the need to setup a war game or two, and once that happens, I know I’ll need to paint more figures and… Well, we all know what happens next – a complete derailment of all other game projects.
Alright then, so the Napoleonic bug ‘stuff’ is as out of the way as it is going to be (for now), lets move on to the ‘something different’ bit. Since we are on the theme of Napoleonics, I thought it would be fun to share a bit of my recent (fiction) reading.
In addition to the purely historical aspects of the Napoleonic wars I’ve always enjoined a bit of fiction thrown into the mix. Sure, we have all heard of Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe and of course we can’t forget Lance Corporal Matthew Dodd of the 95th Rifles. We first meet Corporal Dodd in “Death to the French” by C.S. Forrester; Matthew Dodd also makes an appearance in ‘Sharpes Escape’ by Bernard Cornwell. A character that I had all but forgotten is: Brigadier Gerard, the hero of a series of comic short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. The hero of these stories is Etienne Gerard, a Hussar in the French Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Gerard is most vain – he is convinced that he is the bravest soldier, greatest swordsman, most accomplished horseman and gallant lover in all of France…
The stories were originally published in The Strand magazine between December 1894 and September 1903. They were later issued in two volumes as ‘The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard’, and ‘The Adventures of Gerard’. While the stories can still be found in print (most recent prints 2008) and online, I thought it would be fun to share the earliest of these stories with you here on Table Top Talk. So, without further delay I present for your reading pleasure from December 1894…
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.
‘But why not go straight to Paris with your despatch? Why should you
choose to pass through the one place where you are almost sure to be
taken or killed?’
‘A soldier does not choose–he obeys,’ said I, just as I had heard
Napoleon say it.
Old Bouvet laughed in his wheezy way, until I had to give my moustachios
a twirl and look him up and down in a manner which brought him to
‘Well’, said he, ‘you had best come along with us, for we are all bound
for Senlis. Our orders are to reconnoitre the place. A squadron of
Poniatowski’s Polish Lancers are in front of us. If you must ride
through it, it is possible that we may be able to go with you.’
So away we went, jingling and clanking through the quiet night until we
came up with the Poles–fine old soldiers all of them, though a trifle
heavy for their horses. It was a treat to see them, for they could not
have carried themselves better if they had belonged to my own brigade.
We rode together, until in the early morning we saw the lights of
Senlis. A peasant was coming along with a cart, and from him we learned
how things were going there.
His information was certain, for his brother was the Mayor’s coachman,
and he had spoken with him late the night before. There was a single
squadron of Cossacks–or a polk, as they call it in their frightful
language–quartered upon the Mayor’s house, which stands at the corner
of the market-place, and is the largest building in the town. A whole
division of Prussion infantry was encamped in the woods to the north,
but only the Cossacks were in Senlis. Ah, what a chance to avenge
ourselves upon these barbarians, whose cruelty to our poor countryfolk
was the talk at every camp fire.
We were into the town like a torrent, hacked down the vedettes, rode
over the guard, and were smashing in the doors of the Mayor’s house
before they understood that there was a Frenchman within twenty miles of
them. We saw horrid heads at the windows–heads bearded to the temples,
with tangled hair and sheepskin caps, and silly, gaping mouths. ‘Hourra!
Hourra!’ they shrieked, and fired with their carbines, but our fellows
were into the house and at their throats before they had wiped the sleep
out of their eyes. It was dreadful to see how the Poles flung themselves
upon them, like starving wolves upon a herd of fat bucks–for, as you
know, the Poles have a blood feud against the Cossacks. The most were
killed in the upper rooms, whither they had fled for shelter, and the
blood was pouring down into the hall like rain from a roof. They are
terrible soldiers, these Poles, though I think they are a trifle heavy
for their horses. Man for man, they are as big as Kellerman’s
cuirassiers. Their equipment is, of course, much lighter, since they are
without the cuirass, back-plate, and helmet.
Well, it was at this point that I made an error–a very serious error it
must be admitted. Up to this moment I had carried out my mission in a
manner which only my modesty prevents me from describing as remarkable.
But now I did that which an official would condemn and a soldier excuse.
