Captain d’Herbigny felt ridiculous. Swathed in a pale cloak that floated on his shoulders, one could make out a dragoon of the Guard by the helmet enturbanned in navy calfskin, with a black horsetail on its brass crest, but astride a miniature horse he had bought in Lithuania, this strapping fellow had to dress his stirrups too short to stop his boots dragging along the ground – except that then his knees stuck up. “What in Heaven’s name do I look like?” he grumbled. “What sort of a sight must I be?”
The captain missed his mare and his right hand. The hand had been hit by a Bashkir horseman’s poisoned arrow during a skirmish: the surgeon had amputated it, stopped the bleeding with birch cotton because there was a shortage of lint, and dressed the wound with paper from the archives for lack of bandages.
As for his mare, she had bloated after eating rain-soaked green rye; the poor thing had started trembling and soon she was hardly able to stand upright; when she stumbled into a gully, d”Herbigny had resigned himself to destroying her with a bullet behind the ear; it had brought him to tears.
His batman Paulin limped behind him, sighing, dressed in a black coat covered with leather patches and a crumpled hat, and with a cloth bag slung over his shoulder filled with grain he’d gathered along the way; he was leading by a string a donkey with a portmanteau strapped to its back.
These two fine fellows were not alone in railing against their ill fortune. Lined with a double row of huge trees similar to willows, the new Smolensk road they were trudging along ran through flat, sandy country. It was so broad that ten barouches could drive down it abreast, but on that grey, cold September Monday, as the mist lifted it revealed an unmoving crush of vehicles following the Guard and Davout’s army. There were goods wagons in their thousands, a mass of conveyances for transporting the baggage, ambulance carts, masons’, cobblers’, and tailors’ caravans; they carried handmills and forges and tools; on their long wooden handles, scythe blades poked out of one dray. The most exhausted, victims of fever, let themselves be carried, sitting on the ammunition wagons drawn by scrawny horses; long-haired dogs chased in and out, trying to bite each other. Soldiers of all arms of the army escorted this throng. They were marching to Moscow. They had been marching for three months.
Ah yes, the captain remembered, they’d been a mighty fine sight in June when they’d crossed the Niemen to violate Russian territory. The procession of troops across the pontoon bridges had lasted for three days. Just imagine: cannon by the hundred, over five hundred thousand fresh, alert fighting men, French a good third of them, with the grey-coated infantry rubbing shoulders with Illyrians, Croats, Spanish volunteers and Prince Eug”ne’s Italians. Such might, such order, such numbers, such colour: one could spot the Portuguese by the orange plumes of their shakoes, the Weimar carabineers by their yellow plumes; over there were the green greatcoats of the W”rttember regiments, the red and gold of the Silesian hussars, the white of the Austrian chevaux-l”gers and the Saxon cuirassiers, the jonquil jackets of the Bavarian chasseurs. On the enemy bank, the Guard’s band had played “Le Nouvel Air de Roland”, “Whither go these gallant knights, honour and hope of France . . .”
The moment they crossed the river, their misfortunes began. They had to tramp through desert wastes in intense heat, plunge into forests of black firs, suffer sudden freezing cold after hellish storms; countless vehicles got bogged in the mud. In under a week the supply trains, heavy, slow-moving wagons drawn by oxen, had been left far behind. Resupply posed a grave problem. When the vanguard arrived in a village, they found nothing. The harvests? Burned. The herds? Moved. The mills? Destroyed. The warehouses? Devastated. The houses? Empty. Five years earlier, when Napoleon was conducting the war in Poland, d”Herbigny had seen peasants abandon their farms to hide in the depths of the forests with their animals and provisions; some secreted potatoes under their tiled floors, others buried flour, rice, and smoked bacon under the firs and hung boxes full of dried meat from the highest branches. Well, it had begun again, only much worse.
