A Few of Our Biographies:
A Personal View of Waterloo
This is Part Five of a Five-Part Excerpt
“There are some people,” Fabrizio said to himself, “who look to me very much as though they would like to buy my horse for even less than he cost me.” The wounded officer and the three men on foot watched him approach and seemed to be waiting for him. “It would be better not to cross by this bridge, but to follow the river bank to the right; that was the way the cantinere advised me to take to get clear of difficulties....Yes,” thought our hero, “but if I take to my heels now, to-morrow I shall be thoroughly ashamed of myself; besides, my horse has good legs, the officer’s is probably tied; if he tries to make me dismount I shall gallop.” Reasoning thus with himself, Fabrizio pulled up his horse and moved forward at the slowest possible pace.
“Advance, you, hussar!” the officer called to him with an air of authority.
Fabrizio went on a few paces and then halted.
“Do you want to take my horse?” he shouted.
“Not in the least; advance.”
Fabrizio examined the officer; he had a white moustache, and looked the best fellow in the world; the handkerchief that held up his left arm was drenched with blood, and his right hand also was bound up in a piece of bloodstained linen. “It is the men on foot who are going to snatch my bridle,” thought Fabrizio; but, on looking at them from nearer, he saw that they too were wounded.
“On your honour as a soldier,” said the officer, who wore the epaulettes of a colonel, “stay here on picket, and tell all the dragoons, chasseurs and hussars that you see that Colonel Le Baron is in the inn over there, and that I order them to come and report to me.” The old colonel had the air of a man broken by suffering; with his first words he had made a conquest of our hero, who replied with great good sense:
“I am very young, sir, to make them listen to me; I ought to have a written order from you.”
“He is right,” said the colonel, studying him closely: “make out the order, La Rose, you’ve got the use of your right hand.”
Without saying a word, La Rose took from his pocket a little parchment book, wrote a few lines, and, tearing out a leaf, handed it to Fabrizio; the colonel repeated the order to him, adding that after two hours on duty he would be relieved, as was right and proper, by one of the three wounded troopers he had with him. So saying he went into the inn with his men. Fabrizio watched them go and sat without moving at the end of his wooden bridge, so deeply impressed had he been by the sombre silent grief of these three persons. “One would think they were under a spell,” he said to himself. At length he unfolded the paper and read the order, which ran as follows:
“Colonel Le Baron, 6th Dragoons, Commanding the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division of the XIV Corps, orders all cavalrymen, dragoons, chasseurs and hussars, on no account to cross the bridge, and to report to him at the White Horse Inn, by the bridge, which is his headquarters.
“Headquarters, by the bridge of La Sainte, June 19, 1815.
“For Colonel Le Baron, wounded in the right arm, and by his orders,
“LA ROSE, Serjeant.”
Fabrizio had been on guard at the bridge for barely half an hour when he saw six chasseurs approaching him mounted, and three on foot; he communicated the colonel’s order to them. “We’re coming back,” said four of the mounted men, and crossed the bridge at a fast trot. Fabrizio then spoke to the other two. During the discussion, which grew heated, the three men on foot crossed the bridge. Finally, one of the two mounted troopers who had stayed behind asked to see the order again, and carried it off, with:
“I am taking it to the others, who will come back without fail; wait for them here.” And off he went at a gallop; his companion followed him. All this had happened in the twinkling of an eye.
Fabrizio was furious, and called to one of the wounded soldiers, who appeared at a window of the White Horse. This soldier, on whose arm Fabrizio saw the stripes of a cavalry serjeant, came down and shouted to him: “Draw your sabre, man, you’re on picket.” Fabrizio obeyed, then said: “They’ve carried off the order.”
“They’re out of hand after yesterday’s affair,” replied the other in a melancholy tone. “I’ll let you have one of my pistols; if they force past you again, fire it in the air; I shall come, or the colonel himself will appear.”
Fabrizio had not failed to observe the serjeant’s start of surprise on hearing of the theft of the order. He realised that it was a personal insult to himself, and promised himself that he would not allow such a trick to be played on him again.
