“Do not expect that I will ornament my story with those flowers, more agreeable than substantial, which Imagination often uses to gloss over truth. A Frenchman and a soldier, I doubly ignore deception. Friendship interrogates me, Frankness shall answer.
“I was born of poor but honest parents at the beginning of the year which the Jeu de Paume5 brightened with an aurora of liberty. The south was my native clime; the language dear to the troubadours was that which I lisped in my cradle. My birth cost my mother’s life. The author of mine was the humble owner of a little farm, and moistened his bread in the sweat of labor. My first sports were not those of wealth. The many-colored pebbles which are found by the brooks, and that well-known insect which childhood holds fluttering, free and captive at the same time, at the end of a thread, stood me in stead of other playthings.
5 Jeu de Paume (tennis-court), is the name given to the meeting of the third-estate (tiers-état) in 1789, from the locality where it took place.
“An old minister at Devotion’s altar, enfranchised from the shadowy bondage of fanaticism, and reconciled to the new institutions of France, was my Chiron and Mentor. He nourished me with the strong lion’s marrow of Rome and Athens; his lips distilled into my ears the embalmed honey of wisdom. Honor to thee, learned and venerable man, who gavest me the first precepts of wisdom and the first examples of virtue!
“But already that atmosphere of glory which the genius of one man and the valor of a nation had set floating over the country, filled all my senses, and made my young heart throb. France, on the edge of the volcano of civil war, had collected all her forces into a thunderbolt to launch upon Europe, and the world, astounded if not overwhelmed, was shrinking from the surge of the unchained torrent. What man, what Frenchman, could have heard with indifference that echo of victory reverberating through millions of hearts?
“While scarcely leaving childhood, I felt that honor is more precious than life. The warlike music of the drums brought to my eyes brave and manly tears. ‘And I, too,’ said I, following the music of the regiments through the streets of Toulouse, ‘will pluck laurels though I sprinkle them with my blood.’ The pale olive of peace had from me nothing but scorn. The peaceful triumphs of the law, the calm pleasures of commerce and finance, were extolled in vain. To the toga of our Ciceros, to the robe of our magistrates, to the curule chair of our legislators, to the opulence of our Mondors, I preferred the sword. One would have said that I had sucked the milk of Bellona. ‘Victory or Death!’ was already my motto, and I was not sixteen years old.
“With what noble scorn I heard recounted the history of our Proteuses of politics! With what disdainful glances I regarded the Turcarets of finance, lolling on the cushions of some magnificent carriage, and conducted by a laced automaton to the boudoir of some Aspasia. But if I heard told the mighty deeds of the Knights of the Round Table, or the valor of the crusaders celebrated in flowing verse; if chance placed in my hand the great actions of our modern Rolands, recounted in an army bulletin by the successor of Charlemagne, a flame presaging the fire of battles rose in my young eyes.
“Ah, the inaction was too much, and my leading-strings, already worn by impatience, would have broken, perhaps, had not a father’s wisdom untied them.
“‘Most surely,’ said he to me, trying, but in vain, to restrain his tears, ‘it was no tyrant who begot you, and I will not poison the life which I myself gave you. I had hoped that your hand would remain in our cottage to close my eyes; but when Patriotism has spoken, Egotism must be still. My prayers will always follow you to the field where Mars harvests heroes. May you merit the guerdon of valor, and show yourself a good citizen, as you have been a good son!’
“Speaking thus, he opened his arms to me. I threw myself into them; we mingled our tears, and I promised to return to our hearthstone as soon as I could bring the star of honor suspended from my breast. But alas! my unhappy father was destined to see me no more. The fate which was already gilding the thread of my days, pitilessly severed that of his. A stranger’s hand closed his eyes, while I was gaining my first epaulette at the battle of Jena.
“Lieutenant at Eylau, captain at Wagram, and there decorated by the Emperor’s own hand on the field of battle, major before Almieda, lieutenant-colonel at Badajoz, colonel at Moscow, I have drunk the cup of victory to the full. But I have also tasted the chalice of adversity. The frozen plains of Russia saw me alone with a platoon of braves, the last remnant of my regiment, forced to devour the mortal remains of that faithful friend who had so often carried me into the very heart of the enemy’s battalions. Trusty and affectionate companion of my dangers, when rendered useless by an accident at Smolensk, he devoted his very manes to the safety of his master, and made of his skin a protection for my frozen and lacerated feet.
