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Chapter 9 The Camp of Boulogne

  • My uncle was still standing at the castle gateway, the very picture of _surper, with our own old coat-of-arms of the bend argent and the three blu_artlets engraved upon the stones at either side of him. He gave me no sign o_reeting as I mounted the large grey horse which was awaiting me, but h_ooked thoughtfully at me from under his down-drawn brows, and his jaw muscle_till throbbed with that stealthy rhythmical movement. I read a cold an_ettled malice in his set yellow face and his stern eyes. For my own part _prang readily enough into the saddle, for the man's presence had, from th_irst, been loathsome to me, and I was right glad to be able to turn my bac_pon him. And so, with a stern quick order from the lieutenant and a jingl_nd clatter from the troopers, we were off upon our journey. As I glanced bac_t the black keep of Grosbois, and at the sinister figure who stood lookin_fter us from beside the gateway, I saw from over his head a whit_andkerchief gleam for an instant in a last greeting from one of the gloom_eurtriere windows, and again a chill ran through me as I thought of th_earless girl and of the hands in which we were leaving her.
  • But sorrow clears from the mind of youth like the tarnish of breath upo_lass, and who could carry a heavy heart upon so lightfooted a horse an_hrough so sweet an air? The white glimmering road wound over the downs wit_he sea far upon the left, and between lay that great salt-marsh which ha_een the scene of our adventures. I could even see, as I fancied, a dull blac_pot in the distance to mark the position of that terrible cottage. Far awa_he little clusters of houses showed the positions of Etaples, Ambleterre, an_he other fishing villages, whilst I could see that the point which had seeme_ast night to glow like a half-forged red-hot sword-blade was now white as _now-field with the camp of a great army. Far, far away, a little dim clou_pon the water stood for the land where I had spent my days—the pleasant, homely land which will always rank next to my own in my affections.
  • And now I turned my attention from the downs and the sea to the hussars wh_ode beside me, forming, as I could perceive, a guard rather than an escort.
  • Save for the patrol last night, they were the first of the famous soldiers o_apoleon whom I had ever seen, and it was with admiration and curiosity that _ooked upon men who had won a world-wide reputation for their discipline an_heir gallantry. Their appearance was by no means gorgeous, and their dres_nd equipment was much more modest than that of the East Kent Yeomanry, whic_ode every Saturday through Ashford; but the stained tunics, the wor_eathers, and the rough hardy horses gave them a very workmanlike appearance.
  • They were small, light, brown-faced fellows, heavily whiskered and moustached, many of them wearing ear-rings in their ears. It surprised me that even th_oungest and most boyish-looking of them should be so bristling with hair, until, upon a second look, I perceived that his whiskers were formed of lump_f black wax stuck on to the sides of his face. The tall young lieutenan_oticed the astonishment with which I gazed at his boyish trooper.
  • 'Yes, yes,' said he, 'they are artificial, sure enough; but what can yo_xpect from a lad of seventeen? On the other hand, we cannot spoil th_ppearance of the regiment upon parade by having a girl's cheeks in th_anks.'
  • 'It melts terribly in this warm weather, lieutenant,' said the hussar, joinin_n the conversation with the freedom which was one of the characteristics o_apoleon's troops.
  • 'Well, well, Caspar, in a year or two you will dispense with them.'
  • 'Who knows? Perhaps he will have dispensed with his head also by that time,'
  • said a corporal in front, and they all laughed together in a manner which i_ngland would have meant a court-martial. This seemed to me to be one of th_urvivals of the Revolution, that officer and private were left, upon a ver_amiliar footing, which was increased, no doubt, by the freedom with which th_mperor would chat with his old soldiers, and the liberties which he woul_llow them to take with him. It was no uncommon thing for a shower of chaff t_ome from the ranks directed at their own commanding officers, and I am sorr_o say, also, that it was no very unusual thing for a shower of bullets t_ome also. Unpopular officers were continually assassinated by their own men; at the battle of Montebello it is well known that every officer, with th_xception of one lieutenant belonging to the 24th demi-brigade, was shot dow_rom behind. But this was a relic of the bad times, and, as the Emperor gaine_ore complete control, a better feeling was established. The history of ou_rmy at that time proved, at any rate, that the highest efficiency could b_aintained without the flogging which was still used in the Prussian and th_nglish service, and it was shown, for the first time, that great bodies o_en could be induced to act from a sense of duty and a love of country, without hope of reward or fear of punishment. When a French general coul_uffer his division to straggle as they would over the face of the country, with the certainty that they would concentrate upon the day of battle, h_roved that he had soldiers who were worthy of his trust.
  • One thing had struck me as curious about these hussars—that they pronounce_rench with the utmost difficulty. I remarked it to the lieutenant as he rod_y my side, and I asked him from what foreign country his men were recruited, since I could perceive that they were not Frenchmen.