There is no doubt that the mare was spent, but still it is true that I
might have galloped on through Senlis and reached the country, where I
should have had no enemy between me and Paris. But what hussar can ride
past a fight and never draw rein? It is to ask too much of him.
Besides, I thought that if Violette had an hour of rest I might have
three hours the better at the other end. Then on the top of it came
those heads at the windows, with their sheepskin hats and their
barbarous cries. I sprang from my saddle, threw Violette’s bridle over a
rail-post, and ran into the house with the rest. It is true that I was
too late to be of service, and that I was nearly wounded by a
lance-thrust from one of these dying savages. Still, it is a pity to
miss even the smallest affair, for one never knows what opportunity for
advancement may present itself. I have seen more soldierly work in
outpost skirmishes and little gallop-and-hack affairs of the kind than
in any of the Emperor’s big battles.
When the house was cleared I took a bucket of water out for Violette,
and our peasant guide showed me where the good Mayor kept his fodder. My
faith, but the little sweetheart was ready for it. Then I sponged down
her legs, and leaving her still tethered I went back into the house to
find a mouthful for myself, so that I should not need to halt again
until I was in Paris.
And now I come to the part of my story which may seem singular to you,
although I could tell you at least ten things every bit as queer which
have happened to me in my lifetime. You can understand that, to a man
who spends his life in scouting and vedette duties on the bloody ground
which lies between two great armies, there are many chances of strange
experiences. I’ll tell you, however, exactly what occurred.
Old Bouvet was waiting in the passage when I entered, and he asked me
whether we might not crack a bottle of wine together. ‘My faith, we must
not be long,’ said he. ‘There are ten thousand of Theilmann’s Prussians
in the woods up yonder.’
‘Where is the wine?’ I asked.
‘Ah, you may trust two hussars to find where the wine is,’ said he, and
taking a candle in his hand, he led the way down the stone stairs into
When we got there we found another door, which opened on to a winding
stair with the cellar at the bottom. The Cossacks had been there before
us, as was easily seen by the broken bottles littered all over it.
However, the Mayor was a _bon-vivant_, and I do not wish to have a
better set of bins to pick from. Chambertin, Graves, Alicant, white wine
and red, sparkling and still, they lay in pyramids peeping coyly out of
sawdust. Old Bouvet stood with his candle looking here and peeping
there, purring in his throat like a cat before a milk-pail. He had
picked upon a Burgundy at last, and had his hand outstretched to the
bottle when there came a roar of musketry from above us, a rush of feet,
and such a yelping and screaming as I have never listened to. The
Prussians were upon us!
Bouvet is a brave man: I will say that for him. He flashed out his sword
and away he clattered up the stone steps, his spurs clinking as he ran.
I followed him, but just as we came out into the kitchen passage a
tremendous shout told us that the house had been recaptured.
‘It is all over,’ I cried, grasping at Bouvet’s sleeve.
‘There is one more to die,’ he shouted, and away he went like a madman
up the second stair. In effect, I should have gone to my death also had
I been in his place, for he had done very wrong in not throwing out his
scouts to warn him if the Germans advanced upon him. For an instant I
was about to rush up with him, and then I bethought myself that, after
all, I had my own mission to think of, and that if I were taken the
important letter of the Emperor would be sacrificed. I let Bouvet die
alone, therefore, and I went down into the cellar again, closing the
door behind me.
Well, it was not a very rosy prospect down there either. Bouvet had
dropped the candle when the alarm came, and I, pawing about in the
darkness, could find nothing but broken bottles. At last I came upon
the candle, which had rolled under the curve of a cask, but, try as I
would with my tinderbox, I could not light it. The reason was that the
wick had been wet in a puddle of wine, so suspecting that this might be
the case, I cut the end off with my sword. Then I found that it lighted
easily enough. But what to do I could not imagine. The scoundrels
upstairs were shouting themselves hoarse, several hundred of them from
the sound, and it was clear that some of them would soon want to moisten
their throats. There would be an end to a dashing soldier, and of the
mission and of the medal. I thought of my mother and I thought of the
Emperor. It made me weep to think that the one would lose so excellent a
son and the other the best light cavalry officer he ever had since
Lasalle’s time. But presently I dashed the tears from my eyes.
