When I had escorted my cousin Sibylle from the presence of the Emperor, I wa_urprised to find the same young hussar officer waiting outside who ha_ommanded the guard which had brought me to the camp.
'Well, mademoiselle, what luck?' he asked excitedly, clanking towards us.
For answer Sibylle shook her head.
'Ah, I feared as much, for the Emperor is a terrible man. It was brave, indeed, of you to attempt it. I had rather charge an unshaken square upon _pent horse than ask him for anything. But my heart is heavy, mademoiselle, that you should have been unsuccessful.' His boyish blue eyes filled wit_ears and his fair moustache drooped in such a deplorable fashion, that _ould have laughed had the matter been less serious.
'Lieutenant Gerard chanced to meet me, and escorted me through the camp,' sai_y cousin. 'He has been kind enough to give me sympathy in my trouble.'
'And so do I, Sibylle,' I cried; 'you carried yourself like an angel, and i_s a lucky man who is blessed with your love. I trust that he may be worthy o_t.'
She turned cold and proud in an instant when anyone threw a doubt upon thi_retched lover of hers.
'I know him as neither the Emperor nor you can do,' said she. 'He has th_eart and soul of a poet, and he is too high-minded to suspect the intrigue_o which he has fallen a victim. But as to Toussac, I should have no pity upo_im, for I know him to be a murderer five times over, and I know also tha_here will be no peace in France until he has been taken. Cousin Louis, wil_ou help me to do it?'
The lieutenant had been tugging at his moustache and looking me up and dow_ith a jealous eye.
'Surely, mademoiselle, you will permit me to help you?' he cried in a piteou_oice.
'I may need you both,' said she. 'I will come to you if I do. Now I will as_ou to ride with me to the edge of the camp and there to leave me.'
She had a quick imperative way which came charmingly from those sweet womanl_ips. The grey horse upon which I had come to the camp was waiting beside tha_f the hussar, so we were soon in the saddle. When we were clear of the hut_y cousin turned to us.
'I had rather go alone now,' said she. 'It is understood, then, that I ca_ely upon you.'
'Entirely,' said I.
'To the death,' cried Gerard.
'It is everything to me to have two brave men at my back,' said she, and so, with a smile, gave her horse its head and cantered off over the downland i_he direction of Grosbois.
For my part I remained in thought for some time, wondering what plan she coul_ave in her head by which she hoped to get upon the track of Toussac. _oman's wit, spurred by the danger of her lover, might perhaps succeed wher_ouche and Savary had failed. When at last I turned my horse I found my youn_ussar still staring after the distant rider.
'My faith! There is the woman for you, Etienne!' he kept repeating. 'What a_ye! What a smile! What a rider! And she is not afraid of the Emperor. Oh, Etienne, here is the woman who is worthy of you!'
These were the little sentences which he kept muttering to himself until sh_anished over the hill, when he became conscious at last of my presence.
'You are mademoiselle's cousin?' he asked. 'You are joined with me in doin_omething for her. I do not yet know what it is, but I am perfectly ready t_o it.'
'It is to capture Toussac.'
'In order to save the life of her lover.'
There was a struggle in the face of the young hussar, but his more generou_ature won.
'Sapristi! I will do even that if it will make her the happier!' he cried, an_e shook the hand which I extended towards him. 'The Hussars of Bercheny ar_uartered over yonder, where you see the lines of picketed horses. If you wil_end for Lieutenant Etienne Gerard you will find a sure blade always at you_isposal. Let me hear from you then, and the sooner the better!' He shook hi_ridle and was off, with youth and gallantry in every line of him, from hi_ed toupet and flowing dolman to the spur which twinkled on his heel.
But for four long days no word came from my cousin as to her quest, nor did _ear from this grim uncle of mine at the Castle of Grosbois. For myself I ha_one into the town of Boulogne and had hired such a room as my thin purs_ould afford over the shop of a baker named Vidal, next to the Church of St.
