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Authors: Arthur Conan Doyle

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‘You have no cause of quarrel against me’, he panted.

‘I owe you some little attention’, said I, ‘for having shut me up in your store-room. Besides, if all other
were wanting, I see cause enough upon that lady’s arm.’

Sir Nigel could take no higher place than Gerard at that point.

But when Gerard is the agent of Napoleon, he finds himself at war with the past, as in History’s discovery of a new meaning in ‘Kingdom’, or its burial of all the enemies it can take in its death-grasp in ‘How Brigadier Gerard Lost His Ear’. And it is this which must account for the greatest mystery of the whole Gerardien cycle: ‘Ear’, alone of all the stories, is historiographically nonsensical. Gerard’s exaggerations and Conan Doyle’s principle ‘I make a road’ (when an editor said there was no road where his story required one) can get the Brigadier to Minsk and back; but ‘Ear’ is impossible from start to finish, as far as real events are concerned. If there
was
a secret Venetian reign of hidden terror after Napoleonic occupation, it was so secret that it left no mark. Venice seemed to have lost the will to survive, though it certainly had not lost the will to paint. Now,
ACD
was in some ways the most conscientious historical novelist who ever lived: his assimilation of detail was so thorough and his delight in its deployment so full, that his historical fictions are sometimes stopped in their tracks by the facts or, as Hesketh Pearson put it in his stimulating
Conan Doyle: His Life and Art
(1943) ‘while the background is being filled in, the foreground fades out’. The Gerard stories, being short stories, do not suffer from this.−So why should he defy the historical truth for which he so passionately cared, when he came to write ‘Ear’?

The story belongs to the second Gerard series, afterwards published as
The Adventures of Gerard
. The making of Gerard, now a Colonel, into temporary aide-de-camp to General Suchet suggests that its initial design was set in the Peninsular War where Suchet was the most successful of all Napoleon’s generals, possibly in Tarragona southwest of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast, which had been captured by Suchet in June 1811. But the idea of a homicidal underground conspiracy, as opposed to straightforward guerilla brutality, would have had more of an Italian ring, especially when
ACD
travelled to Naples in April 1902. The
decision to place the story in Venice would seem to have stemmed from Venice being History’s greatest casualty at Napoleon’s hands.

In this respect, ‘On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic’ by William Wordsworth offered a haunting temptation:

And what if we have seen those glories fade

     That title vanish, and that strength decay?

Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid

     When her long life hath reached its final day.

Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade

     Of that which once was great, hath passed away.

I think Conan Doyle answered as we might expect. ‘How Brigadier Gerard Lost his Ear’ is really a ghost story, where the ancient history of Venice comes to life to give an energy to Venetian hatred of the usurper, despoiler and executioner which the debased inheritors could never supply. The ghosts are certainly substantial, and their physical effects graphic enough; the influence of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ by Conan Doyle’s revered precursor Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49) shows itself in atmosphere and resolution; but the heart of the story is something more akin to Hawthorne than Poe, a sense of the hopelessness of fighting History. Conan Doyle was being so antihistorical in order to record History’s revenge. And the consequence is nearer to a story of the supernatural than any other Gerard story. It is also one of the least comic, this Death in Venice.

But in the mass of the stories, this is History forced to laugh at itself. And here, as in so much elsewhere, Conan Doyle shows himself supremely worthy of his Scottish heritage. As Professor David Daiches has reminded us, even in its varying epiphanies of the Gothic, the tragic and, at its close the patriotic,
The Antiquary
of Sir Walter Scott is essentially comic in its prevailing atmosphere. This is so true of so much of Scott, and Conan Doyle, Scott’s devoted disciple, was the most zealous of all his followers in the fulfilment of that ideal.

Indeed, in his first Waterloo story,
The Great Shadow
,
ACD
brings in Walter Scott as a character: not, as often
with his other real-life characters, to transmit historical knowledge in an interesting and enlightening form at the expense of the story, but rather as the invocation of a Muse at the story’s beginning. He is in and out by the fifth page, and in four sentences. But he is perpetually in Conan Doyle’s mind, as the great salute to him in
Through
the Magic Door
bears witness. Professor John MacQueen (
The Enlightenment and Scottish Literature
, Vol. ii.
The Rise
of The Historical Novel
) has picked up point after point to do with Scott’s place in the development of Scottish historical fiction which we ourselves can see reflected in Conan Doyle−the use of character as a dynamic which is substantially non-rational, most fully expressed in action, often containing ‘a quality of the unexpected’; the sense in which a subtext of a remoter historical epoch may charge the drama of a work such as
Redgauntlet
; and the specific Scottish confrontation and contrast of old and new and the author’s place in their reconciliation. It must be acknowledged that Conan Doyle did not admire Scott’s
Napoleon
−it was the one production of his master he thought ‘hackwork’:

How could a Tory patriot, whose whole training had been to look upon Napoleon as a malignant Demon, do justice to such a theme? But the Europe of those days was full of material which he of all men could have drawn with a sympathetic hand. What would we not give for a portrait of one of Murat’s light-cavalrymen, or of a Grenadier of the Old Guard, drawn with the same strokes as the Rittmeister of Gustavus or the archers of the French King’s Guard in Quentin Durward? (
Through the Magic Door
, pp. 31–32.) 