‘Courage!’ I cried, striking myself upon the chest. ‘Courage, my brave
boy. Is it possible that one who has come safely from Moscow without so
much as a frost-bite will die in a French wine-cellar?’ At the thought I
was up on my feet and clutching at the letter in my tunic, for the
crackle of it gave me courage.
My first plan was to set fire to the house, in the hope of escaping in
the confusion. My second to get into an empty wine-cask. I was looking
round to see if I could find one, when suddenly, in the corner, I espied
a little low door, painted of the same grey colour as the wall, so that
it was only a man with quick sight who would have noticed it. I pushed
against it, and at first I imagined that it was locked. Presently,
however, it gave a little, and then I understood that it was held by the
pressure of something on the other side. I put my feet against a
hogshead of wine, and I gave such a push that the door flew open and I
came down with a crash upon my back, the candle flying out of my hands,
so that I found myself in darkness once more. I picked myself up and
stared through the black archway into the gloom beyond.
There was a slight ray of light coming from some slit or grating. The
dawn had broken outside, and I could dimly see the long, curving sides
of several huge casks, which made me think that perhaps this was where
the Mayor kept his reserves of wine while they were maturing. At any
rate, it seemed to be a safer hiding-place than the outer cellar, so
gathering up my candle, I was just closing the door behind me, when I
suddenly saw something which filled me with amazement, and even, I
confess, with the smallest little touch of fear.
I have said that at the further end of the cellar there was a dim grey
fan of light striking downwards from somewhere near the roof. Well, as I
peered through the darkness, I suddenly saw a great, tall man skip into
this belt of daylight, and then out again into the darkness at the
further end. My word, I gave such a start that my shako nearly broke its
chin-strap! It was only a glance, but, none the less, I had time to see
that the fellow had a hairy Cossack cap on his head, and that he was a
great, long-legged, broad-shouldered brigand, with a sabre at his waist.
My faith, even Etienne Gerard was a little staggered at being left alone
with such a creature in the dark.
But only for a moment. ‘Courage!’ I thought. ‘Am I not a hussar, a
brigadier, too, at the age of thirty-one, and the chosen messenger of
the Emperor?’ After all, this skulker had more cause to be afraid of me
than I of him. And then suddenly I understood that he was
afraid–horribly afraid. I could read it from his quick step and his
bent shoulders as he ran among the barrels, like a rat making for its
hole. And, of course, it must have been he who had held the door against
me, and not some packing-case or wine-cask as I had imagined. He was the
pursued then, and I the pursuer. Aha, I felt my whiskers bristle as I
advanced upon him through the darkness! He would find that he had no
chicken to deal with, this robber from the North. For the moment I was
At first I had feared to light my candle lest I should make a mark of
myself, but now, after cracking my shin over a box, and catching my
spurs in some canvas, I thought the bolder course the wiser. I lit it,
therefore, and then I advanced with long strides, my sword in my hand.
‘Come out, you rascal!’ I cried. ‘Nothing can save you. You will at last
meet with your deserts.’
I held my candle high, and presently I caught a glimpse of the man’s
head staring at me over a barrel. He had a gold chevron on his black
cap, and the expression of his face told me in an instant that he was an
officer and a man of refinement.
‘Monsieur,’ he cried, in excellent French, ‘I surrender myself on a
promise of quarter. But if I do not have your promise, I will then sell
my life as dearly as I can.’
‘Sir,’ said I, ‘a Frenchman knows how to treat an unfortunate enemy.
Your life is safe.’ With that he handed his sword over the top of the
barrel, and I bowed with the candle on my heart. ‘Whom have I the honour
of capturing?’ I asked.
‘I am the Count Boutkine, of the Emperor’s own Don Cossacks,’ said he.
‘I came out with my troop to reconnoitre Senlis, and as we found no sign
of your people we determined to spend the night here.’
‘And would it be an indiscretion,’ I asked, ‘if I were to inquire how
you came into the back cellar?’
‘Nothing more simple,’ said he. ‘It was our intention to start at early
dawn. Feeling chilled after dressing, I thought that a cup of wine would
do me no harm, so I came down to see what I could find. As I was
rummaging about, the house was suddenly carried by assault so rapidly
that by the time I had climbed the stairs it was all over. It only
remained for me to save myself, so I came down here and hid myself in
the back cellar, where you have found me.’
