General Savary rode straight to Pont de Briques to report to the Emperor, while Gerard returned with me to my lodgings to share a bottle of wine. I ha_xpected to find my Cousin Sibylle there, but to my surprise there was no sig_f her, nor had she left any word to tell us whither she had gone.
It was just after daybreak in the morning when I woke to find an equerry o_he Emperor with his hand upon my shoulder.
'The Emperor desires to see you, Monsieur de Laval,' said he.
'At the Pont de Briques.'
I knew that promptitude was the first requisite for those who hoped to advanc_hemselves in his service. In ten minutes I was in the saddle, and in half a_our I was at the chateau. I was conducted upstairs to a room in which wer_he Emperor and Josephine, she reclining upon a sofa in a charming dressing- gown of pink and lace, he striding about in his energetic fashion, dressed i_he curious costume which he assumed before his official hours had begun—_hite sleeping suit, red Turkish slippers, and a white bandanna handkerchie_ied round his head, the whole giving him the appearance of a West India_lanter. From the strong smell of eau-de-Cologne I judged that he had jus_ome from his bath. He was in the best of humours, and she, as usual, reflected him, so that they were two smiling faces which were turned upon m_s I was announced. It was hard to believe that it was this man with th_indly expression and the genial eye who had come like an east wind into th_eception-room the other night, and left a trail of wet cheeks and downcas_aces wherever he had passed.
'You have made an excellent debut as aide-de-camp,' said he; 'Savary has tol_e all that has occurred, and nothing could have been better arranged. I hav_ot time to think of such things myself, but my wife will sleep more soundl_ow that she knows that this Toussac is out of the way.'
'Yes, yes, he was a terrible man,' cried the Empress. 'So was that George_adoudal. They were both terrible men.'
'I have my star, Josephine,' said Napoleon, patting her upon the head. 'I se_y own career lying before me and I know exactly what I am destined to do.
Nothing can harm me until my work is accomplished. The Arabs are believers i_ate, and the Arabs are in the right.'
'Then why should you plan, Napoleon, if everything is to be decided by Fate?'
'Because it is fated that I should plan, you little stupid. Don't you see tha_hat is part of Fate also, that I should have a brain which is capable o_lanning. I am always building behind a scaffolding, and no one can see what _m building until I have finished. I never look forward for less than tw_ears, and I have been busy all morning, Monsieur de Laval, in planning ou_he events which will occur in the autumn and winter of 1807. By the way, tha_ood-looking cousin of yours appears to have managed this affair ver_leverly. She is a very fine girl to be wasted upon such a creature as th_ucien Lesage who has been screaming for mercy for a week past. Do you no_hink that it is a great pity?'
I acknowledged that I did.
'It is always so with women—ideologists, dreamers, carried away by whims an_maginings. They are like the Easterns, who cannot conceive that a man is _ine soldier unless he has a formidable presence. I could not get th_gyptians to believe that I was a greater general than Kleber, because he ha_he body of a porter and the head of a hair-dresser. So it is with this poo_reature Lesage, who will be made a hero by women because he has an oval fac_nd the eyes of a calf. Do you imagine that if she were to see him in his tru_olours it would turn her against him?'
'I am convinced of it, sire. From the little that I have seen of my cousin _m sure that no one could have a greater contempt for cowardice or fo_eanness.'
'You speak warmly, sir. You are not by chance just a little touched yoursel_y this fair cousin of yours?'
'Sire, I have already told you—'
'Ta, ta, ta, but she is across the water, and many things have happened sinc_hen.'
Constant had entered the room.
'He has been admitted, sire.'
'Very good. We shall move into the next room. Josephine, you shall come too, for it is your business rather than mine.'
The room into which we passed was a long, narrow one. There were two window_t one side, but the curtains had been drawn almost across, so that the ligh_as not very good. At the further door was Roustem the Mameluke, and besid_im, with arms folded and his face sunk downwards in an attitude of shame an_ontrition, there was standing the very man of whom we had been talking. H_ooked up with scared eyes, and started with fear when he saw the Empero_pproaching him. Napoleon stood with legs apart and his hands behind his back, and looked at him long and searchingly.
'Well, my fine fellow,' said he at last, 'you have burned your fingers, and _o not fancy that you will come near the fire again. Or do you perhaps thin_f continuing with politics as a profession?'
'If your Majesty will overlook what I have done,' Lesage stammered, 'I shal_aithfully promise you that I will be your most loyal servant until the day o_y death.'
'Hum!' said the Emperor, spilling a pinch of snuff over the front of his whit_acket. 'There is some sense in what you say, for no one makes so good _ervant as the man who has had a thorough fright. But I am a very exactin_aster.'
'I do not care what you require of me. Everything will be welcome, if you wil_nly give me your forgiveness.'
'For example,' said the Emperor. 'It is one of my whims that when a man enter_y service I shall marry him to whom I like. Do you agree to that?'
There was a struggle upon the poet's face, and he clasped and unclasped hi_ands.
'May I ask, sire—?'
'You may ask nothing.'
'But there are circumstances, sire—'
'There, there, that is enough!' cried the Emperor harshly, turning upon hi_eel. I do not argue, I order. There is a young lady, Mademoiselle d_ergerot, for whom I desire a husband. Will you marry her, or will you retur_o prison?'
Again there was the struggle in the man's face, and he was silent, twitchin_nd writhing in his indecision.'
'It is enough!' cried the Emperor. 'Roustem, call the guard!'
'No, no, sire, do not send me back to prison.'
'The guard, Roustem!'
'I will do it, sire! I will do it! I will marry whomever you please!'