We can pay Conan Doyle no finer compliment than to say that he himself more than rose to the challenge, with the stories collected in this book.

Arthur Conan Doyle was far too modest and too much of a gentleman to tolerate any such ascription, even if Scott might well have owned it. Yet their juxtaposition is all the more apposite when we think of the theatrical adaptations of Scott in the Edinburgh of Conan Doyle’s youth, of
the success of the stage adaptation of Gerard in London in 1906, and of the
coup de théatre
which concludes the present volume. Scott celebrated the comedy of courage, the king of fools, the lawyer mocking the law, and the soldier as reliable signal for laughter, when he brought Paulus Pleydell to
Guy Mannering
and Dugald Dalgetty to
A Legend of Montrose
. And who, therefore, would be more ready to approve than Scott when after the grandeur of ‘Good-bye’, Arthur Conan Doyle gives us ‘The Marriage of the Brigadier’ as the Gerardien ‘last bow’?

Owen Dudley Edwards

Napoleon ‘was aware, after the fall of Cairo was reported, that the final English triumph was only a matter of time, and consequently ordered [Louis-Guillaume] Otto, the leading French negotiator, to hasten the signing of the preliminaries of peace with [Henry] Addington’s government ([William] Pitt had been induced to resign on 14 March, 1801). News of the surrender of Alexandria reached Paris several days before the tidings reached London, and on 1 October, 1801, the Preliminaries of Amiens were signed. By adroit manoeuvering the French Government had deprived Great Britain of the full advantage of their successful campaign in Egypt; the news reached Whitehall too late to influence the deliberation at the conference table’ (David G. Chandler,
The Campaigns of Napoleon
(New York, Macmillan Co., 1966), p. 303). Robert Banks Jenkinson, Addington’s Foreign Secretary, did not become Baron Hawkesbury until 1803; as second Earl of Liverpool he was Prime Minister from 1812 to 1827, the longest continuous term in the last 250 years. 

There are many folk who knew Alphonse Lacour in his old age. From about the time of the Revolution of’48 until he died in the second year of the Crimean War he was always to be found in the same corner of the Café de Provence, at the end of the Rue St Honoré, coming down about nine in the evening, and going when he could find no one to talk with. It took some self-restraint to listen to the old diplomatist, for his stories were beyond all belief, and yet he was quick at detecting the shadow of a smile or the slightest little raising of the eyebrows. Then his huge, rounded back would straighten itself, his bulldog chin would project, and his r’s would burr like a kettle-drum. When he got as far as ‘Ah, monsieur r-r-r-rit!’ or ‘Vous ne
me cr-r-r-royez pas donc!’ it was quite time to remember that you had a ticket for the opera.

There was his story of Talleyrand and the five oyster-shells, and there was his utterly absurd account of Napoleon’s second visit to Ajaccio. Then there was that most circumstantial romance (which he never ventured upon until his second bottle had been uncorked) of the Emperor’s escape from St Helena−how he lived for a whole year in Philadelphia, while Count Herbert de Bertrand, who was his living image, personated him at Longwood. But of all his stories there was none which was more notorious than that of the Koran and the Foreign Office messenger. And yet when Monsieur Otto’s memoirs were written it was found that there really was some foundation for old Lacour’s incredible statement.

‘You must know, monsieur,’ he would say, ‘that I left Egypt after Kleber’s assassination. I would gladly have stayed on, for I was engaged in a translation of the Koran, and between ourselves I had thoughts at the time of embracing Mahometanism, for I was deeply struck by the wisdom of their views about marriage. They had made an incredible mistake, however, upon the subject of wine, and this was what the Mufti who attempted to convert me could never get over. Then when old Kleber died and Menou came to the top, I felt that it was time for me to go. It is not for me to speak of my own capacities, monsieur, but you will readily understand that the man does not care to be ridden by the mule. I carried my Koran and my papers to London, where Monsieur Otto had been sent by the first Consul to arrange a treaty of peace; for both nations were very weary of the war, which had already lasted ten years. Here I was most useful to Monsieur Otto on account of my knowledge of the English tongue, and also, if I may say so, on account of my natural capacity. They were happy days during which I lived in the Square of Bloomsbury. The climate of monsieur’s country is, it must be confessed, detestable. But then what would you have? Flowers grow best in the rain. One has but to point to monsieur’s fellow-countrywomen to prove it.

