Authors: Arthur Conan Doyle
Tags: #General Fiction
‘I spoke with such assurance that he never hesitated for an instant. When he entered the hackney coach and I followed him in, my heart gave such a thrill of joy that I could hardly keep from shouting aloud. He was a poor little creature, this Foreign Office messenger, not much bigger than Monsieur Otto, and I−monsieur can see my hands now, and imagine what they were like when I was seven-and-twenty years of age.
‘Well, now that I had him in my coach, the question was what I should do with him. I did not wish to hurt him if I could help it.
‘“This is a pressing business,’ said he. “I have a despatch which I must deliver instantly.”
‘Our coach had rattled down Harley Street, but now, in accordance with my instruction, it turned and began to go up again.
‘“Hullo!” he cried. “What’s this?”
‘“What then?” I asked.
‘“We are driving back. Where is Lord Hawkesbury?”
‘“We shall see him presently.”
‘“Let me out!” he shouted. “There’s some trickery in this. Coachman, stop the coach! Let me out, I say!”
‘I dashed him back into his seat as he tried to turn the handle of the door. He roared for help. I clapped my palm across his mouth. He made his teeth meet through the side of it. I seized his own cravat and bound it over his lips. He still mumbled and gurgled, but the noise was covered by the rattle of our wheels. We were passing the minister’s house, and there was no candle in the window.
‘The messenger sat quiet for a little, and I could see the glint of his eyes as he stared at me through the gloom. He was partly stunned, I think, by the force with which I had hurled him into his seat. And also he was pondering, perhaps, what he should do next. Presently he got his mouth partly free from the cravat.
‘“You can have my watch and my purse if you will let me go,” said he.
‘“Sir,” said I, “I am as honourable a man as you are yourself.”
‘“Who are you, then?”
‘“My name is of no importance.”
‘“What do you want with me?”
‘“It is a bet.”
‘“A bet? What d’you mean? Do you understand that I am on the Government service, and that you will see the inside of a jail for this?”
‘“That is the bet. That is the sport,” said I.
‘“You may find it poor sport before you finish,” he cried. “What is this insane bet of yours, then?”
‘“I have bet,” I answered, “that I will recite a chapter of the Koran to the first gentleman whom I should meet in the street.”
‘I do not know what made me think of it, save that my translation was always running in my head.
He clutched at the door-handle, and again I had to hurl him back into his seat.
‘“How long will it take?” he gasped.
‘“It depends on the chapter,” I answered.
‘“A short one, then, and let me go!”
‘“But is it fair?” I argued. “When I say a chapter I do not mean the shortest chapter, but rather one which should be of average length.”
‘“Help! help! help!” he squealed, and I was compelled again to adjust his cravat.
‘“A little patience,” said I, “and it will soon be over. I should like to recite the chapter which would be of most interest to yourself. You will confess that I am trying to make things as pleasant as I can for you?”
‘He slipped his mouth free again.
‘“Quick, then, quick!” he groaned.
‘“The Chapter of the Camel?” I suggested.
‘“Or that of the Fleet Stallion?”
‘“Yes, yes. Only proceed!”
‘We had passed the window and there was no candle. I settled down to recite the Chapter of the Stallion to him.
‘Perhaps you do not know your Koran very well,
monsieur? Well, I knew it by heart then, as I know it by heart now. The style is a little exasperating for any one who is in a hurry. But, then, what would you have? The people in the East are never in a hurry, and it was written for them. I repeated it all with the dignity and solemnity which a sacred book demands, and the young Englishman he wriggled and groaned.
‘“When the horses, standing on three feet and placing the tip of their fourth foot upon the ground, were mustered in front of him in the evening, he said, “I have loved the love of earthly good above the remembrance of things on high, and have spent the time in viewing these horses. Bring the horses back to me.” And when they were brought back he began to cut off their legs and’−
‘It was at this moment that the young Englishman sprang at me. My God! how little can I remember of the next few minutes! He was a boxer, this shred of a man. He had been trained to strike. I tried to catch him by the hands. Pac, pac, he came upon my nose and upon my eye. I put down my head and thrust at him with it. Pac, he came from below. But ah! I was too much for him. I hurled myself upon him, and he had no place where he could escape from my weight. He fell flat upon the cushions, and I seated myself upon him with such conviction that the wind flew from him as from a burst bellows.
‘Then I searched to see what there was with which I could tie him. I drew the strings from my shoes, and with one I secured his wrists, and with another his ankles. Then I tied the cravat round his mouth again, so that he could only lie and glare at me. When I had done all this, and had stopped the bleeding of my own nose, I looked out of the coach, and ah, monsieur, the very first thing which caught my eyes was that candle, that dear little candle, glimmering in the window of the minister. Alone, with these two hands, I had retrieved the capitulation of an army and the loss of a province. Yes, monsieur, what Abercrombie and five thousand men had done upon the beach at Aboukir was undone by me, single-handed, in a hackney coach in Harley Street.
