Chapter 2 How the Brigadier Slew the Brothers of Ajaccio
When the Emperor needed an agent he was always very ready to do me the honou_f recalling the name of Etienne Gerard, though it occasionally escaped hi_hen rewards were to be distributed. Still, I was a colonel at twenty-eight, and the chief of a brigade at thirty-one, so that I have no reason to b_issatisfied with my career. Had the wars lasted another two or three years _ight have grasped my bâton, and the man who had his hand upon that was onl_ne stride from a throne. Murat had changed his hussar's cap for a crown, an_nother light cavalry man might have done as much. However, all those dream_ere driven away by Waterloo, and, although I was not able to write my nam_pon history, it is sufficiently well known by all who served with me in th_reat wars of the Empire.
What I want to tell you tonight is about the very singular affair which firs_tarted me upon my rapid upward course, and which had the effect o_stablishing a secret bond between the Emperor and myself.
There is just one little word of warning which I must give you before I begin.
When you hear me speak, you must always bear in mind that you are listening t_ne who has seen history from the inside. I am talking about what my ears hav_eard and my eyes have seen, so you must not try to confute me by quoting th_pinions of some student or man of the pen, who has written a book of histor_r memoirs. There is much which is unknown by such people, and much whic_ever will be known by the world. For my own part, I could tell you some ver_urprising things were it discreet to do so. The facts which I am about t_elate to you tonight were kept secret by me during the Emperor's lifetime, because I gave him my promise that it should be so, but I do not think tha_here can be any harm now in my telling the remarkable part which I played.
You must know, then, that at the time of the Treaty of Tilsit I was a simpl_ieutenant in the 10th Hussars, without money or interest. It is true that m_ppearance and my gallantry were in my favour, and that I had already won _eputation as being one of the best swordsmen in the army; but amongst th_ost of brave men who surrounded the Emperor it needed more than this t_nsure a rapid career. I was confident, however, that my chance would come, though I never dreamed that it would take so remarkable a form.
When the Emperor returned to Paris, after the declaration of peace in the yea_807, he spent much of his time with the Empress and the Court a_ontainebleau. It was the time when he was at the pinnacle of his career. H_ad in three successive campaigns humbled Austria, crushed Prussia, and mad_he Russians very glad to get upon the right side of the Niemen. The ol_ulldog over the Channel was still growling, but he could not get very fa_rom his kennel. If we could have made a perpetual peace at that moment, France would have taken a higher place than any nation since the days of th_omans. So I have heard the wise folk say, though for my part I had othe_hings to think of. All the girls were glad to see the army back after it_ong absence, and you may be sure that I had my share of any favours that wer_oing. You may judge how far I was a favourite in those days when I say tha_ven now, in my sixtieth year—but why should I dwell upon that which i_lready sufficiently well known?
Our regiment of hussars was quartered with the horse chasseurs of the guard a_ontainebleau. It is, as you know, but a little place, buried in the heart o_he forest, and it was wonderful at this time to see it crowded with Gran_ukes and Electors and Princes, who thronged round Napoleon like puppies roun_heir master, each hoping that some bone might be thrown to him. There wa_ore German than French to be heard in the street, for those who had helped u_n the late war had come to beg for a reward, and those who had opposed us ha_ome to try and escape their punishment.
And all the time our little man, with his pale face and his cold, grey eyes, was riding to the hunt every morning, silent and brooding, all of the_ollowing in his train, in the hope that some word would escape him. And then, when the humour seized him, he would throw a hundred square miles to that man, or tear as much off the other, round off one kingdom by a river, or cut of_nother by a chain of mountains. That was how he used to do business, thi_ittle artilleryman, whom we had raised so high with our sabres and ou_ayonets. He was very civil to us always, for he knew where his power cam_rom. We knew also, and showed it by the way in which we carried ourselves. W_ere agreed, you understand, that he was the finest leader in the world, bu_e did not forget that he had the finest men to lead.
Well, one day I was seated in my quarters playing cards with young Morat, o_he horse chasseurs, when the door opened and in walked Lasalle, who was ou_olonel. You know what a fine, swaggering fellow he was, and the sky-blu_niform of the Tenth suited him to a marvel. My faith, we youngsters were s_aken by him that we all swore and diced and drank and played the deuc_hether we liked it or no, just that we might resemble our Colonel! We forgo_hat it was not because he drank or gambled that the Emperor was going to mak_im the head of the light cavalry, but because he had the surest eye for th_ature of a position or for the strength of a column, and the best judgment a_o when infantry could be broken, or whether guns were exposed, of any man i_he army. We were too young to understand all that, however, so we waxed ou_oustaches and clicked our spurs and let the ferrules of our scabbards wea_ut by trailing them along the pavement in the hope that we should all becom_asalles. When he came clanking into my quarters, both Morat and I sprang t_ur feet.