I thought of how old Bouvet had behaved under the same conditions, and
the tears sprang to my eyes as I contemplated the glory of France. Then
I had to consider what I should do next. It was clear that this Russian
Count, being in the back cellar while we were in the front one, had not
heard the sounds which would have told him that the house was once again
in the hands of his own allies. If he should once understand this the
tables would be turned, and I should be his prisoner instead of he being
mine. What was I to do? I was at my wits’ end, when suddenly there came
to me an idea so brilliant that I could not but be amazed at my own
‘Count Boutkine,’ said I, ‘I find myself in a most difficult position.’
‘And why?’ he asked.
‘Because I have promised you your life.’
His jaw dropped a little.
‘You would not withdraw your promise?’ he cried.
‘If the worst comes to the worst I can die in your defence,’ said I;
‘but the difficulties are great.’
‘What is it, then?’ he asked.
‘I will be frank with you,’ said I. ‘You must know that our fellows, and
especially the Poles, are so incensed against the Cossacks that the mere
sight of the uniform drives them mad. They precipitate themselves
instantly upon the wearer and tear him limb from limb. Even their
officers cannot restrain them.’
The Russian grew pale at my words and the way in which I said them.
‘But this is terrible,’ said he.
‘Horrible!’ said I. ‘If we were to go up together at this moment I
cannot promise how far I could protect you.’
‘I am in your hands,’ he cried. ‘What would you suggest that we should
do? Would it not be best that I should remain here?’
‘That worst of all.’
‘Because our fellows will ransack the house presently, and then you
would be cut to pieces. No, no, I must go and break it to them. But even
then, when once they see that accursed uniform, I do not know what may
‘Should I then take the uniform off?’
‘Excellent!’ I cried. ‘Hold, we have it! You will take your uniform off
and put on mine. That will make you sacred to every French soldier.’
‘It is not the French I fear so much as the Poles.’
‘But my uniform will be a safeguard against either.’
‘How can I thank you?’ he cried. ‘But you–what are you to wear?’
‘I will wear yours.’
‘And perhaps fall a victim to your generosity?’
‘It is my duty to take the risk,’ I answered; ‘but I have no fears. I
will ascend in your uniform. A hundred swords will be turned upon me.
“Hold!” I will shout, “I am the Brigadier Gerard!” Then they will see my
face. They will know me. And I will tell them about you. Under the
shield of these clothes you will be sacred.’
His fingers trembled with eagerness as he tore off his tunic. His boots
and breeches were much like my own, so there was no need to change them,
but I gave him my hussar jacket, my dolman, my shako, my sword-belt, and
my sabre-tasche, while I took in exchange his high sheepskin cap with
the gold chevron, his fur-trimmed coat, and his crooked sword. Be it
well understood that in changing the tunics I did not forget to change
my thrice-precious letter also from my old one to my new.
‘With your leave,’ said I, ‘I shall now bind you to a barrel.’
He made a great fuss over this, but I have learned in my soldiering
never to throw away chances, and how could I tell that he might not,
when my back was turned, see how the matter really stood, and break in
upon my plans? He was leaning against a barrel at the time, so I ran six
times round it with a rope, and then tied it with a big knot behind. If
he wished to come upstairs he would, at least, have to carry a thousand
litres of good French wine for a knapsack. I then shut the door of the
back cellar behind me, so that he might not hear what was going forward,
and tossing the candle away I ascended the kitchen stair.
There were only about twenty steps, and yet, while I came up them, I
seemed to have time to think of everything that I had ever hoped to do.
It was the same feeling that I had at Eylau when I lay with my broken
leg and saw the horse artillery galloping down upon me. Of course, I
knew that if I were taken I should be shot instantly as being disguised
within the enemy’s lines. Still, it was a glorious death–in the direct
service of the Emperor–and I reflected that there could not be less
than five lines, and perhaps seven, in the _Moniteur_ about me. Palaret
had eight lines, and I am sure that he had not so fine a career.