‘Well, Monsieur Otto, our Ambassador, was kept terribly busy over that treaty, and all of his staff were worked to death. We had not Pitt to deal with, which was perhaps as well for us. He was a terrible man that Pitt, and wherever half a dozen enemies of France were plotting together, there was his sharp-pointed nose right in the middle of them. The nation, however, had been thoughtful enough to put him out of office, and we had to do with Monsieur Addington. But Milord Hawkesbury was the Foreign Minister, and it was with him that we were obliged to do our bargaining.

‘You can understand that it was no child’s play. After ten years of war each nation had got hold of a great deal which had belonged to the other, or to the other’s allies. What was to be given back? And what was to be kept? Is this island worth that peninsula? If we do this at Venice, will you do that at Sierra Leone? If we give up Egypt to the Sultan, will you restore the Cape of Good Hope, which you have taken from our allies the Dutch. So we wrangled and wrestled; and I have seen Monsieur Otto come back to the Embassy so exhausted that his secretary and I had to help him from his carriage to his sofa. But at last things adjusted themselves, and the night came round when the treaty was to be finally signed.

‘Now you must know that the one great card which we held, and which we played, played, played at every point of the game, was that we had Egypt. The English were very nervous about our being there. It gave us a foot on each end of the Mediterranean, you see. And they were not sure that that wonderful little Napoleon of ours might not make it the base of an advance against India. So whenever Lord Hawkesbury proposed to retain anything, we had only to reply, ‘In
that
case, of course, we cannot consent to evacuate Egypt,’ and in this way we quickly brought him to reason. It was by the help of Egypt that we gained terms which were remarkably favourable, and especially that we caused the English to consent to give up the Cape of Good Hope; we did not wish your people, monsieur, to have any foothold in South Africa, for history has taught us that the British foothold of one half-century is the British Empire
of the next. It is not your army or your navy against which we have to guard, but it is your terrible younger son and your man in search of a career. When we French have a possession across the seas, we like to sit in Paris and to felicitate ourselves upon it. With you it is different. You take your wives and your children, and you run away to see what kind of place this may be, and after that we might as well try to take that old Square of Bloomsbury away from you.

‘Well, it was upon the first of October that the treaty was finally to be signed. In the morning I was congratulating Monsieur Otto upon the happy conclusion of his labours. He was a little pale shrimp of a man, very quick and nervous, and he was so delighted now at his own success that he could not sit still, but ran about the room chattering and laughing, while I sat on a cushion in the corner, as I had learned to do in the East. Suddenly, in came a messenger with a letter which had been forwarded from Paris. Monsieur Otto cast his eyes upon it, and then, without a word, his knees gave way, and he fell senseless upon the floor. I ran to him, as did the courier, and between us we carried him to the sofa. He might have been dead from his appearance, but I could still feel his heart thrilling beneath my palm.

‘“What is this, then?” I asked.

‘“I do not know,” answered the messenger. ‘Monsieur Talleyrand told me to hurry as never man hurried before, and to put this letter into the hands of Monsieur Otto. I was in Paris at midday yesterday.’

‘I know that I am to blame, but I could not help glancing at the letter, picking it out of the senseless hand of Monsieur Otto. My God! the thunderbolt that it was! I did not faint, but I sat down beside my chief and I burst into tears. It was but a few words, but they told us that Egypt had been evacuated by our troops a month before. All our treaty was undone then, and the one consideration which had induced our enemies to give us good terms had vanished. In twelve hours it would not have mattered. But now the treaty was not yet signed. We should have to give up the Cape. We should have to let
England have Malta. Now that Egypt was gone we had nothing to offer in exchange.

‘But we are not so easily beaten, we Frenchmen. You English misjudge us when you think that because we show emotions which you conceal, that we are therefore of a weak and womanly nature. You cannot read your histories and believe that. Monsieur Otto recovered his senses presently, and we took counsel what we should do.

‘“It is useless to go on, Alphonse,” said he. “This Englishman will laugh at me when I ask him to sign.”

‘“Courage!” I cried; and then a sudden thought coming into my head− “How do we know that the English will have news of this? Perhaps they may sign the treaty before they know of it.”

‘Monsieur Otto sprang from the sofa and flung himself into my arms.