'My boy,' said he, clapping me on the shoulder, 'the Emperor wants to see yo_t four o'clock.'
The room whirled round me at the words, and I had to lean my hands upon th_dge of the card-table.
'What?' I cried. 'The Emperor!'
'Precisely,' said he, smiling at my astonishment.
'But the Emperor does not know of my existence, Colonel,' I protested. 'Wh_hould he send for me?'
'Well, that's just what puzzles me,' cried Lasalle, twirling his moustache.
'If he wanted the help of a good sabre, why should he descend to one of m_ieutenants when he might have found all that he needed at the head of th_egiment? However,' he added, clapping me on the shoulder again in his heart_ashion, 'every man has his chance. I have had mine, otherwise I should not b_olonel of the Tenth. I must not grudge you yours. Forwards, my boy, and ma_t be the first step towards changing your busby for a cocked hat.'
It was but two o'clock, so he left me, promising to come back and to accompan_e to the palace. My faith, what a time I passed, and how many conjectures di_ make as to what it was that the Emperor could want of me! I paced up an_own my little room in a fever of anticipation. Sometimes I thought tha_erhaps he had heard of the guns which we had taken at Austerlitz; but, then, there were so many who had taken guns at Austerlitz, and two years had passe_ince the battle. Or it might be that he wished to reward me for my affai_ith the aide-de-camp of the Russian Emperor. But then again a cold fit woul_eize me, and I would fancy that he had sent for me to reprimand me. Ther_ere a few duels which he might have taken in ill part, and there were one o_wo little jokes in Paris since the peace.
But, no! I considered the words of Lasalle. 'If he had need of a brave man,'
It was obvious that my Colonel had some idea of what was in the wind. If h_ad not known that it was to my advantage, he would not have been so cruel a_o congratulate me. My heart glowed with joy as this conviction grew upon me, and I sat down to write to my mother and to tell her that the Emperor wa_aiting, at that very moment, to have my opinion upon a matter of importance.
It made me smile as I wrote it to think that, wonderful as it appeared to me, it would probably only confirm my mother in her opinion of the Emperor's goo_ense.
At half-past three I heard a sabre come clanking against every step of m_ooden stair. It was Lasalle, and with him was a lame gentleman, very neatl_ressed in black with dapper ruffles and cuffs. We did not know man_ivilians, we of the army, but, my word, this was one whom we could not affor_o ignore! I had only to glance at those twinkling eyes, the comical, upturne_ose, and the straight, precise mouth, to know that I was in the presence o_he one man in France whom even the Emperor had to consider.
'This is Monsieur Etienne Gerard, Monsieur de Talleyrand,' said Lasalle.
I saluted, and the statesman took me in from the top of my panache to th_owel of my spur, with a glance that played over me like a rapier point.
'Have you explained to the lieutenant the circumstances under which he i_ummoned to the Emperor's presence?' he asked, in his dry, creaking voice.
They were such a contrast, these two men, that I could not help glancing fro_ne to the other of them: the black, sly politician, and the big, sky-blu_ussar with one fist on his hip and the other on the hilt of his sabre. The_oth took their seats as I looked, Talleyrand without a sound, and Lasall_ith a clash and a jingle like a prancing charger.
'It's this way, youngster,' said he, in his brusque fashion; 'I was with th_mperor in his private cabinet this morning when a note was brought in to him.
He opened it, and as he did so he gave such a start that it fluttered down o_o the floor. I handed it up to him again, but he was staring at the wall i_ront of him as if he had seen a ghost. "Fratelli dell' Ajaccio," he muttered; and then again, "Fratelli dell' Ajaccio." I don't pretend to know more Italia_han a man can pick up in two campaigns, and I could make nothing of this. I_eemed to me that he had gone out of his mind; and you would have said s_lso, Monsieur de Talleyrand, if you had seen the look in his eyes. He rea_he note, and then he sat for half an hour or more without moving.'
'And you?' asked Talleyrand.
'Why, I stood there not knowing what I ought to do. Presently he seemed t_ome back to his senses.
'"I suppose, Lasalle," said he, "that you have some gallant young officers i_he Tenth?"
'"They are all that, sire," I answered.
'"If you had to pick one who was to be depended upon for action, but who woul_ot think too much—you understand me, Lasalle—which would you select?" h_sked.
'I saw that he needed an agent who would not penetrate too deeply into hi_lans.
'"I have one," said I, "who is all spurs and moustaches, with never a though_eyond women and horses."
'"That is the man I want," said Napoleon. "Bring him to my private cabinet a_our o'clock."
'So, youngster, I came straight away to you at once, and mind that you d_redit to the 10th Hussars.'
I was by no means flattered by the reasons which had led to my Colonel'_hoice, and I must have shown as much in my face, for he roared with laughte_nd Talleyrand gave a dry chuckle also.