When I made my way out into the hall, with all the nonchalance in my
face and manner that I could assume, the very first thing that I saw was
Bouvet’s dead body, with his legs drawn up and a broken sword in his
hand. I could see by the black smudge that he had been shot at close
quarters. I should have wished to salute as I went by, for he was a
gallant man, but I feared lest I should be seen, and so I passed on.
The front of the hall was full of Prussian infantry, who were knocking
loopholes in the wall, as though they expected that there might be yet
another attack. Their officer, a little man, was running about giving
directions. They were all too busy to take much notice of me, but
another officer, who was standing by the door with a long pipe in his
mouth, strode across and clapped me on the shoulder, pointing to the
dead bodies of our poor hussars, and saying something which was meant
for a jest, for his long beard opened and showed every fang in his head.
I laughed heartily also, and said the only Russian words that I knew. I
learned them from little Sophie, at Wilna, and they meant: ‘If the night
is fine we shall meet under the oak tree, but if it rains we shall meet
in the byre.’ It was all the same to this German, however, and I have no
doubt that he gave me credit for saying something very witty indeed, for
he roared laughing, and slapped me on my shoulder again. I nodded to him
and marched out of the hall-door as coolly as if I were the commandant
of the garrison.
There were a hundred horses tethered about outside, most of them
belonging to the Poles and hussars. Good little Violette was waiting
with the others, and she whinnied when she saw me coming towards her.
But I would not mount her. No. I was much too cunning for that. On the
contrary, I chose the most shaggy little Cossack horse that I could see,
and I sprang upon it with as much assurance as though it had belonged to
my father before me. It had a great bag of plunder slung over its neck,
and this I laid upon Violette’s back, and led her along beside me. Never
have you seen such a picture of the Cossack returning from the foray. It
Well, the town was full of Prussians by this time. They lined the
side-walks and pointed me out to each other, saying, as I could judge
from their gestures, ‘There goes one of those devils of Cossacks. They
are the boys for foraging and plunder.’
One or two officers spoke to me with an air of authority, but I shook my
head and smiled, and said, ‘If the night is fine we shall meet under the
oak tree, but if it rains we shall meet in the byre,’ at which they
shrugged their shoulders and gave the matter up. In this way I worked
along until I was beyond the northern outskirt of the town. I could see
in the roadway two lancer vedettes with their black and white pennons,
and I knew that when I was once past these I should be a free man once
more. I made my pony trot, therefore, Violette rubbing her nose against
my knee all the time, and looking up at me to ask how she had deserved
that this hairy doormat of a creature should be preferred to her. I was
not more than a hundred yards from the Uhlans when, suddenly, you can
imagine my feelings when I saw a real Cossack coming galloping along the
road towards me.
Ah, my friend, you who read this, if you have any heart, you will feel
for a man like me, who had gone through so many dangers and trials, only
at this very last moment to be confronted with one which appeared to put
an end to everything. I will confess that for a moment I lost heart, and
was inclined to throw myself down in my despair, and to cry out that I
had been betrayed. But, no; I was not beaten even now. I opened two
buttons of my tunic so that I might get easily at the Emperor’s message,
for it was my fixed determination when all hope was gone to swallow the
letter and then die sword in hand. Then I felt that my little, crooked
sword was loose in its sheath, and I trotted on to where the vedettes
were waiting. They seemed inclined to stop me, but I pointed to the
other Cossack, who was still a couple of hundred yards off, and they,
understanding that I merely wished to meet him, let me pass with a
I dug my spurs into my pony then, for if I were only far enough from the
lancers I thought I might manage the Cossack without much difficulty. He
was an officer, a large, bearded man, with a gold chevron in his cap,
just the same as mine. As I advanced he unconsciously aided me by
pulling up his horse, so that I had a fine start of the vedettes. On I
came for him, and I could see wonder changing to suspicion in his brown
eyes as he looked at me and at my pony, and at my equipment. I do not
know what it was that was wrong, but he saw something which was as it
should not be. He shouted out a question, and then when I gave no answer
he pulled out his sword. I was glad in my heart to see him do so, for I
had always rather fight than cut down an unsuspecting enemy. Now I made
at him full tilt, and, parrying his cut, I got my point in just under
the fourth button of his tunic. Down he went, and the weight of him
nearly took me off my horse before I could disengage. I never glanced at
him to see if he were living or dead, for I sprang off my pony and on to
Violette, with a shake of my bridle and a kiss of my hand to the two
Uhlans behind me. They galloped after me, shouting, but Violette had had
her rest, and was just as fresh as when she started. I took the first
side road to the west and then the first to the south, which would take
me away from the enemy’s country. On we went and on, every stride taking
me further from my foes and nearer to my friends. At last, when I
reached the end of a long stretch of road, and looking back from it
could see no sign of any pursuers, I understood that my troubles were
And it gave me a glow of happiness, as I rode, to think that I had done
to the letter what the Emperor had ordered. What would he say when he
saw me? What could he say which would do justice to the incredible way
in which I had risen above every danger? He had ordered me to go through
Sermoise, Soissons, and Senlis, little dreaming that they were all three
occupied by the enemy. And yet I had done it. I had borne his letter in
safety through each of these towns. Hussars, dragoons, lancers,
Cossacks, and infantry–I had run the gauntlet of all of them, and had
come out unharmed.