Armed with the serjeant’s horse-pistol, Fabrizio had proudly resumed his guard when he saw coming towards him seven hussars, mounted. He had taken up a position that barred the bridge; he read them the colonel’s order, which seemed greatly to annoy them; the most venturesome of them tried to pass. Fabrizio, following the wise counsel of his friend the vivandiere, who, the morning before, had told him that he must thrust and not slash, lowered the point of his long, straight sabre and made as though to stab with it the man who was trying to pass him.
“Oh, so he wants to kill us, the baby!” cried the hussars, “as if we hadn’t been killed quite enough yesterday!” They all drew their sabres at once and fell on Fabrizio: he gave himself up for dead; but he thought of the serjeant’s surprise, and was not anxious to earn his contempt again.
Drawing back on to his bridge, he tried to reach them with his sabre-point. He looked so absurd when he tried to wield this huge, straight heavy-dragoon sabre, a great deal too heavy for him, that the hussars soon saw with what sort of soldier they had to deal; they then endeavored not to wound him but to slash his clothing. In this way Fabrizio received three or four slight sabre-cuts on his arms. For his own part, still faithful to the cantinere’s precept, he kept thrusting the point of his sabre at them with all his might. As ill luck would have it, one of these thrusts wounded a hussar in the hand: highly indignant at being touched by so raw a recruit, he replied with a downward thrust which caught Fabrizio in the upper part of the thigh. What made this blow effective was that our hero’s horse, so far from avoiding the fray, seemed to take pleasure in it and to be flinging himself on the assailants. These, seeing Fabrizio’s blood streaming along his right arm, were afraid that they might have carried the game too far, and, pushing him against the left-hand parapet of the bridge, crossed at a gallop. As soon as Fabrizio had a moment to himself he fired his pistol in the air to warn the colonel.
Four mounted hussars and two on foot, of the same regiment as the others, were coming towards the bridge and were still two hundred yards away from it when the pistol went off. They had been paying close attention to what was happening on the bridge, and, imaging that Fabrizio had fired at their comrades, the four mounted men galloped upon him with raised sabres: it was a regular cavalry charge. Colonel Le Baron, summoned by the pistol-shot, opened the door of the inn and rushed on to the bridge just as the galloping hussars reached it, and himself gave them the order to halt.
“There’s no colonel here now!” cried one of them, and pressed on his horse. The colonel in exasperation broke off the reprimand he was giving them, and with his wounded right hand seized the rein of this horse on the off side.
“Halt! You bad soldier,” he said to the hussar; “I know you, you’re in Captain Henriot’s squadron.”
“Very well, then! The captain can give me the order himself! Captain Henriot was killed yesterday,” he added with a snigger, “and you can go and f--- yourself.”
So saying, he tried to force a passage, and pushed the old colonel who fell in a sitting position on the roadway of the bridge. Fabrizio, who was a couple of yards farther along upon the bridge, but facing the inn, pressed his horse, and, while the breast-piece of the assailant’s harness threw down the old colonel who never let go the off rein, Fabrizio, indignant, bore down upon the hussar with a driving thrust. Fortunately the hussar’s horse, feeling itself pulled towards the ground by the rein which the colonel still held, made a movement sideways, with the result that the long blade of Fabrizio’s heavy-cavalry sabre slid along the hussar’s jacket, and the whole length of it passed beneath his eyes. Furious, the hussar turned round and, using all his strength, dealt Fabrizio a blow which cut his sleeve and went deep into his arm: our hero fell.
One of the dismounted hussars, seeing the two defenders of the bridge on the ground, seized the opportunity, jumped on to Fabrizio’s horse and tried to make off with it by starting at a gallop across the bridge.
The serjeant, as he hurried from the inn, had seen his colonel fall, and supposed him to be seriously wounded. He ran after Fabrizio’s horse and plunged the point of his sabre into the thief’s entrails; he fell. The hussars, seeing no one now on the bridge but the serjeant, who was on foot, crossed at a gallop and rapidly disappeared. The one on foot bolted into the fields.
The serjeant came up to the wounded men. Fabrizio was already on his feet; he was not in great pain, but was bleeding profusely. The colonel got up more slowly; he was quite stunned by his fall, but had received no injury.
“I feel nothing,” he said to the serjeant, “except the old wound in my hand.”
The hussar whom the serjeant had wounded was dying.
“The devil take him!” exclaimed the colonel. “But,” he said to the serjeant and the two troopers who came running out, “look after this young man whose life I have risked, most improperly. I shall stay on the bridge myself and try to stop these madmen. Take the young man to the inn and tie up his arm. Use one of my shirts.”