The horses gnawed at the frames of mangers, ate the straw in mattresses and the wet grass; ten thousand died before a Russian had even been seen. Famine reigned. The soldiers filled their bellies with a porridge of cold rye; they devoured juniper berries; they fought over the water in the mires, since the peasants had thrown carrion and dung down their wells. Dysentery was rife; half the Bavarians died of typhus before seeing action. Bodies of men and horses rotted on the roads; the stinking air they breathed made them nauseous. D”Herbigny cursed but he knew he was favoured; officers had requisitioned other army corps’s rations for the Imperial Guard, which led to brawls and no lack of resentment towards the privileged men.
As his horse plodded along, the captain crunched a green apple that he had taken from a dead man’s pocket. With his mouth full he called to his batman:
‘sir?” the other said in a barely audible voice.
“Heavens above! We’re not moving at all now! What’s going on?”
“Well, sir, I wouldn’t have the foggiest.”
“You never know anything!”
“Just give me a moment to hitch our donkey to your saddle and I’ll run off and find out . . .”
“Because, on top of everything else, you see me leading a toy donkey, do you? You complete ass! I’ll go.”
They could hear swearing in front. The captain threw away his apple core, which was immediately fought over by some yapping, raw-boned mongrels and then, with a noble flourish, he steered his minute mount left-handed into the bottleneck.
Skewed sideways across the road, the covered vehicle of a canteen was blocking the traffic. A chicken, tied to the cart’s frame by its feet, was shedding feathers as it struggled to escape; a band of dirty conscripts leered at it with spitroasters’ eyes. The canteen-woman and her driver were bewailing their luck. One of their draught horses had just collapsed; some voltigeurs in torn uniforms had put down their arms to take it out of the shafts.
The captain went closer. The carcass was now unharnessed but the soldiers, despite their number and their efforts, couldn’t push it onto the verge.
“It’d take two good sturdy carthorses,” the driver was saying.
“There ain’t none,” a voltigeur was replying.
“A strong rope will do,” d”Herbigny suggested as if stating the obvious.
“What then, sir? The animal’s going to be just as heavy.” “No, dammit! Tie the rope round the pasterns, and then ten of you haul it together.”
“We’re no stronger than the horses,” replied a pale young sergeant.
D”Herbigny twisted up his moustache and scratched the wing of his long, proud nose. He was preparing to direct the road-clearing operation when a great clamour stopped him. It came from up ahead, towards the horizon, where the road curved. The clamour was persisting, taking hold, a fearsome, unremitting barrage of sound. Slowed by the canteen’s accident, the throng now stopped dead. Every face turned in unison towards the uproar. It didn’t sound warlike, more like a song bursting from a thousand throats. The cries were growing louder as they came nearer, passing along the column, rolling, echoing, swelling, growing distinct.
“What are those devils yelling?” the captain asked no one in particular.
“I think I know, sir,” said Paulin who had caught his master up in the crowd.
“Well, out with it, then, you halfwit.”
“They’re shouting Moscow! Moscow!”
At a bend in the monotonous road, the first battalions had emerged onto the Hill of Salvation, and from there, spread out below them, they saw Moscow. It was a vision of the Orient at the end of a desolate plain. In the ranks, noisy shouts of joy gave way to a stunned silence; they gazed at the measureless city and the grey sweep of its river. After flushing its brick walls, the sun was glinting on the gilded domes of a clustered multitude of churches. They counted the blue cupolas spangled with gold, the minarets, the pointed towers, the palaces’ balconies; they were astonished by the mass of cherry-red and green roofs, the brilliant splashes of orangeries, the tangles of waste land, the geometry of kitchen and pleasure gardens, the ornamental lakes glittering like sheets of metal. And radiating out from the crenellated walls stretched suburb after suburb, each a village enclosed by a simple epaulement. Many of them dreamt they were in Asia. Grenadiers who had survived Egypt feared a mirage, feared that, like a terrible memory, Ibrahim Bey’s savages might suddenly appear again, chain mail under their burnooses and black silk tassels on their bamboo lances. The majority, who’d seen less service, anticipated a reward: Caucasian women with hair the colour of straw, something to eat, too much to drink, a night between clean sheets.
“What a sight, eh, Paulin?” said Captain d”Herbigny when it was his turn to crest the hill. ‘more impressive than Rouen from St Catherine’s Hill, wouldn’t you say!”
“Certainly, sir,” replied the servant, who preferred Rouen, its belfry and the Seine.
