I dare say that I had already read my uncle's letter a hundred times, and I a_ure that I knew it by heart. None the less I took it out of my pocket, and, sitting on the side of the lugger, I went over it again with as much attentio_s if it were for the first time. It was written in a prim, angular hand, suc_s one might expect from a man who had begun life as a village attorney, an_t was addressed to Louis de Laval, to the care of William Hargreaves, of th_reen Man in Ashford, Kent. The landlord had many a hogshead of untaxed Frenc_randy from the Normandy coast, and the letter had found its way by the sam_ands.
'My dear nephew Louis,' said the letter, 'now that your father is dead, an_hat you are alone in the world, I am sure that you will not wish to carry o_he feud which has existed between the two halves of the family. At the tim_f the troubles your father was drawn towards the side of the King, and _owards that of the people, and it ended, as you know, by his having to fl_rom the country, and by my becoming the possessor of the estates of Grosbois.
No doubt it is very hard that you should find yourself in a different positio_o your ancestors, but I am sure that you would rather that the land should b_eld by a Bernac than by a stranger. From the brother of your mother you wil_t least always meet with sympathy and consideration.
'And now I have some advice for you. You know that I have always been _epublican, but it has become evident to me that there is no use in fightin_gainst fate, and that Napoleon's power is far too great to be shaken. Thi_eing so, I have tried to serve him, for it is well to howl when you are amon_olves. I have been able to do so much for him that he has become my very goo_riend, so that I may ask him what I like in return. He is now, as you ar_robably aware, with the army at Boulogne, within a few miles of Grosbois. I_ou will come over at once he will certainly forget the hostility of you_ather in consideration of the services of your uncle. It is true that you_ame is still proscribed, but my influence with the Emperor will set tha_atter right. Come to me, then, come at once, and come with confidence.
So much for the letter, but it was the outside which had puzzled me most. _eal of red wax had been affixed at either end, and my uncle had apparentl_sed his thumb as a signet. One could see the little rippling edges of _oarse skin imprinted upon the wax. And then above one of the seals there wa_ritten in English the two words, 'Don't come.' It was hastily scrawled, an_hether by a man or a woman it was impossible to say; but there it stared m_n the face, that sinister addition to an invitation.
'Don't come!' Had it been added by this unknown uncle of mine on account o_ome sudden change in his plans? Surely that was inconceivable, for why i_hat case should he send the invitation at all? Or was it placed there by som_ne else who wished to warn me from accepting this offer of hospitality? Th_etter was in French. The warning was in English. Could it have been added i_ngland? But the seals were unbroken, and how could any one in England kno_hat were the contents of the letter?
And then, as I sat there with the big sail humming like a shell above my hea_nd the green water hissing beside me, I thought over all that I had heard o_his uncle of mine. My father, the descendant of one of the proudest an_ldest families in France, had chosen beauty and virtue rather than rank i_is wife. Never for an hour had she given him cause to regret it; but thi_awyer brother of hers had, as I understood, offended my father by his slavis_bsequiousness in days of prosperity and his venomous enmity in the days o_rouble. He had hounded on the peasants until my family had been compelled t_ly from the country, and had afterwards aided Robespierre in his wors_xcesses, receiving as a reward the castle and estate of Grosbois, which wa_ur own. At the fall of Robespierre he had succeeded in conciliating Barras, and through every successive change he still managed to gain a fresh tenure o_he property. Now it appeared from his letter that the new Emperor of Franc_ad also taken his part, though why he should befriend a man with such _istory, and what service my Republican uncle could possibly render to him, were matters upon which I could form no opinion.
And now you will ask me, no doubt, why I should accept the invitation of suc_ man—a man whom my father had always stigmatised as a usurper and a traitor.
It is easier to speak of it now than then, but the fact was that we of the ne_eneration felt it very irksome and difficult to carry on the bitter quarrel_f the last. To the older _emigres_ the clock of time seemed to have stoppe_n the year 1792, and they remained for ever with the loves and the hatreds o_hat era fixed indelibly upon their souls. They had been burned into them b_he fiery furnace through which they had passed. But we, who had grown up upo_ strange soil, understood that the world had moved, and that new issues ha_risen. We were inclined to forget these feuds of the last generation. Franc_o us was no longer the murderous land of the _sans-culotte_ and th_uillotine basket; it was rather the glorious queen of war, attacked by al_nd conquering all, but still so hard pressed that her scattered sons coul_ear her call to arms for ever sounding in their ears. It was that call mor_han my uncle's letter which was taking me over the waters of the Channel.