'Just one word of advice before you go, Monsieur Gerard,' said he: 'you ar_ow coming into troubled waters, and you might find a worse pilot than myself.
We have none of us any idea as to what this little affair means, and, betwee_urselves, it is very important for us, who have the destinies of France upo_ur shoulders, to keep ourselves in touch with all that goes on. Yo_nderstand me, Monsieur Gerard?'
I had not the least idea what he was driving at, but I bowed and tried to loo_s if it was clear to me.
'Act very guardedly, then, and say nothing to anybody,' said Talleyrand.
'Colonel de Lasalle and I will not show ourselves in public with you, but w_ill await you here, and we will give you our advice when you have told u_hat has passed between the Emperor and yourself. It is time that you starte_ow, for the Emperor never forgives unpunctuality.'
Off I went on foot to the palace, which was only a hundred paces off. I mad_y way to the ante-chamber, where Duroc, with his grand new scarlet and gol_oat, was fussing about among the crowd of people who were waiting. I hear_im whisper to Monsieur de Caulaincourt that half of them were German Duke_ho expected to be made Kings, and the other half German Dukes who expected t_e made paupers. Duroc, when he heard my name, showed me straight in, and _ound myself in the Emperor's presence.
I had, of course, seen him in camp a hundred times, but I had never been fac_o face with him before. I have no doubt that if you had met him withou_nowing in the least who he was, you would simply have said that he was _allow little fellow with a good forehead and fairly well-turned calves. Hi_ight white cashmere breeches and white stockings showed off his legs t_dvantage. But even a stranger must have been struck by the singular look o_is eyes, which could harden into an expression which would frighten _renadier. It is said that even Auguereau, who was a man who had never know_hat fear was, quailed before Napoleon's gaze, at a time, too, when th_mperor was but an unknown soldier. He looked mildly enough at me, however, and motioned me to remain by the door. De Meneval was writing to hi_ictation, looking up at him between each sentence with his spaniel eyes.
'That will do. You can go,' said the Emperor, abruptly. Then, when th_ecretary had left the room, he strode across with his hands behind his back, and he looked me up and down without a word. Though he was a small ma_imself, he was very fond of having fine-looking fellows about him, and so _hink that my appearance gave him pleasure. For my own part, I raised one han_o the salute and held the other upon the hilt of my sabre, looking straigh_head of me, as a soldier should.
'Well, Monsieur Gerard,' said he, at last, tapping his forefinger upon one o_he brandebourgs of gold braid upon the front of my pelisse, 'I am informe_hat you are a very deserving young officer. Your Colonel gives me a_xcellent account of you.'
I wished to make a brilliant reply, but I could think of nothing sav_asalle's phrase that I was all spurs and moustaches, so it ended in my sayin_othing at all. The Emperor watched the struggle which must have shown itsel_pon my features, and when, finally, no answer came he did not appear to b_ispleased.
'I believe that you are the very man that I want,' said he. 'Brave and cleve_en surround me upon every side. But a brave man who—' He did not finish hi_entence, and for my own part I could not understand what he was driving at. _ontented myself with assuring him that he could count upon me to the death.
'You are, as I understand, a good swordsman?' said he.
'Tolerable, sire,' I answered.
'You were chosen by your regiment to fight the champion of the Hussars o_hambarant?' said he.
I was not sorry to find that he knew so much of my exploits.
'My comrades, sire, did me that honour,' said I.
'And for the sake of practice you insulted six fencing masters in the wee_efore your duel?'
'I had the privilege of being out seven times in as many days, sire,' said I.
'And escaped without a scratch?'
'The fencing master of the 23rd Light Infantry touched me on the left elbow, sire.'
'Let us have no more child's play of the sort, monsieur,' he cried, turnin_uddenly to that cold rage of his which was so appalling. 'Do you imagine tha_ place veteran soldiers in these positions that you may practise quarte an_ierce upon them? How am I to face Europe if my soldiers turn their point_pon each other? Another word of your duelling, and I break you between thes_ingers.'
I saw his plump white hands flash before my eyes as he spoke, and his voic_ad turned to the most discordant hissing and growling. My word, my ski_ringled all over as I listened to him, and I would gladly have changed m_osition for that of the first man in the steepest and narrowest breach tha_ver swallowed up a storming party. He turned to the table, drank off a cup o_offee, and then when he faced me again every trace of this storm ha_anished, and he wore that singular smile which came from his lips but neve_rom his eyes.
'I have need of your services, Monsieur Gerard,' said he. 'I may be safer wit_ good sword at my side, and there are reasons why yours should be the on_hich I select. But first of all I must bind you to secrecy. Whilst I liv_hat passes between us today must be known to none but ourselves.'
I thought of Talleyrand and of Lasalle, but I promised.
'In the next place, I do not want your opinions or conjectures, and I wish yo_o do exactly what you are told.'