Unfortunately for Paulin, his was a loyal nature; he followed where his master led. D”Herbigny stood as his guarantor whenever, with a soldier’s wartime licence, he stole, and, since wars followed one after the other, Paulin’s savings were growing; he hoped to buy a tailor’s shop, that was his father’s trade. If the captain was wounded, he pitied him – whilst discreetly rubbing his hands together, quarters nearer the ambulances were always better – but the respite never lasted. D”Herbigny had the constitution of an ox; even when he lost a hand or took a bullet in the calf, he quickly recovered and his spirits never wavered, since his devotion to the Emperor was bordering on the religious.
‘still,” grumbled the manservant, “why come such a long way . . .”
“It’s because of the English.”
“Are we going to fight the English in Moscow?”
“I’ve told you a hundred thousand times!”
The captain launched into his habitual lesson. “The Russians have been trading with the English for a century, and the English want our downfall.” Then, more heatedly, he continued, “The Russians are hoping to get money from London to improve their ships and dominate the Baltic and the Black Sea. And the English are having a whale of a time, naturally! They’re turning the Tsar against Napoleon. They want an end to the cursed blockade that’s stopping them flooding the Continent with their goods and so driving them to ruin. As for the Tsar, he takes a dim view of Napoleon extending his conquests. The Empire is pressing on his borders; the English point out the danger in that; he’s swayed by their arguments, seeks some incident, provokes us and the next thing you know, here we are, outside Moscow.”
Will all this ever end? Paulin thought about his shop and the London cloth he’d like to cut.
A squadron of Polish lancers charged past, roaring orders which they had no need to translate; flourishing their lances adorned with multicoloured pennons, they moved the inquisitive crowd back to clear a sort of terreplein. Recognizing the white greatcoats and the funnelshaped black-felt shakos of the Imperial escort, the regiments covering the hillside raised their hats on the points of their bayonets, saluting His Majesty’s arrival with wild cheers; d”Herbigny shouted himself hoarse in unison. Napoleon rode by at a fast trot, his left arm hanging slackly at his side, a beaver-fur bicorne pulled down over his forehead, followed by his general staff in full uniform – plumes, gold lace, broad fringed belts, spotless boots – riding well-fed chestnuts.
The cheers redoubled when the group halted on the brow of the hill to study Moscow. The Emperor’s blue eyes lit up fleetingly. He summed up the situation in four words: “It was high time.”
“Ah yes, sire,” murmured the grand equerry, Caulaincourt, jumping down from his horse to help the Emperor dismount. Napoleon’s mount, Tauris, a silver-grey Persian Arab that was shaking its white mane, had been a present from the Tsar, when the two sovereigns held each other in high regard, intermingled with curiosity on the part of the Russian, and pride on that of the Corsican. In the first rank behind the lancers, d”Herbigny stared at his hero: with his hands behind his back, grey and puffy-faced, the Emperor seemed as broad as he was tall because of the very full sleeves of his grey overcoat which allowed him to put it on over his colonel’s uniform without first taking off the epaulettes. Napoleon sneezed, sniffed, wiped his nose and then took from his pocket the pair of theatre glasses that never left his side now his sight was beginning to deteriorate. Several of the generals and his Mamelukes had dismounted and were standing around him. Outspread map in hand, Caulaincourt was describing Moscow; he indicated the triangle of the Kremlin’s citadel on a rise, its winding walls flanked by towers following the line of the river; he pointed out the walls that bounded the five districts, named the churches, listed the warehouses.
The army grew impatient.
Apart from the officers’ conference, it was unnervingly silent. Everyone held their breath. Nothing, they heard nothing, barely even the wind: no birds, no dogs barking, no echo of voices or footsteps, no clop of hooves, no creak of cartwheels on Moscow’s cobblestones, none of the usual hum of a substantial city. Major General Berthier, his telescope to his eye, scrutinized the walls, the mouths of the deserted streets, the banks of the Moskova, where a number of barges were moored.
‘sire,” he said, “it’s as if there’s no one . . .”
