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Produced by Al Haines



Max Pemberton


London, New York, Toronto & Melbourne


_Works by the same Author_

CAPTAIN BLACK. A sequel to "The Iron Pirate"




_The greatest military tragedy in history is the retreat of Napoleon's
Grand Army from Moscow. Napoleon set out to invade Russia in the
spring of the year 1812. In the month of June 600,000 men crossed the
River Niemen. Of this vast army, but 20,000 "famished, frost-bitten
spectres" staggered across the Bridge of Kovno in the month of

_Many pens have described, with more or less fidelity, the details of
this unsurpassable tragedy. The story which we are now about to
represent to our readers is that of Surgeon-Major Constant, a veteran
who accompanied Napoleon to Moscow, and was one of the survivors who
returned ultimately to Paris. Constant had fled from Paris at the
beginning of the French Revolution in the year 1792. He lived for a
while at Leipsic, where he gave lessons in French and studied medicine.
His nephew, Captain Léon de Courcelles, was one of the famous Vélites
of the Guard. It is with the exploits of this young and daring soldier
that the veteran's narrative is often concerned._








I, Janil de Constant, remember very well the moment when we first
beheld the glorious city of Moscow, which we had marched twelve
thousand leagues to take.

It would have been the fourteenth day of September. The sun shone
fiercely upon our splendid cavalcade, and even in the forests, which we
now quitted very willingly, there were oases of light like golden lakes
in a wonderland.

It was half-past three o'clock when I myself reached the Mont du Salut,
a hill from whose summit the traveller first looks down upon the city.

And what a spectacle to see! What domes and minarets and mighty
towers! What a mingling of East and West, of Oriental beauty and the
stately splendour of a European capital! You will not wonder that our
men drew rein to gaze with awe upon so transcendent a spectacle. This
was Mecca truly. Here they would end their labours and here lay their

We thought, with reason surely, that there would be no more talk of
war. The Russians had learned their lesson at Borodino, and all that
remained for the Russian Tsar to do was to make peace with our Emperor.
Meanwhile there would be many days of holiday such as we had not known
since we left France. The riches of this city passed the fables, they
told us. You will imagine with what feelings the advance posts of the
Guard set out to descend the hill and take up their quarters in the
governor's palace.

I had hoped to enter Moscow with my nephew Léon, who is one of the
Vélites of the Guard. I wished to be near that young man at so
critical a moment. Even old soldiers lose their heads when they enter
an enemy's city, and what could one expect of the young ones? Léon,
however, had ridden on with Major Pavart, of the _chasseurs à cheval_,
and so it was with old Sergeant Bourgogne, of the Vélites, that I
entered Moscow and began to think of quarters.

We heard some shots as we went down into the town, and when we came to
that broad street which leads to the Place du Gouvernement, a soldier
of the line told us that the governor had released the convicts and
that they were holding the palace against our outposts. We thought
very little of the matter at the time, and were more concerned to
admire the magnificence of the street and the beauty of many of its
houses. These, it appeared, belonged to the nobility, but we began to
perceive that none of the princely owners had remained in Moscow, and
that only a few servants occupied these mansions. Many of the latter
watched us as we rode by, and at the corner of the great square one of
them, a dandy fellow with mincing gait, had the temerity to catch my
horse by the bridle and to hold him while he told me that his name was
Heriot, and that he had left Paris with the Count of Provence in the
year 1790.

"You are a surgeon, are you not?" he went on before I had time to
exclaim upon his effrontery. Amazed, I told him that I was.

"Then," said he, "be good enough to come into yonder house and see to
one of your own men who is lying there."

I suppose it was a proper thing for the fellow to ask me, yet the
_naïveté_ of it brought a smile to my lips.

"Bon garçon," said I, "you must have many surgeons of your own in
Moscow. Why ask me, who am on my way to the Emperor?"

"Because," he said, still holding the bridle, "you will not regret your
visit, monsieur. This is a rich house: they will know how to pay you
for your services."

