A Few of Our Biographies:
A Personal View of Waterloo
This is Part One of a Five-Part Excerpt
According to Ernest Hemingway, who knew about the nexus between war and writing, the French author Stendhal, in this section of “The Charterhouse of Parma,” offers a narrative that’s “more like war and less like the nonsense written about it than any other writing could possibly be....Once you have read it you will have been at the battle of Waterloo and nothing can ever take that experience from you.” This praise despite the fact (actually, because of the fact, perhaps) that Stendhal's protagonist, 17-year-old Fabrizio (Fabrice), barely sees the enemy. As author Lawrence Durrell writes, “It's one of the very significant things that films and books don't bring out....of a battlefield where nothing seems to be happening - the action is always over a hedge somewhere, in another corner....and then they ask you if you were there. Well you weren't.” Reading Stendhal, you are.
Stendhal (1783-1842, born Henri Beyle) served with distinction in Napoleon’s cavalry. He was present at the Fire of Moscow in 1812 and showed poise during the panicky crossing of the River Berezina. In his long career, as Hemingway notes, all he wrote about battle was this one section. (He was not present at Waterloo.)
See here for more on the Battle of Waterloo and here for more on “The Charterhouse of Parma.” A number of translations of the novel are available; the recent one by Richard Howard is outstanding. The following translation is by the great C.K. Scott Moncrieff and dates from 1924. (Usage note: A “vivandiere” was a “hospitality giver,” a woman who followed soldiers and provided food, laundry services, nursing and so on. The word is used interchangeably by Stendhal with “cantinere.”) – B.F.
That day the army, which had just won the battle of Ligny, was marching straight on Brussels. It was the eve of the battle of Waterloo. Towards midday, the rain still continuing to fall in torrents, Fabrizio heard the sound of the guns; this joy made him completely oblivious of the fearful moments of despair in which so unjust an imprisonment had plunged him. He rode on until late at night, and, as he was beginning to have a little common sense, went to seek shelter in a peasant’s house a long way from the road. This peasant wept and pretended that everything had been taken from him; Fabrizio gave him a crown, and he found some barley. “My horse is no beauty,” Fabrizio said to himself, “but that makes no difference, he may easily take the fancy of some adjudant,” and he went to lie down in the stable by its side. An hour before dawn Fabrizio was on the road, and, by copious endearments, succeeded in making his horse trot. About five o’clock, he heard the cannonade: it was the preliminaries of Waterloo.
Fabrizio soon came upon some vivandieres, and the extreme gratitude that he felt for the gaoler’s wife of B--- impelled him to address them; he asked one of them where he would find the 4th Hussar Regiment, to which he belonged.
“You would do just as well not to be in such a hurry, young soldier,” said the cantiniere, touched by Fabrizio’s pallor and glowing eyes. “Your wrist is not strong enough yet for the sabre-thrusts they’ll be giving to-day. If you had a musket, I don’t say, maybe you could let off your round as well as any of them.”
This advice displeased Fabrizio; but however much he urged on his horse, he could go no faster than the cantiniere in her cart. Every now and then the sound of the guns seemed to come nearer and prevented them from hearing each other speak, for Fabrizio was so beside himself with enthusiasm and delight that he had renewed the conversation. Every word uttered by the cantiniere intensified his happiness by making him understand it. With the exception of his real name and his escape from prison, he ended by confiding everything to this woman who seemed such a good soul. She was greatly surprised and understood nothing at all of what this handsome young soldier was telling her.
“I see what it is,” she exclaimed at length with an air of triumph. “You’re a young gentleman who has fallen in love with the wife of some captain in the 4th Hussars. Your mistress will have made you a present of the uniform you’re wearing, and you’re going after her. As sure as God’s in heaven, you’ve never been a soldier; but, like the brave boy you are, seeing your regiment’s under fire, you want to be there too, and not let them think you a chicken.”
Fabrizio agreed with everything; it was his only way of procuring good advice. “I know nothing of the ways of these French people,” he said to himself, “and if I am not guided by someone I shall find myself being put in prison again, and they’ll steal my horse.”
“First of all, my boy,” said the cantiniere, who was becoming more and more of a friend to him, “confess that you’re not one-and-twenty: at the very most you might be seventeen.”
This was the truth, and Fabrizio admitted as much with good grace.