“Your good friends have flown, have they?” the Emperor snarled at Caulaincourt, to whom he had been unfailingly unpleasant since his return from the embassy to St Petersburg: this scion of an old aristocratic family had made the mistake of liking the Tsar.
“Kutuzov’s troops have carried on past it,” the grand equerry replied glumly, his hat under his arm.
“That superstitious oaf Kutuzov refuses to engage, does he? We gave him a good hiding at Borodino, then!”
The officers of the general staff exchanged impassive glances. At Borodino they had lost far too many men in terrible hand-to-hand combat, and forty-eight generals, one of whom was Caulaincourt’s brother. The latter sank his chin in the folds of his cravat; he was smooth-skinned, with a straight nose, close-cropped brown hair and mutton-chop whiskers. Created the Duke of Vicenza, he may have had the manner of a ma”tre d”h”tel, but he did not have the matching servility; unlike most of the dukes and marshals, he had never hidden his disapproval of this invasion. From the start, when they had crossed the Niemen, he had been telling the Emperor in vain that Tsar Alexander would never give in to threats. Events had proved him right. The cities had gone up in flames; all they took possession of was ruins. The Russians slipped away, laying their country waste. Sometimes a party of Cossacks attacked; they swirled about, fell on a marauding squadron and then vanished. Often in the evening they’d see Russians bivouacked; they’d prepare themselves, post men on watch, but by dawn the enemy would be gone. There were brief, bloody bouts of fighting, but no Austerlitz or Friedland or Wagram. At Smolensk the Russians had resisted long enough to kill twenty thousand men and set the city on fire; most recently, a few days earlier, near Borodino, ninety thousand from both sides had been left dead or wounded on a field riddled with shell holes. The Russians had been able to withdraw towards Moscow, although they didn’t seem to be there now, or at least not any longer. After half an hour without moving, Napoleon turned to Berthier. “Give the order.”
The sky-blue gunners of the Old Guard were waiting for the signal to light the match; they fired the shot that triggered a great rush amongst the scattered men. Troopers mounted, squadrons re-formed, infantrymen fell in in their battalions and the drummers played. Reinvigorated by being so close to his Emperor, d”Herbigny had no intention of lagging behind with the baggage. “I’m going on,” he said to his servant. “Find me at the Guard’s camp tonight.” A look of panic crossed Paulin’s face; to reassure him, the captain added, terrifying him still more, “I can still run these Mongol pigs through with my left hand!” He touched the flanks of his kind-of pony with his whip and disappeared into the tide of troops.
Barely had he caught up with his brigade, General Saint-Sulpice’s, than all over the hillside officers, half turned towards their men, raised their bare sabres. Yelling, the troopers broke into a gallop, the cannon and caissons followed at full tilt, sending up showers of sand, and the voltigeurs and grenadiers set off towards the city at a run. Everyone bawled at the tops of their voices; the axle-trees creaked; a hundred thousand men tore downhill and in moments none of them could see a thing; a storm of dust blotted out the sun. Blinded, this throng came to a halt at the gates of the suburbs. Youngsters fell to their knees from so much running, gasping, coated from head to gaiters in yellow sand. Captain d”Herbigny spat out a mouthful of grit, like everybody else, while his horse shook the dust from its long mane.
Exhilarated by ten minutes’ headlong stampede, the soldiers’ anxiety gradually began to return. The Russians still weren’t showing themselves. The captain dismounted and stretched expansively, cutting a swagger; with his good hand he took off his coat, folded it loosely and strapped it behind his saddle. To one side he saw troops taking up position on the plain for as far as the eye could see, to the other he saw the last of Murat’s uhlans passing between the two forty-foot-high obelisks that flanked the gates of Moscow. In the suburb the dragoons had reached, low, mud-walled cottages pressed up against pine isbas. The street leading to the river and the bridge was as wide as the Smolensk road, which it continued, a dusty thoroughfare unrelieved by vegetation except for a few grey bushes dotted here and there. The captain checked his pistol and, just in case, tucked it through his belt like a corsair. He had fallen in again with the troopers of the 4th Squadron, who he knew by name and whose horses he envied – skeletally thin perhaps, but at least they were a decent size. As he was gazing covetously at Trooper Guyonnet’s worn-out old Rosinante, its rider suddenly stared wide-eyed, “What is that? King Carnival?”