Augustin, in the Rue des Vents. Only last year I went back there under tha_trange impulse which leads the old to tread once more with dragging feet th_ame spots which have sounded to the crisp tread of their youth. The room i_till there, the very pictures and the plaster head of Jean Bart which used t_tand upon the side table. As I stood with my back to the narrow window, I ha_round me every smallest detail upon which my young eyes had looked; nor was _onscious that my own heart and feelings had undergone much change. And ye_here, in the little round glass which faced me, was the long drawn, wear_ace of an aged man, and out of the window, when I turned, were the bare an_onely downs which had been peopled by that mighty host of a hundred and fift_housand men. To think that the Grand Army should have vanished away like _hredding cloud upon a windy day, and yet that every sordid detail of _ourgeois lodging should remain unchanged! Truly, if man is not humble it i_ot for want of having his lesson taught to him by Nature.
My first care after I had chosen my room was to send to Grosbois for that poo_ittle bundle which I had carried ashore with me that squally night from th_nglish lugger. My next was to use the credit which my favourable reception b_he Emperor and his assurance of employment had given me in order to obtai_uch a wardrobe as would enable me to appear without discredit among th_ichly dressed courtiers and soldiers who surrounded him. It was well know_hat it was his whim that he should himself be the only plainly-dressed man i_he company, and that in the most luxurious times of the Bourbons there wa_ever a period when fine linen and a brave coat were more necessary for a ma_ho would keep in favour. A new court and a young empire cannot afford to tak_nything for granted.
It was upon the morning of the fifth day that I received a message from Duroc, who was the head of the household, that I was to attend the Emperor at th_eadquarters in the camp, and that a seat in one of the Imperial carriage_ould be at my disposal that I might proceed with the Court to Pont d_riques, there to be present at the reception of the Empress. When I arrived _as shown at once through the large entrance tent, and admitted by Constan_nto the room beyond, where the Emperor stood with his back to the fire, kicking his heels against the grate. Talleyrand and Berthier were i_ttendance, and de Meneval, the secretary, sat at the writing-table.
'Ah, Monsieur de Laval,' said the Emperor with a friendly nod. 'Have you hear_nything yet of your charming cousin?'
'Nothing, Sire,' I answered.
'I fear that her efforts will be in vain. I wish her every success, for w_ave no reason at all to fear this miserable poet, while the other i_ormidable. All the same, an example of some sort must be made.'
The darkness was drawing in, and Constant had appeared with a taper to ligh_he candles, but the Emperor ordered him out.
'I like the twilight,' said he. 'No doubt, Monsieur de Laval, after your lon_esidence in England you find yourself also most at home in a dim light. _hink that the brains of these people must be as dense as their fogs, to judg_y the nonsense which they write in their accursed papers.' With one of thos_onvulsive gestures which accompanied his sudden outbursts of passion h_eized a sheaf of late London papers from the table, and ground them into th_ire with his heel. 'An editor!' he cried in the guttural rasping voice whic_ had heard when I first met him. 'What is he? A dirty man with a pen in _ack office. And he will talk like one of the great Powers of Europe. I hav_ad enough of this freedom of the Press. There are some who would like to se_t established in Paris. You are among them, Talleyrand. For my part I see n_eed for any paper at all except the _Moniteur_ by which the Government ma_ake known its decisions to the people.'
'I am of opinion, Sire,' said the minister, 'that it is better to have ope_oes than secret ones, and that it is less dangerous to shed ink than blood.
What matter if your enemies have leave to rave in a few Paris papers, as lon_s you are at the head of five hundred thousand armed men?'
'Ta, ta, ta!' cried the Emperor impatiently. 'You speak as if I had receive_y crown from my father the late king. But even if I had, it would b_ntolerable, this government by newspaper. The Bourbons allowed themselves t_e criticised, and where are they now? Had they used their Swiss Guards as _id the Grenadiers upon the eighteenth Brumaire what would have become o_heir precious National Assembly? There was a time when a bayonet in th_tomach of Mirabeau might have settled the whole matter. Later it took th_eads of a king and queen and the blood of a hundred thousand people.'
He sat down, and stretched his plump, white-clad legs towards the fire.
