A Few of Our Biographies:
A Personal View of Waterloo
This is Part Three of a Five-Part Excerpt
What made Fabrizio decide to stay where he was was that the hussars, his new comrades, seemed so friendly towards him; he began to imagine himself the intimate friend of all the troopers with whom he had been galloping for the last few hours. He saw arise between them and himself that noble friendship of the heroes of Tasso and Ariosto. If he were to attach himself to the Emperor’s escort, there would be fresh acquaintances to be made, perhaps they would look at him askance, for these other horsemen were dragoons, and he was wearing the hussar uniform like all the rest that were following the Marshal. The way in which they now looked at him set our hero on a pinnacle of happiness; he would have done anything in the world for his comrades; his mind and soul were in the clouds. Everything seemed to have assumed a new aspect now that he was among friends, he was dying to ask them various questions. “But I am still a little drunk,” he said to himself, “I must bear in mind what the gaoler’s wife told me.” He noticed on leaving the sunken road that the escort was no longer with Marshal Ney; the general whom they were following was tall and thin, with a dry face and an awe-inspiring eye.
This general was none other than Comte d’A---, the Lieutenant Robert of the 15th of May, 1796. How delighted he would have been to meet Fabrizio del Dongo!
It was already some time since Fabrizio had noticed the earth flying off in black crumbs on being struck by shot; they came in rear of a regiment of cuirassiers, he could hear distinctly the rattle of the grapeshot against their breastplates, and saw several men fall.
The sun was now very low and had begun to set when the escort, emerging from a sunken road, mounted a little bank three or four feet high to enter a ploughed field. Fabrizio heard an odd little sound quite close to him: he turned his head, four men had fallen from their horses; the general himself had been unseated, but picked himself up, covered in blood. Fabrizio looked at the hussars who were lying on the ground: three of them were still making convulsive movements, the fourth cried: “Pull me out!” The serjeant and two or three men had dismounted to assist the general who, leaning upon his aide-de-camp, was attempting to walk a few steps; he was trying to get away from his horse, which lay on the ground struggling and kicking out madly.
The serjeant came up to Fabrizio. At that moment our hero heard a voice say behind him and quite close to his ear: “This is the only one that can still gallop.” He felt himself seized by the feet; they were taken out of the stirrups at the same time as someone caught him underneath the arms; he was lifted over his horse’s tail and then allowed to slip to the ground, where he landed sitting.
The aide-de-camp took Fabrizio’s horse by the bridle; the general, with the help of the serjeant, mounted and rode off at a gallop; he was quickly followed by the six men who were left of the escort. Fabrizio rose up in a fury, and began to run after them shouting: “Ladri! Ladri! (Thieves! Thieves!).” It was an amusing experience to run after horse-stealers across a battlefield.
The escort and the general, Comte d’A---, disappeared presently behind a row of willows. Fabrizio, blind with rage, also arrived at this line of willows; he found himself brought to a halt by a canal of considerable depth which he crossed. Then, on reaching the other side, he began swearing again as he saw once more, but far away in the distance, the general and his escort vanishing among the trees. “Thieves! Thieves!” he cried, in French this time. In desperation, not so much at the loss of his horse as at the treachery to himself, he let himself sink down on the side of the ditch, tired out and dying of hunger. If his fine horse had been taken from him by the enemy, he would have thought no more about it; but to see himself betrayed and robbed by that serjeant whom he liked so much and by those hussars whom he regarded as brothers! That was what broke his heart. He could find no consolation for so great an infamy, and, leaning his back against a willow, began to shed hot tears. He abandoned one by one all those beautiful dreams of a chivalrous and sublime friendship, like that of the heroes of the Gerusalemme Liberata. To see death come to one was nothing, surrounded by heroic and tender hearts, by noble friends who clasp one by the hand as one yields one’s dying breath! But to retain one’s enthusiasm surrounded by a pack of vile scoundrels! Like all angry men Fabrizio exaggerated. After a quarter of an hour of this melting mood, he noticed that the guns were beginning to range on the row of trees in the shade of which he sat meditating. He rose and tried to find his bearings. He scanned those fields bounded by a wide canal and the row of pollard willows: he thought he knew where he was. He saw a body of infantry crossing the ditch and marching over the fields, a quarter of a league in front of him. “I was just falling asleep,” he said to himself; “I must see that I’m not taken prisoner.” And he put his best foot foremost. As he advanced, his mind was set at rest; he recognized the uniforms, the regiments by which he had been afraid of being cut off were French. He made a right incline so as to join them.
