A Few of Our Biographies:
A Personal View of Waterloo
This is Part Four of a Five-Part Excerpt
About ten o’clock that night the little party overtook their regiment on the outskirts of a large village which divided the road into several very narrow streets; but Fabrizio noticed that Corporal Aubry avoided speaking to any of the officers. “We can’t get on,” he called to his men. All these streets were blocked with infantry, cavalry, and worst of all, by the limbers and wagons of the artillery. The corporal tried three of these streets in turn; after advancing twenty yards he was obliged to halt. Everyone was swearing and losing his temper.
“Some traitor in command here, too!” cried the corporal: “if the enemy has the sense to surround the village, we shall all be caught like rats in a trap. Follow me, you.” Fabrizio looked round; there were only six men left with the corporal. Through a big gate which stood open they came into a huge courtyard; from this courtyard they passed into a stable, the back door of which let them into a garden. They lost their way for a moment and wandered blindly about. But finally, going through a hedge, they found themselves in a huge field of buckwheat. In less than half an hour, guided by the shouts and confused noises, they had regained the high road on the other side of the village. The ditches on either side of this road were filled with muskets that had been throw away; Fabrizio selected one: but the road, although very broad, was so blocked with stragglers and transports thaf in the next half-hour the corporal and Fabrizio had not advanced more than five hundred yards at the most; they were told that this road led to Charleroi. As the village clock struck eleven:
“Let us cut across the field again,” said the corporal. The little party was reduced now to three men, the corporal and Fabrizio. When they had gone a quarter of a league from the high road: “I’m done,” said one of the soldiers.
“Me, too!” said another.
“That’s good news! We’re all in the same boat,” said the corporal; “but do what I tell you and you’ll get through all right.” His eye fell on five or six trees marking the line of a little ditch in the middle of an immense cornfield. “Make for the trees!” he told his men; “lie down,” he added when they had reached the trees, “and not a sound, remember. But before you go to sleep, who’s got any bread?”
“I have,” said one of the men.
“Give it here,” said the corporal in a tone of authority. He divided the bread into five pieces and took the smallest himself.
“A quarter of an hour before dawn,” he said as he ate it, “you’ll have the enemy’s cavalry on your backs. You’ve got to see you’re not sabred. A man by himself is done for with cavalry after him on these big plains, but five can get away; keep in close touch with me, don’t fire till they’re at close range, and to-morrow evening I’ll undertake to get you to Charleroi.” The corporal roused his men an hour before daybreak and made them recharge their muskets. The noise on the high road still continued; it had gone on all night: it was like the sound of a torrent heard from a long way off.
“They’re like a flock of sheep running away,” said Fabrizio with a guileless air to the corporal.
“Will you shut your mouth, you young fool!” said the corporal, greatly indignant. And the three soldiers who with Fabrizio composed his whole force scowled angrily at our hero as though he had uttered blasphemy. He had insulted the nation.
“That is where their strength lies!” thought our hero. “I noticed it before with the Viceroy at Milan; they are not running away, oh, no! with these Frenchmen you must never speak the truth if it shocks their vanity. But as for their savage scowls, they don’t trouble me, and I must let them understand as much.” They kept on their way, always at an interval of five hundred yards from the torrent of fugitives that covered the high road. A league farther on, the corporal and his party crossed a road running into the high road in which a number of soldiers were lying. Fabrizio purchased a fairly good horse which cost him forty francs, and among all the sabres that had been thrown down everywhere made a careful choice of one that was long and straight. “Since I’m told I’ve got to stick them,” he thought, “this is the best.” Thus equipped, he put his horse into a gallop and soon overtook the corporal who had gone on ahead. He sat up in his stirrups, took hold with his left hand of the scabbard of his straight sabre, and said to the four Frenchmen:
“Those people going along the high road look like a flock of sheep...they are running like frightened sheep...”
In spite of his dwelling upon the word sheep, his companions had completely forgotten that it had annoyed them an hour earlier. Here we see one of the contrasts between the Italian character and the French; the Frenchman is no doubt the happier of the two; he glides lightly over the events of life and bears no malice afterwards.