  • 'My faith, you must not let them hear you say so,' said he, 'for they woul_nswer you as like as not by a thrust from their sabres. We are the premie_egiment of the French cavalry, the First Hussars of Bercheny, and, though i_s true that our men are all recruited in Alsace, and few of them can spea_nything but German, they are as good Frenchmen as Kleber or Kellermann, wh_ame from the same parts. Our men are all picked, and our officers,' he added, pulling at his light moustache, 'are the finest in the service.'
  • The swaggering vanity of the fellow amused me, for he cocked his busby, swun_he blue dolman which hung from his shoulder, sat his horse, and clattered hi_cabbard in a manner which told of his boyish delight and pride in himself an_is regiment. As I looked at his lithe figure and his fearless bearing, _ould quite imagine that he did himself no more than justice, while his fran_mile and his merry blue eyes assured me that he would prove a good comrade.
  • He had himself been taking observations of me, for he suddenly placed his han_pon my knee as we rode side by side.
  • 'I trust that the Emperor is not displeased with you,' said he, with a ver_rave face.
  • 'I cannot think that he can be so,' I answered, 'for I have come from Englan_o put my services at his disposal.'
  • 'When the report was presented last night, and he heard of your presence i_hat den of thieves, he was very anxious that you should be brought to him.
  • Perhaps it is that he wishes you to be guide to us in England. No doubt yo_now your way all over the island.'
  • The hussar's idea of an island seemed to be limited to the little patche_hich lie off the Norman or Breton coast. I tried to explain to him that thi_as a great country, not much smaller than France.
  • 'Well, well,' said he, 'we shall know all about it presently, for we are goin_o conquer it. They say in the camp that we shall probably enter London eithe_ext Wednesday evening or else on the Thursday morning. We are to have a wee_or plundering the town, and then one army corps is to take possession o_cotland and another of Ireland.'
  • His serene confidence made me smile. 'But how do you know you can do al_his?' I asked.
  • 'Oh!' said he, 'the Emperor has arranged it.'
  • 'But they have an army, and they are well prepared. They are brave men an_hey will fight.'
  • 'There would be no use their doing that, for the Emperor is going ove_imself,' said he; and in the simple answer I understood for the first tim_he absolute trust and confidence which these soldiers had in their leader.
  • Their feeling for him was fanaticism, and its strength was religion, and neve_id Mahomet nerve the arms of his believers and strengthen them against pai_nd death more absolutely than this little grey-coated idol did to those wh_orshipped him. If he had chosen— and he was more than once upon the point o_t—to assert that he was indeed above humanity he would have found millions t_rant his claim. You who have heard of him as a stout gentleman in a stra_at, as he was in his later days, may find it hard to understand it, but i_ou had seen his mangled soldiers still with their dying breath crying out t_im, and turning their livid faces towards him as he passed, you would hav_ealised the hold which he had over the minds of men.
  • 'You have been over there?' asked the lieutenant presently, jerking his thum_owards the distant cloud upon the water.
  • 'Yes, I have spent my life there.'
  • 'But why did you stay there when there was such good fighting to be had in th_rench service?'
  • 'My father was driven out of the country as an aristocrat. It was only afte_is death that I could offer my sword to the Emperor.'
  • 'You have missed a great deal, but I have no doubt that we shall still hav_lenty of fine wars. And you think that the English will offer us battle?'
  • 'I have no doubt of it.'
  • 'We feared that when they understood that it was the Emperor in person who ha_ome they would throw down their arms. I have heard that there are some fin_omen over there.'
  • 'The women are beautiful.'
  • He said nothing, but for some time he squared his shoulders and puffed out hi_hest, curling up the ends of his little yellow moustache.
  • 'But they will escape in boats,' he muttered at last; and I could see that h_ad still that picture of a little island in his imagination. 'If they coul_ut see us they might remain. It has been said of the Hussars of Bercheny tha_hey can set a whole population running, the women towards us, the men away.
  • We are, as you have no doubt observed, a very fine body of men, and th_fficers are the pick of the service, though the seniors are hardly up to th_ame standard as the rest of us.'
  • With all his self-confidence, this officer did not seem to me to be more tha_y own age, so I asked him whether he had seen any service. His moustach_ristled with indignation at my question, and he looked me up and down with _evere eye.
  • 'I have had the good fortune to be present at nine battles, sir, and at mor_han forty skirmishes,' said he. 'I have also fought a considerable number o_uels, and I can assure you that I am always ready to meet anyone—even _ivilian—who may wish to put me to the proof.'
  • I assured him that he was very fortunate to be so young and yet to have see_o much, upon which his ill-temper vanished as quickly as it came, and h_xplained that he had served in the Hohenlinden campaign under Moreau, as wel_s in Napoleon's passage of the Alps, and the campaign of Marengo.
  • 'When you have been with the army for a little time the name of Etienne Gerar_ill not be so unfamiliar to you,' said he. 'I believe that I may claim to b_he hero of one or two little stories which the soldiers love to tell abou_heir camp fires. You will hear of my duel with the six fencing masters, an_ou will be told how, single-handed, I charged the Austrian Hussars of Gra_nd brought their silver kettledrum back upon the crupper of my mare. I ca_ssure you that it was not by accident that I was present last night, but i_as because Colonel Lasalle was very anxious to be sure of any prisoners who_e might make. As it turned out, however, I only had the one poor chicken- hearted creature, whom I handed over to the provost-marshal.'
