The Battleby Patrick Rambaud Translated from French by Will Hobson
“History writ large, bold, vivid, and real: mesmerizing and authentic.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The Battle is a brilliant, compelling novel about the Battle of Essling, Napoleon’s first major defeat on land. The book opens on May 16, 1809, as Napoleon’s forces confront the assembled armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at Essling, just outside Vienna. Angered by the Austrians’ challenge to his rule over their land, the French emperor expects a quick victory. Napoleon and his troops soon find, however, that their tactics are not suited to the wide-open Austrian plains as the battle descends into a forty-eight-hour maelstrom of terror and butchery.
Using long-overlooked research notes compiled by Honore de Balzac, who always wanted to write the novel but never moved beyond the research stage, Patrick Rambaud has re-created the confrontation in all its pageantry, violence, and chaos. He brings to life the real people of the time, from the lowest-ranked soldiers to the famous marshals to Napoleon himself. These characters take on a breathtaking immediacy as they struggle to cope with the bloodshed and confusion around them.
“A colorful, exciting story of Napoleon’s first major defeat on land. . . . A powerful historical novel.” –Lee Milazzo, Dallas Morning News
“History writ large, bold, vivid, and real: mesmerizing and authentic.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This gripping narrative . . . [is] an unflinching account of a historically and militarily significant battle that introduced the modern concept of a wholesale carnage into the combat arena.” –Margaret Flanagan, Booklist
“Meticulous research–no detail is left unexamined–[Rambaud] has invested this account with the allure of an epic.” –Anita Brookner
“This novel is a majestic, vivid account of the horror, honor, hubris, and deadly savagery of the Grande Armee of Napoleon.” –Bookshelf
“Balzac never finished the book, but Rambaud has amply realized his ambition. . . . Rambaud balances horrific battle set pieces and subtle characterizations to produce what will be a classic.” –Library Journal (starred review)
“The characters span the ranks of the French army . . . [and] their ordeals are depicted in such sharp detail (most are culled from primary sources), it’s hard not to feel the urgency of the moment.” –Forbes FYI
“The author excels in creating scenes that rip the heroic mask off the atrocities of war.” –Publishers Weekly
“A gripping epic of war . . . Patrick Rambaud is heir to the glorious tradition of the historical novel.” –Le Figaro
“The history buff wary of the artificial atmosphere of the historical novel and the lover of fiction bored by historical overload will find common ground in The Battle: everything is clear, convincing, and either true or probable.” –Le Monde des Livres
“Balzac long wanted to write a novel about the Battle of Essling but never got around to it. Now Patrick Rambaud has vigorously taken up the challenge, with drawn swords and at full gallop. . . . It’s set in an atmosphere of gunpowder, traveling canteens, horse dung, tripes, blood, and the metal clashing of swords against armor.” –Elle
“The Battle reads like a charge of German lancers: at full gallop. . . . Balzac would have approved: it smells like smoke.” –L”Express
“Balzacian in the best sense of the word–bursting with vitality, and with a life and a spirit most contemporary novels are cruelly lacking–The Battle is a book that carries you away, that you reread, then reread again, with yielding terror, admiration, and happiness.” –Le Figaro Litt”raire
“Rambaud recounts a historical bloodbath with verve and precision, and a great sense of storytelling. His craftsmanship has earned him the scepter to the empire of letters.” –Les Echos
Winner of the Prix Goncourt and Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française
Chapter One: VIENNA IN 1809
In the morning of Tuesday 16 May 1809, a Berline flanked by horsemen pulled out of Sch”nbrunn and drove at a leisurely pace along the right bank of the Danube. It was an unremarkable carriage, olive coloured, without coats of arms on its panels. As it passed, the Austrian peasants raised their black, broad-brimmed hats, out of caution, rather than respect, because they recognized the officers riding their long-maned Arabs at a trot, a panther skin under their seats, uniforms in the Hungarian style – white, scarlet, heavy with gold – a heron’s feather in their shakos: these young gentlemen were the permanent escort of Berthier, Major-General of the occupying army.