“My tongue refuses to repeat the story of our perils in that terrible campaign. Perhaps some day I will write it with a pen dipped in tears — tears, the tribute of feeble humanity. Surprised by the season of frosts in a zone of ice, without fire, without bread, without shoes, without means of transportation, denied the succor of Esculapius’ art, harassed by the Cossacks, robbed by the peasants — positive vampires, we saw our mute thunderers, which had fallen into the enemy’s hands, belch forth death upon ourselves. What more can I tell you? The passage of the Beresina, the opposition at Wilna — Oh, ye gods of Thunder! — But I feel that grief overcomes me, and that my language is becoming tinged with the bitterness of these recollections.
“Nature and Love were holding in reserve for me brief but precious consolations. Released from my fatigues, I passed a few happy days in my native land among the peaceful vales of Nancy. While our phalanxes were preparing themselves for fresh combats, while I was gathering around my flag three thousand young but valorous warriors, all resolved to open to posterity the path of honor, a new emotion, to which I had before been a stranger, furtively glided into my soul.
“Beautified by all Nature’s gifts, enriched by the fruits of an excellent education, the young and interesting Clementine had scarcely passed from the uncertain shadows of childhood into the sweet illusions of youth. Eighteen springs composed her life. Her parents extended to some of the army officers a hospitality which, though it was not gratuitous, was far from lacking in cordiality. To see their child and love her, was for me the affair of a day. Her virgin heart smiled upon my love. At the first avowals dictated to me by my passion, I saw her forehead color with a lovely modesty. We exchanged our vows one lovely evening in June, under an arbor where her happy father sometimes dispensed to the thirsty officers the brown liquor of the North. I swore that she should be my wife, and she promised to be mine; she yielded still more. Our happiness, regardless of all outside, had the calmness of a brook whose pure wave is never troubled by the storm, and which rolls sweetly between flowery banks, spreading its own freshness through the grove that protects its modest course.
“A lightning stroke separated us from each other at the moment when Law and Religion were about adding their sanction to our sweet communion. I departed before I was able to give my name to her who had given me her heart. I promised to return; she promised to wait for me; and, all bathed in her tears, I tore myself from her arms, to rush to the laurels of Dresden and the cypresses of Leipzic. A few lines from her hand reached me during the interval between the two battles. ‘You are to be a father,’ she told me. Am I one? God knows! Has she waited for me? I believe she has. The waiting must have appeared to be a long one since the birth of this child, who is forty-six years old to-day, and who could be, in his turn, my father.
“Pardon me for having troubled you so long with misfortunes. I wished to pass rapidly over this sad history, but the unhappiness of virtue has in it something sweet to temper the bitterness of grief.
“Some days after the disaster of Leipzic, the giant of our age had me called into his tent, and said to me:
“‘Colonel, are you a man to make your way through four armies?’
“‘Alone, and without escort?’
“‘There must be a letter carried to Dantzic.’
“‘You will deliver it into General Rapp’s own hands?’
“‘It is probable you will be taken, or killed.’
“‘For that reason I send two other officers with copies of the same despatch. There are three of you; the enemy will kill two, the third will get there, and France will be saved.’
“‘The one who returns shall be a brigadier-general.’
“Every detail of this interview, every word of the Emperor, every response which I had the honor to address to him, is still engraved upon my memory. All three of us set out separately. Alas! not one of us reached the goal aimed at by his valor, and I have learned to-day that France was not saved. But when I see these blockheads of historians asserting that the Emperor forgot to send orders to General Rapp, I feel a terrible itching to cut their —— story short, at least.
“‘When a prisoner in the hands of the Russians in a German village, I had the consolation of finding an old philosopher, who gave me the rarest proofs of friendship. Who would have told me, when I succumbed to the numbness of the cold in the tower of Liebenfeld, that that sleep would not be the last? God is my witness, that in then addressing, from the bottom of my heart, a last farewell to Clementine, I did not even hope to see her again. I will see you again, then, O sweet and confiding Clementine — best of spouses, and, probably, of mothers! What do I say? I see her now! My eyes do not deceive me! This is surely she! There she is, just as I left her! Clementine! In my arms! On my heart! Look here! What’s this you’ve been whining to me, the rest of you? Napoleon is not dead, and the world has not grown forty-six years older, for Clementine is still the same!”
The betrothed of Leon Renault was about entering the room, and stopped petrified at finding herself so overwhelmingly received by the Colonel.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05