There was something mysterious about this remark which excited my
curiosity, and turning my horse aside I permitted him to lead it into
the stable courtyard. It was to be observed that he slammed the great
gate quickly behind us, and bolted it with great bars of iron which
would almost have defied artillery. Then he tethered my horse to a
pillar and bade me follow him. It was just at the moment when the band
of the Fusiliers began to play a lively air and many thousands of our
infantry pressed on into the square.


We entered the house itself by a wicket upon the left-hand side, which
should have led to the kitchens.

It was here, perhaps, that I thought it not a little extraordinary, and
it may be somewhat less than prudent, that I, who should have been
already at the gates of the palace, had turned aside at the mere nod of
this dandy to enter a house of whose people I knew nothing.
Nevertheless, it was the case, and I reflected that if one of my own
countrymen were indeed in distress, then was the delay not ill-timed.

We were at the foot of a cold stone staircase by this time, and I
observed that the lackey began to mount it with some caution. There
was no sound in the house, and when presently we emerged in the gallery
of a vast hall the place had all the air of a church which has been
long closed.

Here for the first time I discovered the purpose for which I had been
brought to the place. A man lay dead upon the flags of the gallery,
and it was clear that he had died by a bullet from the pistol which was
flung down at his side.

Thousands of men had I seen die since we crossed the River Niemen, yet
the sight of this mere youth lying dead upon the flags afflicted me
strangely. Perchance it was the great cold hall, or the dim light
which filtered through its heavy windows, or the silence of that
immense house and all the suggestions of mystery which attended it. Be
it as it may, I had less than my usual resource when I knelt by the
young man's side and made that brief examination which quickly
convinced me that he was dead. The dandy, meanwhile, stood near by
taking prodigious pinches of snuff from a box edged with diamonds. His
unconcern was remarkable. I could make nothing of such a picture.

"Who is this youth?" I asked him.

He shrugged his shoulders and took another pinch of the snuff.

"One of your own countrymen, as I say - an artist from Fréjus who is in
the service of my lord, the prince."

"How did he die, then?"

The dandy averted his eyes. Then he said:

"I returned from the great square ten minutes ago and found him here.
You can see as well as I that he shot himself."

"That is not true," I rejoined, looking at him sternly. "Men do not
shoot themselves in the middle of the back!"

He was still unconcerned.

"Very well, then," he retorted; "someone must have shot him." And
almost upon the words he turned as white as a sheet.

"Listen," he cried in a loud whisper; "did you not hear them?"

I listened and certainly heard the sound of voices.

It came through an open door at the far end of the gallery and rose in
a sharp crescendo, which seemed to say that men were quarrelling.

"Who is in the house?" I asked the fellow.

"I do not know," he said gravely enough. "There should be no one here
but ourselves. Perhaps you will be good enough to see. You are a
soldier; it is your business."

I laughed at his impudence, and having looked to the priming of my
pistol, I caught him suddenly by the arm and pushed him on ahead of me.
Justly or not, it had flashed upon me that this might be a trap. Yet
why it should be so or what it had to do with a surgeon-major of the
Guards I knew no more than the dead.

"We will go together," said I; and so I pushed him down the corridor.

My presence seemed to give him courage. He entered the room with me,
and before a man could have counted three he fell headlong with a great
gash in his throat that all the surgeons in the French army could not
have stitched up.

This was a memorable scene, but I was to witness many a one like it in
those days of rapine and of pillage to come.

