Charles James Lever.

Charles O'Malley, the Irish dragon online

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I listened attentively, I could hear nothing but the confused mur-
mur of persons conversing together without detecting even a word.
My thoughts now fell into another channel, and as I ruminated
over my old position, I heard the noise of the sentry at my door as
he brought his musket to the shoulder, and the next moment an
officer in the uniform of the Chasseurs of the Guard entered. Bow-
ing politely as he advanced to the middle of the room, he addressed
me thus :


" You speak French, sir?" and, as I replied in the affirmative,
continued :

" Will you then have the goodness to follow me this way ?"

Although burning with anxiety to learn what had taken place,
yet somehow I could not bring myself to ask the question. A secret
pride mingled with my fear that all had not gone well with us, and
I durst not expose myself to hear of our defeat from the lips of an
enemy. I had barely time to ask into whose presence I was about
to be ushered, when, with a slight smile of a strange meaning, he
opened the door and introduced me into the saloon. Although I
had seen at least twelve or fourteen horsemen arrive, there were but
three persons in the room as I entered. One of these, who sat
writing at a small table near the window, never lifted his head on
my entrance, but continued assiduously his occupation. Another,
a tall, fine-looking man of some sixty years or upwards, whose high,
bald forehead and drooping moustache, white as snow, looked in
every way the old soldier of the empire, stood leaning upon his
sabre ; while the third, whose stature, somewhat below the middle
size, was yet cast in a strong and muscular mould, stood with his
back to the fire, holding on his arms the skirts of a gray surtout
which he wore over his uniform ; his legs were cased in the tall
boots worn by the chasseur d cheval, and on his head a low cocked-
hat, without plume or feather, completed his costume. There was
something which, at the very moment of my entrance, struck me as
uncommon in his air and bearing, so much so that when my eyes
had once rested on his pale but placid countenance, his regular,
handsome, but somewhat stern features, I totally forgot the presence
of the others and looked only at him.

"What's your rank, sir?" said he, hurriedly, and with a tone
which bespoke command.

" I have none at present, save "

" Why do you wear your epaulettes then, sir ?" said he, harshly,
while from his impatient look and hurried gesture I saw that he put
no faith in my reply.

"I am an aide-de-camp to General Picton, but without regi-
mental rank."

" What was the British force under arms yesterday ?"

" I do not feel myself at liberty to give you any information as to
the number or the movements of our army."

"Dia?itre/ Diantre!" said he, slapping his boot with his horse-
whip, "do you know what you've been saying there, eh? Cani-
bronne, you heard him, did you ?"

" Yes, sire, and if your Majesty would permit me to deal with
him, I would before long have his information, if he possess any."


" Eh, gaillard" said he, as he pinched the old general's ear in jest,
" I believe you, with all my heart.''

The truth flashed upon my mind. I was in the presence of the
Emperor himself. As, however, up to this moment I was uncon-
scious of his presence, I resolved now to affect ignorance of it

" Had you despatches, sir ?" said he, turning towards me with
a look of stern severity. " Were any despatches found upon
him when he was taken V This latter question was directed to
the aide-de-camp who introduced me, and who still remained at
the door.

" No, sire, nothing was found upon him except this locket."

As he said these words he placed in Napoleon's hands the keep-
sake which St. Croix had left with me years before in Spain,
and which, as the reader may remember, was a miniature of the
Empress Josephine.

The moment the Emperor threw his eyes upon it, the flush
which excitement had called into his cheek disappeared at once :
he became pale as death, his very lips as bloodless as his wan

" Leave me, Lefebvre ; leave me, Cambronne, for a moment ; I
will speak with this gentleman alone."

As the door closed upon them, he leaned his arm upon the man-
telpiece, and, with his head sunk upon his bosom, remained some
moments without speaking.

"Augure sinistre /" muttered he within his teeth, as his piercing
gaze was riveted upon the picture before him.

" Viola la troisilme fois ; pevt-etre la derntere." Then suddenly rous-
ing himself, he advanced close to me, and seizing me by the arm
with a grasp like iron, inquired :

" How came you by that picture ? The truth, sir ; mark me, the

Without showing any sign of feeling hurt at the insinuation of
this question, I detailed, in as few words as I could, the circum-
stance by which the locket became mine. Long before I had con-
cluded, however, I could mark that his attention flagged, and finally
wandered far away from the matter before him.