‘Well, I had no time to lose, for at any moment Monsieur
Otto might be down. I shouted to my driver, gave him his second guinea, and allowed him to proceed to Watier’s. For myself, I sprang into our Embassy carriage, and a moment later the door of the minister opened. He had himself escorted Monsieur Otto downstairs, and now so deep was he in talk that he walked out bareheaded as far as the carriage. As he stood there by the open door, there came the rattle of wheels, and a man rushed down the pavement.
‘“A despatch of great importance for Milord Hawkesbury!” he cried.
‘I could see that it was not my messenger, but a second one. Milord Hawkesbury caught the paper from his hand, and read it by the light of the carriage lamp. His face, monsieur, was as white as this plate before he had finished.
‘“Monsieur Otto,” he cried, “we have signed this treaty upon a false understanding. Egypt is in our hands.”
‘“What!” cried Monsieur Otto. “Impossible!”
‘“It is certain. It fell to Abercrombie last month.”
‘“In that case,” said Monsieur Otto, “it is very fortunate that the treaty is signed.”
‘“Very fortunate for you, sir,” cried Milord Hawkesbury, and he turned back to the house.
‘Next day, monsieur, what they call the Bow Street runners were after me, but they could not run across salt water, and Alphonse Lacour was receiving the congratulations of Monsieur Talleyrand and the first Consul before ever his pursuers had got as far as Dover.’
1814, and, as stated, 14 March, a month before Napoleon’s abdication and retirement to Elba. Despite facing several foreign armies on French soil, confidence among Napoleon’s soldiers was running high, having just scattered the Russians from Rheims with 6000 enemy casualties and less than 700 French. Napoleon had now to decide between three different routes to reach Paris.
The Duke of Tarentum, or Macdonald, as his old comrades prefer to call him, was, as I could perceive, in the vilest of tempers. His grim Scotch face was like one of those grotesque door-knockers which one sees in the Faubourg St Germain. Weheard afterwards that the Emperor had said in jest that he would have sent him against Wellington in the South, but that he was afraid to trust him within the sound of the pipes. Major Charpentier and I could plainly see that he was smouldering with anger.
‘Brigadier Gerard of the Hussars,’ said he, with the air of the corporal with the recruit.
‘Major Charpentier of the Horse Grenadiers.’
My companion answered to his name.
‘The Emperor has a mission for you.’
Without more ado he flung open the door and announced us.
I have seen Napoleon ten times on horseback to once on foot, and I think that he does wisely to show himself to the troops in this fashion, for he cuts a very good figure in the saddle. As we saw him now he was the shortest man out of six by a good hand’s breadth, and yet I am no very big man myself, though I ride quite heavy enough for a hussar. It is evident, too, that his body is too long for his legs. With his big round head, his curved shoulders, and his clean-shaven
face, he is more like a Professor at the Sorbonne than the first soldier in France. Every man to his taste, but it seems to me that, if I could clap a pair of fine light cavalry whiskers, like my own, on to him, it would do him no harm. He has a firm mouth, however, and his eyes are remarkable. I have seen them once turned on me in anger, and I had rather ride at a square on a spent horse than face them again. I am not a man who is easily daunted, either.
He was standing at the side of the room, away from the window, looking up at a great map of the country which was hung upon the wall. Berthier stood beside him, trying to look wise, and just as we entered, Napoleon snatched his sword impatiently from him and pointed with it on the map. He was talking fast and low, but I heard him say, ‘The valley of the Meuse,’ and twice he repeated ‘Berlin.’ As we entered, his aide-de-camp advanced to us, but the Emperor stopped him and beckoned us to his side.
‘You have not yet received the cross of honour, Brigadier Gerard?’ he asked.
I replied that I had not, and was about to add that it was not for want of having deserved it, when he cut me short in his decided fashion.
‘And you, Major?’ he asked.
‘Then you shall both have your opportunity now.’
He led us to the great map upon the wall and placed the tip of Berthier’s sword on Rheims.
‘I will be frank with you, gentlemen, as with two comrades. You have both been with me since Marengo, I believe?’ He had a strangely pleasant smile, which used to light up his pale face with a kind of cold sunshine. ‘Here at Rheims are our present headquarters on this the th of March. Very good. Here is Paris, distant by road a good twenty-five leagues. Blucher lies to the north, Schwarzenberg to the south.’ He prodded at the map with the sword as he spoke.