'It is your sword that I need, and not your brains. I will do the thinking. I_hat clear to you?'
'You know the Chancellor's Grove, in the forest?'
'You know also the large double fir-tree where the hounds assembled o_uesday?'
Had he known that I met a girl under it three times a week, he would not hav_sked me. I bowed once more without remark.
'Very good. You will meet me there at ten o'clock tonight.'
I had got past being surprised at anything which might happen. If he had aske_e to take his place upon the imperial throne I could only have nodded m_usby.
'We shall then proceed into the wood together,' said the Emperor. 'You will b_rmed with a sword, but not with pistols. You must address no remark to me, and I shall say nothing to you. We will advance in silence. You understand?'
'I understand, sire.'
'After a time we shall see a man, or more probably two men, under a certai_ree. We shall approach them together. If I signal to you to defend me, yo_ill have your sword ready. If, on the other hand, I speak to these men, yo_ill wait and see what happens. If you are called upon to draw, you must se_hat neither of them, in the event of there being two, escapes from us. _hall myself assist you.'
'Sire,' I cried, 'I have no doubt that two would not be too many for my sword; but would it not be better that I should bring a comrade than that you shoul_e forced to join in such a struggle?'
'Ta, ta, ta,' said he. 'I was a soldier before I was an Emperor. Do you think, then, that artillerymen have not swords as well as the hussars? But I ordere_ou not to argue with me. You will do exactly what I tell you. If swords ar_nce out, neither of these men is to get away alive.'
'They shall not, sire,' said I.
'Very good. I have no more instructions for you. You can go.'
I turned to the door, and then an idea occurring to me I turned.
'I have been thinking, sire—' said I.
He sprang at me with the ferocity of a wild beast. I really thought he woul_ave struck me.
'Thinking!' he cried. 'You, you! Do you imagine I chose you out because yo_ould think? Let me hear of your doing such a thing again! You, the on_an—but, there! You meet me at the fir-tree at ten o'clock.'
My faith, I was right glad to get out of the room. If I have a good hors_nder me, and a sword clanking against my stirrup-iron, I know where I am. An_n all that relates to green fodder or dry, barley and oats and rye, and th_andling of squadrons upon the march, there is no one who can teach me ver_uch. But when I meet a Chamberlain and a Marshal of the Palace, and have t_ick my words with an Emperor, and find that everybody hints instead o_alking straight out, I feel like a troop-horse who has been put in a lady'_alèche. It is not my trade, all this mincing and pretending. I have learne_he manners of a gentleman, but never those of a courtier. I was right gla_hen to get into the fresh air again, and I ran away up to my quarters like _choolboy who has just escaped from the seminary master.
But as I opened the door, the very first thing that my eye rested upon was _ong pair of sky-blue legs with hussar boots, and a short pair of black one_ith knee breeches and buckles. They both sprang up together to greet me.
'Well, what news?' they cried, the two of them.
'None,' I answered.
'The Emperor refused to see you?'
'No, I have seen him.'
'And what did he say?'
'Monsieur de Talleyrand,' I answered, 'I regret to say that it is quit_mpossible for me to tell you anything about it. I have promised the Emperor.'
'Pooh, pooh, my dear young man,' said he, sidling up to me, as a cat does whe_t is about to rub itself against you. 'This is all among friends, yo_nderstand, and goes no farther than these four walls. Besides, the Empero_ever meant to include me in this promise.'
'It is but a minute's walk to the palace, Monsieur de Talleyrand,' I answered;
'if it would not be troubling you too much to ask you to step up to it an_ring back the Emperor's written statement that he did not mean to include yo_n this promise, I shall be happy to tell you every word that passed.'
He showed his teeth at me then like the old fox that he was.
'Monsieur Gerard appears to be a little puffed up,' said he. 'He is too youn_o see things in their just proportion. As he grows older he may understan_hat it is not always very discreet for a subaltern of cavalry to give suc_ery abrupt refusals.'
I did not know what to say to this, but Lasalle came to my aid in hi_ownright fashion.
'The lad is quite right,' said he. 'If I had known that there was a promise _hould not have questioned him. You know very well, Monsieur de Talleyrand, that if he had answered you, you would have laughed in your sleeve and though_s much about him as I think of the bottle when the burgundy is gone. As fo_e, I promise you that the Tenth would have had no room for him, and that w_hould have lost our best swordsman if I had heard him give up the Emperor'_ecret.'
But the statesman became only the more bitter when he saw that I had th_upport of my Colonel.
'I have heard, Colonel de Lasalle,' said he, with an icy dignity, 'that you_pinion is of great weight upon the subject of light cavalry. Should I hav_ccasion to seek information about that branch of the army, I shall be ver_appy to apply to you. At present, however, the matter concerns diplomacy, an_ou will permit me to form my own views upon that question. As long as th_elfare of France and the safety of the Emperor's person are largely committe_o my care, I will use every means in my power to secure them, even if i_hould be against the Emperor's own temporary wishes. I have the honour, Colonel de Lasalle, to wish you a very good-day!'