  • 'And the other—Toussac?'
  • 'Ah, he seems to have been a man of another breed. I could have asked nothin_etter than to have had him at my sword-point. But he has escaped. They caugh_ight of him and fired a pistol or two, but he knew the bog too well, and the_ould not follow him.'
  • 'And what will be done to your prisoner?' I asked.
  • Lieutenant Gerard shrugged his shoulders.
  • 'I am very sorry for Mademoiselle your cousin,' said he, 'but a fine gir_hould not love such a man when there are so many gallant soldiers upon th_ountry side. I hear that the Emperor is weary of these endless plottings, an_hat an example will be made of him.'
  • Whilst the young hussar and I had been talking we had been cantering down th_road white road, until we were now quite close to the camp, which we coul_ee lying in its arrangement of regiments and brigades beneath us. Ou_pproach lay over the high ground, so that we could see down into this canva_ity, with its interminable lines of picketed horses, its parks of artillery, and its swarms of soldiers. In the centre was a clear space, with one ver_arge tent and a cluster of low wooden houses in the middle of it, with th_ri-colour banner waving above them.
  • 'That is the Emperor's quarters, and the smaller tent there is th_eadquarters of General Ney, who commands this corps. You understand that thi_s only one of several armies dotted along from Dunkirk in the north to this, which is the most southerly. The Emperor goes from one to the other, inspecting each in its turn, but this is the main body, and contains most o_he picked troops, so that it is we who see most of him, especially now tha_he Empress and the Court have come to Pont de Briques. He is in there at th_resent moment,' he added in a hushed voice, pointing to the great white ten_n the centre.
  • The road into the camp ran through a considerable plain, which was covered b_odies of cavalry and infantry engaged upon their drill. We had heard so muc_n England about Napoleon's troops, and their feats had appeared s_xtraordinary, that my imagination had prepared me for men of very strikin_ppearance. As a matter of fact, the ordinary infantry of the line, in thei_lue coats and white breeches and gaiters, were quite little fellows, and eve_heir high brass-covered hats and red plumes could not make them ver_mposing.
  • In spite of their size, however, they were tough and wiry, and after thei_ighteen months in camp they were trained to the highest pitch of perfection.
  • The ranks were full of veterans, and all the under-officers had seen muc_ervice, while the generals in command have never been equalled in ability, s_hat it was no mean foe which lay with its menacing eyes fixed upon th_istant cliffs of England. If Pitt had not been able to place the first nav_n the world between the two shores the history of Europe might be ver_ifferent to-day.
  • Lieutenant Gerard, seeing the interest with which I gazed at the manoeuvrin_roops, was good enough to satisfy my curiosity about such of them a_pproached the road along which we were journeying.
  • 'Those fellows on the black horses with the great blue rugs upon their croup_re the Cuirassiers,' said he. 'They are so heavy that they cannot raise mor_han a trot, so when they charge we manage that there shall be a brigade o_hasseurs or hussars behind them to follow up the advantage.'
  • 'Who is the civilian who is inspecting them?' I asked.
  • 'That is not a civilian, but it is General St. Cyr, who is one of those who_hey called the Spartans of the Rhine. They were of opinion that simplicity o_ife and of dress were part of a good soldier, and so they would wear n_niform beyond a simple blue riding coat, such as you see. St. Cyr is a_xcellent officer, but he is not popular, for he seldom speaks to anyone, an_e sometimes shuts himself up for days on end in his tent, where he plays upo_is violin. I think myself that a soldier is none the worse because he enjoy_ glass of good wine, or has a smart jacket and a few Brandenburgs across hi_hest. For my part I do both, and yet those who know me would tell you that i_as not harmed my soldiering. You see this infantry upon the left?'
  • 'The men with the yellow facings?'
  • 'Precisely. Those are Oudinot's famous grenadiers. And the other grenadiers, with the red shoulder-knots and the fur hats strapped above their knapsacks, are the Imperial Guard, the successors of the old Consular Guard who wo_arengo for us. Eighteen hundred of them got the cross of honour after th_attle. There is the 57th of the line, which has been named "The Terrible,"
  • and there is the 7th Light Infantry, who come from the Pyrenees, and who ar_ell known to be the best marchers and the greatest rascals in the army. Th_ight cavalry in green are the Horse Chasseurs of the Guard, sometimes calle_he Guides, who are said to be the Emperor's favourite troops, although h_akes a great mistake if he prefers them to the Hussars of Bercheny. The othe_avalry with the green pelisses are also chasseurs, but I cannot tell fro_ere what regiment they are. Their colonel handles them admirably. They ar_oving to a flank in open column of half-squadrons and then wheeling into lin_o charge. We could not do it better ourselves. And now, Monsieur de Laval, here we are at the gates of the Camp of Boulogne, and it is my duty to tak_ou straight to the Emperor's quarters.'