" Why will you not give me the information I look for ? I seek
for no breach of faith. The campaign is all but over. The Prus-
sians were beaten at Ligny, their army routed, their artillery cap-
tured, and ten thousand prisoners taken. Your troops and the
Dutch were conquered yesterday, and they are in full retreat on
Brussels. By to-morrow evening I shall date my bulletin from the
palace of Laeken. Antwerp will be in my possession within twenty-


four hours. Namur is already mine. Cambrortne, Lefebvre," cried
he, "cet homme-ld n J en sait rien" pointing to me as he spoke. " Let
us see the other." With this he motioned slightly with his hand, as
a sign for me to withdraw, and the next moment I was once more
in the solitude of my prison-room, thinking over the singular inter-
view I had jusHiad with the great Emperor.

How anxiously pass the hours of one who, deprived of other
means of information, is left to form his conjectures by some pass-
ing object or some chance murmur. The things which in the ordi-
nary course of life are passed by unnoticed and unregarded, are now
matters of moment. With what scrutiny he examines the features
of those whom he dare not question ! with what patient ear he
listens to each passing word ! Thus to me, a prisoner, the hours
went by tardily yet anxiously. No sabre clanked ; no war horse
neighed ; no heavy-booted cuirassier tramped in the court-yard
beneath my window without setting a hundred conjectures afloat as
to what was about to happen. For some time there had been a
considerable noise and bustle in and about the dwelling. Horse-
men came and went continually. The sounds of galloping could be
heard along the paved causeway ; then the challenge of the sentry
at the gate ; then the nearer tread of approaching steps, and many
voices speaking together, would seem to indicate that some messen-
ger had arrived with despatches. At length all these sounds became
hushed and still ; no longer were the voices heard, and except the
measured tread of the heavy cuirassier, as he paced on the flags
beneath, nothing was to be heard. My state of suspense, doubly
greater now than when the noise and tumult suggested food for con-
jecture, continued till towards noon, when a soldier in undress
brought me some breakfast, and told me to prepare speedily for
the road.

Scarcely had he left the room, when the rumbling noise of wag-
ons was heard below, and a train of artillery carts moved into the
little court-yard, loaded with wounded men. It was a sad and
frightful sight to see these poor fellows, as, crammed side by side in
the straw of the charrette, they lay, their ghastly wounds opening
with every motion of the wagon, while their wan, pale faces were
convulsed with agony and suffering. Of every rank, from the sous-
lieutenant to the humble soldier, from every arm of the service,
from the heavy Cuirassier of the Guard to the light and intrepid
tirailleur, they were there; I well remember one, an artilleryman
of the Guard, who, as they lifted him forth from the cart, presented
the horrifying spectacle of one both of whose legs had been carried
away by a cannon-shot. Pale, cold, and corpse-like, he lay in their
arms ; his head lay heavily to one side, and his arms fell passively


as in death. It was at this moment that a troop of lancers, the ad-
vanced guard of D'Erlon's division, came trotting up the road. The
cry of " Vive PEmpereur I" burst from them as they approached ; its
echo rang within the walls of the farm-house, when suddenly the
dying man, as though some magic touch had called him back to life
and vigor, sprang up erect between his bearers, his"filmy eye flash-
ing fire, a burning spot of red coloring his bloodless cheek ; he cast
one wild and hurried look around him, like one called back from
death to look upon the living, and, as he raised his blood-stained
hand above his head, shouted, in a heart-piercing cry, " Vive VEmpe-
reur!" The effort was his last. It was the expiring tribute of
allegiance to the chief he adored. The blood spouted in cataracts
from his half-closed wounds, a convulsive spasm worked through
his frame, his eyes rolled fearfully, as his outstretched hands seemed
striving to clutch some object before them — and he was dead. Fresh
arrivals of wounded continued to pour in ; and now I thought I
could detect at intervals the distant noise of the cannonade ; the
wind, however, was from the southward, and the sounds were too
indistinct to be relied on.

" Allons! allons ! mon cher," said a rough but good-natured-look-
ing fellow, as he strode into my room. He was the quartermaster of
Milhaud's dragoons, under whose care I was now placed, and came
to inform me that we were to set out immediately.