A man’s arm appeared through the Berline’s lowered window. The Grand Equerry Caulaincourt, who had been keeping his horse abreast of the carriage door, instantly squeezed his mount with his knees, removed his cocked hat and gloves with the dexterity of a circus rider, and unbuttoned his jacket to produce a folded map of Vienna’s surroundings, which he held out with a salute.
A moment later, the carriage came to a halt in front of the yellow, fast-flowing river.
A Mameluke in a turban jumped off the footman’s box, unfolded the step, opened the door and prostrated himself in a flurry of exaggerated bows. The Emperor emerged, putting on his beaver-skin hat, its fur scorched by years of ironing. He had slung his frock coat of grey Louviers cloth like a cape over his grenadier’s uniform. His breeches were ink-stained, since it was his habit to wipe quill pens on them and there had been an armful of decrees for him to sign before the day’s parade. As ever, the Emperor wanted to decide everything himself, to settle in person every one of a thousand matters – from the distribution of new boots to the Guard to the supplying of Paris’s fountains with water – matters which, more often than not, bore no relevance to the war he was now waging in Austria.
Napoleon was beginning to put on weight. His kerseymere waistcoat was stretched tight across a rounded stomach, he no longer had a neck and his shoulders sagged. His blank, indifferent expression only became passionate when he was angry. Today he was sullen, his mouth pinched. When he had heard for certain that Austria was arming herself against him, he returned from Valladolid to Saint-Cloud in five days, riding one horse after another into the ground. Having recently been sleeping ten hours a night and another two in his bath, thanks to the setbacks in Spain and now this further imbroglio, he had recovered all his strength in an instant.
Berthier had in turn climbed out of the Berline and gone to join Napoleon, who was sitting on the stump of a durmast oak. The two men were almost the same height and they wore the same type of hat; from a distance, they might have been mistaken for one another. But the Chief of Staff had thick, curly hair and a corpulent face which lacked the symmetry of Napoleon’s. Together they looked at the Danube.
`Sire,’ said Berthier, biting his fingernails, `the place seems well chosen.’
`Sulla carta militare, ” evidente!‘ replied the Emperor, cramming his nostrils with snuff.
`The depth still needs to be sounded from skiffs …’
`That’s your concern!’
`… the strength of the current measured …’
Berthier’s concern, as usual, was to obey. Loyal and meticulous, he always carried out his master’s wishes to the letter and, as a consequence, had acquired enormous power, the self-interested devotion of others and no small amount of jealousy.
* * *
The section of the Danube before them was split into several branches, which slowed its current, and was further broken up by a number of islands covered in meadows, scrub and woods of elms, willows and spreading oaks. An islet between the bank and the largest of these islands, the island of Lobau, would serve as a point of support for the bridge they were going to build. On the other side of the river, at the Lobau’s furthest point, they could see a small, level expanse stretching to the villages of Aspern and Essling and then, rising above the thickets of trees, the two village steeples. Beyond that, an immense plain planted with green crops and watered by a stream that dried up in May, and finally, on the left, the wooded heights of Bisamberg, where the Austrian troops had fallen back after burning the bridges.
The bridges! Four years earlier the Emperor had entered Vienna as a saviour, its inhabitants running to meet his army. This time, when he reached its poorly protected suburbs, he had been forced to lay siege to the city for three days, and even bombard it before the garrison withdrew.
An initial attempt to cross the Danube near the destroyed Spitz bridge had failed recently. Five hundred light infantrymen of Saint-Hilaire’s division, under the command of chefs de bataillons Rateau and Poux, had gained a foothold on the island of Schwartze-Laken, but acting without precise orders or coordination they had neglected to station a reserve company in a large house well placed for protecting the landing of further troops. Half of their men had been killed; the others were wounded or captured by the enemy vanguard stationed on the left bank, which played the Austrian anthem by Herr Haydn every morning to rouse the spirits of the Viennese.