For long my heart had been with my country in her struggle, and yet while m_ather lived I had never dared to say so; for to him, who had served unde_onde and fought at Quiberon, it would have seemed the blackest treason. Bu_fter his death there was no reason why I should not return to the land of m_irth, and my desire was the stronger because Eugenie—the same Eugenie who ha_een thirty years my wife—was of the same way of thinking as myself. He_arents were a branch of the de Choiseuls, and their prejudices were eve_tronger than those of my father. Little did they think what was passing i_he minds of their children. Many a time when they were mourning a Frenc_ictory in the parlour we were both capering with joy in the garden. There wa_ little window, all choked round with laurel bushes, in the corner of th_are brick house, and there we used to meet at night, the dearer to each othe_rom our difference with all who surrounded us. I would tell her my ambitions; she would strengthen them by her enthusiasm. And so all was ready when th_ime came.
But there was another reason besides the death of my father and the receipt o_his letter from my uncle. Ashford was becoming too hot to hold me. I will sa_his for the English, that they were very generous hosts to the Frenc_migrants. There was not one of us who did not carry away a kindly remembranc_f the land and its people. But in every country there are overbearing, swaggering folk, and even in quiet, sleepy Ashford we were plagued by them.
There was one young Kentish squire, Farley was his name, who had earned _eputation in the town as a bully and a roisterer. He could not meet one of u_ithout uttering insults not merely against the present French Government, which might have been excusable in an English patriot, but against Franc_tself and all Frenchmen. Often we were forced to be deaf in his presence, bu_t last his conduct became so intolerable that I determined to teach him _esson. There were several of us in the coffee-room at the Green Man on_vening, and he, full of wine and malice, was heaping insults upon the French, his eyes creeping round to me every moment to see how I was taking it. 'Now, Monsieur de Laval,' he cried, putting his rude hand upon my shoulder, 'here i_ toast for you to drink. This is to the arm of Nelson which strikes down th_rench.' He stood leering at me to see if I would drink it. 'Well, sir,' sai_, 'I will drink your toast if you will drink mine in return.' 'Come on, then!' said he. So we drank. 'Now, monsieur, let us have your toast,' said he.
'Fill your glass, then,' said I. 'It is full now.' 'Well, then, here's to th_annon-ball which carried off that arm!' In an instant I had a glass of por_ine running down my face, and within an hour a meeting had been arranged. _hot him through the shoulder, and that night, when I came to the littl_indow, Eugenie plucked off some of the laurel leaves and stuck them in m_air.
There were no legal proceedings about the duel, but it made my position _ittle difficult in the town, and it will explain, with other things, why _ad no hesitation in accepting my unknown uncle's invitation, in spite of th_ingular addition which I found upon the cover. If he had indeed sufficien_nfluence with the Emperor to remove the proscription which was attached t_ur name, then the only barrier which shut me off from my country would b_emolished.
You must picture me all this time as sitting upon the side of the lugger an_urning my prospects and my position over in my head. My reverie wa_nterrupted by the heavy hand of the English skipper dropping abruptly upon m_rm.
Now then, master,' said he, it's time you were stepping into the dingey.'
I do not inherit the politics of the aristocrats, but I have never lost thei_ense of personal dignity. I gently pushed away his polluting hand, and _emarked that we were still a long way from the shore.
'Well, you can do as you please,' said he roughly; 'I'm going no nearer, s_ou can take your choice of getting into the dingey or of swimming for it.'
It was in vain that I pleaded that he had been paid his price. I did not ad_hat that price meant that the watch which had belonged to three generation_f de Lavals was now lying in the shop of a Dover goldsmith.
'Little enough, too!' he cried harshly. 'Down sail, Jim, and bring her to!
Now, master, you can step over the side, or you can come back to Dover, but _on't take the Vixen a cable's length nearer to Ambleteuse Beef with this gal_oming up from the sou'-west.'
'In that case I shall go,' said I.
'You can lay your life on that!' he answered, and laughed in so irritating _ashion that I half turned upon him with the intention of chastising him. On_s very helpless with these fellows, however, for a serious affair is o_ourse out of the question, while if one uses a cane upon them they have _ile habit of striking with their hands, which gives them an advantage. Th_arquis de Chamfort told me that, when he first settled in Sutton at the tim_f the emigration, he lost a tooth when reproving an unruly peasant. I mad_he best of a necessity, therefore, and, shrugging my shoulders, I passed ove_he side of the lugger into the little boat. My bundle was dropped in afte_e— conceive to yourself the heir of all the de Lavals travelling with _ingle bundle for his baggage!—and two seamen pushed her off, pulling wit_ong slow strokes towards the low-lying shore.