“The other side of the bridge, sir . . .”
D”Herbigny looked around. Over on the right bank of the Moskova, a frenzied figure was shaking a three-pronged pitchfork. It was an old man sporting a sheepskin; he had long, greasy hair and a white beard that spilled over his chest and down to his belt. With Guyonnet following, the captain set off towards him. The old moujik gesticulated, threatening to run through anyone who dared to enter the city. D”Herbigny drew closer; the tramp grasped his fork with both hands and dashed at him; he stepped aside. Carried along by the momentum of his charge, the old man went flying. The captain helped him on his way with a kick, toppling him into the water; the strong current caught him and dragged him under.
“You see, Guyonnet,” the captain said, “one can fight with one hand and a judicious kick in the backside.”
As he turned back towards the dragoons, d”Herbigny saw the Emperor; thin-lipped, hunched forward in his saddle, he hadn’t missed a thing; a turbaned Mameluke was holding his Arab by the bridle.
As he was already on the threshold of the city, d”Herbigny was detailed to reconnoitre it to bring back some Muscovites, or at least some information. He took command of thirty cavalry of the Imperial Guard, choosing them from amongst those riding small, wild horses, so he wouldn’t feel inferior on his diminutive model. Of consequence again, the captain entered Moscow at the head of his column, by the stone bridge spanning the Moskova, a river he’d imagined as broader and deeper, less of a rushing torrent. The patrol found itself again in city streets, narrow but cobbled with stones from the riverbed – touchstones, madrepores, ammonites of different sizes – in which the horses caught their hooves. They passed fountains, glasshouses and wooden houses painted green, yellow and pink with carved verandas and facades as intricately wrought as ironwork. Then the streets broadened out and the scenery changed. They rode alongside white stone edifices, palaces of brick and thickly wooded gardens overrun with wild flowers, with winding avenues, extravagant rockeries, gazebos and brooklets. The tread of the horses was the only sound to be heard in this rich, dead city that so unnerved the dragoons. They were jumpy, wondering where the nasty surprise was going to come from – the sniper’s bullet, the Russian howitzers trained on them as they turned the corner of an avenue. Of course Murat’s cavalry had been through before them in force, but still misgivings remained, the vague sense of a trap. The captain thought he glimpsed the silhouette of a man at the bottom of a palace’s steps; it was just a bronze statue holding up a candelabra containing twenty unlit candles. Now they were skirting a lake lined with large houses; each had a landing stage with small, brightly coloured boats made fast to its piers. Further on, on the square of a colossal church topped with a slate dome, screeching and the sound of flapping wings made them look up: a bird of prey had flown into the gilt chains strung between the church’s little towers; the more it struggled, the more entangled it became.
“That looks just like the brigade eagle,” a dragoon commented.
“Only way you can free that is kill it,” said another, raising his musket.
‘silence!” the captain cut in angrily. “And you, you bloody imbecile, lower your weapon!” “Listen . . .”
Straining their ears, they made out a vague tramp of feet; some people must be marching in a band; every sound reverberated through those lifeless streets. The captain had his troopers dismount and take cover under the trees in a garden, ready to take aim. A procession came out onto the crossroads.
“Civvies . . .”
“They’re not armed.”
“Who speaks Russian?” asked the captain. “No one? Come on, look sharp, let’s go!”
They emerged as one from the thickets, muskets levelled at the townsfolk, of whom there were about twenty, apparently harmless; they were waving at the soldiers and quickening their pace. A portly, bald fellow with greying side whiskers called out in a reedy voice, ‘don’t shoot! We’re not Russians! Don’t shoot!”
The two parties met in the middle of the square.
“What are you doing here?”
“These gentlemen are French like me,” said the rotund individual. “Those are German and he is Italian.”
He indicated his companions in dark frockcoats and laced shoes, with watch chains looped across their waistcoats like garlands.
“We work in Moscow, sir. My name is Sautet, Monsieur Riss is my associate.”