Through the blackened shreds of the English papers the red glow beat upward_pon the beautiful, pallid, sphinx-like face—the face of a poet, of _hilosopher—of anything rather than of a ruthless and ambitious soldier. _ave heard folk remark that no two portraits of the Emperor are alike, and th_ault does not lie with the artists but with the fact that every varying moo_ade him a different man. But in his prime, before his features became heavy, I, who have seen sixty years of mankind, can say that in repose I have neve_ooked upon a more beautiful face.
'You have no dreams and no illusions, Talleyrand,' said he. 'You are alway_ractical, cold, and cynical. But with me, when I am in the twilight, as now, or when I hear the sound of the sea, my imagination begins to work. It is th_ame when I hear some music—especially music which repeats itself again an_gain like some pieces of Passaniello. They have a strange effect upon me, an_ begin to Ossianise. I get large ideas and great aspirations. It is at suc_imes that my mind always turns to the East, that swarming ant-heap of th_uman race, where alone it is possible to be very great. I renew my dreams of
'98. I think of the possibility of drilling and arming these vast masses o_en, and of precipitating them upon Europe. Had I conquered Syria I shoul_ave done this, and the fate of the world was really decided at the siege o_cre. With Egypt at my feet I already pictured myself approaching India, mounted upon an elephant, and holding in my hand a new version of the Kora_hich I had myself composed. I have been born too late. To be accepted as _orld's conqueror one must claim to be divine. Alexander declared himself t_e the son of Jupiter, and no one questioned it. But the world has grown old, and has lost its enthusiasms. What would happen if I were to make the sam_laim? Monsieur de Talleyrand would smile behind his hand, and the Parisian_ould write little lampoons upon the walls.'
He did not appear to be addressing us, but rather to be expressing hi_houghts aloud, while allowing them to run to the most fantastic an_xtravagant lengths. This it was which he called Ossianising, because i_ecalled to him the wild vague dreams of the Gaelic Ossian, whose poems ha_lways had a fascination for him. De Meneval has told me that for an hour at _ime he has sometimes talked in this strain of the most intimate thoughts an_spirations of his heart, while his courtiers have stood round in silenc_aiting for the instant when he would return once more to his practical an_ncisive self.
'The great ruler,' said he, 'must have the power of religion behind him a_ell as the power of the sword. It is more important to command the souls tha_he bodies of men. The Sultan, for example, is the head of the faith as wel_s of the army. So were some of the Roman Emperors. My position must b_ncomplete until this is accomplished. At the present instant there are thirt_epartments in France where the Pope is more powerful than I am. It is only b_niversal dominion that peace can be assured in the world. When there is onl_ne authority in Europe, seated at Paris, and when all the kings are so man_ieutenants who hold their crowns from the central power of France, it is the_hat the reign of peace will be established. Many powers of equal strengt_ust always lead to struggles until one becomes predominant. Her centra_osition, her wealth and her history, all mark France out as being the powe_hich will control and regulate the others. Germany is divided. Russia i_arbarous. England is insular. France only remains.'
I began to understand as I listened to him that my friends in England had no_een so far wrong when they had declared that as long as he lived—this littl_hirty-six year old artilleryman—there could not possibly be any peace in th_orld. He drank some coffee which Constant had placed upon the small roun_able at his elbow. Then he leaned back in his chair once more, still starin_oodily at the red glow of the fire, with his chin sunk upon his chest.
'In those days,' said he, 'the kings of Europe will walk behind the Emperor o_rance in order to hold up his train at his coronation. Each of them will hav_o maintain a palace in Paris, and the city will stretch as far as Versailles.
These are the plans which I have made for Paris if she will show herself to b_orthy of them. But I have no love for them, these Parisians, and they hav_one for me, for they cannot forget that I turned my guns upon them onc_efore, and they know that I am ready to do so again. I have made them admir_e and fear me, but I have never made them like me. Look what I have done fo_hem. Where are the treasures of Genoa, the pictures and statues of Venice an_f the Vatican? They are in the Louvre. The spoils of my victories have gon_o decorate her. But they must always be changing, always chattering. The_ave their hats at me now, but they would soon be waving their fists if I di_ot give them something to talk over and to wonder at. When other things ar_uiet, I have the dome of the Invalides regilded to keep their thoughts fro_ischief. Louis XIV. gave them wars. Louis XV. gave them the gallantries an_candals of his Court. Louis XVI. gave them nothing, so they cut off his head.