We had entered a lofty room, the furniture of which would not have been
out of place in the Emperor's palace at Paris. Most of it, indeed, was
French, and some of the cabinets were such as you may see to this day
both in the Tuileries and at Fontainebleau. So much I observed at a
glance, but infinitely of more import at the moment was the tenants of
the room. Three greater ruffians I have never seen in any city of
Europe; neither men so dirty and ill-kempt nor so ferocious in their
mien. All wore ragged sheepskins and had their legs bare at the knee.
They were armed with knives and bludgeons, and two of them carried
torches in their hands. Instantly I saw that these were three of the
convicts whom the governor had released. They had come to sack the
house, and they would have killed any who opposed them as a butcher
kills a sheep. But for the dead man at my feet, I could have laughed
aloud at their predicament when they suddenly realised that a soldier
and not a civilian must now be dealt with. It was just as though their
valour went ebbing away in a torrent.

I struck the first man down with the butt end of my pistol, and,
fearing the effect of a shot, drew my sword and made for the others who
held the torches. They fled headlong, slamming the heavy door at the
far end of the room behind them - and there was I alone with the dead,
and the house had fallen again to the silence of a tomb.


I stooped over the man I had struck down, and found him breathing
stertorously but still alive. The lackey, however, was quite dead, and
his blood had made a great pool upon the rich Eastern carpet of the

My first impulse was to go to the windows and open the heavy shutters;
and when this was done I found myself looking out upon a pretty garden
in the Italian fashion. It was surrounded by high walls on three
sides, and seemed as void of humanity as the house. The salon itself
stood at a considerable height from the ground, and although there was
a wide balcony before the windows, I perceived no possible means of
escape thereby.

This will tell you that I now had a considerable apprehension both of
the deserted house and of the adventure which had befallen me. Not
only did I blame my own folly for listening to the servant in the first
instance - that was bad enough - but upon it there came a desire to
return to my comrades, which was almost an obsession. There I stood
upon the balcony listening to the rolling of the drums and the blare of
the bugles, and yet I might have been a thousand leagues from friends
and comrades. Moreover, it was evident that I had not seen the last of
the assassins, and that they would return.

Such was the situation at a moment when I realised that escape by the
balcony was impossible. Returning to the room, its beauty and riches
stood fully revealed by the warm sunlight, and they recalled to me the
tales of Moscow's wealth which we had heard directly we entered Russia.
The Grand Army, I said, would be well occupied for many days to come in
an employment it had always found congenial. Vases of the rarest
porcelain, statues from Italy, pictures and furniture from my own
France, gems in gold and stones most precious were the common ornaments
of this magnificent apartment. Here and there an empty cabinet seemed
to say that some attempt had been made already to remove these
treasures, and that the entry of our troops had disturbed the robbers.
What remained, however, would have been riches to a prince, and it
would have been possible for me to have put a fortune into my wallet
that very hour.

Already it seemed to me that I should have a difficulty in finding my
way out of the house. The idea had been in my mind when I stood upon
the balcony and contemplated the solitude and the security of the
garden below. There I had listened to the rolling music of the bands,
the blare of bugles, and the tramping of many thousands of exulting
soldiers; but all sounds were lost when I returned to the great hall
and stood alone with the dead.

Who was this youth to whom I had been called?

I bent over him and discovered such a face as one might find in the
picture of an Italian master. The lad would have been about one and
twenty, and no woman's hair could have been finer than his. Such a
skin I had rarely seen; the face might have been chiselled from the
purest marble; the eyes were open and blue as the sea by which I
imagined this young fellow had lived. There was firmness in the chin,
and a contour of neck and shoulders which even a physician could admire.

His clothes, I observed, were well chosen and made of him a man of some
taste. He wore breeches of black velvet and a shirt of the finest
cambric, open at the neck. His shoes had jewelled buckles, and his
stockings were of silk. Who, then, was the lad, and why had the lackey
killed him? That was a question I meant to answer when I had some of
my comrades with me. It remained to escape from this house of mystery
as quickly as might be.

I passed down the staircase and came to an ante-room with a vast door
at the end of it. It was heavily bolted, and the keys of it were gone.
So much I had expected, and yet it seemed that where the assassins had
gone there might I follow. Ridiculous to be a prisoner of a house from
within, and of such a house, when there must be half a dozen doors that
gave upon the streets about it. And yet I could find none of them that
was not locked and barred as the chief door I have named, while every
window upon the ground floor might have been that of a prison.