We shall not attempt to conceal the fact that Fabrizio was highly pleased with himself after using the word sheep. They marched on, talking about nothing in particular. After covering two leagues more, the corporal, still greatly astonished to see no sign of the enemy’s cavalry, said to Fabrizio:
“You are our cavalry; gallop over to that farm on the little hill; ask the farmer if he will sell us breakfast: mind you tell him there are only five of us. If he hesitates, put down five francs of your money in advance; but don’t be frightened, we’ll take the dollar back from him after we’ve eaten.”
Fabrizio looked at the corporal; he saw in his face an imperturbable gravity and really an air of moral superiority; he obeyed. Everything fell out as the commander in chief had anticipated; only, Fabrizio insisted on their not taking back by force the five francs he had given to the farmer.
“The money is mine,” he said to his friends; “I’m not paying for you, I’m paying for the oats he’s given my horse.”
Fabrizio’s French accent was so bad that his companions thought they detected in his words a note of superiority; they were keenly annoyed, and from that moment a duel began to take shape in their minds for the end of the day. They found him very different from themselves, which shocked them; Fabrizio, on the contrary, was beginning to feel a warm friendship towards them.
They had marched without saying a word for a couple of hours when the corporal, looking across at the high road, exclaimed in a transport of joy: “There’s the Regiment!” They were soon on the road; but, alas, round the eagle were mustered not more than two hundred men. Fabrizio’s eye soon caught sight of the vivandiere: she was going on foot, her eyes were red and every now and again she burst into tears. Fabrizio looked in vain for the little cart and Cocotte.
“Stripped, ruined, robbed!” cried the vivandiere, in answer to our hero’s inquiring glance. He, without a word, got down from his horse, took hold of the bridle and said to the vivandiere: “Mount!” She did not have to be told twice.
“Shorten the stirrups for me,” was her only remark.
As soon as she was comfortably in the saddle she began to tell Fabrizio all the disasters of the night. After a narrative of endless length but eagerly drunk in by our hero, who, to tell the truth, understood nothing at all of what she said but had a tender feeling for the vivandiere, she went on:
“And to think that they were Frenchmen who robbed me, beat me, destroyed me...”
“What! It wasn’t the enemy?” said Fabrizio with an air of innocence which made his grave, pale face look charming.
“What a fool you are, you poor boy!” said the vivandiere, smiling through her tears; “but you’re very nice, for all that.”
“And such as he is, he brought down his Prussian properly,” said Corporal Aubry, who, in the general confusion round them, happened to be on the other side of the horse on which the cantinere was sitting. “But he’s proud,” the corporal went on....Fabrizio made an impulsive movement. “And what’s your name?” asked the corporal; “for if there’s a report going in I should like to mention you.”
“I’m called Vasi,” replied Fabrizio, with a curious expression on his face. “Boulot, I mean,” he added, quickly correcting himself.
Boulot was the name of the late possessor of the marching orders which the gaoler’s wife at B--- had given him; on his way from B--- he had studied them carefully, for he was beginning to think a little and was no longer so easily surprised. In addition to the marching orders of Trooper Boulot, he had stowed away in a safe place the precious Italian passport according to which he was entitled to the noble appellation of Vasi, dealer in barometers. When the corporal had charged him with being proud, it had been on the tip of his tongue to retort: “I proud! I, Fabrizio Volterra, Marchesino del Dongo, who consent to go by the name of a Vasi, dealer in barometers!”
While he was making these reflexions and saying to himself: “I must not forget that I am called Boulot, or look out for the prison fate threatens me with,” the corporal and the cantinere had been exchanging a few words with regards to him.
“Don’t say I’m inquisitive,” said the cantinere, ceasing to address him in the second person singular, “it’s for your good I ask you these questions. Who are you, now, really?”