The associate doffed his otter-skin hat in greeting. His skull was as smooth as his colleague’s, whose portliness, florid complexion and choice of apparel he also shared. Sautet continued ceremoniously, “We run the most extensive French booksellers in the entire Empire, sir. And this is Monsieur Mouton, a printer, Monsieur Schnitzler, renowned in the fur trade . . .”
D”Herbigny interrupted the introductions to question the speaker. Where in the devil’s name were the inhabitants? Were there any boyars he could take back to the Emperor? And what of Kutuzov’s army?
The army had crossed Moscow without stopping; officers had been seen weeping with rage. That morning, before dawn, the governor, Rostopchin, had organized the exodus of the population; an almighty throng of civilians with icons at their head, chanting hymns and lamenting and kissing crosses. There had been terrible scenes that Sautet hinted at but dared not relate: ‘monsieur Mouton will tell you what he has endured.”
“It’s a miracle I am alive,” the man in question spoke up, trembling. “On the pretext that I had made insulting remarks about the Tsar, policemen dragged me before Count Rostopchin. I wasn’t the only one. There was also a young Muscovite whose father was an acquaintance of mine, a merchant. Well, he was accused of having translated one of the Emperor Napoleon’s proclamations; actually, I know this for a fact, he had only translated extracts from the Hamburg Correspondent and these included, among other things, the famous proclamation – I read it myself, I’m a printer after all . . .”
“We know . . .”
“Well, he was the son of nobility, this young man, even if he did belong to a sect of German Illuminati whose name I have forgotten . . .”
“Come to the point,” d”Herbigny said impatiently.
“The young man was handed over to the crowd, they were madmen, sir, the thought of it still makes me shudder, look . . . and he was torn to pieces, flayed alive like a rabbit, and then fanatics tied a rope round his corpse to parade it through the town, and all they found in the end was a hand with three fingers.”
“What about you?”
“I was terrified . . . I thought they were going to tear me apart in their frenzy, but no, not a bit of it, I simply had to put up with a lecture from Count Rostopchin. He wanted me to tell you what I just have, the treatment traitors and miscreants can expect from patriots in Russia.”
“Well, that’s that, then,” concluded the captain, who had stopped being affected by stories of atrocities long before and preferred to enquire about the city’s resources and inhabitants. “Where are the dignitaries?”
“Gone with them.”
“Long gone, we’ve told you that.”
“How many foreigners have stayed?”
The men didn’t know. Most had been evacuated by boat to Nizhni Novgorod, but before leaving himself, Rostopchin had opened the lunatic asylums and prisons; the city was probably overrun with convicts waiting to slit the throats of the French as soon as they were garrisoned there; any remaining inhabitants were locked away in their cellars.
‘removed or exhausted.”
“What? No standby supplies?”
“Up until winter Moscow is supplied by river but this
year, because of the war, the trade has been interrupted.
You may be able to find some groats or oatmeal, perhaps.”
“The Russians have been busy making bread and biscuits,” said Sautet. “Hundreds of wagons have been taking them to resupply the army for the last two weeks, at least.”
“The grain on the barges has been tipped into the Moskova,” went on his associate, “I saw it with my own eyes, sir.”
Between the church’s fluted towers, the bird of prey strangled by the chains was swinging back and forth like a hanged man.
When he learned that Moscow had been evacuated, that by forsaking it in this fashion Rostopchin had robbed him of his customary triumph, Napoleon was devastated; he paled, his gestures grew feverish, incoherent, he shuffled his handkerchief from pocket to pocket, and kept on putting on his gloves and then pulling them off, constantly tugging at the fingers. He erupted in nervous tics: he scratched his cheek, paced up and down, kicked stones. With a jerk of his hand he called for his horse, a Mameluke helped him mount and guided his feet into the stirrups; he crossed the bridge and caracoled alone on the other bank in front of the Dorogomilovgate without riding through it. The troops must invest this confounded Moscow first and secure it for his safety. The Emperor abruptly returned to the left bank of the Moskova, suddenly revitalized and furious. “Berthier!”
“I am in front of you, sire,” replied the major general in a slow voice.