There was certainly every promise of a wild night, for the dark cloud whic_ad rolled up over the setting sun was now frayed and ragged at the edges, extending a good third of the way across the heavens. It had split low dow_ear the horizon, and the crimson glare of the sunset beat through the gap, s_hat there was the appearance of fire with a monstrous reek of smoke. A re_ancing belt of light lay across the broad slate-coloured ocean, and in th_entre of it the little black craft was wallowing and tumbling. The two seame_ept looking up at the heavens, and then over their shoulders at the land, an_ feared every moment that they would put back before the gale burst. I wa_illed with apprehension every time when the end of their pull turned thei_aces skyward, and it was to draw their attention away from the storm-drif_hat I asked them what the lights were which had begun to twinkle through th_usk both to the right and to the left of us.
'That's Boulogne to the north, and Etaples upon the south,' said one of th_eamen civilly.
Boulogne! Etaples! How the words came back to me! It was to Boulogne that i_y boyhood we had gone down for the summer bathing. Could I not remember as _ittle lad trotting along by my father's side as he paced the beach, an_ondering why every fisherman's cap flew off at our approach? And as t_taples, it was thence that we had fled for England, when the folks cam_aving to the pier-head as we passed, and I joined my thin voice to m_ather's as he shrieked back at them, for a stone had broken my mother's knee, and we were all frenzied with our fear and our hatred. And here they were, these places of my childhood, twinkling to the north and south of me, whil_here, in the darkness between them, and only ten miles off at the furthest, lay my own castle, my own land of Grosbois, where the men of my blood ha_ived and died long before some of us had gone across with Duke William t_onquer the proud island over the water. How I strained my eager eyes throug_he darkness as I thought that the distant black keep of our fortalice migh_ven now be visible!
'Yes, sir,' said the seaman, tis a fine stretch of lonesome coast, and many i_he cock of your hackle that I have helped ashore there.'
'What do you take me for, then?' I asked.
'Well, 'tis no business of mine, sir,' he answered. 'There are some trade_hat had best not even be spoken about.'
'You think that I am a conspirator?'
'Well, master, since you have put a name to it. Lor' love you, sir, we're use_o it.'
'I give you my word that I am none.'
'An escaped prisoner, then?'
'No, nor that either.'
The man leaned upon his oar, and I could see in the gloom that his face wa_hrust forward, and that it was wrinkled with suspicion.
'If you're one of Boney's spies—' he cried.
'I! A spy!' The tone of my voice was enough to convince him.
'Well,' said he,' I'm darned if I know what you are. But if you'd been a sp_'d ha' had no hand in landing you, whatever the skipper might say.'
'Mind you, I've no word to say against Boney,' said the other seaman, speakin_n a very thick rumbling voice. 'He's been a rare good friend to the poo_ariner.'
It surprised me to hear him speak so, for the virulence of feeling against th_ew French Emperor in England exceeded all belief, and high and low wer_nited in their hatred of him; but the sailor soon gave me a clue to hi_olitics.
'If the poor mariner can run in his little bit of coffee and sugar, and ru_ut his silk and his brandy, he has Boney to thank for it,' said he. 'Th_erchants have had their spell, and now it's the turn of the poor mariner.'
I remembered then that Buonaparte was personally very popular amongst th_mugglers, as well he might be, seeing that he had made over into their hand_ll the trade of the Channel. The seaman continued to pull with his left hand, but be pointed with his right over the slate-coloured dancing waters.
'There's Boney himself,' said he.
You who live in a quieter age cannot conceive the thrill which these simpl_ords sent through me. It was but ten years since we had first heard of thi_an with the curious Italian name—think of it, ten years, the time that i_akes for a private to become a non-commissioned officer, or a clerk to win _ifty-pound advance in his salary. He had sprung in an instant out of nothin_nto everything. One month people were asking who he was, the next he ha_roken out in the north of Italy like the plague; Venice and Genoa withered a_he touch of this swarthy ill-nourished boy. He cowed the soldiers in th_ield, and he outwitted the statesmen in the council chamber. With a frenzy o_nergy he rushed to the east, and then, while men were still marvelling at th_ay in which he had converted Egypt into a French department, he was bac_gain in Italy and had beaten Austria for the second time to the earth. H_ravelled as quickly as the rumour of his coming; and where he came there wer_ew victories, new combinations, the crackling of old systems and the blurrin_f ancient lines of frontier. Holland, Savoy, Switzerland—they were becom_ere names upon the map. France was eating into Europe in every direction.
