A Few of Our Biographies:
A Personal View of Waterloo
This is Part Two of a Five-Part Excerpt
Fabrizio was still under the spell of this strange spectacle when a party of generals, followed by a score of hussars, passed at a gallop across one corner of the huge field on the edge of which he had halted: his horse neighed, reared several times in succession, then began violently tugging the bridle that was holding him. “All right, then,” Fabrizio said to himself.
The horse, left to his own devices, dashed off hell for leather to join the escort that was following the generals. Fabrizio counted four gold-laced hats. A quarter of an hour later, from a few words said by one hussar to the next, Fabrizio gathered that one of these generals was the famous Marshal Ney. His happiness knew no bounds; only he had no way of telling which of the four generals was Marshal Ney; he would have given everything in the world to know, but he remembered that he had been told not to speak. The escort halted, having to cross a wide ditch left full of water by the rain overnight; it was fringed with tall trees and formed the left-hand boundary of the field at the entrance to which Fabrizio had bought the horse. Almost all the hussars had dismounted; the bank of the ditch was steep and very slippery and the water lay quite three or four feet below the level of the field. Fabrizio, distracted with joy, was thinking more of Marshal New and of glory than of his horse, which, being highly excited, jumped into the canal; thus splashing the water up to a considerable height. One of the generals was soaked to the skin by the sheet of water, and cried with an oath: “Damn the f------ brute!” Fabrizio felt deeply hurt by this insult. “Can I ask him to apologise?” he wondered. Meanwhile, to prove that he was not so clumsy after all, he set his horse to climb the opposite bank of the ditch; but it rose straight up and was five or six feet high. He had to abandon the attempt; then he rode up stream, his horse being up to its head in water, and at last found a sort of drinking-place. By this gentle slope he was easily able to reach the field on the other side of the canal. He was the first man of the escort to appear there; he started to trot proudly down the bank; below him, in the canal, the hussars were splashing about, somewhat embarrassed by their position, for in many places the water was five feet deep. Two or three horses took fright and began to swim, making an appalling mess. A serjeant noticed the maneuver that this youngster, who looked so very unlike a soldier, had just carried out.
“Up here! There is a watering-place on the left!” he shouted, and in time they all crossed.
On reaching the farther bank, Fabrizio had found the generals there by themselves; the noise of the guns seemed to him to have doubled; and it was all he could do to hear the general whom he had given such a good soaking and who now shouted in his ear:
“Where did you get that horse?”
Fabrizio was so much upset that he answered in Italian:
“L’ho comprato poco fa. (I bought it just now.)”
“What’s that you say?” cried the general.
But the din at that moment became so terrific that Fabrizio could not answer him. We must admit that our hero was very little of a hero at that moment. However, fear came to him only as a secondary consideration; he was principally shocked by the noise, which hurt his ears. The escort broke into a gallop; they crossed a large batch of tilled land which lay beyond the canal. And this field was strewn with dead.
“Red-coats! Red-coats!” the hussars of the escort exclaimed joyfully, and at first Fabrizio did not understand; then he noticed that as a matter of fact almost all these bodies wore red uniforms. One detail made him shudder with horror; he observed that many of these unfortunate red-coats were still alive; they were calling out, evidently asking for help, and no one stopped to give it them. Our hero, being most humane, took every possible care that his horse should not tread upon any of the red-coats. The escort halted; Fabrizio, who was not paying sufficient attention to his military duty, galloped on, his eyes fixed on a wounded wretch in front of him.
“Will you halt, you young fool!” the serjeant shouted after him. Fabrizio discovered that he was twenty paces on the generals’ right front, and precisely in the direction in which they were gazing through their glasses. As he came back to take his place behind the other hussars, who had halted a few paces in rear of them, he noticed the biggest of these generals who was speaking to his neighbour, a general also, in a tone of authority and almost of reprimand; he was swearing. Fabrizio could not contain his curiosity; and, in spite of the warning not to speak, given him by his friend the gaoler’s wife, he composed a short sentence in good French, quite correct, and said to his neighbour:
“Who is that general who is chewing up the one next to him?”