He shot a most unamiable glance in my direction, and, turning upon his heel, he walked with little, quick, noiseless steps out of the room.
I could see from Lasalle's face that he did not at all relish finding himsel_t enmity with the powerful Minister. He rapped out an oath or two, and then, catching up his sabre and his cap, he clattered away down the stairs. As _ooked out of the window I saw the two of them, the big blue man and th_imping black one, going up the street together. Talleyrand was walking ver_igidly, and Lasalle was waving his hands and talking, so I suppose he wa_rying to make his peace.
The Emperor had told me not to think, and I endeavoured to obey him. I took u_he cards from the table where Morat had left them, and I tried to work out _ew combinations at écarté. But I could not remember which were trumps, and _hrew them under the table in despair. Then I drew my sabre and practise_iving point until I was weary, but it was all of no use at all. My mind woul_ork, in spite of myself. At ten o'clock I was to meet the Emperor in th_orest. Of all extraordinary combinations of events in the whole world, surel_his was the last which would have occurred to me when I rose from my couc_hat morning. But the responsibility—the dreadful responsibility! It was al_pon my shoulders. There was no one to halve it with me. It made me cold al_ver. Often as I have faced death upon the battle-field, I have never know_hat real fear was until that moment. But then I considered that after all _ould but do my best like a brave and honourable gentleman, and above all obe_he orders which I had received, to the very letter. And, if all went well, this would surely be the foundation of my fortunes. Thus, swaying between m_ears and my hopes, I spent the long, long evening until it was time to kee_y appointment.
I put on my military overcoat, as I did not know how much of the night I migh_ave to spend in the woods, and I fastened my sword outside it. I pulled of_y hussar boots also, and wore a pair of shoes and gaiters, that I might b_ighter upon my feet. Then I stole out of my quarters and made for the forest, feeling very much easier in my mind, for I am always at my best when the tim_f thought has passed and the moment for action arrived.
I passed the barracks of the Chasseurs of the Guards, and the line of cafe_ll filled with uniforms. I caught a glimpse as I went by of the blue and gol_f some of my comrades, amid the swarm of dark infantry coats and the ligh_reen of the Guides. There they sat, sipping their wine and smoking thei_igars, little dreaming what their comrade had on hand. One of them, the chie_f my squadron, caught sight of me in the lamplight, and came shouting afte_e into the street. I hurried on, however, pretending not to hear him, so he, with a curse at my deafness, went back at last to his wine bottle.
It is not very hard to get into the forest at Fontainebleau. The scattere_rees steal their way into the very streets, like the tirailleurs in front o_ column. I turned into a path, which led to the edge of the woods, and then _ushed rapidly forward towards the old fir-tree. It was a place which, as _ave hinted, I had my own reasons for knowing well, and I could only thank th_ates that it was not one of the nights upon which Léonie would be waiting fo_e. The poor child would have died of terror at sight of the Emperor. He migh_ave been too harsh with her—and worse still, he might have been too kind.
There was a half moon shining, and, as I came up to our trysting-place, I sa_hat I was not the first to arrive. The Emperor was pacing up and down, hi_ands behind him and his face sunk somewhat forward upon his breast. He wore _rey great-coat with a capote over his head. I had seen him in such a dress i_ur winter campaign in Poland, and it was said that he used it because th_ood was such an excellent disguise. He was always fond, whether in the cam_r in Paris, of walking round at night, and overhearing the talk in th_abarets or round the fires. His figure, however, and his way of carrying hi_ead and his hands were so well known that he was always recognized, and the_he talkers would say whatever they thought would please him best.
My first thought was that he would be angry with me for having kept hi_aiting, but as I approached him, we heard the big church clock o_ontainebleau clang out the hour of ten. It was evident, therefore, that i_as he who was too soon, and not I too late. I remembered his order that _hould make no remark, so contented myself with halting within four paces o_im, clicking my spurs together, grounding my sabre, and saluting. He glance_t me, and then without a word he turned and walked slowly through the forest, I keeping always about the same distance behind him. Once or twice he seeme_o me to look apprehensively to right and to left, as if he feared tha_omeone was observing us. I looked also, but although I have the keenes_ight, it was quite impossible to see anything except the ragged patches o_oonshine between the great black shadows of the trees. My ears are as quic_s my eyes, and once or twice I thought that I heard a twig crack; but yo_now how many sounds there are in a forest at night, and how difficult it i_ven to say what direction they come from.
We walked for rather more than a mile, and I knew exactly what our destinatio_as, long before we got there. In the centre of one of the glades, there i_he shattered stump of what must at some time have been a most gigantic tree.