They had made him Emperor, this beardless artillery officer, and without a_ffort he had crushed down those Republicans before whom the oldest king an_he proudest nobility of Europe had been helpless. So it came about that we, who watched him dart from place to place like the shuttle of destiny, and wh_eard his name always in connection with some new achievement and some ne_uccess, had come at last to look upon him as something more than human, something monstrous, overshadowing France and menacing Europe. His gian_resence loomed over the continent, and so deep was the impression which hi_ame had made in my mind that, when the English sailor pointed confidentl_ver the darkening waters, and cried 'There's Boney!' I looked up for th_nstant with a foolish expectation of seeing some gigantic figure, som_lemental creature, dark, inchoate, and threatening, brooding over the water_f the Channel. Even now, after the long gap of years and the knowledge of hi_ownfall, that great man casts his spell upon you, but all that you read an_ll that you hear cannot give you an idea of what his name meant in the day_hen he was at the summit of his career.
What actually met my eye was very different from this childish expectation o_ine. To the north there was a long low cape, the name of which has no_scaped me. In the evening light it had been of the same greyish green tint a_he other headlands; but now, as the darkness fell, it gradually broke into _ull glow, like a cooling iron. On that wild night, seen and lost with th_eave and sweep of the boat, this lurid streak carried with it a vague bu_inister suggestion. The red line splitting the darkness might have been _iant half-forged sword-blade with its point towards England.
'What is it, then?' I asked.
'Just what I say, master,' said he. 'It's one of Boney's armies, with Bone_imself in the middle of it as like as not. Them is their camp fires, an_ou'll see a dozen such between this and Ostend. He's audacious enough to com_cross, is little Boney, if he could dowse Lord Nelson's other eye; bu_here's no chance for him until then, and well he knows it.'
'How can Lord Nelson know what he is doing?' I asked.
The man pointed out over my shoulder into the darkness, and far on the horizo_ perceived three little twinkling lights.
'Watch dog,' said he, in his husky voice.
'Andromeda. Forty-four,' added his companion.
I have often thought of them since, the long glow upon the land, and the thre_ittle lights upon the sea, standing for so much, for the two great rival_ace to face, for the power of the land and the power of the water, for th_enturies-old battle, which may last for centuries to come. And yet, Frenchma_s I am, do I not know that the struggle is already decided?—for it lie_etween the childless nation and that which has a lusty young brood springin_p around her. If France falls she dies, but if England falls how many nation_re there who will carry her speech, her traditions and her blood on into th_istory of the future?
The land had been looming darker, and the thudding of waves upon the san_ounded louder every instant upon my ears. I could already see the quic_ancing gleam of the surf in front of me. Suddenly, as I peered through th_eepening shadow, a long dark boat shot out from it, like a trout from under _tone, making straight in our direction.
'A guard boat!' cried one of the seamen.
'Bill, boy, we're done!' said the other, and began to stuff something into hi_ea boot.
But the boat swerved at the sight of us, like a shying horse, and was off i_nother direction as fast as eight frantic oars could drive her. The seame_tared after her and wiped their brows. 'Her conscience don't seem much easie_han our own,' said one of them. 'I made sure it was the preventives.'
'Looks to me as if you weren't the only queer cargo on the coast to-night, mister,' remarked his comrade. 'What could she be?'
'Cursed if I know what she was. I rammed a cake of good Trinidad tobacco int_y boot when I saw her. I've seen the inside of a French prison before now.
Give way, Bill, and have it over.'
A minute later, with a low grating sound, we ran aground upon a gravell_each. My bundle was thrown ashore, I stepped after it, and a seaman pushe_he prow off again, springing in as his comrade backed her into deep water.
Already the glow in the west had vanished, the storm-cloud was half up th_eavens, and a thick blackness had gathered over the ocean. As I turned t_atch the vanishing boat a keen wet blast flapped in my face, and the air wa_illed with the high piping of the wind and with the deep thunder of the sea.
And thus it was that, on a wild evening in the early spring of the year 1805, I, Louis de Laval, being in the twenty-first year of my age, returned, afte_n exile of thirteen years, to the country of which my family had for man_enturies been the ornament and support. She had treated us badly, thi_ountry; she had repaid our services by insult, exile, and confiscation. Bu_ll that was forgotten as I, the only de Laval of the new generation, droppe_pon my knees upon her sacred soil, and, with the strong smell of the seawee_n my nostrils, pressed my lips upon the wet and pringling gravel.