Monsieur Bonnard was a character in his way ; and if it were not
so near the conclusion of my history, I should like to present him
to my readers. As it is, I shall merely say that he was a thorough
specimen of one class of his countrymen — a loud talker, a loud
swearer, a vaporing, boasting, overbearing, good-natured, and even
soft-hearted fellow, who firmly believed that Frenchmen were the
climax of the species, and Napoleon the climax of Frenchmen.
Being a great bavard, he speedily told me all that had taken place
during the last two days. From him I learned that the Prussians
had really been beaten at Ligny, and had fallen back, he knew not
where ; they were, however, he said, hotly pursued by Grouchy,
with thirty-five thousand men, while the Emperor himself was
now following the British and Dutch armies with seventy thousand

" You see," continued he, " V affaire est faite I — who can resist the
Emperor ?"

These were sad tidings for me ; and although I did not place im-
plicit confidence in my informant, I had still my fears that much of
what he said was true.

"And the British, now," said I; "what direction have they


" Bah ! they're in retreat on Brussels, and will probably capitu-
late to-morrow."

" Capitulate !"

"Oui, oui: ne vousfachez pas, camarade" said he, laughing. "What
could you do against Napoleon ? You did not expect to beat him,
surely ? But come, we must move on ; I have my orders to bring
you to Planchenoit this evening, and our horses are tired enough

" Mine, methinks, should be fresh," said I.

" Parbleu non" replied he ; " he has twice made the journey to
Fresnes this morning with despatches for Marshal Ney. The Empe-
ror is enraged with the Marshal for having retreated last night,
having the wood in his possession. He says he should have waited
till daybreak, and then fallen upon your retreating columns. As it
is, you are getting away without much loss. Sacriste, that was a
fine charge !" These last words he muttered to himself, adding,
between his teeth, " sixty-four killed and wounded."

" What was that ? who were they ?" said I.

" Our fellows," replied he, frankly. " The Emperor ordered up
two twelve-pounders and eight squadrons of lancers ; they fell upon
your light dragoons in a narrow part of the high road. But suddenly
we heard a noise in front ; your hussars fell back, and a column of
your heavy dragoons came thundering down upon us. Parbleu ! they
swept over us as if we were broken infantry ; and there ! there !"
said he, pointing to the court-yard, from whence the groans of the
wounded still rose, " there are the fruits of that terrible charge."

I could not restrain an outbreak of triumphant pleasure at this
gallant feat of my countrymen.

" Yes, yes," said the honest Quartermaster, " it was a fine thing ;
but a heavy reckoning is at hand. But come, let us take the road."

In a few moments more I found myself seated upon a heavy Nor-
man horse, whose lumbering demi-peak saddle was nearly cleft in
two by a sabre-cut.

" Ay, ay," said Monsieur Bonnard, as he saw my eye fixed upon
the spot, " it was one of your fellows did that ; and the same cut
clove poor Pierre from the neck to the seat."

" I hope," said I, laughing, "the saddle may not prove an un-
lucky one."

" No, no," said the Frenchman, seriously ; " it has paid its debt
to fate."

As we pressed on our road, which, broken by the heavy guns, and
ploughed up in many places by the artillery, was nearly impassable,
we could distinctly hear from time to time the distant boom of the
large guns, as the retiring and pursuing armies replied to each


other ; while behind us, but still a long way off, a dark mass- ap-
peared on the horizon : they were the advancing columns of Ney's

" Have the troops come in contact more than once this morning?"

" Not closely," said the Quartermaster. " The armies have kept
a respectful distance ; they were like nothing I can think of," said
the figurative Frenchman, "except two hideous serpents wallow-
ing in mire, and vomiting at each other whole rivers of fire and

As we approached Planchenoit, we came up to the rear-guard of
the French army ; from them we learned that Ney's division, con-
sisting of the eighth corps, had joined the Emperor ; that the
British were still in retreat, but that nothing of any importance had
occurred between the rival armies, the French merely firing their
heavy guns from time to time, to ascertain by the reply the position
of the retreating forces. The rain poured down in torrents; gusts
of cold and stormy wind swept across the wide plains, or moaned
sorrowfully through the dense forest. As I rode on by the side of
my companion, I could not help remarking how little the effects of
a fatiguing march and unfavorable weather were apparent on those
around me. The spirit of excited gayety pervaded every rank ; and,
unlike the stern features which the discipline of our service enforces,
the French soldiers were talking, laughing, and even singing, as
they marched ; the canteens passed freely from hand to hand, and
jests and toasts flew from front to rear along the dark columns ;
many carried their loaves of dark rye-bread on the tops of their
bayonets ; and to look upon that noisy and tumultuous mass as they
poured along, it would have needed a practised eye to believe them
the most disciplined of European armies.