When I had got as far as Dammartin I caught a first glimpse of our own
outposts. There was a troop of dragoons in a field, and of course I
could see from the horsehair crests that they were French. I galloped
towards them in order to ask them if all was safe between there and
Paris, and as I rode I felt such a pride at having won my way back to my
friends again, that I could not refrain from waving my sword in the air.
At this a young officer galloped out from among the dragoons, also
brandishing his sword, and it warmed my heart to think that he should
come riding with such ardour and enthusiasm to greet me. I made
Violette caracole, and as we came together I brandished my sword more
gallantly than ever, but you can imagine my feelings when he suddenly
made a cut at me which would certainly have taken my head off if I had
not fallen forward with my nose in Violette’s mane. My faith, it
whistled just over my cap like an east wind. Of course, it came from
this accursed Cossack uniform which, in my excitement, I had forgotten
all about, and this young dragoon had imagined that I was some Russian
champion who was challenging the French cavalry. My word, he was a
frightened man when he understood how near he had been to killing the
celebrated Brigadier Gerard.
Well, the road was clear, and about three o’clock in the afternoon I was
at St Denis, though it took me a long two hours to get from there to
Paris, for the road was blocked with commissariat waggons and guns of
the artillery reserve, which was going north to Marmont and Mortier. You
cannot conceive the excitement which my appearance in such a costume
made in Paris, and when I came to the Rue de Rivoli I should think I had
a quarter of a mile of folk riding or running behind me. Word had got
about from the dragoons (two of whom had come with me), and everybody
knew about my adventures and how I had come by my uniform. It was a
triumph–men shouting and women waving their handkerchiefs and blowing
kisses from the windows.
Although I am a man singularly free from conceit, still I must confess
that, on this one occasion, I could not restrain myself from showing
that this reception gratified me. The Russian’s coat had hung very loose
upon me, but now I threw out my chest until it was as tight as a
sausage-skin. And my little sweetheart of a mare tossed her mane and
pawed with her front hoofs, frisking her tail about as though she said,
‘We’ve done it together this time. It is to us that commissions should
be intrusted.’ When I kissed her between the nostrils as I dismounted at
the gate of the Tuileries, there was as much shouting as if a bulletin
had been read from the Grand Army.
I was hardly in costume to visit a King; but, after all, if one has a
soldierly figure one can do without all that. I was shown up straight
away to Joseph, whom I had often seen in Spain. He seemed as stout, as
quiet, and as amiable as ever. Talleyrand was in the room with him, or I
suppose I should call him the Duke of Benevento, but I confess that I
like old names best. He read my letter when Joseph Buonaparte handed it
to him, and then he looked at me with the strangest expression in those
funny little, twinkling eyes of his.
‘Were you the only messenger?’ he asked.
‘There was one other, sir,’ said I. ‘Major Charpentier, of the Horse
‘He has not yet arrived,’ said the King of Spain.
‘If you had seen the legs of his horse, sire, you would not wonder at
it,’ I remarked.
‘There may be other reasons,’ said Talleyrand, and he gave that singular
smile of his.