Fabrizio did not reply at first. He was considering that never again would he find more devoted friends to ask for advice, and he was in urgent need of advice from someone. “We are coming to a fortified place, the governor will want to know who I am, and ware prison if I let him see by my answers that I know nobody in the 4th Hussar Regiment whose uniform I am wearing!” In his capacity as an Austrian subject, Fabrizio knew all about the importance to be attached to a passport. Various members of his family, although noble and devout, although supporters of the winning side, had been in trouble a score of times over their passports; he was therefore not in the least put out by the question which the cantinere had addressed to him. But as, before answering, he had to think of the French words which would express his meaning most clearly, the cantinere, pricked by a keen curiosity, added, to induce him to speak: “Corporal Aubry and I are going to give you some good advice.”
“I have no doubt you are,” replied Fabrizio. “My name is Vasi and I come from Genoa; my sister, who is famous for her beauty, is married to a captain. As I am only seventeen, she made me come to her to let me see something of France, and form my character a little; not finding her in Paris, and knowing that she was with this army, I came on here. I’ve searched for her everywhere and haven’t found her. The soldiers, who were puzzled by my accent, had me arrested. I had money then, I gave some to the gendarme, who let me have some marching orders and a uniform, and said to me: ‘Get away with you, and swear you’ll never mention my name.’”
“What was he called?” asked the cantinere.
“I’ve given my word,” said Fabrizio.
“He’s right,” put in the corporal, “the gendarme is a sweep, but our friend ought not to give his name. And what is the other one called, this captain, your sister’s husband? If we knew his name, we would try to find him.”
“Teulier, Captain in the 4th Hussars,” replied our hero.
“And so,” said the corporal, with a certain subtlety, “from your foreign accent the soldiers took you for a spy?”
“That’s the abominable word!” cried Fabrizio, his eyes blazing. “I who love the Emperor so and the French people! And it was that insult that annoyed me more than anything.”
“There’s no insult about it; that’s where you’re wrong; the soldiers’ mistake was quite natural,” replied Corporal Aubry gravely.
And he went on to explain in the most pedantic manner that in the army one must belong to some corps and wear a uniform, failing which it was quite simple that people should take one for a spy. “The enemy sends us any number of them; everybody’s a traitor in this war.” The scales fell from Fabrizio’s eyes; he realised for the first time that he had been in the wrong in everything that had happened to him during the last two months.
“But make the boy tell us the whole story,” said the cantinere, her curiosity more and more excited. Fabrizio obeyed. When he had finished: “It comes to this,” said the cantinere, speaking in a serious tone to the corporal, “this child is not a soldier at all; we’re going to have a bloody war now that we’ve been beaten and betrayed. Why should he go and get his bones broken free, gratis and for nothing?”
“Especially,” put in the corporal, “as he doesn’t even know how to load his musket, neither by numbers, nor in his own time. It was I put in the shot that brought down the Prussian.”
“Besides, he lets everyone see the colour of his money,” added the cantinere; “he will be robbed of all he has as soon as he hasn’t got us to look after him.”
“The first cavalry non-com he comes across,” said the corporal, “will take it from him to pay for his drink, and perhaps they’ll enlist him for the enemy; they’re all traitors. The first man he meets will order him to follow, and he’ll follow him; he would do better to join our Regiment.”
“No, please, if you don’t mind, corporal!” Fabrizio exclaimed with animation; “I am more comfortable on a horse. And besides, I don’t know how to load a musket, and you have seen that I can manage a horse.”
Fabrizio was extremely proud of this little speech. We need not report the long discussion that followed between the corporal and the cantinere as to his future destiny. Fabrizio noticed that in discussing him these people repeated three or four times all the circumstances of his story: the soldiers’ suspicions, the gendarme selling him marching orders and a uniform, the accident by which, the day before, he had found himself forming part of the marshal’s escort, the glimpse of the Emperor as he galloped past, the horse that had been scoffed from him, and so on indefinitely.
With feminine curiosity the cantinere kept harking back incessantly to the way in which he had been dispossessed of the good horse which she had made him buy.
“You felt yourself seized by the feet, they lifted you gently over your horse’s tail, and sat you down on the ground!”