‘Now,’ said he, ‘the further into the country these people march, the more completely I shall crush them. They are about to advance upon Paris. Very good. Let them do so. My brother, the King of Spain, will be there with a hundred
thousand men. It is to him that I send you. You will hand him this letter, a copy of which I confide to each of you. It is to tell him that I am coming at once, in two days’ time, with every man and horse and gun to his relief. I must give them forty-eight hours to recover. Then straight to Paris! You understand me, gentlemen?’
Ah, if I could tell you the glow of pride which it gave me to be taken into the great man’s confidence in this way. As he handed our letters to us I clicked my spurs and threw out my chest, smiling and nodding to let him know that I saw what he would be after. He smiled also, and rested his hand for a moment upon the cape of my dolman. I would have given half my arrears of pay if my mother could have seen me at that instant.
‘I will show you your route,’ said he, turning back to the map. ‘Your orders are to ride together as far as Bazoches. You will then separate, the one making for Paris by Oulchy and Neuilly, and the other to the north by Braine, Soissons, and Senlis. Have you anything to say, Brigadier Gerard?’
I am a rough soldier, but I have words and ideas. I had begun to speak about glory and the peril of France when he cut me short.
‘And you, Major Charpentier?’
‘If we find our route unsafe, are we at liberty to choose another?’ said he.
‘Soldiers do not choose, they obey.’ He inclined his head to show that we were dismissed, and turned round to Berthier. I do not know what he said, but I heard them both laughing.
Well, as you may think, we lost little time in getting upon our way. In half an hour we were riding down the High Street of Rheims, and it struck twelve o’clock as we passed the cathedral. I had my little grey mare, Violette, the one which Sebastiani had wished to buy after Dresden. It is the fastest horse in the six brigades of light cavalry, and was only beaten by the Duke of Rovigo’s racer from England. As to Charpentier, he had the kind of horse which a horse grenadier or a cuirassier would be likely to ride: a back like a bedstead, you understand, and legs like the posts. He is a hulking fellow himself, so that they looked a singular pair.
And yet in his insane conceit he ogled the girls as they waved their handkerchiefs to me from the windows, and he twirled his ugly red moustache up into his eyes, just as if it were to him that their attention was addressed.
When we came out of the town we passed through the French camp, and then across the battle-field of yesterday, which was still covered both by our own poor fellows and by the Russians. But of the two the camp was the sadder sight. Our army was thawing away. The Guards were all right, though the young guard was full of conscripts. The artillery and the heavy cavalry were also good if there were more of them, but the infantry privates with their under-officers looked like schoolboys with their masters. And we had no reserves. When one considered that there were 80,000 Russians to the north and 150,000 Russians and Austrians to the south, it might make even the bravest man grave.
For my own part, I confess that I shed a tear until the thought came that the Emperor was still with us, and that on that very morning he had placed his hand upon my dolman and had promised me a medal of honour. This set me singing, and I spurred Violette on, until Charpentier had to beg me to have mercy on his great, snorting, panting camel. The road was beaten into paste and rutted 2ft deep by the artillery, so that he was right in saying that it was not the place for a gallop.
I have never been very friendly with this Charpentier; and now for twenty miles of the way I could not draw a word from him. He rode with his brows puckered and his chin upon his breast, like a man who is heavy with thought. More than once I asked him what was on his mind, thinking that, perhaps, with my quicker intelligence I might set the matter straight. His answer always was that it was his mission of which he was thinking, which surprised me, because, although I had never thought much of his intelligence, still it seemed tome to be impossible that anyone could be puzzled by so simple and soldierly a task.
Well, we came at last to Bazoches, where he was to take the southern road and I the northern. He half turned in his saddle before he left me, and he looked at me with a singular expression of inquiry in his face.
‘What do you make of it, Brigadier?’ he asked.
‘Of our mission.’
‘Surely it is plain enough.’
‘You think so? Why should the Emperor tell us his plans?’
‘Because he recognised our intelligence.’
My companion laughed in a manner which I found annoying.
‘May I ask what you intend to do if you find these villages full of Prussians?’ he asked.
‘I shall obey my orders.’
‘But you will be killed.’
He laughed again, and so offensively that I clapped my hand tomysword. But before I could tell him what I thought of his stupidity and rudeness he had wheeled his horse, and was lumbering away down the other road. I saw his big fur cap vanish over the brow of the hill, and then I rode upon my way, wondering at his conduct. From time to time I put my hand to the breast of my tunic and felt the paper crackle beneath my fingers. Ah, my precious paper, which should be turned into the little silver medal for which I had yearned so long. All the way from Braine to Sermoise I was thinking of what my mother would say when she saw it.
I stopped to give Violette a meal at a wayside auberge on the side of a hill not far from Soissons−a place surrounded by old oaks, and with so many crows that one could scarce hear one’s own voice. It was from the innkeeper that I learned that Marmont had fallen back two days before, and that the Prussians were over the Aisne. An hour later, in the fading light, I saw two of their vedettes upon the hill to the right, and then, as darkness gathered, the heavens to the north were all glimmering from the lights of a bivouac.