“Then, you aren’t even a conscript; it’s simply because of Madame’s pretty face that you’re going to get your bones broken. Plague it, she can’t be particular. If you’ve still got some of the yellow-boys she sent you, you must first of all buy yourself another horse; look how your screw pricks up his ears when the guns sound at all near; that's a peasant’s horse, and will be the death of you as soon as you reach the line. That white smoke you see over there above the hedge, that’s the infantry firing, my boy. So prepare for a fine fright when you hear the bullets whistling over you. You’ll do as well to eat a bit while there’s still time.”
Fabrizio followed this advice and, presenting a napoleon to the vivandiere, asked her to accept payment.
“It makes one weep to see him!” cried the woman; “the poor child doesn’t even know how to spend his money! It would be no more than you deserve if I pocketed your napoleon and put Cocotte into a trot; damned if your screw could catch me up. What would you do, stupid, if you saw me go off? Bear in mind, when the brute growls, never to show your gold. Here,” she went on, “here’s 18 francs, 50 centimes, and your breakfast costs you 30 sous. Now, we shall soon have some horses for sale. If the beast is a small one, you’ll give ten francs, and, in any case, never more than twenty, not if it was the horse of the four Sons of Aymon.”
The meal finished, the vivandiere, who was still haranguing, was interrupted by a woman who had come across the fields and passed them on the road.
“Hallo there, hi!” this woman shouted. “Hallo, Margot! Your 6h Light are over there on the right.”
“I must leave you, my boy,” said the vivandiere to our hero; “but really and truly I pity you; I’ve taken quite a fancy to you, upon my word I have. You don’t know a thing about anything, you’re going to get a wipe in the eye, as sure as God’s in heaven! Come along to the 6th Light with me.”
“I quite understand that I know nothing,” Fabrizio told her, “but I want to fight, and I’m determined to go over there towards that white smoke.”
“Look how your horse is twitching his ears! As soon as he gets over there, even if he’s no strength left, he’ll take a bit in his teeth and start galloping, and heaven only knows where he’ll land you. Will you listen to me now? As soon as you get to the troops, pick up a musket and a cartridge pouch, get down among the men and copy what you see them do, exactly the same: But, good heavens, I’ll bet you don’t even know how to open a cartridge.”
Fabrizio, stung to the quick, admitted nevertheless to his new friend that she had guessed right.
“Poor boy! He’ll be killed straight away: sure as God! It won’t take long. You’ve got to come with me, absolutely,” went on the cantinere in a tone of authority.
“But I want to fight.”
“You shall fight too; why, the 6th Light are famous fighters, and there’s fighting enough to-day for everyone.”
“But shall we come soon to the regiment?”
“In a quarter of an hour at the most.”
“With this honest woman’s recommendations,” Fabrizio told himself, “my ignorance of everything won’t make them take me for a spy, and I shall have a chance of fighting.” At this moment the noise of the guns redoubled, each explosion coming straight on top of the last. “It’s like a Rosary,” said Fabrizio.
“We’re beginning to hear the infantry fire now,” said the vivandiere, whipping up her little horse, which seemed quite excited by the firing.
The cantiniere turned to the right and took a side road that ran through the fields; there was a foot of mud in it; the little cart seemed about to be stuck fast: Fabrizio pushed the wheel. His horse fell twice; presently the road, though with less water on it, was nothing more than a bridle path through the grass. Fabrizio had not gone five hundred yards when his nag stopped short: it was a corpse, lying across the path, which terrified horse and rider alike.
Fabrizio’s face, pale enough by nature, assumed a markedly green tinge; the cantiniere, after looking at the dead man, said, as though speaking to herself: “That’s not one of our Division.” Then, raising her eyes to our hero, she burst out laughing.
“Aha, my boy! There’s a titbit for you!” Fabrizio sat frozen. What struck him most of all was the dirtiness of the feet of this corpse which had already been stripped of its shoes and left with nothing but an old pair of trousers all clotted with blood.
“Come nearer,” the cantiniere ordered him, “get off your horse, you’ll have to get accustomed to them; look,” she cried, “he’s stopped one in the head.”
A bullet, entering on one side of the nose, had gone out at the opposite temple, and disfigured the corpse in a hideous fashion. It lay with one eye still open.
“Get off your horse then, lad,” said the cantiniere, “and give him a shake of the hand to see if he’ll return it.”
Without hesitation, although ready to yield up his soul with disgust, Fabrizio flung himself from his horse and took the hand of the corpse which he shook vigorously; then he stood still as though paralyzed. He felt that he had not the strength to mount again. What horrified him more than anything was that open eye.