Well, they paid me a compliment or two, though they might have said a
good deal more and yet have said too little. I bowed myself out, and
very glad I was to get away, for I hate a Court as much as I love a
camp. Away I went to my old friend Chaubert, in the Rue Miromesnil, and
there I got his hussar uniform, which fitted me very well. He and
Lisette and I supped together in his rooms, and all my dangers were
forgotten. In the morning I found Violette ready for another
twenty-league stretch. It was my intention to return instantly to the
Emperor’s headquarters, for I was, as you may well imagine, impatient to
hear his words of praise, and to receive my reward.
I need not say that I rode back by a safe route, for I had seen quite
enough of Uhlans and Cossacks. I passed through Meaux and Château
Thierry, and so in the evening I arrived at Rheims, where Napoleon was
still lying. The bodies of our fellows and of St Prest’s Russians had
all been buried, and I could see changes in the camp also. The soldiers
looked better cared for; some of the cavalry had received remounts, and
everything was in excellent order. It was wonderful what a good general
can effect in a couple of days.
When I came to the headquarters I was shown straight into the Emperor’s
room. He was drinking coffee at a writing-table, with a big plan drawn
out on paper in front of him. Berthier and Macdonald were leaning, one
over each shoulder, and he was talking so quickly that I don’t believe
that either of them could catch a half of what he was saying. But when
his eyes fell upon me he dropped the pen on to the chart, and he sprang
up with a look in his pale face which struck me cold.
‘What the deuce are you doing here?’ he shouted. When he was angry he
had a voice like a peacock.
‘I have the honour to report to you, sire,’ said I, ‘that I have
delivered your despatch safely to the King of Spain.’
‘What!’ he yelled, and his two eyes transfixed me like bayonets. Oh,
those dreadful eyes, shifting from grey to blue, like steel in the
sunshine. I can see them now when I have a bad dream.
‘What has become of Charpentier?’ he asked.
‘He is captured,’ said Macdonald.
‘No, a single Cossack.’
‘He gave himself up?’
‘He is an intelligent officer. You will see that the medal of honour is
awarded to him.’
When I heard those words I had to rub my eyes to make sure that I was
‘As to you,’ cried the Emperor, taking a step forward as if he would
have struck me, ‘you brain of a hare, what do you think that you were
sent upon this mission for? Do you conceive that I would send a really
important message by such a hand as yours, and through every village
which the enemy holds? How you came through them passes my
comprehension; but if your fellow-messenger had had but as little sense
as you, my whole plan of campaign would have been ruined. Can you not
see, coglione, that this message contained false news, and that it was
intended to deceive the enemy whilst I put a very different scheme into
When I heard those cruel words and saw the angry, white face which
glared at me, I had to hold the back of a chair, for my mind was failing
me and my knees would hardly bear me up. But then I took courage as I
reflected that I was an honourable gentleman, and that my whole life had
been spent in toiling for this man and for my beloved country.
‘Sire,’ said I, and the tears would trickle down my cheeks whilst I
spoke, ‘when you are dealing with a man like me you would find it wiser
to deal openly. Had I known that you had wished the despatch to fall
into the hands of the enemy, I would have seen that it came there. As I
believed that I was to guard it, I was prepared to sacrifice my life for
it. I do not believe, sire, that any man in the world ever met with more
toils and perils than I have done in trying to carry out what I thought
was your will.’
I dashed the tears from my eyes as I spoke, and with such fire and
spirit as I could command I gave him an account of it all, of my dash
through Soissons, my brush with the dragoons, my adventure in Senlis, my
rencontre with Count Boutkine in the cellar, my disguise, my meeting
with the Cossack officer, my flight, and how at the last moment I was
nearly cut down by a French dragoon. The Emperor, Berthier, and
Macdonald listened with astonishment on their faces. When I had finished
Napoleon stepped forward and he pinched me by the ear.
‘There, there!’ said he. ‘Forget anything which I may have said. I
would have done better to trust you. You may go.’
I turned to the door, and my hand was upon the handle, when the Emperor
called upon me to stop.
‘You will see,’ said he, turning to the Duke of Tarentum, ‘that
Brigadier Gerard has the special medal of honour, for I believe that if
he has the thickest head he has also the stoutest heart in my army.’
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