“Gad, it’s the Marshal!”
“Marshal Ney, you fool! I say, where have you been serving?”
Fabrizio, although highly susceptible, had no thought of resenting this insult; he was studying, lost in childish admiration, the famous Prince de la Moskowa, the “Bravest of the Brave.”
Suddenly they all moved off at a full gallop. A few minutes later Fabrizio saw, twenty paces ahead of him, a ploughed field the surface of which was moving in a singular fashion. The furrows were full of water and the soil, very damp, which formed the ridges between these furrows kept flying off in a little black lumps three or four feet into the air. Fabrizio noticed as he passed this curious effect; then his thoughts turned to dreaming of the Marshal and his glory. He heard a sharp cry close to him; two hussars fell struck by shot; and, when he looked back at them, they were already twenty paces behind the escort. What seemed to him horrible was a horse streaming with blood that was struggling on the ploughed land, its hooves caught in its own entrails; it was trying to follow the others: its blood ran down into the mire.
“Ah! So I am under fire at last!” he said to himself. “I have seen shots fired!” he repeated with a sense of satisfaction. “Now I am a real soldier.” At that moment, the escort began to go hell for leather, and our hero realized that it was shot from the guns that was making the earth fly up all round him. He looked vainly in the direction from which the balls were coming, he saw the white smoke of the battery at an enormous distance, and, in the thick of the steady and continuous rumble produced by the artillery fire, he seemed to hear shots discharge much closer at hand: he could not understand in the least what was happening.
At that moment, the generals and their escort dropped into a little road filled with water which ran five feet below the level of the fields.
The Marshal halted and looked again through his glasses. Fabrizio, this time, could examine him at his leisure. He found him to be very fair, with a big red face. “We don’t have any faces like that in Italy,” he said to himself. “With my pale cheeks and chestnut hair, I shall never look like that,” he added despondently. To him these words implied: “I shall never be a hero.” He looked at the hussars; with a solitary exception, all of them had yellow moustaches. If Fabrizio was studying the hussar’s of the escort, they were all studying him as well. Their stare made him blush, and, to get rid of his embarrassment, he turned his head towards the enemy. They consisted of widely extended lines of men in red, but, what greatly surprised him, these men seemed to be quite minute. Their long files, which were regiments or divisions, appeared no taller than hedges. A line of red cavalry were trotting in the direction of the sunken road along which the Marshal and his escort had begun to move at a walk, splashing through the mud. The smoke made it impossible to distinguish anything in the direction in which they were advancing; now and then one saw men moving at a gallop against this background of white smoke.
Suddenly, from the direction of the enemy, Fabrizio saw four men approaching hell for leather. “Ah! We are attacked,” he said to himself; then he saw two of these men speak to the Marshal. One of the generals on the latter’s staff set off at a gallop towards the enemy, followed by two hussars of the escort and by the four men who had just come up. After a little canal which they all crossed, Fabrizio found himself riding beside a serjeant who seemed a good-natured fellow. “I must speak to this one,” he said to himself, “then perhaps they’ll stop staring at me.” He thought for a long time.
“Sir, this is the first time that I have been present at a battle,” he said at length to the serjeant. “But is this a real battle?”
“Something like. But who are you?”
“I am the brother of a captain’s wife.”
“And what is he called, your captain?”
Our hero was terribly embarrassed; he had never anticipated this question. Fortunately, the Marshal and his escort broke into a gallop. “What French name shall I say?” he wondered. At last he remembered the name of the inn-keeper with whom he had lodged in Paris; he brought his horse up to the serjeant, and shouted to him at the top of his voice:
“Captain Meunier!” The other, not hearing properly in the roar of the guns, replied: “Oh, Captain Teulier? Well, he’s been killed.”
