Uncle Bernac/Chapter XVII

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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 had expected to find my Cousin Sibylle there, but to my surprise there was no sign of 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 of the Emperor with his hand upon my shoulder.

'The Emperor desires to see you, Monsieur de Laval,' said he.

'Where?'

'At the Pont de Briques.'

I knew that promptitude was the first requisite for those who hoped to advance themselves in his service. In ten minutes I was in the saddle, and in half an hour I was at the chateau. I was conducted upstairs to a room in which were the 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 in the curious costume which he assumed before his official hours had begun—a white sleeping suit, red Turkish slippers, and a white bandanna handkerchief tied round his head, the whole giving him the appearance of a West Indian planter. From the strong smell of eau-de-Cologne I judged that he had just come 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 me as I was announced. It was hard to believe that it was this man with the kindly expression and the genial eye who had come like an east wind into the reception-room the other night, and left a trail of wet cheeks and downcast faces wherever he had passed.

'You have made an excellent debut as aide-de-camp,' said he; 'Savary has told me all that has occurred, and nothing could have been better arranged. I have not time to think of such things myself, but my wife will sleep more soundly now that she knows that this Toussac is out of the way.'

'Yes, yes, he was a terrible man,' cried the Empress. 'So was that Georges Cadoudal. They were both terrible men.'

'I have my star, Josephine,' said Napoleon, patting her upon the head. 'I see my 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 in Fate, 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 that that is part of Fate also, that I should have a brain which is capable of planning. I am always building behind a scaffolding, and no one can see what I am building until I have finished. I never look forward for less than two years, and I have been busy all morning, Monsieur de Laval, in planning out the events which will occur in the autumn and winter of 1807. By the way, that good-looking cousin of yours appears to have managed this affair very cleverly. She is a very fine girl to be wasted upon such a creature as the Lucien Lesage who has been screaming for mercy for a week past. Do you not think that it is a great pity?'

I acknowledged that I did.

'It is always so with women—ideologists, dreamers, carried away by whims and imaginings. They are like the Easterns, who cannot conceive that a man is a fine soldier unless he has a formidable presence. I could not get the Egyptians to believe that I was a greater general than Kleber, because he had the body of a porter and the head of a hair-dresser. So it is with this poor creature Lesage, who will be made a hero by women because he has an oval face and the eyes of a calf. Do you imagine that if she were to see him in his true colours it would turn her against him?'

'I am convinced of it, sire. From the little that I have seen of my cousin I am sure that no one could have a greater contempt for cowardice or for meanness.'

'You speak warmly, sir. You are not by chance just a little touched yourself by 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 since then.'

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 windows at one side, but the curtains had been drawn almost across, so that the light was not very good. At the further door was Roustem the Mameluke, and beside him, with arms folded and his face sunk downwards in an attitude of shame and contrition, there was standing the very man of whom we had been talking. He looked up with scared eyes, and started with fear when he saw the Emperor approaching 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 I do not fancy that you will come near the fire again. Or do you perhaps think of continuing with politics as a profession?'

'If your Majesty will overlook what I have done,' Lesage stammered, 'I shall faithfully promise you that I will be your most loyal servant until the day of my death.'

'Hum!' said the Emperor, spilling a pinch of snuff over the front of his white jacket. 'There is some sense in what you say, for no one makes so good a servant as the man who has had a thorough fright. But I am a very exacting master.'

'I do not care what you require of me. Everything will be welcome, if you will only give me your forgiveness.'

'For example,' said the Emperor. 'It is one of my whims that when a man enters my 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 his hands.

'May I ask, sire—?'

'You may ask nothing.'

'But there are circumstances, sire—'

'There, there, that is enough!' cried the Emperor harshly, turning upon his heel. I do not argue, I order. There is a young lady, Mademoiselle de Bergerot, for whom I desire a husband. Will you marry her, or will you return to prison?'

Again there was the struggle in the man's face, and he was silent, twitching and 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 of the curtains at one of the windows. Her face was pale with anger and her eyes shining with scorn; the parting curtains framed her tall, slim figure, which leaned forwards in her fury of passion. She had forgotten the Emperor, the Empress, everything, in her revulsion of feeling against this craven whom she had loved.

'They told me what you were,' she cried. 'I would not believe them, I could not believe them—for I did not know that there was upon this earth a thing so contemptible. 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! And to think that for your sake I have brought about the death of a man who was worth 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 into the next room. As to you, sir, I do not think that I can condemn any lady of my Court to take such a man as a husband. Suffice it that you have been shown in your true colours, and that Mademoiselle Bernac has been cured of a foolish infatuation. Roustem, remove the prisoner!'

'There, Monsieur de Laval,' said the Emperor, when the wretched Lesage had been conducted from the room. 'We have not done such a bad piece of work between the coffee and the breakfast. It was your idea, Josephine, and I give you credit for it. But now, de Laval, I feel that we owe you some recompense for having set the young aristocrats a good example, and for having had a share 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 proper appearance as my aide-de-camp, and I have determined to marry you suitably to one of the ladies-in-waiting of the Empress.' My heart turned to lead within me.

'But, sire,' I stammered, 'this is impossible.'

'Oh, you have no occasion to hesitate. The lady is of excellent family and she is not wanting in personal charm. In a word, the affair is settled, and the marriage takes place upon Thursday.'

'But it is impossible, sire,' I repeated.

'Impossible! When you have been longer in my service, sir, you will understand that 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 you cannot expect to retain your place in my household.'

Here was the whole structure which my ambition had planned out crumbling hopelessly 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 true to the promise which I have given. If I have to be a beggar by the roadside, I shall 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 you refuse 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, and then—and then with a cry and a spring my arms were round her, and hers round me, and I was standing like a man in a dream, looking down into the sweet laughing eyes of my Eugenie. It was not until I had kissed her and kissed her again upon her lips, her cheeks, her hair, that I could persuade myself that she 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 Rue Chautereine.'

So there is an end of my little romance, for the Emperor's plans were, as usual, 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, and had 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 cousin Sibylle, it shall be written some day how she married the gallant Lieutenant Gerard many years afterwards, when he had become the chief of a brigade, and one of the most noted cavalry leaders in all the armies of France. Some day also 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. But enough 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 to raise before you, you have heard from history how, despairing of gaining command of the Channel, and fearing to attempt an invasion which might be cut off 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 and Russia in one year, and Prussia in the next. From the day that I entered his service until that on which He sailed forth over the Atlantic, never to return, I have faithfully shared his fortunes, rising with his star and sinking with it also. And yet, as I look back at my old master, I find it very difficult to say if he was a very good man or a very bad one. I only know that he was a very great one, and that the things in which he dealt were also so great that it is impossible to judge him by any ordinary standard. Let him rest silently, then, in his great red tomb at the Invalides, for the workman's work is done, and the mighty hand which moulded France and traced the lines of modern Europe has crumbled into dust. The Fates have used him, and the Fates have thrown him away, but still it lives, the memory of the little man in the grey coat, and still it moves the thoughts and actions of men. Some have written to praise and some to blame, but for my own part I have tried to do neither one nor the other, but only to tell the impression which he made upon me in those far-off days when the Army of England lay at Boulogne, and I came back once more to my Castle of Grosbois.


THE END