The sun was just setting as, mounting a ridge of high land beside
the high road, my companion pointed with his finger to a small
farm-house, which, standing alone in the plain, commanded an ex-
tensive view on every side of it.

"There," said he, "there is the quartier g&n&ral ; the Emperor
sleeps there to-night. The King of Holland will afford him a bed
to-morrow night."

The dark shadows of the coming night were rapidly falling as I
strained my eyes to trace the British position. A hollow, rumbling
sound announced the movement of artillery in our front.

"What is it, Arnotte?" said the Quartermaster to a dragoon officer
who rode past.

" It is nothing," replied the other, laughing, " but a ruse of the
Emperor. He wishes to ascertain if the enemy are in force, or if
we have only a strong rear-guard before us."


As he spoke, fifteen heavy guns opened their fire, and the still air
reverberated with a loud thunder. The sound had not died away —
the very smoke lay yet heavily upon the moist earth — when forty
pieces of British cannon rang out their answer, and the very plain
trembled beneath the shock.

" Ha ! they are there, then," exclaimed the dragoon, as his eyes
flashed with ecstasy. " Look ! see ! the artillery are limbering up
already. The Emperor is satisfied."

And so it was. A dark column of twelve hundred horse that ac-
companied the guns into the plain, now wheeled slowly round, and
wound their long track far away to the right. The rain fell in tor-
rents; the wind was hushed ; and, as the night fell in darkness, the
columns moved severally to their destinations. The bivouacs were
formed, the watch-fires were lighted, and seventy thousand men
and two hundred pieces of cannon occupied the heights of Plan-

" My orders are to bring you to La Caillon," said the Quarter-
master ; " and if you only can spur your jaded horse into a trot, we
shall soon reach it."

About a hundred yards from the little farm-house stood a small
cottage of a peasant. Here some officers of Marshal Soult's staff
had taken up their quarters, and thither my guide now bent his

"Comment! Bonnard" said an aide-de-camp, as we rode up, "ano-
ther prisoner? Sacrebleu! we shall have the whole British staff
among us. You are in better luck than your countryman, the
General, I hope," said the aide-de-camp ; " his is a sad affair ; and
I'm sorry for it, too ; he's a fine, soldier-like looking fellow."

" Pray, what has happened?" said I. " To what do you allude?"

" Merely to one of your people who has just been taken with some
letters and papers of Bourmont's in his possession. The Emperor
is in no very amicable humor towards that traitor, and resolves to
pay off some part of his debt on his British correspondent."

" How cruel ! how unjust !"

" Why, yes, it is hard, I confess, to be shot for the fault of another.
Mais que voulez-vous ?"

"And when is this atrocious act to take place?"

" By daybreak to-morrow," said he, bowing as he turned towards
the hut. " Meanwhile, let me counsel you, if you would not make
another in the party, to reserve your indignation for your return to

" Come along," said the Quartermaster ; " I find they have got
quarters for you in the granary of the farm. I'll not forget you at
supper time."


So saying, he gave his horse io an orderly, and led me by a little
path to a back entrance of the dwelling. Had I time or inclination
for such a scene, I might have lingered long to gaze at the spectacle
before me. The guard held their bivouac around the quarters of the
Emperor; and here, beside the watch-fires, sat the bronzed and
scarred veterans who had braved every death and danger from the
Pyramids to the Kremlin. On every side I heard the names of those
whom history has already consigned to immortality ; and, as the
fitful blaze of a wood-fire flashed from within the house, I could
mark the figure of one who, with his hands behind his back, walked
leisurely to and fro, his head leaned a little forward, as though in
deep thought ; but as the light fell upon his pale and placid features,
there was nothing there to indicate the stormy strife of hope and
fear that raged beneath. From the rapid survey I took around, I
was roused by an officer, who, saluting me, politely desired me to
follow him. We mounted a flight of stone steps, which, outside the
wall of the building, led to the upper story of a large but ruined
granary. Here a sentry was posted, who permitting us to pass for-
ward, I found myself in a small, mean-looking apartment, whose few
articles of coarse furniture were dimly lighted by the feeble glimmer
of a lamp. At the further end of the room sat a man, wrapped in a
large blue cavalry cloak, whose face, covered with his hands as he
bent downwards, was completely concealed from view. The noise
of the opening door did not appear to arouse him, nor did he notice
my approach. As I entered, a faint sigh broke from him, as he
turned his back upon the light ; but he spoke not a word.