“Why repeat so often,” Fabrizio said to himself, “what all three of us know perfectly well?” He had not yet discovered that this is how, in France, the lower orders proceed in quest of ideas.
“How much money have you?” the cantinere asked him suddenly. Fabrizio had no hesitation in answering. He was sure of the nobility of the woman’s nature; that is the fine side of France.
“Altogether, I may have got left thirty napoleons in gold, and eight or nine five-franc pieces.
“In that case, you have a clear field!” exclaimed the cantinere. “Get right away from this rout of an army; clear out, take the first road with ruts on it that you come to on the right; keep your horse moving and your back to the army. At the first opportunity, buy some civilian clothes. When you’ve gone nine or ten leagues and there are no more soldiers in sight, take the mail-coach, and go and rest for a week and eat beefsteaks in some nice town. Never let anyone know that you’ve been in the army, or the police will take you up as a deserter; and, nice as you are, my boy, you’re not quite clever enough yet to stand up to the police. As soon as you’ve got civilian clothes on your back, tear up your marching orders into a thousand pieces and go back to your real name: say you’re Vasi. And where ought he to say he comes from?” she asked the corporal.
“From Chambrai on the Scheldt: it’s a good town and quite small, if you know what I mean. There’s a cathedral there, and Fenelon.”
“That’s right,” said the cantinere. “Never let on to anyone that you’ve been in battle, don’t breath a word about B---, or the gendarme who sold you the marching orders. When you’re ready to go back to Paris, make first for Versailles, and pass the Paris barrier from that side in a leisurely way, on foot, as if you were taking a stroll. Sew up your napoleons inside your breeches, and remember, when you have to pay for anything, show only the exact sum that you want to spend. What makes me sad is that they’ll take you and rob you and strip you of everything you have. And whatever will you do without money, you that don’t know how to look after yourself....” and so on.
The good woman went on talking for some time still; the corporal indicated his support by nodding his head, not being able to get a word in himself. Suddenly the crowd that was packing the road first of all doubled its pace, then, in the twinkling of an eye, crossed the little ditch that bounded the road on the left and fled helter-skelter across the country. Cries of “The Cossacks! The Cossacks!” rose from every side.
“Take back your horse!” the cantinere shouted.
“God forbid!” said Fabrizio. “Gallop! Away with you! I give him to you. Do you want something to buy another cart with? Half of what I have is yours.”
“Take back your horse, I tell you!” cried the cantinere angrily; and she prepared to dismount. Fabrizio drew his sabre. “Hold on tight!” he shouted to her; and gave two or three strokes with the flat of his sabre to the horse, which broke into a gallop and followed the fugitives.
Our hero stood looking at the road; a moment ago, two or three thousand people had been jostling along it, packed together like peasants at the tail of a procession. After the shout of: “Cossacks!” he saw not a soul on it; the fugitives had cast away shakoes, muskets, sabres, everything. Fabrizio, quite bewildered, climbed up into a field on the right of the road and twenty or thirty feet above it; he scanned the line of the road in both directions, and the plain, but saw no trace of the Cossacks. “Funny people, these French!” he said to himself. “Since I have got to go the right,” he thought, “I may as well start off at once; it is possible that these people have a reason for running away that I don’t know.” He picked up a musket, saw that it was charged, shook up the powder in the priming, cleaned the flint, then chose a cartridge-pouch that was well filled and looked round him again in all directions; he was absolutely alone in the middle of this plain which just now had been so crowded with people. In the far distance he could see the fugitives who were beginning to disappear behind the trees, and were still running. “That’s a very odd thing,” he said to himself, and remembering the tactics employed by the corporal the night before, he went and sat down in the middle of a field of corn. He did not go farther because he was anxious to see again his good friends the cantinere and Corporal Aubry.