It is called the Abbot's Beech, and there are so many ghostly stories abou_t, that I know many a brave soldier who would not care about mountin_entinel over it. However, I cared as little for such folly as the Empero_id, so we crossed the glade and made straight for the old broken trunk. As w_pproached, I saw that two men were waiting for us beneath it.
When I first caught sight of them they were standing rather behind it, as i_hey were not anxious to be seen, but as we came nearer they emerged from it_hadow and walked forward to meet us. The Emperor glanced back at me, an_lackened his pace a little so that I came within arm's length of him. You ma_hink that I had my hilt well to the front, and that I had a very good look a_hese two people who were approaching us.
The one was tall, remarkably so, and of very spare frame, while the other wa_ather below the usual height, and had a brisk, determined way of walking.
They each wore black cloaks, which were slung right across their figures, an_ung down upon one side, like the mantles of Murat's dragoons. They had fla_lack caps, like those I have since seen in Spain, which threw their face_nto darkness, though I could see the gleam of their eyes from beneath them.
With the moon behind them and their long black shadows walking in front, the_ere such figures as one might expect to meet at night near the Abbot's Beech.
I can remember that they had a stealthy way of moving, and that as the_pproached, the moonshine formed two white diamonds between their legs and th_egs of their shadows.
The Emperor had paused, and these two strangers came to a stand also within _ew paces of us. I had drawn up close to my companion's elbow, so that th_our of us were facing each other without a word spoken. My eyes wer_articularly fixed upon the taller one, because he was slightly the nearer t_e, and I became certain as I watched him that he was in the last state o_ervousness. His lean figure was quivering all over, and I heard a quick, thi_anting like that of a tired dog. Suddenly one of them gave a short, hissin_ignal. The tall man bent his back and his knees like a diver about to spring, but before he could move, I had jumped with drawn sabre in front of him. A_he same instant the smaller man bounded past me, and buried a long poniard i_he Emperor's heart.
My God! the horror of that moment! It is a marvel that I did not drop dea_yself. As in a dream, I saw the grey coat whirl convulsively round, an_aught a glimpse in the moonlight of three inches of red point which jutte_ut from between the shoulders. Then down he fell with a dead man's gasp upo_he grass, and the assassin, leaving his weapon buried in his victim, threw u_oth his hands and shrieked with joy. But I—I drove my sword through hi_idriff with such frantic force, that the mere blow of the hilt against th_nd of his breast-bone sent him six paces before he fell, and left my reekin_lade ready for the other. I sprang round upon him with such a lust for bloo_pon me as I had never felt, and never have felt, in all my days. As I turned, a dagger flashed before my eyes, and I felt the cold wind of it pass my nec_nd the villain's wrist jar upon my shoulder. I shortened my sword, but h_inced away from me, and an instant afterwards was in full flight, boundin_ike a deer across the glade in the moonlight.
But he was not to escape me thus. I knew that the murderer's poniard had don_ts work. Young as I was, I had seen enough of war to know a mortal blow. _aused but for an instant to touch the cold hand.
'Sire! Sire!' I cried, in an agony; and then as no sound came back and nothin_oved, save an ever-widening dark circle in the moonlight, I knew that all wa_ndeed over. I sprang madly to my feet, threw off my great-coat, and ran a_he top of my speed after the remaining assassin.
Ah, how I blessed the wisdom which had caused me to come in shoes and gaiters!
And the happy thought which had thrown off my coat. He could not get rid o_is mantle, this wretch, or else he was too frightened to think of it. So i_as that I gained upon him from the beginning. He must have been out of hi_its, for he never tried to bury himself in the darker parts of the woods, bu_e flew on from glade to glade, until he came to the heath-land which leads u_o the great Fontainebleau quarry. There I had him in full sight, and kne_hat he could not escape me. He ran well, it is true—ran as a coward runs whe_is life is the stake. But I ran as Destiny runs when it gets behind a man'_eels. Yard by yard I drew in upon him. He was rolling and staggering. I coul_ear the rasping and crackling of his breath. The great gulf of the quarr_uddenly yawned in front of his path, and glancing at me over his shoulder, h_ave a shriek of despair. The next instant he had vanished from my sight.
Vanished utterly, you understand. I rushed to the spot, and gazed down int_he black abyss. Had he hurled himself over? I had almost made up my mind tha_e had done so, when a gentle sound rising and falling came out of th_arkness beneath me. It was his breathing once more, and it showed me where h_ust be. He was hiding in the tool-house.
At the edge of the quarry and beneath the summit there is a small platfor_pon which stands a wooden hut for the use of the labourers. It was into this, then, that he had darted. Perhaps he had thought, the fool, that, in th_arkness, I would not venture to follow him. He little knew Etienne Gerard.
With a spring I was on the platform, with another I was through the doorway, and then, hearing him in the corner, I hurled myself down upon the top of him.
He fought like a wild cat, but he never had a chance with his shorter weapon.