Now the Emperor had taken personal command. He intended to destroy the Archduke Charles’s army, a strong force on its own, before it could link up with that of the Archduke John, which was arriving from Italy by forced march. For that reason, the Emperor had posted Davout and his cavalry on lookout to the west. He gazed at the vast Marchfeld plain on the other side of the river, climbing endlessly to the horizon towards the plateau of Wagram.
An ordinary sergeant-major, with a white handlebar moustache and clumsily buttoned coat, called out to him in a reproachful voice, not even bothering to stand to attention, `You have forgotten me, my Emperor! What about my medal?’
`What medal?’ asked Napoleon, smiling for the first time in eight days.
`La croix d’officier de la Légion d’honneur, of course! I’ve deserved it from the first day I fought as a soldier in your army!’
`As long as that?’
`Rivoli! Saint Jean-d’Acre! Austerlitz! Eylau!’
The chief of staff noted down the name of the newly promoted officer, Rousillon, with his pencil. He had hardly finished writing before the Emperor stood up, throwing aside the hatchet with which he had been hacking at the oak’s trunk. `Andiamo! I want a bridge by the end of the week. Station some of the brigades of light cavalry in that village behind there.’
`Ebersdorf,’ said Berthier, checking it on his map.
`Bredorf if you wish, and three divisions of cuirassiers. Get started immediately!’
The Emperor never gave a direct order or reprimand any more: everything went through Berthier. Before climbing into the Berline, the latter signalled to one of his theatrically dressed aides-de-camp. `See to it, Lejeune, with the Duke of Rivoli.’
`Very good, Your Excellency,’ replied the officer, a young colonel in the Engineers with tanned skin, brown hair and a striking scar, like a stripe, across the left of his forehead.
He mounted his Arab, adjusted his black and gold silk belt, brushed a speck of dust off his fur dolman and watched the imperial carriage drive off with its escort. He lingered behind, studying the Danube with a professional eye and those islands pounded by the current. Lejeune had taken part in the construction of pontoon bridges on the Po, in the driving rain, where they had used posts, anchors and rafts, but how was one to find purchase in these swirling yellow foam-flecked waters?
The main branch of the river skirted the island of Lobau on the south. Looking towards the other bank, which they had to reach, Lejeune suspected marshy ground and quagmires which the river, as it rose and fell, would reveal as tongues of sand.
He turned his highly strung horse in the direction of Vienna. Not far from the village of Ebersdorf he noticed a sheltered creek where they could float pontoons and boats; on the other side of the copse, they could stack timber, chains, piles and girders – an entire dockyard out of enemy sight. Then Lejeune headed towards the suburbs where the Duke of Rivoli’s troops were encamped. Called `mon cousin‘ by Napoleon, this dashing swordsman was greedy, lawless and an inveterate braggart. But he was also a faultless strategist, and, swept along by that hothead Augereau, it was his infantry who had distinguished themselves by storming the bridge of Arcola. He was Mass’na.
* * *
Lannes’s corps, along with three divisions of cuirassiers, was quartered in the old town. Mass’na’s, meanwhile, had taken up position facing the suburbs, in open countryside, and the marshal had commandeered a small, turreted baroque palace which had been left abandoned when its owners, a family of Viennese aristocrats, were forced to make for safety in another province or in the Archduke’s camp. When Lejeune rode into the main courtyard he didn’t need to report himself, since Berthier’s aides-decamp were the only members of the Grande Arm”e entitled to wear red trousers and these served as their passes: their responsibility at all times was to deliver the directives of the General Staff – in other words those of Napoleon himself. This privileged position did not, however, endear them to the rank-and-file, and the dragoon to whom Lejeune handed his thoroughbred cast envious glances at the saddle holsters and the saddle braided with gold. All around him on the paving stones slovenly dressed soldiers had dragged out high-backed Gothic seats and chairs upholstered with tapestry from the ground-floor reception rooms. Some of the men were smoking long thin clay pipes, like pirates, and swaggering in front of the bivouacs, feeding the fires with violins and ebony inlay they had torn from the palace furniture. Others were drinking wine from the barrel through straws and throwing punches at each other, swearing, shouting abuse and roaring with laughter. Still others were chasing after a flock of squawking geese and trying to slit their throats with sabres the moment they took off, so that they could roast the birds without needing to draw them first. The air was thick with white feathers and they were throwing handfuls in each other’s faces like children.