After the moral anguish of having been so shamefully betrayed and robbed, there came another which, at every moment, made itself felt more keenly; he was dying of hunger. It was therefore with infinite joy that after having walked, or rather run for ten minutes, he saw that the column of infantry, which also had been moving very rapidly, was halting to take up a position. A few minutes later, he was among the nearest of the soldiers.
“Friends, could you sell me a mouthful of bread?”
“I say, here’s a fellow who thinks we’re bakers!”
This harsh utterance and the general guffaw that followed it had a crushing effect on Fabrizio. So war was no longer that noble and universal uplifting of souls athirst for glory which he had imagined it to be from Napoleon’s proclamations! He sat down, or rather let himself fall on the grass; he turned very pale. The soldier who had spoken to him, and who had stopped ten paces off to clean the lock of his musket with his handkerchief, came nearer and flung him a lump of bread; then, seeing that he did not pick it up, broke off a piece which he put in our hero’s mouth. Fabrizio opened his eyes, and ate the bread without having the strength to speak. When at length he looked round for the soldier to pay him, he found himself alone; the men nearest to him were a hundred yards off and were marching. Mechanically he rose and followed them. He entered a wood; he was dropping with exhaustion, and already had begun to look round for a comfortable resting-place; but what was his delight on recognising first of all the horse, then the cart, and finally the cantinere of that morning! She ran to him and was frightened by his appearance.
“Still going, my boy,” she said to him; “you’re wounded then? And where’s your fine horse?” So saying she led him towards the cart, upon which she made him climb, supporting him under the arms. No sooner was he in the cart than our hero, utterly worn out, fell fast asleep.
Nothing could awaken him, neither the muskets fired close to the cart nor the trot of the horse which the cantinere was flogging with all her might. The regiment, attacked unexpectedly by swarms of Prussian cavalry, after imagining all day that they were winning the battle, was beating a retreat or rather fleeing in the direction of France.
The colonel, a handsome young man, well turned out, who had succeeded Macon, was sabred; the battalion commander who took his pace, an old man with white hair, ordered the regiment to halt. “Damn you,” he cried to his men, “in the days of the Republic we waited till we were forced by the enemy before running away. Defend every inch of ground, and get yourselves killed!” he shouted, and swore at them. “It is the soil of the Fatherland that these Prussians want to invade now!”
The little cart halted; Fabrizio awoke with a start. The sun had set some time back; he was quite astonished to see that it was almost night. The troops were running in all directions in a confusion which greatly surprised our hero; they looked shame-faced, he thought.
“What is happening?” he asked the cantinere.
“Nothing at all. Only that we’re in the soup, my boy; it’s the Prussian cavalry mowing us down, that’s all. The idiot of a general thought at first they were our men. Come, quick, help me to mend Cocotte’s trace; it’s broken.”
Several shots were fired ten yards off. Our hero, cool and composed, said to himself: “But really, I haven’t fought at all, the whole day; I have only escorted a general.--I must go and fight,” he said to the cantinere.
“Keep calm, you shall fight, and more than you want! We’re done for.”
“Aubry, my lad,” she called out to a passing corporal, “keep an eye on the little cart now and then.”
“Are you going to fight?” Fabrizio asked Aubry.
“Oh, no, I’m putting my pumps on to go to a dance!”
“I shall follow you.”
“I tell you, he’s all right, the little hussar,” cried the cantinere. “The young gentleman has a stout heart.”
Corporal Aubry marched on without saying a word. Eight or nine soldiers ran up and joined him; he led them behind a big oak surrounded by brambles. On reaching it he posted them along the edge of the wood, still without uttering a word, on a widely extended front, each man being at least ten paces from the next.
“Now then, you men,” said the corporal, opening his mouth for the first time, “don’t fire till I give the order: remember you’ve only got three rounds each.”
“Why, what is happening?” Fabrizio wondered. At length, when he found himself alone with the corporal, he said to him: “I have no musket.”