I sat for some time in silence, unwilling to obtrude myself upon
the sorrows of one to whom I was unknown ; and, as I walked up
and down the gloomy chamber, my thoughts became riveted so com-
pletely upon my own fortunes that I ceased to remember my fellow-
prisoner. The hours passed thus lazily along, when the door sud-
denly opened, and an officer in the dress of a lancer of the Guard
stood for an instant before me, and then springing forward, clasped
me with both hands, and called out :

" Charles, mon ami, c'est bien toi f"

The voice recalled to my recollection what his features, altered by
time and years, had failed to do. It was Jules St. Croix, my former
prisoner in the Peninsula. I cannot paint the delight with which
I saw him again ; his presence now, while it brought back the
memory of some of my happiest days, also assured me that I was
not friendless.

His visit was a brief one, for he was in attendance on Marshal
Lobau's staff. In the few minutes, however, of his stay, he said :

" I have a debt to pay, Charles ; and have come to discharge it.

QUA TEE BE AS. . 727

In an hour hence I shall leave this with despatches for the left of
our line. Before I go, I'll come here with two or three others, as it
were, to wish you a good night. I'll take care to carry a second
cloak and a foraging cap ' K I'll provide a fast horse ; you shall ac-
company us for some distance. I'll see you safe across our pickets :
for the rest you must trust to yourself. C'est arrange, n'est-ce pas?"

One firm grasp of his hand, to which I responded by another, fol-
lowed, and he was gone.

Everything concurred to show me that a tremendous battle must
ensue on the morrow, if the British forces but held their position.
It was then with a feeling of excitement approaching to madness
that I saw my liberty before me ; that once more I should join in
the bold charge and the rude shock of arms, hear the wild cry of
my gallant countrymen, and either live to triumph with them in
victory, or wait not to witness our defeat. Thus flew my hopes, as
with increasing impatience I waited St. Croix's coming, and with
anxious heart listened to every sound upon the stairs which might
indicate his approach. At length he came. I heard the gay and
laughing voices of his companions as they came along; the door
opened, and affecting the familiarity of old acquaintance, to deceive
the sentry, they all shook me by the hand, and spoke in terms of

" Labedoyere is below," said St. Croix, in a whisper ; " you must
wait here a few moments longer, and I'll return for you ; put on the
cloak and cap, and speak not a word as you pass out. The sentry
will suppose that one of our party has remained behind ; for I shall
call out as if speaking to him, as I leave the room."

The voice of an officer calling in tones of impatience for the party
to come down, cut short the interview, and again assuring me of
their determination to stand by me, they left the chamber, and de-
scended into the court. Scarcely had the door closed behind them,
when my fellow-prisoner, whom I had totally forgotten, sprang on
his legs, and came towards me. His figure screening the lamplight
as he stood, prevented my recognizing his features; but the first
tones of his voice told me who he was.

" Stay, sir," cried he, as he placed his hand upon my arm ; " I
have overheard your project. In an hour hence you will be free.
Can you — will you perform a service for one who will esteem it not
the less that it will be the last that man can render him? The
few lines which I have written here with my pencil are for my

I could bear no more, and called out in a voice broken as his

" Oh, be not deceived, sir. Will you, even in an hour like this,


accept a service from one whom you have banished from your
house ?"

The old man started as I spoke ; his hand trembled till it shook
my very arm, and, after a pause and with an effort to seem calm and
collected, he added :

" My hours are few. Some despatches of General Bourmont with
which the Duke entrusted me were found in my possession. My
sentence is a hurried one — and it is death ! By to-morrow's sun-
rise "

" Stay, stay !" said I. "You shall escape ; my life is in no danger.

Online LibraryCharles James LeverCharles O'Malley, the Irish dragon → online text (page 75 of 80)