Inside the palace, veterans had slashed the family portraits for sport and the canvases hung pathetically from their frames in strips. At the foot of a marble staircase, a gunner dressed as a woman in a voluminous ball gown gave Lejeune directions in a falsetto, while his fellow looters spluttered with laughter. They had rigged themselves out as well, one in a powdered wig which had slipped down over his eyes, the other in a puce-coloured moir” frock coat which had split across the back when he put it on. A third was filling his undress cap with spoons and silver-plated drinking cups from a bomb” commode which he had kicked in. With a look of disgust, Lejeune went upstairs to the marshal’s suite of apartments. Smashed porcelain crunched under his boots. In a drawing room opening onto a balustraded balcony, officers, orderlies and commissaries in civilian clothes chatted as they took their pick of the chandeliers and vases and had their servants pack them away in crates stuffed with straw. On a sofa, a colonel of Hussars was pawing a local farmer’s daughter who, like her sisters, had been pressed into a squadron’s service. Perched on a rosewood console-table, a valet in white gloves was unhooking a chandelier. Lejeune tapped him on the leg and asked to be announced. `That’s not my job,’ the valet said, absorbed in the business of pilfering something for himself.
Lejeune kicked over the console-table and the valet was left hanging from the chandelier, squealing and sawing the air with his legs, to the great amusement of the assembled company. Applause broke out. A brigadier, suddenly noticing the uniform of the General Staff, was offering Lejeune some German wine in a cup when one of the drawing-room doors flung open. Mass’na, dressed in a sultan’s gown and Turkish slippers, entered, shouting, `Can’t you keep the racket down, you bloody rabble?’
One-eyed, with a hooked nose set in an otherwise full face and thick black hair cut in a Titus crop, the marshal had a fine, strong voice, but instead of bringing silence, his shout only added to the confusion. Catching sight of Lejeune, the one person behaving with any dignity in the throng, he ordered, `Come this way, Colonel.’
Stooping slightly, he turned to go back to his chamber, closely followed by the Emperor’s messenger. At a bend in the corridor, Mass’na stopped dead in front of a massive gold and silver-gilt clock. It showed some sort of gong being struck by plump cherubs.
`What do you think?’
`Of the situation, Your Grace?’
`No, no, you halfwit, of this clock!’
`It looks attractive enough.’
A valet in dark red livery appeared from nowhere.
`Julien,’ said Mass’na, `we’ll be taking that.’
The valet carefully picked up the clock, gasping at its weight. When they reached a corner room, Mass’na sat on he edge of a velvet four-poster bed and at last asked, `Well then, young man, what are my orders?’
`To build a pontoon bridge over the Danube, six kilometres south-east of Vienna.’
Mass’na was utterly imperturbable, no matter what task he was set. At fifty-one years old, there was nothing he had not suffered or achieved. He was well known to be a thief and said to bear grudges, but, once again, this was an occasion when the Emperor needed his military expertise. As a rule, the marshal despised Berthier’s `dandies’ or ‘the popinjays’, as they were called. The son of an olive-oil merchant from Nice, and, at one stage in his life, a smuggler, he was not a marshal or duke by blood, like those good-for-nothing little puppies plucked from banking houses and aristos’ salons – the Marquises Flahaut, Pourtal’s, Colbert, Noailles, Montesquiou, Girardin and P”rigord: smug, self-satisfied types who kept pommade and toiletries in their cartridge pouches. But Mass’na made an exception of Lejeune as the only bourgeois in their group – even if he had been taught to salute, like the rest of them, by Gardel, the ballet-master at the Op”ra. Besides, he had a certain talent as a painter which His Majesty admired.
`Have you reconnoitred the site?’ Mass’na asked.
`Yes, Your Grace.’
`And? How wide is it?’
`Roughly eight hundred metres.’