The whole of this adventure had not lasted a minute.
Fabrizio’s wounds were nothing; they tied up his arm with bandages torn from the colonel’s shirt. They wanted to make up a bed for him upstairs in the inn.
“But while I am tucked up here on the first floor,” said Fabrizio to the serjeant, “my horse, who is down in the stable, will get bored with being left alone and will go off with another master.”
“Not bad for a conscript!” said the serjeant. And they deposited Fabrizio on a litter of clean straw in the same stall as his horse.
Then, as he was feeling very weak, the serjeant brought him a bowl of mulled wine and talked to him for a little. Several compliments included in this conversation carried our hero to the seventh heaven.
Fabrizio did not wake until dawn on the following day; the horses were neighing continuously and making a frightful din; the stable was filled with smoke. At first Fabrizio could make nothing of all this noise, and did not even know where he was: finally, half-stifled by the smoke, it occurred to him that the house was on fire; in the twinkling of an eye he was out of the stable and in the saddle. He raised his head; smoke was belching violently from the two windows over the stable; and the roof was covered by a black smoke which rose curling into the air. A hundred fugitives had arrived during the night at the White Horse; they were all shouting and swearing. The five or six whom Fabrizio could see close at hand seemed to him to be completely drunk; one of them tried to stop him and called out to him: “Where are you taking my horse?”
When Fabrizio had gone a quarter of a league, he turned his head. There was no one following him; the building was in flames. Fabrizio caught sight of the bridge; he remembered his wound, and felt his arm compressed by bandages and very hot. “And the old colonel, what has become of him? He gave his shirt to tie up my arm.” Our hero was this morning the coolest man in the world; the amount of blood he had shed had liberated him from all the romantic element in his character.
“To the right!” he said to himself, “and no time to lose.” He began quietly following the course of the river which, after passing under the bridge, ran to the right of the road. He remembered the good cantinere’s advice. “What friendship!” he said to himself, “what an open nature!”
After riding for an hour he felt very weak. “Oho! Am I going to faint?” he wondered. “If I faint, someone will steal my horse, and my clothes, perhaps, and my money and jewels with them.” He had no longer the strength to hold the reins, and was trying to keep his balance in the saddle when a peasant who was digging in a field by the side of the high road noticed his pallor and came up to offer him a glass of beer and some bread.
“When I saw you look so pale, I thought you must be one of the wounded from the great battle,” the peasant told him. Never did help come more opportunely. As Fabrizio was munching the piece of bread his eyes began to hurt him when he looked straight ahead. When he felt a little better he thanked the man. “And where am I?” he asked. The peasant told him that three quarters of a league farther on he would come to the township of Zonders, where he would be very well looked after. Fabrizio reached the town, not knowing quite what he was doing and thinking only at every step of not falling off his horse. He saw a big door standing open; he entered. It was the Woolcomb Inn. At once there ran out to him the good lady of the house, an enormous woman; she called for help in a voice that throbbed with pity. Two girls came and helped Fabrizio to dismount; no sooner had his feet touched the ground than he fainted completely. A surgeon was fetched who bled him. For the rest of that day and the days that followed Fabrizio scarcely knew what was being done to him, he slept almost without interruption.
The sabre wound in his thigh threatened to form a serious abscess. When his mind was clear again, he asked them to look after his horse, and kept on repeating that he would pay them well, which shocked the good hostess and her daughters. For a fortnight he was admirably looked after and he was beginning to be himself again when he noticed one evening that his hostess seemed greatly upset. Presently a German officer came into his room; in answering his questions they used a language which Fabrizio did not understand but he could see that they were speaking about him; he pretended to be asleep. A little later, when he thought that the officer must have gone, he called his hostesses.
“That officer came to put my name on a list, and make me a prisoner, didn’t he?” The landlady assented with tears in her eyes.
“Very well, there is money in my dolman!” he cried, sitting up in bed; “buy me some civilian clothes and to-night I shall go away on my horse. You have already saved my life once by taking me in just as I was going to drop down dead in the street; save it again by giving me the means of going back to my mother.”