‘deploy the regiments around the city. Prince Eug”ne to the north, Prince Poniatowski in the southern suburbs, Davout in the Viceroy’s rear. Mortier will be governor of the province, Durosnel will command the town, Lefebvre will police it from the Kremlin.”
Dispatch riders left immediately in all directions to deliver these orders, just as the baggage train reached the suburbs and Captain d”Herbigny met up with his batman again.
“We’re sleeping under the Tsar’s roof tonight, Paulin!” “Yes, sir.”
The Old Guard was preparing itself. The band and bearskinned grenadiers were already marching towards the city walls with Marshal Lefebvre, Duke of Danzig. The chasseurs a` pied were forming up. The Emperor’s household’s convoy in turn was arriving by the new Smolensk road, a long line of caissons drawn by teams of eight, of barouches, herds of pack animals, Piedmontese donkeys each carrying two casks of Chambertin, and field kitchens preceded by the major-domos and cooks on mules.
“Paulin!” said the captain. “We know him, he’s from Rouen.”
“That whippersnapper, thin as a lath, who’s getting out of the secretaries’ berline.”
“It looks like the Roques’ son.”
“He is, I am almost certain. I thought he was a solicitor’s clerk in rue du Gros-Horloge.”
“It’s been so long since we’ve seen Rouen,” the manservant remarked plaintively.
As the cavalry of the Old Guard was taking the Moscow road, d”Herbigny didn’t have time to confirm his impression. But it was indeed Sebastian Roque who was stepping out of the secretaries’ berline behind Barons M”n”val and Fain, both of whom were now inseparable from their recently acquired, embroidered rapporteurs’ uniforms. He was twenty years old, with blue, almost purple eyes, a black hat with a broad brim and cockade, and an ample cape of equal blackness with a plethora of collars, piled atop one another. His father owned a cotton mill in Rouen, but after the English maritime blockade, merchandise couldn’t travel any more, and like the other manufacturers of the region he had been forced to cut his output by half. With no immediate future in his father’s business, Sebastian had started working for Ma”tre Molin, a solicitor, instead. He would gladly have settled for that life, peaceful as it was to the point of boredom, since he had very little ambition of any kind: a young man ill cut to the cloth of his age, with no passion for soldiering, he knew he had little talent for war; he preferred a civilian life without glory, but with both his arms and legs and no shell splinters in his stomach. The only people still living in the country were widows, cripples and little boys; battles were devouring all the men. To Sebastian, the world was a chaos that had to be shunned.
He had shown considerable perseverance in his attempts to avoid being called up. Thanks to the offices of a cousin, a porter at the Ministry of War in Paris, he had become first a supernumerary, then a titular, clerk under the little-liked General Clarke, who ran central administration a long way from hostilities. Unlike most people, Sebastian was fond of this curly-haired general, with his round head perched on a stovepipe collar, who protected him from the fighting. For a year his life had been one of irresponsible, comfortable routine until one day the previous spring – a Wednesday he vividly remembered – when his fine handwriting had played him a nasty trick. One of the assistants to Baron Fain, the Emperor’s secretary, had fallen ill. A replacement had to be found urgently. The Ministry’s clerks were assembled, given a passage of dictation and the results were collected. Since he formed his letters so elegantly, Sebastian Roque was chosen. And that is how, by trying to avoid war, he’d ended up in the heart of it . . . He was looking at Moscow’s gleaming domes when a voice called him.
“Monsieur Roque! This is no time for daydreaming.”
Baron Fain took him by the arm and pushed him into an open barouche. He squeezed in between a lugubrious major-domo and the chef Masquelet. His Majesty was making arrangements; he would spend the night in the suburb, but he was sending members of his household ahead to prepare for his occupation of the Kremlin. Baron Fain, therefore, was dispatching his clerk with the job of setting up a secretariat as close as possible to the Emperor’s apartments, within range of his voice. Several barouches filled up with staff with similar tasks. A detachment of elite gendarmes opened the road for them.