`So, eighty boats to support the roadway …’
`I have seen a creek where we could shelter them, Your Grace.’
`And we’ll need posts, let’s say nine thousand … There’s enough forests in this godforsaken country for that.’
`But also four thousand girders, or thereabouts, and at least nine thousand metres of strong rope.’
`Yes, and anchors too.’
`Or fishermen’s chests, Your Grace, which we can fill with cannonballs.’
`When it comes to cannonballs, Colonel, let’s try to be economical, shall we?’
`I’ll do my best.’
`Very well, look sharp, then! Requisition everything that floats!’
Lejeune was about to leave when Mass’na detained him with a sudden outburst. `Lejeune, you’re always ferreting about, tell me …’
`People say that the Genoese have deposited a hundred million in Viennese banks. Is that true?’
`I don’t know.’
`Find out. I insist.’
Someone mumbled under the sheets. Lejeune glimpsed a few strands of hair. With the collusive smile of a horse trader, Mass’na tore back the embroidered bedspread and, grasping a mane of fair hair, yanked upright a young woman who was only half awake. `Colonel, let me know quickly about that Genoese money and she’s yours. She’s the widow of a Corsican skirmisher who was disembowelled last week, but she’s as buxom and eager to please as a duchess!’
Lejeune had a low opinion of such wine-shop vulgarity; his impassive expression made this obvious. Oh well, Mass’na thought to himself, these young prudes will never be real soldiers. He let the young woman fall back onto the silk pillows and said, in a drier tone of voice, `Go on, then! Cut along to Daru’s!’
* * *
Count Daru, the Intendant-General, was in charge of the Imperial commissariat. He had set up his department in a wing of the Sch”nbrunn palace, near the Emperor, half a league from Vienna. There, with the help of his biting tongue, he ruled over an entire population of civilians, because it was no longer merely an army that followed in Napoleon’s train but a horde, a city on the march, with a baggage train of five battalions to drive two thousand five hundred wagons of supplies and equipment, and companies of bakers, oven-builders, Bavarian masons and almost every other trade overseen by ninety-six commissaries and deputy commissaries. These functionaries were responsible for quarters, forage, horses, carriages, hospitals, provisions; for everything. Daru would know where they could dig out the boats they needed.
Lejeune rode past the ornamental sphinx that decorated the bridge over the River Wien, and then through a tall gate flanked by two lead eagles on pink stone obelisks. He entered the quadrangular courtyard of Sch”nbrunn, the Habsburgs’ less formal summer residence. It lay in the shade of a park, home to a colony of tame squirrels. In the bustle of supply services and battalions of the Guard, he spotted a corporal with green woollen epaulettes.
`Daru?’ he shouted at him.
`That way, Colonel. Past the large pond and under the colonnade on the left.’
It was a Viennese palace. In other words, it was pompous, baroque, intimate and austere all at once; an imitation of Versailles in ochre, but on a smaller scale and with less attention to symmetry. Lejeune found Daru in the middle of a group of commissaries. He was gesticulating and swearing at one who was wearing an opera hat. Lejeune’s arrival was a fresh annoyance. What further demand was going to be made of him now? Dressed in a morning coat buttoned tight over an imposing stomach, with the coat tails hitched up, he put his hands on his hips.
`Count,’ Lejeune began as he dismounted.
`Come to the point! What impossibility is His Majesty asking of me?’
He articulated each syllable, as they do in the South, and spoke with a lilting, musical intonation.
`Eighty boats, Count.’
`Hullo! That’s all, is it? And I’m supposed to conjure these tubs out of thin air, am I? What, is the army going boating down the Danube?’
`They’re to support a bridge.’
`I thought as much.’
Turning to his entourage, he snapped, `Don’t stand there like blockheads! Haven’t you got enough work to do?’
Then, as the others moved off with grave expressions, he continued, `Colonel, there are no more boats in Vienna. Not a single one! The Austrians are not such simpletons! They’ve scuppered most of them or taken them downriver out of our reach, to Pressburg. No fools, eh? They don’t want a sniff of us on the left bank of their beloved Danube!’