Vainly I went from place to place - here by corridors that were as dark
as night, there into rooms where the lightest sounds gave an echo as of
thunder, back again to the great hall I had left - and always with the
fear of the assassins upon me and the irony of my condition
unconcealed. Good God! That I had shut myself in such a trap! A
thousand times I cursed the builder of such a house and all his works.
The night, I said, would find me alone in a tomb of marble.

I shall not weary you by a recital of all that befell in the hours of
daylight that remained. I had a horrid fear of the dark, and when at
length it overtook me I returned to the salon, and, having covered the
dead men with the rugs lying about, went thence to the balcony and so
watched the night come down.

Consider my situation - so near and yet so far from all that was taking
place in this fallen city.

Above me the great bowl of the sky glowed with the lights of many a
bivouac in square or market. It was as though the whole city trembled
beneath the footsteps of the thousands who now trampled down her
ancient glory and cast her banners to the earth. The blare of bands
was to be heard everywhere; the murmur of voices rose and fell like the
angry surf that beats upon a shore. Cries of "Vive l'Empereur!" rent
the air from time to time, and to them were added the fierce shouting
of the rabble or the frenzied screams of those who fled before the
glittering bayonets of this mighty host. And to crown all, as though
mockingly, there rang out the music of those unsurpassable bells - the
bells of Moscow, of which all the world has heard.

These were the sights and sounds which came to me as I stood upon that
balcony and laughed grimly at my situation. But a stone's throw away,
said I, there would be merry fellows enough to call me by my name and
lead me to my comrades.

Janil de Constant, I flattered myself, was as well known as any man in
all the Guard, old or young. Never did his Majesty pass me but I had a
warm word from him or that little pinch upon the ear which denoted his

My art was considerable, as all the world knows.

I had been a professor in the University of Paris until this fever of
war fell upon me, and I set out to discover its realities for myself.
What skill could do for suffering men, I had done these many months,
and yet here was I as far from it all as though a ship had carried me
to the Indies and the desolation of the ocean lay all about me.

These, I say, were my thoughts, and the night - that wonderful night of
summer - did nothing to better them. Perchance I should have spent it
there upon the balcony but for that which I had expected - the return of
the assassins to the spoils from which they had been scared. It could
not have befallen otherwise. The time, I suppose, would have been
about ten of the clock. They entered the garden below me, and I heard
their footsteps upon the grass. But now there were many of them, and
even from the balcony it was apparent to me that all were armed.


I returned to the room, and, crossing it swiftly, had my hand already
upon the key of the door when a new sound arrested me.

The sound proceeded from the gallery of the great staircase. I heard a
key turned and a door creak upon its hinges. A moment later the faint
light of a candle illumined the staircase, and the figure of a woman

It was all very sudden. But the half of a minute, I suppose, elapsed
between the first sound of the key and the appearance of the beautiful
creature who now stood in the gallery; yet to me it seemed an age of
waiting. There I stood motionless, watching that vision which the
candle revealed - the vision of the sleeper awakened, and a woman's
cloak thrown about her shoulders.

"Good God!" I cried, "the dead have come to life!" Beyond all doubt
this must be the sister of the murdered man.

"Mademoiselle," I said, taking a step forward. And at that she cried
out in terror and let the candle drop. Instantly I strode to her side
and caught both her hands, for it was evident she was swooning.

"Mademoiselle," I repeated, "I am a Frenchman, and came to this house
to help your brother. Help me in your turn. There are men in the
garden, and they are coming in - we must be quick, mademoiselle."

She shivered a little in my arms and then pressed forward towards me.

"I am Valerie," she murmured in a low voice, as though I would
recognise the name. "My brother is dead; François the steward killed
him. Oh, take me away - take me from this place."

I told her that I would do so, that my only desire was to escape from
the house if I could.