“Splendid,” thought Fabrizio. “Captain Teulier; I must look sad.”
“Good God!” he cried; and assumed a piteous mien. They had left the sunken road and were crossing a small meadow, they were going hell for leather, shots were coming over again, the Marshal headed for a division of cavalry. The escort found themselves surrounded by dead and wounded men; but this sight had already ceased to make any impression on our hero; he had other things to think of.
While the escort was halted, he caught sight of the little cart of a cantiniere, and his affection for this honourable corps sweeping aside every other consideration, set off at a gallop to join her.
“Stay where you are, curse you,” the serjeant shouted after him.
“What can he do to me here?” thought Fabrizio, and he continued to gallop towards the cantinere. When he put spurs to his horse, he had had some hope that it might be his good cantinere of the morning; the horse and the little cart bore a strong resemblance, but their owner was quite different, and our hero thought her appearance most forbidding. As he came up to her, Fabrizio heard her say: “And he was such a fine looking man, too!” A very ugly sight awaited the new recruit; they were sawing off a cuirassier’s leg at the thigh, a handsome young fellow of five feet ten. Fabrizio shut his eyes and drank four glasses of brandy straight off.
“How you do go for it, you boozer!” cried the cantinere.
The brandy gave him an idea: “I must buy the goodwill of my comrades, the hussars of the escort.”
“Give me the rest of the bottle,” he said to the vivandiere.
“What do you mean,” was her answer, “what’s left there costs ten francs, on a day like this.”
As he rejoined the escort at a gallop:
“Ah! You’re bringing us a drop of drink,” cried the serjeant. “That was why you deserted, was it? Hand it over.”
The bottle went round, the last man to take it flung it in the air after drinking. “Thank you, chum!” he cried to Fabrizio. All eyes were fastened on him kindly. This friendly gaze lifted a hundredweight from Fabrizio’s heart; it was one of those hearts of too delicate tissue which require the friendship of those around it. So at least he had ceased to be looked at askance by his comrades, there was a bond between them! Fabrizio breathed a deep sign of relief, then in a bold voice said to the serjeant:
“And if Captain Teulier has been killed, where shall I find my sister?” He fancied himself a little Machiavelli to be saying Teulier so naturally instead of Meunier.
“That’s what you’ll find out to-night,” was the serjeant’s reply.
The escort moved on again and made for some divisions of infantry. Fabrizio felt quite drunk; he had taken too much brandy, he was rolling slightly in his saddle: he remembered most opportunely a favourite saying of his mother’s coachman: “When you’ve been lifting your elbow, look straight between your horse’s ears, and do what the man next you does.” The Marshal stopped for some time beside a number of cavalry units which he ordered to charge; but for an hour or two our hero was barely conscious of what was going on round about him. He was feeling extremely tired, and when his horse galloped he fell back on the saddle like a lump of lead.
Suddenly the serjeant called out to his men: “Don’t you see the Emperor, curse you!” Whereupon the escort shouted: “Vive l’Empereur!” at the top of their voices. It may be imagined that our hero stared till his eyes started out of his head, but all he saw was some generals galloping, also followed by an escort. The long floating plumes of horsehair which the dragoons of the bodyguard wore on their helmets prevented him from distinguishing their faces. “So I have missed seeing the Emperor on a field of battle, all because of those cursed glasses of brandy!” This reflexion brought him back to his senses.
They went down into a road filled with water, the horses wished drink.
“So that was the Emperor who went past then?” he asked the man next to him.
“Why, surely, the one with no braid on his coat. How is it you didn’t see him?” his comrade answered kindly.
Fabrizio felt a strong desire to gallop after the Emperor’s escort and embody himself in it. What a joy to go really to war in the train of that hero! It was for that that he had come to France. “I am quite at liberty to do it,” he said to himself, “for after all I have no other reason for being where I am but the will of my horse, which started galloping after these generals.”