At this point the landlady’s daughters began to dissolve in tears; they trembled for Fabrizio; and, as they barely understood French, they came to his bedside to question him. They talked with their mother in Flemish; but at every moment pitying eyes were turned on our hero; he thought he could make out that his escape might compromise them seriously, but that they would gladly incur the risk. A Jew in the town supplied a complete outfit, but when he brought it to the inn about ten o’clock that night, the girls saw, on comparing it with Fabrizio’s dolman, that it would require an endless amount of alteration. At once they set to work; there was no time to lose. Fabrizio showed them where several napoleons were hidden in his uniform, and begged his hostesses to stitch them into the new garments. With these had come a fine pair of new boots. Fabrizio had no hesitation in asking these kind girls to slit open the hussar’s boots at the place which he showed them, and they hid the little diamonds in the lining of the new pair.
One curious result of his loss of blood and the weakness that followed from it was that Fabrizio had almost completely forgotten his French; he used Italian to address his hostesses, who themselves spoke a Flemish dialect, so that their conversation had to be conducted almost entirely in signs. When the girls, who for that matter were entirely disinterested, saw the diamonds, their enthusiasm for Fabrizio knew no bounds; they imagined him to be a prince in disguise. Aniken, the younger and less sophisticated, kissed him without ceremony. Fabrizio, for his part, found them charming, and towards midnight, when the surgeon had allowed him a little wine in view of the journey he had to take, he felt almost inclined not to go. “Where could I be better off than here?” he asked himself. However, about two o’clock in the morning, he rose and dressed. As he was leaving the room, his good hostess informed him that his horse had been taken by the officer who had come to search the house that afternoon.
“Ah! The swine!” cried Fabrizio with an oath, “robbing a wounded man!” He was not enough of a philosopher, this young Italian, to bear in mind the price at which he himself had acquired the horse.
Aniken told him with tears that they had hired a horse for him. She would have liked him not to go. Their farewells were tender. Two big lads, cousins of the good landlady, helped Fabrizio into the saddle: during the journey they supported him on his horse, while a third, who walked a few hundred yards in advance of the little convoy, searched the roads for any suspicious patrol. After going for a couple of hours, they stopped at the house of a cousin of the landlady of the Woolcomb. In spite of anything that Fabrizio might say, the young men who accompanied him refused absolutely to leave him; they claimed that they knew better than anyone the hidden paths through the woods.
“But to-morrow morning when my flight becomes known, and they don’t see you anywhere in the town, your absence will make things awkward for you,” said Fabrizio.
They proceeded on their way. Fortunately, when day broke at last, the plain was covered by a thick fog. About eight o’clock in the morning they came in sight of a little town. One of the young men went on ahead to see if the post-horses there had been stolen. The postmaster had had time to make them vanish and to raise a team of wretched screws with which he had filled his stables. Grooms were sent to find a pair of horses in the marshes where they were hidden, and three hours later Fabrizio climbed into a little cabriolet which was quite dilapidated but had harnessed to it a pair of good post-horses. He had regained his strength. The moment of parting with the young men, his hostess’s cousins, was pathetic in the extreme; on no account, whatever friendly pretext Fabrizio might find, would they consent to take any money.
“In your condition, sir, you need it more than we do,” was the invariable reply of these worthy young fellows. Finally they set off with letters in which Fabrizio, somewhat emboldened by the agitation of the journey, had tried to convey to his hostesses all that he felt for them. Fabrizio wrote with tears in his eyes, and there was certainly love in the letter addressed to little Aniken.
In the rest of the journey there was nothing out of the common. He reached Amiens in great pain from the cut he had received in his thigh; it had not occurred to the country doctor to lance the wound, and in spite of the bleedings an abscess had formed. During the fortnight that Fabrizio spent in the inn at Amiens, kept by an obsequious and avaricious family, the Allies were invading France, and Fabrizio became another man, so many and profound were his reflections on the things that had happened to him. He had remained a child upon one point only: what he had seen, was it a battle; and, if so, was that battle Waterloo? For the first time in his life he found pleasure in reading; he was always hoping to find in the newspapers, or in the published accounts of the battle, some description which would enable him to identify the ground he had covered with Marshal Ney’s escort, and afterwards with the other general. During his stay at Amiens he wrote almost every day to his good friends at the Woolcomb. As soon as his wound was healed, he came to Paris.
-End of Chapter-