When I heard that Blucher had been there for two days, I was much surprised that the Emperor should not have known that the country through which he had ordered me to carry my precious letter was already occupied by the enemy. Still, I thought of the tone of his voice when he said to Charpentier that a soldier must not choose, but
must obey. I should follow the route he had laid down for me as long as Violette could move a hoof or I a finger upon her bridle. All the way from Sermoise to Soissons, where the road dips up and down, curving among fir-woods, I kept my pistol ready and my swordbelt braced, pushing on swiftly where the path was straight, and then coming slowly round the corners in the way we learned in Spain.
When I came to the farmhouse which lies to the right of the road just after you cross the wooden bridge over the Crise, near where the great statue of the Virgin stands, a woman cried to me from the field saying that the Prussians were in Soissons. A small party of their lancers, she said, had come in that very afternoon, and a whole division was expected before midnight. I did not wait to hear the end of her tale, but clapped spurs into Violette, and in five minutes was galloping her into the town.
Three Uhlans were at the mouth of the main street, their horses tethered, and they gossiping together, each with a pipe as long as my sabre. I saw them well in the light of an open door, but of me they could have seen only the flash of Violette’s grey side and the black flutter of my cloak. A moment later I flew through a stream of them rushing from an open gateway. Violette’s shoulder sent one of them reeling, and I stabbed at another but missed him. Pang, pang, went two carbines, but I had flown round the curve of the street and never so much as heard the hiss of the balls. Ah, we were great, both Violette and I. She lay down to it like a coursed hare, the fire flying from her hoofs. I stood in my stirrups and brandished my sword. Someone sprang for my bridle. I sliced him through the arm, and I heard him howling behind me. Two horsemen closed upon me, I cut one down and outpaced the other. A minute later I was clear of the town and flying down a broad white road with the black poplars on either side. For a time I heard the rattle of hoofs behind me, but they died and died until I could not tell them from the throbbing of my own heart. Soon I pulled up and listened, but all was silent. They had given up the chase.
Well, the first thing that I did was to dismount and to lead my mare into a small wood through which a stream
ran. There I watered her and rubbed her down, giving her two pieces of sugar soaked in cognac from my flask. She was spent from the sharp chase, but it was wonderful to see how she came round with a half-hour’s rest. When my thighs closed upon her again, I could tell by the spring and the swing of her that it would not be her fault if I did not win my way safe to Paris.
I must have been well within the enemy’s lines now, for I heard a number of them shouting one of their rough drinking songs out of a house by the roadside, and I went round by the fields to avoid it. At another time two men came out into the moonlight (for by this time it was a cloudless night) and shouted something in German; but I galloped on without heeding them, and they were afraid to fire, for their own hussars are dressed exactly as I was. It is best to take no notice at these times, and then they put you down as a deaf man.
It was a lovely moon, and every tree threw a black bar across the road. I could see the country side just as if it were daytime, and very peaceful it looked, save that there was a great fire raging somewhere in the north. In the silence of the night-time, and with the knowledge that danger was in front and behind me, the sight of that great distant fire was very striking and awesome. But I am not easily clouded, for I have seen too many singular things, so I hummed a tune between my teeth and thought of little Lisette, whom I might see in Paris. My mind was full of her when, trotting round a corner, I came straight upon half-a-dozen German dragoons, who were sitting round a brushwood fire by the roadside.
I am an excellent soldier. I do not say this because I am prejudiced in my own favour, but because I really am so. I can weigh every chance in a moment, and decide with as much certainty as though I had brooded for a week. Now I saw like a flash that, come what might, I should be chased, and on a horse which had already done a long twelve leagues. But it was better to be chased onwards than to be chased back. On this moonlit night, with fresh horses behind me, I must take my risk in either case; but if I were to shake them off, I preferred that it should be near Senlis
than near Soissons. All this flashed on me as if by instinct, you understand. My eyes had hardly rested on the bearded faces under the brass helmets before my rowels were up to the bosses in Violette’s side, and she off with a rattle like a
. Oh, the shouting and rushing and stamping from behind us! Three of them fired and three swung themselves on to their horses. A bullet rapped on the crupper of my saddle with a noise like a stick on a door. Violette sprang madly forward, and I thought she had been wounded, but it was only a graze above the near-fetlock. Ah, the dear little mare, how I loved her when I felt her settle down into that long, easy gallop of hers, her hoofs going like a Spanish girl’s castanets. I could not hold myself. I turned on my saddle and shouted and raved, ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ I screamed and laughed at the gust of oaths that came back to me.