I think that I must have transfixed him with that first mad lunge, for, thoug_e struck and struck, his blows had no power in them, and presently his dagge_inkled down upon the floor. When I was sure that he was dead, I rose up an_assed out into the moonlight. I climbed on to the heath again, and wandere_cross it as nearly out of my mind as a man could be.
With the blood singing in my ears, and my naked sword still clutched in m_and, I walked aimlessly on until, looking round me, I found that I had com_s far as the glade of the Abbot's Beech, and saw in the distance that gnarle_tump which must ever be associated with the most terrible moment of my life.
I sat down upon a fallen trunk with my sword across my knees and my hea_etween my hands, and I tried to think about what had happened and what woul_appen in the future.
The Emperor had committed himself to my care. The Emperor was dead. Those wer_he two thoughts which clanged in my head, until I had no room for any othe_nes. He had come with me and he was dead. I had done what he had ordered whe_iving. I had revenged him when dead. But what of all that? The world woul_ook upon me as responsible. They might even look upon me as the assassin.
What could I prove? What witnesses had I? Might I not have been the accomplic_f these wretches? Yes, yes, I was eternally dishonoured—the lowest, mos_espicable creature in all France. This, then, was the end of my fine militar_mbitions—of the hopes of my mother. I laughed bitterly at the thought. An_hat was I to do now? Was I to go into Fontainebleau, to wake up the palace, and to inform them that the great Emperor had been murdered within a pace o_e? I could not do it—no, I could not do it! There was but one course for a_onourable gentleman whom Fate had placed in so cruel a position. I would fal_pon my dishonoured sword, and so share, since I could not avert, th_mperor's fate. I rose with my nerves strung to this last piteous deed, and a_ did so, my eyes fell upon something which struck the breath from my lips.
The Emperor was standing before me!
He was not more than ten yards off, with the moon shining straight upon hi_old, pale face. He wore his grey overcoat, but the hood was turned back, an_he front open, so that I could see the green coat of the Guides, and th_hite breeches. His hands were clasped behind his back, and his chin sun_orward upon his breast, in the way that was usual with him.
'Well,' said he, in his hardest and most abrupt voice, 'what account do yo_ive of yourself?'
I believe that, if he had stood in silence for another minute, my brain woul_ave given way. But those sharp military accents were exactly what I needed t_ring me to myself. Living or dead, here was the Emperor standing before m_nd asking me questions. I sprang to the salute.
'You have killed one, I see,' said he, jerking his head towards the beech.
'And the other escaped?'
'No, sire, I killed him also.'
'What!' he cried. 'Do I understand that you have killed them both?' H_pproached me as he spoke with a smile which set his teeth gleaming in th_oonlight.
'One body lies there, sire,' I answered. 'The other is in the tool-house a_he quarry.'
'Then the Brothers of Ajaccio are no more,' he cried, and after a pause, as i_peaking to himself: 'The shadow has passed me for ever.' Then he bent forwar_nd laid his hand upon my shoulder.
'You have done very well, my young friend,' said he. 'You have lived up t_our reputation.'
He was flesh and blood, then, this Emperor. I could feel the little, plum_alm that rested upon me. And yet I could not get over what I had seen with m_wn eyes, and so I stared at him in such bewilderment that he broke once mor_nto one of his smiles.
'No, no, Monsieur Gerard,' said he, 'I am not a ghost, and you have not see_e killed. You will come here, and all will be clear to you.'
He turned as he spoke, and led the way towards the great beech stump.
The bodies were still lying upon the ground, and two men were standing besid_hem. As we approached I saw from the turbans that they were Roustem an_ustafa, the two Mameluke servants. The Emperor paused when he came to th_rey figure upon the ground, and turning back the hood which shrouded th_eatures, he showed a face which was very different from his own.
'Here lies a faithful servant who has given up his life for his master,' sai_e. 'Monsieur de Goudin resembles me in figure and in manner, as you mus_dmit.'
What a delirium of joy came upon me when these few words made everything clea_o me. He smiled again as he saw the delight which urged me to throw my arm_ound him and to embrace him, but he moved a step away, as if he had divine_y impulse.
'You are unhurt?' he asked.
'I am unhurt, sire. But in another minute I should in my despair—'
'Tut, tut!' he interrupted. 'You did very well. He should himself have bee_ore on his guard. I saw everything which passed.'
'You saw it, sire!'
'You did not hear me follow you through the wood, then? I hardly lost sight o_ou from the moment that you left your quarters until poor De Goudin fell. Th_ounterfeit Emperor was in front of you and the real one behind. You will no_scort me back to the palace.'
He whispered an order to his Mamelukes, who saluted in silence and remaine_here they were standing. For my part, I followed the Emperor with my peliss_ursting with pride. My word, I have always carried myself as a hussar should, but Lasalle himself never strutted and swung his dolman as I did that night.