'You villain!' cried a voice, and there was Sibylle standing in the opening o_he curtains at one of the windows. Her face was pale with anger and her eye_hining with scorn; the parting curtains framed her tall, slim figure, whic_eaned forwards in her fury of passion. She had forgotten the Emperor, th_mpress, everything, in her revulsion of feeling against this craven whom sh_ad loved.
'They told me what you were,' she cried. 'I would not believe them, I _could_ot believe them—for I did not know that there was upon this earth a thing s_ontemptible. They said that they would prove it, and I defied them to do so, and now I see you as you are. Thank God that I have found you out in time! An_o think that for your sake I have brought about the death of a man who wa_orth a hundred of you! Oh, I am rightly punished for an unwomanly act.
Toussac has had his revenge.'
'Enough!' said the Emperor sternly. 'Constant, lead Mademoiselle Bernac int_he next room. As to you, sir, I do not think that I can condemn any lady o_y Court to take such a man as a husband. Suffice it that you have been show_n your true colours, and that Mademoiselle Bernac has been cured of a foolis_nfatuation. Roustem, remove the prisoner!'
'There, Monsieur de Laval,' said the Emperor, when the wretched Lesage ha_een conducted from the room. 'We have not done such a bad piece of wor_etween the coffee and the breakfast. It was your idea, Josephine, and I giv_ou credit for it. But now, de Laval, I feel that we owe you some recompens_or having set the young aristocrats a good example, and for having had _hare in this Toussac business. You have certainly acted very well.'
'I ask no recompense, sire,' said I, with an uneasy sense of what was coming.
'It is your modesty that speaks. But I have already decided upon your reward.
You shall have such an allowance as will permit you to keep up a prope_ppearance as my aide-de-camp, and I have determined to marry you suitably t_ne of the ladies-in-waiting of the Empress.' My heart turned to lead withi_e.
'But, sire,' I stammered, 'this is impossible.'
'Oh, you have no occasion to hesitate. The lady is of excellent family and sh_s not wanting in personal charm. In a word, the affair is settled, and th_arriage takes place upon Thursday.'
'But it is impossible, sire,' I repeated.
'Impossible! When you have been longer in my service, sir, you will understan_hat that is a word which I do not tolerate. I tell you that it is settled.'
'My love is given to another, sire. It is not possible for me to change.'
'Indeed!' said the Emperor coldly. 'If you persist in such a resolution yo_annot expect to retain your place in my household.'
Here was the whole structure which my ambition had planned out crumblin_opelessly about my ears. And yet what was there for me to do?
'It is the bitterest moment of my life, sire,' said I, 'and yet I must be tru_o the promise which I have given. If I have to be a beggar by the roadside, _hall none the less marry Eugenie de Choiseul or no one.'
The Empress had risen and had approached the window.
'Well, at least, before you make up your mind, Monsieur de Laval,' said she,
'I should certainly take a look at this lady-in-waiting of mine, whom yo_efuse with such indignation.'
With a quick rasping of rings she drew back the curtain of the second window.
A woman was standing in the recess. She took a step forward into the room, an_hen—and then with a cry and a spring my arms were round her, and hers roun_e, and I was standing like a man in a dream, looking down into the swee_aughing eyes of my Eugenie. It was not until I had kissed her and kissed he_gain upon her lips, her cheeks, her hair, that I could persuade myself tha_he was indeed really there.
'Let us leave them,' said the voice of the Empress behind me. 'Come, Napoleon.
It makes me sad! It reminds me too much of the old days in the Ru_hautereine.'
So there is an end of my little romance, for the Emperor's plans were, a_sual, carried out, and we were married upon the Thursday, as he had said.
That long and all-powerful arm had plucked her out from the Kentish town, an_ad brought her across the Channel, in order to make sure of my allegiance, and to strengthen the Court by the presence of a de Choiseul. As to my cousi_ibylle, it shall be written some day how she married the gallant Lieutenan_erard many years afterwards, when he had become the chief of a brigade, an_ne of the most noted cavalry leaders in all the armies of France. Some da_lso I may tell how I came back into my rightful inheritance of Grosbois, which is still darkened to me by the thought of that terrible uncle of mine, and of what happened that night when Toussac stood at bay in the library. Bu_nough of me and of my small fortunes. You have already heard more of them, perhaps, than you care for.
As to the Emperor, some faint shadow of whom I have tried in these pages t_aise before you, you have heard from history how, despairing of gainin_ommand of the Channel, and fearing to attempt an invasion which might be cu_ff from behind, he abandoned the camp of Boulogne. You have heard also how, with this very army which was meant for England, he struck down Austria an_ussia in one year, and Prussia in the next. From the day that I entered hi_ervice until that on which He sailed forth over the Atlantic, never t_eturn, I have faithfully shared his fortunes, rising with his star an_inking with it also. And yet, as I look back at my old master, I find it ver_ifficult to say if he was a very good man or a very bad one. I only know tha_e was a very great one, and that the things in which he dealt were also s_reat that it is impossible to judge him by any ordinary standard. Let hi_est silently, then, in his great red tomb at the Invalides, for the workman'_ork is done, and the mighty hand which moulded France and traced the lines o_odern Europe has crumbled into dust. The Fates have used him, and the Fate_ave thrown him away, but still it lives, the memory of the little man in th_rey coat, and still it moves the thoughts and actions of men. Some hav_ritten to praise and some to blame, but for my own part I have tried to d_either one nor the other, but only to tell the impression which he made upo_e in those far-off days when the Army of England lay at Boulogne, and I cam_ack once more to my Castle of Grosbois.