“The vivandiere will think me a coward,” he said to himself bitterly. But he felt the impossibility of making any movement; he would have fallen. It was a frightful moment; Fabrizio was on the point of being physically sick. The vivandiere noticed this, jumped lightly down from her little carriage, and held out to him, without saying a word, a glass of brandy which he swallowed at a gulp; he was able to mount his screw, and continued on his way without speaking. The vivandiere looked at him now and again from the corner of her eye.
“You shall fight to-morrow, my boy,” she said at length; “to-day you’re going to stop with me. You can see now that you’ve got to learn the business before you can become a soldier.”
“On the contrary, I want to start fighting at once,” exclaimed our hero with a sombre air which seemed to the vivandiere to augur well. The noise of the guns grew twice as loud and seemed to be coming nearer. The explosions began to form a continuous bass; there was no interval between one and the next, and above this running bass, which suggested the roar of a torrent in the distance, they could make out quite plainly the rattle of musketry.
At this point the road dived down into a clump of trees. The vivandiere saw three or four soldiers of our army who were coming towards her as fast as their legs would carry them; she jumped nimbly down from her cart and ran into cover fifteen or twenty paces from the road. She hid herself in a hole which had been left where a big tree had recently been uprooted. “Now,” thought Fabrizio, “we shall see whether I am a coward!” He stopped by the side of the little cart which the woman had abandoned, and drew his sabre. The soldiers paid no attention to him and passed at a run along the wood, to the left of the road.
“They’re ours,” aid the vivandiere calmly, as she came back, quite breathless, to her little cart....“If your horse was capable of galloping, I should say: push ahead as far as the end of the wood, and see if there’s anyone on the plain.” Fabrizio did not wait to be told twice, he tore off a branch from a poplar, stripped it and started to lash his horse with all his might; the animal broke into a gallop for a moment, then fell back into its regular slow trot. The vivandiere had put her horse into a gallop. “Stop, will you, stop!” she called after Fabrizio. Presently both were clear of the wood. Coming to the edge of the plain, they heard a terrifying din, guns and muskets thundered on every side, right, left, behind them. And as the clump of trees from which they emerged grew on a mound rising nine or ten feet above the plain, they could see fairly well a corner of the battle; but still there was no one to be seen in the meadow beyond the wood. This meadow was bordered, half a mile away, by a long row of willows, very bushy; above the willows appeared a white smoke which now and again rose eddying into the sky.
“If I only knew where the regiment was,” said the cantinere, in some embarrassment. “It won’t do to go straight ahead over this big field. By the way,” she said to Fabrizio, “if you see one of the enemy, stick him with the point of your sabre, don’t play about with the blade.”
At this moment, the cantinere caught sight of the four soldiers whom we mentioned a little way back; they were coming out of the wood on to the plain to the left of the road. One of them was on horseback.
“There you are,” she said to Fabrizio. “Hallo there!” she called to the mounted man, “come over here and have a glass of brandy.” The soldiers approached.
“Where are the 6th Light?” she shouted.
“Over there, five minutes away, across that canal that runs along by the willows; why, Colonel Macon has just been killed.”
“Will you take five francs for your horse, you?”
“Five francs! That’s not a bad one, ma! An officer’s horse I can sell in ten minutes for five napoleons.”
“Give me one of your napoleons,” said the vivandiere to Fabrizio. Then going up to the mounted soldier: “Get off, quickly,” she said to him, “here’s your napoleon.”
The soldier dismounted, Fabrizio sprang gaily on to the saddle, the vivandiere unstrapped the little portmanteau which was on his old horse.
“Come and help me, all of you!” she said to the soldiers, “is that the way you leave a lady to do the work?”
But no sooner had the captured horse felt the weight of the portmanteau than he began to rear, and Fabrizio, who was an excellent horseman, had to use all his strength to hold him.
“A good sign,” said the vivandiere, “the gentleman is not accustomed to being tickled by portmanteaus.”
“A general’s horse,” cried the man who had sold it, “a horse that’s worth ten napoleons if it’s worth a liard.”
“Here are twenty francs,” said Fabrizio, who could not contain himself for joy at feeling between his legs a horse that could really move.
At that moment a shot struck the line of willows, through which it passed obliquely, and Fabrizio had the curious spectacle of all those little branches flying this way and that as though mown down by a stroke of the scythe.
“Look, there’s the brute advancing,” the soldier said to him as he took the twenty francs. It was now about two o’clock.