Daru took Lejeune by the arm and led him into an office cluttered with crates and piles of furniture, put his felt cockade hat on a table, chased out with a roar two deputy commissaries who were unfortunate enough to be sitting there dozing and then, changing his tone like an actor, switched from fury to a feigned despondency.
`It’s chaos, Colonel, chaos! Nothing is turning out right! All I have is problems! This cursed blockade is working against us, I can tell you!’
Three years earlier the Emperor had decided to isolate England by banning the sale of its goods on the Continent, but this had not put a stop to smuggling. Besides, the army’s greatcoats were still made of cloth woven in Leeds and its shoes still came from Northampton. England dominated the world’s commerce and it was Imperial Europe which was condemning itself to self-sufficiency, with the result that they had run out of sugar and the indigo they needed to dye the uniforms blue. Daru was complaining about this consequence in particular. `Our soldiers dress any old how, in what they can get their hands on in the villages or after a battle. How does that make them look, eh? Like a troupe of tattered strolling players! They wear grey jackets they’ve thieved from the Austrians and then what happens? You don’t know? I’ll tell you, Colonel, I’ll tell you.’ He sighed heavily. `At the first wound, even the slightest flesh wound, the blood spreads on a light material and it shows. A graze looks as if you’ve taken a bayonet thrust in the guts and that blood demoralizes the other men, it scares the life out of them, it paralyses them!’
Daru suddenly started speaking like a gentleman’s tailor. `Whereas on a blue, a beautiful dark blue, those terrible stains show less.’
He collapsed into a rococo armchair, which creaked loudly under his weight, and spread out a staff map.
`His Majesty wants to plant woad near Toulouse, Albi and Florence. Fine. It grew there marvellously in the past, but now we haven’t the time! And then have you seen the conscripts? Compared to them, last year’s draft look like veterans! We’re waging war with children in fancy dress, Colonel.’
He looked at the map and, once again, changed his tone.
`Where do you want it, this bridge?’
Lejeune pointed to the island of Lobau on the outspread map. Daru gave an even heavier sigh.
`We’ll see to it, Colonel.’
`As immediately as possible.’
`We also need to collect ropes, chains …’ `That won’t be so difficult. But come now, my guess is
that you haven’t had a bite to eat since this morning.’
`No, I haven’t.’
`Well, make use of my cooks. They’ve prepared a squirrel stew today, just like they did yesterday and just like they’ll do tomorrow. It’s not too bad, it tastes a little like rabbit, and then there’s so many of them in the park! After that, well, we’ll just have to tuck into the tigers and kangaroos in the palace menagerie! Our jaded appetites have got a few shocks in store … Go and see Commissary Beyle, in the office just above this one; I’ll leave you now, the hospitals aren’t ready, the forage is poor, and your cursed boats … Bah, as the poet Horace said, my dear Horace, a well-prepared soul hopes for contentment in the midst of adversity.’
`One last thing, Count.’
`It appears that the Genoese …’
`Oh no! Colonel! Damn it all, will I never be left in peace about these imaginary millions! You’re the third person Mass’na has sent to ask about them! All that I’ve found, apart from the guns of the Arsenal, is this …’
He tipped over a wooden chest with his buckled shoe. Austrian florins tumbled out onto the floor.
`We owe these to the fastidious work of M. Savary,’ Daru explained. `They’re fakes. I use them to pay my local suppliers. Take a bundle or two.’
* * *
Louis-Fran”ois Lejeune and Henri Beyle, who had not yet started calling himself Stendhal, had known each other for nine years. When they were stationed in Milan they had vied for the provocative charms of a local woman, but Lejeune had carried the day and Henri, secretly, had been glad. He preferred his desires to remain unfulfilled and, anyway, would that excessively beautiful Italian woman have been satisfied with him? At the time he thought of himself as extremely ugly and it made him bashful, despite his green uniform of the 6th Dragoons and his helmet bound in lizard-skin with a plume of horsehair. A few years later they had bumped into each other in a lottery booth in the Palais Royal and gone out onto the boulevards, to V”rys, to eat oysters at twelve sous a dozen under gilt candelabras. Lejeune had paid. Henri, who had left the army and hadn’t a sou to his name, made the most of this treat by devouring a whole chicken. Lejeune was preparing to rejoin his regiment in Holland: Henri, meanwhile, was envisaging a future either as a planter in Louisiana, or as a banker, or, largely because of the actresses, as a successful playwright.