"But, mademoiselle," said I, "every door is locked. I cannot find the
way, and the brigands are returning. We have no time to lose."

The tidings appeared to rouse her. She passed her hand across her
forehead and, staggering forward a little way, stood very still as
though in thought.

I shall never forget that picture of her as the moonbeams came down
from the dome above, and she stood there in a robe of white and silver.
A more beautiful thing I have never seen upon God's earth. The story
of her brother's death appeared no longer a mystery.

"My God!" she cried, "they are in the house!"

We bent over the balustrade together and listened to the sounds. There
was a crashing as of woodwork, and then the hum of voices. Instantly
upon that there came the heavy trampling of feet. Those who entered
the house were not afraid - they were even laughing as they came.

"What shall we do?" she cried. "What shall we do?"

I caught her hand and dragged her back from the railing.

"There must be some room which will hide us," said I. "You know the
way. Think, child; is there no such place?"

She did not answer me, but turned and led the way up the narrow flight
of stairs by which she had appeared. Here was her bedroom.

We passed through it without delay and entered an oratory which lay at
the head of a second flight of stairs immediately beyond. Here she
shut a heavy door of oak and bolted it. The only light in the room
flickered from a golden lamp before the altar, and as far as I could
see there was no way out other than the door by which we had come in.

Now, this chapel was built in one of the eastern turrets of the house.
I came to learn later that the owner of the place was Prince Boris, a
man of some culture and of European notoriety, and that, while he was
himself an orthodox Greek, he had permitted this use of a secret chapel
to the young Frenchwoman who now knelt before its altar.

Wonderfully decorated in gold and silver, with rare pictures upon its
walls and superb gems in the crucifixes above the tabernacle, the whole
bore witness to a man of Catholic sympathies and abundant wealth. At
any other time, no doubt, I would have made much of this hidden chapel
and of its treasures; but the hour was not propitious, and, glad of its
momentous security, I turned to the girl and would have questioned her.
She, however, was already at her prayers, nor did she seem to hear me
when I addressed her. A second question merely caused her to turn her
head and cry, "Hush! they will hear us!" And so she went on praying - I
doubt not for her dead brother's soul - while I paced up and down in as
great a state of anger and of self-reproach as I had ever been in all
my life.

What a situation for a surgeon-major of the Guards - to be locked up
here in this puny chapel with a houseful of assassins below, and my own
regiment not a stone's throw from the gate! And yet that was the truth
of it, and anon I heard some of the robbers come leaping up the stairs,
and presently they began to beat upon the door of the chapel, and I
knew that they carried axes in their hands.


The sounds were deep and ominous, and might well have quelled a
stronger spirit. The girl herself turned her head at the first blow,
and then, staggering to her feet, she caught me by the arm and
whispered her fears in my ear.

"They will beat it down," she said, indicating the door.

I answered that I thought it quite possible.

"Why do your soldiers let them?" she asked me; and upon that she said,
"Why did you come here alone?"

I told her that the steward, for such I supposed the lackey to be, had
brought me to the place; and so much she understood readily enough.

"He was insolent to me," she exclaimed. "My brother struck him. He
carried a pistol, but we did not know it. God help me, what I have
suffered this day! And now this - - " And again she indicated the
peril beyond the door.

Yet with it all her courage was not lacking. She no longer wept now
that danger threatened us, and presently she pointed to the gilded dome
above, and said that it could be reached from the little gallery behind
the altar.

"Then," said I, "let us see what we can do." And, taking her hand, we
went up to the gallery together; and there sure enough in the angle was
a Gothic window large enough for a man to pass through. When I opened
it I saw a narrow gallery at the very summit of the cupola, and to this
I helped her immediately. The height was considerable and the parapet
but trifling. She stood there by my side without flinching, and when
we had closed the window it seemed as though the peril were now far

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Online LibraryMax PembertonThe Great White Army → online text (page 1 of 17)