“Will you hold your tongue? Go forward there: fifty paces in front of the wood you’ll find one of the poor fellows of the Regiment who’ve been sabred; you will take his cartridge-pouch and his musket. Don’t strip a wounded man, though; take the pouch and musket from one who’s properly dead, and hurry up or you’ll be shot in the back by our fellows.” Fabrizio set off at a run and returned the next minute with a musket and a pouch.
“Load your musket and stick yourself behind this tree, and whatever you do don’t fire till you get the order from me....Great God in heaven!” the corporal broke off, “he doesn’t even know how to load!” He helped Fabrizio to do this while going on with his instructions. “If one of the enemy’s cavalry gallops at you to cut you down, dodge round your tree and don’t fire till he’s within three paces: wait till your bayonet’s practically touching his uniform.
“Throw that great sabre away,” cried the corporal. “Good God, do you want it to trip you up? Fine sort of soldiers they’re sending us these days!” As he spoke he himself took hold of the sabre which he flung angrily away.
“You there, wipe the flint of your musket with your handkerchief. Have you never fired a musket?”
“I am a hunter.”
“Thank God for that!” went on the corporal with a loud sigh. “Whatever you do, don’t fire till I give the order.” And he moved away.
Fabrizio was supremely happy. “Now I’m going to do some real fighting,” he said to himself, “and kill one of the enemy. This morning they were sending cannon-balls over, and I did nothing but expose myself and risk getting killed; that’s a fool’s game.” He gazed all round him with extreme curiosity. Presently he heard seven or eight shots fired quite close at hand. But receiving no order to fire he stood quietly behind his tree. It was almost night; he felt he was in a look-out, bear-shooting, on the mountain of Tramezzina, above Grianta. A hunter’s idea came to him; he took a cartridge from his pouch and removed the ball.
“If I see him,” he said, “it won’t do to miss him,” and he slipped this second ball into the barrel of his musket. He heard shots fired close to his tree; at the same moment he saw a horseman in blue pass in front of him at a gallop, going from right to left. “It is more than three paces,” he said to himself, “but at that range I am certain of my mark.” He kept the trooper carefully sighted with his musket and finally pressed the trigger: the trooper fell with his horse. Our hero imagined that he was stalking game: he ran joyfully out to collect his bag. He was actually touching the man, who appeared to him to be dying, when, with incredible speed, two Prussian troopers charged down on him to sabre him. Fabrizio dashed back as fast as he could go to the wood; to gain speed he flung his musket away. The Prussian troopers were not more than three paces from him when he reached another plantation of young oaks, as thick as his arm and quite upright, which fringed the wood. These little oaks delayed the horsemen for a moment, but they passed them and continued their pursuit of Fabrizio along a clearing. Once again they were just overtaking him when he slipped in among seven or eight big trees. At that moment his face was almost scorched by the flame of five or six musket shots fired from in front of him. He ducked his head; when he raised it again he found himself face to face with the corporal.
“Did you kill your man?” Corporal Aubry asked him.
“Yes; but I’ve lost my musket.”
“It’s not muskets we’re short of. You’re not a bad b------; though you do look as green as a cabbage you’ve won the day all right, and these men here have just missed the two who were chasing you and coming straight at them. I didn’t see them myself. What we’ve got to do now is to get away at the double; the Regiment must be half a mile off, and there’s a bit of a field to cross, too, where we may find ourselves surrounded.”
As he spoke, the corporal marched off at a brisk pace at the head of his ten men. Two hundred yards farther on, as they entered the little field he had mentioned, they came upon a wounded general who was being carried by his aide-de-camp and an orderly.
“Give me four of your men,” he said to the corporal in a faint voice, “I’ve got to be carried to the ambulance; my leg is shattered.”
“Go and f--- yourself!” replied the corporal, “you and all your generals. You’ve all of you betrayed the Emperor to-day.”
“What,” said the general, furious, “you dispute my orders. Do you know that I am General Comte B---, commanding your Division,” and so on. He waxed rhetorical. The aide-de-camp flung himself on the men. The corporal gave him a thrust in the arm with his bayonet, then made off with his party at the double. “I wish they were all in your boat,” he repeated with an oath; “I’d shatter their arms and legs for them. A pack of puppies! All of them bought by the Bourbons, to betray the Emperor!” Fabrizio listened with a thrill of horror to this frightful accusation.