Who should clink his spurs and clatter his sabre if it were not I—I, Etienn_erard—the confidant of the Emperor, the chosen swordsman of the ligh_avalry, the man who slew the would-be assassins of Napoleon? But he notice_y bearing and turned upon me like a blight.
'Is that the way you carry yourself on a secret mission?' he hissed, with tha_old glare in his eyes. 'Is it thus that you will make your comrades believ_hat nothing remarkable has occurred? Have done with this nonsense, monsieur, or you will find yourself transferred to the sappers, where you would hav_arder work and duller plumage.'
That was the way with the Emperor. If ever he thought that anyone might have _laim upon him, he took the first opportunity to show him the gulf that la_etween. I saluted and was silent, but I must confess to you that it hurt m_fter all that had passed between us. He led on to the palace, where we passe_hrough the side door and up into his own cabinet. There were a couple o_renadiers at the staircase, and their eyes started out from under their fu_aps, I promise you, when they saw a young lieutenant of hussars going up t_he Emperor's room at midnight. I stood by the door, as I had done in th_fternoon, while he flung himself down in an arm-chair, and remained silent s_ong that it seemed to me that he had forgotten all about me. I ventured a_ast upon a slight cough to remind him.
'Ah, Monsieur Gerard,' said he, 'you are very curious, no doubt, as to th_eaning of all this?'
'I am quite content, sire, if it is your pleasure not to tell me,' I answered.
'Ta, ta, ta,' said he impatiently. 'These are only words. The moment that yo_ere outside that door you would begin making inquiries about what it means.
In two days your brother officers would know about it, in three days it woul_e all over Fontainebleau, and it would be in Paris on the fourth. Now, if _ell you enough to appease your curiosity, there is some reasonable hope tha_ou may be able to keep the matter to yourself.'
He did not understand me, this Emperor, and yet I could only bow and b_ilent.
'A few words will make it clear to you,' said he, speaking very swiftly an_acing up and down the room. 'They were Corsicans, these two men. I had know_hem in my youth. We had belonged to the same society—Brothers of Ajaccio, a_e called ourselves. It was founded in the old Paoli days, you understand, an_e had some strict rules of our own which were not infringed with impunity.'
A very grim look came over his face as he spoke, and it seemed to me that al_hat was French had gone out of him, and that it was the pure Corsican, th_an of strong passions and of strange revenges, who stood before me. Hi_emory had gone back to those early days of his, and for five minutes, wrappe_n thought, he paced up and down the room with his quick little tiger steps.
Then with an impatient wave of his hands he came back to his palace and to me.
'The rules of such a society,' he continued, 'are all very well for a privat_itizen. In the old days there was no more loyal brother than I. Bu_ircumstances change, and it would be neither for my welfare nor for that o_rance that I should now submit myself to them. They wanted to hold me to it, and so brought their fate upon their own heads. These were the two chiefs o_he order, and they had come from Corsica to summon me to meet them at th_pot which they named. I knew what such a summons meant. No man had eve_eturned from obeying one. On the other hand, if I did not go, I was sure tha_isaster would follow. I am a brother myself, you remember, and I know thei_ays.'
Again there came that hardening of his mouth and cold glitter of his eyes.
'You perceive my dilemma, Monsieur Gerard,' said he. 'How would you have acte_ourself, under such circumstances?'
'Given the word to the l0th Hussars, sire,' I cried. 'Patrols could have swep_he woods from end to end, and brought these two rascals to your feet.'
He smiled, but he shook his head.
'I had very excellent reasons why I did not wish them taken alive,' said he.
'You can understand that an assassin's tongue might be as dangerous a weapo_s an assassin's dagger. I will not disguise from you that I wished to avoi_candal at all cost. That was why I ordered you to take no pistols with you.
That also is why my Mamelukes will remove all traces of the affair, an_othing more will be heard about it. I thought of all possible plans, and I a_onvinced that I selected the best one. Had I sent more than one guard with D_oudin into the woods, then the brothers would not have appeared. They woul_ot change their plans nor miss their chance for the sake of a single man. I_as Colonel Lasalle's accidental presence at the moment when I received th_ummons which led to my choosing one of his hussars for the mission. _elected you, Monsieur Gerard, because I wanted a man who could handle _word, and who would not pry more deeply into the affair than I desired. _rust that, in this respect, you will justify my choice as well as you hav_one in your bravery and skill.'
'Sire,' I answered, 'you may rely upon it.'
'As long as I live,' said he, 'you never open your lips upon this subject.'
'I dismiss it entirely from my mind, sire. I will efface it from m_ecollection as if it had never been. I will promise you to go out of you_abinet at this moment exactly as I was when I entered it at four o'clock.'
'You cannot do that,' said the Emperor, smiling. 'You were a lieutenant a_hat time. You will permit me, Captain, to wish you a very good-night.'