It was you who helped to bring him to the scaffold, Talleyrand.'
'No, Sire, I was always a moderate.'
'At least, you did not regret his death.'
'The less so, since it has made room for you, Sire.'
'Nothing could have held me down, Talleyrand. I was born to reach the highest.
It has always been the same with me. I remember when we were arranging th_reaty of Campo Formio—I a young general under thirty— there was a high vacan_hrone with the Imperial arms in the Commissioner's tent. I instantly spran_p the steps, and threw myself down upon it. I could not endure to think tha_here was anything above myself. And all the time I knew in my heart all tha_as going to happen to me. Even in the days when my brother Lucien and I live_n a little room upon a few francs a week, I knew perfectly well that the da_ould come when I should stand where I am now. And yet I had no prospects an_o reason for any great hopes. I was not clever at school. I was only th_orty-second out of fifty-eight. At mathematics I had perhaps some ability, but at nothing else. The truth is that I was always dreaming when the other_ere working. There was nothing to encourage my ambition, for the only thin_hich I inherited from my father was a weak stomach. Once, when I was ver_oung, I went up to Paris with my father and my sister Caroline. We were i_he Rue Richelieu, and we saw the king pass in his carriage. Who would hav_hought that the little boy from Corsica, who took his hat off and stared, wa_estined to be the next monarch of France? And yet even then I felt as if tha_arriage ought to belong to me. What is it, Constant?'
The discreet valet bent down and whispered something to the Emperor.
'Ah, of course,' said he. 'It was an appointment. I had forgotten it. Is sh_here?'
'In the side room?'
Talleyrand and Berthier exchanged glances, and the minister began to mov_owards the door.
'No, no, you can remain here,' said the Emperor. 'Light the lamps, Constant, and have the carriages ready in half-an-hour. Look over this draft of a lette_o the Emperor of Austria, and let me have your observations upon it, Talleyrand. De Meneval, there is a lengthy report here as to the new dockyar_t Brest. Extract what is essential from it, and leave it upon my desk at fiv_'clock to-morrow morning. Berthier, I will have the whole army into the boat_t seven. We will see if they can embark within three hours. Monsieur d_aval, you will wait here until we start for Pont de Briques.' So with a cris_rder to each of us, he walked with little swift steps across the room, and _aw his square green back and white legs framed for an instant in the doorway.
There was the flutter of a pink skirt beyond, and then the curtains close_ehind him.
Berthier stood biting his nails, while Talleyrand looked at him with a sligh_aising of his bushy eyebrows. De Meneval with a rueful face was turning ove_he great bundle of papers which had to be copied by morning. Constant, with _oiseless tread, was lighting the candles upon the sconces round the room.
'Which is it?' I heard the minister whisper.
'The girl from the Imperial Opera,' said Berthier.
'Is the little Spanish lady out of favour then?'
'No, I think not. She was here yesterday.'
'And the other, the Countess?'
'She has a cottage at Ambleteuse?'
'But we must have no scandal about the Court,' said Talleyrand, with a sou_mile, recalling the moral sentiments with which the Emperor had reproved him.
'And now, Monsieur de Laval,' he added, drawing me aside, 'I very much wish t_ear from you about the Bourbon party in England. You must have heard thei_iews. Do they imagine that they have any chance of success?'
And so for ten minutes he plied me with questions, which showed me clearl_hat the Emperor had read him aright, and that he was determined, come wha_ight, to be upon the side which won. We were still talking when Constan_ntered hurriedly, with a look of anxiety and perplexity which I could no_ave imagined upon so smooth and imperturbable a face.
'Good Heavens, Monsieur Talleyrand,' he cried, clasping and unclasping hi_ands. 'Such a misfortune! Who could have expected it?'
'What is it, then, Constant?'
'Oh, Monsieur, I dare not intrude upon the Emperor. And yet—And yet— Th_mpress is outside, and she is coming in.'