In this cornfield, he made the discovery that he had no more than eighteen napoleons, instead of thirty as he had supposed; but he still had some small diamonds which he had stowed away in the lining of the hussar’s boots, before dawn, in the gaoler’s wife’s room at B---. He concealed his napoleons as best he could, pondering deeply the while on the sudden disappearance of the others. “Is that a bad omen for me?” he asked himself. What distressed him most was that he had not asked Corporal Aubry the question: “Have I really taken part in a battle?” It seemed to him that he had, and his happiness would have known no bounds could he have been certain of this.
“But even if I have,” he said to himself, “I took part in it bearing the name of a prisoner, I had a prisoner’s marching orders in my pocket, and, worse still, his coat on my back! That is the fatal threat to my future: what would the Priore Blanes say to it? And that wretched Boulot died in prison. It is all of the most sinister augury; fate will lead me to prison.” Fabrizio would have given anything in the world to know whether Trooper Boulot had really been guilty; when he searched his memory, he seemed to recollect that the gaoler’s wife had told him that the hussar had been taken up not only for the theft of silver plate but also for stealing a cow from a peasant and nearly beating the peasant to death: Fabrizio had no doubt that he himself would be sent to prison some day for a crime which would bear some relations to that of Trooper Boulot. He thought of his friend the parroco Blanes: what would he not have given for an opportunity of consulting him! Then he remembered that he had not written to his aunt since leaving Paris. “Poor Gina!” he said to himself. And tears stood in his eyes, when suddenly he heard a slight sound quite close to him: a soldier was feeding three horses on the standing corn; he had taken the bits out of their mouths and they seemed half dead with hunger; he was holding them by the snaffle. Fabrizio got up like a partridge; the soldier seemed frightened. Our hero noticed this, and yielded to the pleasure of playing the hussar for a moment.
“One of those horses belongs to me, f--- you, but I don’t mind giving you five francs for the trouble you’ve taken in bringing it here.”
“What are you playing at?” said the soldier. Fabrizio took aim at him from a distance of six paces.
“Let go the horse, or I’ll blow your head off.”
The soldier had his musket slung on his back; he reached over his shoulder to seize it.
“If you move an inch, you’re a dead man!” cried Fabrizio, rushing upon him.
“All right, give me the five francs and take one of the horses,” said the embarrassed soldier after casting a rueful glance at the high road, on which there was absolutely no one to be seen. Fabrizio, keeping his musket raised in his left hand, with the right flung him three five-franc pieces.
“Dismount, or you’re a dead man. Bridle the black, and go farther off with the other two...If you move, I fire.”
The soldier looked savage but obeyed. Fabrizio went up to the horse and passed the rein over his left arm, without losing sight of the soldier, who was moving slowly away; when our hero saw that he had gone fifty paces, he jumped nimbly on to the horse. He had barely mounted and was feeling with his foot for the off stirrup when he heard a bullet whistle past close to his head: it was the soldier who had fired at him. Fabrizio, beside himself with rage, started galloping after the soldier who ran off as fast as his legs could carry him, and presently Fabrizio saw him mount one of his two horses and gallop away. “Good, he’s out of range now,” he said to himself. The horse he had just bought was a magnificent animal, but seemed half starved. Fabrizio returned to the high road, where there was still not a living soul; he crossed it and put his horse into a trot to reach a little fold in the ground on the left, where he hoped to find the cantinere; but when he was at the top of the little rise he could see nothing save, more than a league away, a few scattered troops. “It is written that I shall not see her again,” he said to himself with a sigh, “the good, brave woman!” He came to a farm which he had seen in the distance on the right of the road. Without dismounting, and after paying for it in advance, he made the farmer produce some oats for his poor horse, which was so famished that it began to gnaw the manger. An hour later, Fabrizio was trotting along the high road, still in the hope of meeting the cantinere, or at any rate Corporal Aubry. Moving all the time and keeping a look-out all round him, he came to a marshy river crossed by a fairly narrow wooden bridge. Between him and the bridge, on the right of the road, was a solitary house bearing the sign of the White Horse. “There I shall get some dinner,” thought Fabrizio. A cavalry officer with his arm in a sling was guarding the approach to the bridge; he was on horseback and looked very melancholy; ten paces away from him, three dismounted troopers were filling their pipes.