‘“Alphonse,” he cried, “you have saved me! Why should they know about it? Our news has come from Toulon to Paris, and thence straight to London. Theirs will come by sea through the Straits of Gibraltar. At this moment it is unlikely that any one in Paris knows of it, save only Talleyrand and the first Consul. If we keep our secret, we may still get our treaty signed.”

‘Ah, monsieur, you can imagine the horrible uncertainty in which we spent the day. Never, never shall I forget those slow hours during which we sat together, starting at every distant shout, lest it should be the first sign of the rejoicing which this news would cause in London. Monsieur Otto passed from youth to age in a day. As for me, I find it easier to go out and meet danger than to wait for it. I set forth, therefore, towards evening. I wandered here, and wandered there. I was in the fencing-rooms of Monsieur Angelo, and in the salon-de-boxe of Monsieur Jackson, and in the club of Brooks, and in the lobby of the Chamber of Deputies, but nowhere did I hear any news. Still, it was possible that Milord Hawkesbury had received it himself just as we had. He lived in Harley Street, and there it was that the treaty was to be finally signed that night at eight. I entreated Monsieur Otto to drink two glasses of Burgundy before he went, for I feared lest his haggard
face and trembling hands should rouse suspicion in the English minister.

‘Well, we went round together in one of the Embassy’s carriages, about half-past seven. Monsieur Otto went in alone; but presently, on excuse of getting his portfolio, he came out again, with his cheeks flushed with joy, to tell me that all was well.

‘“He knows nothing,” he whispered. “Ah, if the next half-hour were over!”

‘“Give me a sign when it is settled,” said I.

‘“For what reason?”

‘“Because until then no messenger shall interrupt you. I give you my promise−I, Alphonse Lacour.”

‘He clasped my hand in both of his. “I shall make an excuse to move one of the candles on to the table in the window,” said he, and hurried into the house, whilst I was left waiting beside the carriage.

‘Well, if we could but secure ourselves from interruption for a single half-hour the day would be our own. I had hardly begun to form my plans when I saw the lights of a carriage coming swiftly from the direction of Oxford Street. Ah, if it should be the messenger! What could I do? I was prepared to kill him−yes, even to kill him, rather than at this last moment allow our work to be undone. Thousands die to make a glorious war. Why should not one die to make a glorious peace? What though they hurried me to the scaffold? I should have sacrificed myself for my country. I had a little curved Turkish knife strapped to my waist. My hand was on the hilt of it when the carriage which had alarmed me so rattled safely past me.

‘But another might come. I must be prepared. Above all, I must not compromise the Embassy. I ordered our carriage to move on, and I engaged what you call a hackney coach. Then I spoke to the driver, and gave him a guinea. He understood that it was a special service.

‘“You shall have another guinea if you do what you are told,” said I.

‘“All right, master,” said he, turning his slow eyes upon me without a trace of excitement or curiosity.

‘“If I enter your coach with another gentleman, you will
drive up and down Harley Street and take no orders from any one but me. When I get out, you will carry the other gentleman to Watier’s Club in Bruton Street.”

‘“All right, master,” said he again.

‘So I stood outside Milord Hawkesbury’s house, and you can think how often my eyes went up to that window in the hope of seeing the candle twinkle in it. Five minutes passed, and another five. Oh, how slowly they crept along! It was a true October night, raw and cold, with a white fog crawling over the wet, shining cobblestones, and blurring the dim oil-lamps. I could not see fifty paces in either direction, but my ears were straining, straining, to catch the rattle of hoofs or the rumble of wheels. It is not a cheering place, monsieur, that Street of Harley, even upon a sunny day. The houses are solid and very respectable over yonder, but there is nothing of the feminine about them. It is a city to be inhabited by males. But on that raw night, amid the damp and the fog, with the anxiety gnawing at my heart, it seemed the saddest, weariest spot in the whole wide world. I paced up and down, slapping my hands to keep them warm, and still straining my ears. And then suddenly out of the dull hum of the traffic down in Oxford Street I heard a sound detach itself, and grow louder and louder, and clearer and clearer with every instant, until two yellow lights came flashing through the fog, and a light cabriolet whirled up to the door of the Foreign Minister. It had not stopped before a young fellow sprang out of it and hurried to the steps, while the driver turned his horse and rattled off into the fog once more.

‘Ah, it is in the moment of action that I am best, monsieur. You, who only see me when I am drinking my wine in the Café de Provence, cannot conceive the heights to which I rise. At that moment, when I knew that the fruits of a ten-years’ war were at stake, I was magnificent. It was the last French campaign, and I the General and army in one.

‘“Sir,” said I, touching him upon the arm, “are you the messenger for Lord Hawkesbury?”

‘“Yes,” said he.

‘“I have been waiting for you half an hour,” said I.
“You are to follow me at once. He is with the French Ambassador.”

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