Now they had met again near Vienna, by the chance of active service. One was surprised, the other not. Nothing could be more natural than Lejeune’s being a colonel, because he had chosen his career and applied himself to it. But Henri? At the time, he was a fat twenty-six-year-old with shiny skin, a thin mouth with almost no lips, almond-brown eyes and tousled hair which stood high over his broad forehead. Lejeune, astonished, asked him what on earth he was doing in that commissariat’s office.
`Ah! Louis-Fran”ois, to be happy I need to live at the heart of great events.’
`As a commissary of war?’
`Deputy, only deputy.’
`But Daru sent me to Commissary Beyle.’
`He is too kind, he must be ill.’
Count Daru had little regard for Henri. He invariably treated him as a scatterbrain, harshly ordering him about and only delegating jobs to him if they were irritating or of absolutely no interest.
`What are my orders?’ he asked his friend, delighted to see him again but at the same time anxious as to what was going to be asked of him.
`Nothing too elaborate. You are to give me some squirrel stew at Count Daru’s expense.’
`My God! Is that what you want?’
Henri buttoned his morning coat, snatched up his hat with the tricolour cockade and seized on this chance to flee his office as if it were a godsend. Passing through the next room, he informed his secretaries and book-keepers that he would be gone for the day and seeing Lejeune’s uniform, they conspicuously did not ask the reason, assuming it to be significant. Outside, Lejeune asked, `Do you get on with those pen-pushers?’
`Oh no, Louis-Fran”ois! You don’t have to worry about that. They’re a vulgar, scheming, imbecile, worthless lot.’
`Tell me more.’
`Where are we going?’
`I’ve requisitioned a house in the old town, I’m lodging there with P”rigord.’
`Good, let’s go there, as long as you’re not ashamed of my civilian clothes and my horse. I’m warning you, it’s a real carthorse.
On the stable road they talked about their lives, particularly Henri’s. No, he hadn’t given up the theatre: he studied Shakespeare, Gozzi and Cr”billon fils whenever he could, even when he was travelling, but writing comedies didn’t make one a living and he didn’t want to be indebted to his family any longer. In the meantime he had accepted the patronage of Daru, who was a distant relative. From the Imperial Intendance he hoped to manoeuvre himself into the post of Auditor to the State Council, which was not, in itself, a profession, but a stepping stone to all the other professions and, first and foremost, an annual income. Henri had just spent two years in Germany where he had divided his time between the commissariat, the opera, hunting and young girls.
`In Brunswick,’ he said, `I learnt how not to be so shy and how to hunt.’
`Are you a good shot?’
`On my first duck shoot, I bagged two crows!’
`I still haven’t seen real fighting, Louis-Fran”ois. I missed Jena by a few days. On the outskirts of Neuburg I thought I heard cannon-fire; it was a thunderstorm.’
Henri had, however, crossed the Ebersberg bridge when the town was still in flames. His coach had driven over corpses whose faces had been burnt away. He had seen entrails spilling out under the wheels. To prove he was made of stern stuff, he had continued chatting nonchalantly despite a fierce desire to vomit.
As they reached the commissariat’s stables, Lejeune exclaimed, `So that’s your horse?’
`That’s the one they’ve given me, yes. I warned you.’
`You’re right. All it’s missing is a plough!’
As dissimilar in their dress and mounts as could be imagined, but unconcerned by any ridicule this might provoke, the two friends set off on the road to Vienna. In the distance, they could see the city’s ramparts and the tall spire of St Stephen’s.
©1997 by Patrick Rambaud, Translation ©2000 by Macmillan. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.