The Kalitzin mansion, with its colonnade, was modelled on a Greek temple, like the English Club on the Stratsnoi Boulevard. At its magnificent entrance, two vast dogs with spiked iron collars were barking; muscles bulging, they strained at the chains attaching them to wall-rings and threw vicious looks with their yellow eyes, slavering and baring their fangs. D”Herbigny, arm outstretched, was aiming his pistol at the first one’s mouth when one of the double doors opened on a bewigged major-domo. He wore livery and held a whip: “No, no! Don’t kill them!”
“You speak French?” the captain asked in amazement.
“As is customary in polite society.”
“Let us in and get these wild beasts of yours under control!”
“I have been waiting for you.”
“These are not the most conducive circumstances.”
He cracked his leather strap. The mastiffs sank into sphinx-like poses, but continued growling quietly at the back of their throats. D”Herbigny, Paulin and a group of dragoons mistrustfully followed the major-domo into a stone-flagged hall. His master, Count Kalitzin, had left that morning with the family and servants, entrusting him with the task of handing the house over to an officer to prevent it being looted. The same arrangement existed in most of the large residences that had been abandoned; the owners hoped to recover them unharmed as soon as the two Emperors came to an agreement. It seemed self-evident that the French and their allies couldn’t stay in the city for ever.
“Which is why, General, I place myself, wholly and without reserve, at your service,” the major-domo explained.
The captain threw out his chest like a bantam, neither correcting the flattery, nor even suspecting a trace of irony in the fulsome declaration. From a glance at the lighter patches of different sizes on the wallpaper, he knew that the paintings had been taken away, along, no doubt, with the main valuables. There wasn’t much to loot in the hall, apart from an unwieldy chandelier and some tapestries. The dragoons were waiting in the gloom for permission to inspect the pantry and cellars, since their throats were as dry as dust, when they heard dogs’ howling and roars of laughter. The captain went back out under the colonnade, the major-domo at his heels. Keeping well back, some chasseurs were goading the mastiffs with a piece of broken glass stuck on the end of a pike; the animals were choking on their chains, snapping, biting on nothing but glass, blood dripping from their lips; they were becoming crazed, pawing the air.
“Stop those idiots!” d”Herbigny bellowed at a pockmarked sergeant.
“They’re as high as uhlans, sir!”
Shouting, d”Herbigny laid into the guffawing chasseurs with the flat of his sabre to chase them off, but they were very drunk and one of them, still laughing, fell flat on his backside. The major-domo tried to quieten the dogs with his whip, but the pain in their mouths and the general commotion only made them more agitated.
The avenue was filling with soldiers of the Guard looking for alcohol, fresh meat, loot and the girl of their fantasies. A drum-major in full uniform gave directions to his musicians who were carrying sofas. Brandy flowed in a stream from the staved-in door of a shop; a squad of gendarmes with their peaked caps were bringing out barrels and rolling them over to a handcart. Another gendarme, whose yellow cross-belt could be seen under a stolen coat lined with bear fur, was clasping in his arms a ham, a big vase, a pair of silver chandeliers and a jar of crystallized fruit; the jar slipped from his unsteady grasp and shattered on the ground, the soldier skidded on the crystallized fruit and went sprawling; some grenadiers instantly grabbed the ham and ran off amid a hail of abuse.
The captain wasn’t in a position to put a stop to these unruly removals operations – in fact, he rather fancied a piece of them himself. As he was smiling at the thought, the major-domo asked very anxiously, “You are going to protect our house, aren’t you?”
“You mean my quarters, I trust?”
“Exactly, your and your men’s residence.”
“Very well, but first we’ll go over it from top to bottom.” Turning to the sergeant, he ordered, “Post sentries at the gates.”
“That won’t be easy.” He gestured to the dragoons already scattered about the neighbourhood; a chain of them were passing tables, armchairs and bottles out of the windows of a little pale-green pine lodge.
“What now?” exclaimed the captain, his sabre hanging by its sword knot from his left wrist.
Shadowlike figures with wild hair and beards and rags flapping at their legs were coming onto the avenue; they were carrying pitchforks. D”Herbigny turned towards the major-domo, who was wringing his hands. “And they are, in your opinion?”
“Yes . . .”
“Something of both.”
© 2000 by Patrick Rambaud, translation copyright ” 2004 by Macmillan. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.